To many, the Cadillac Escalade is the premium SUV of choice. But is the Mercedes-Benz GL 500 about to topple the king? crankandpiston.com finds out on its very own luxury drive
|Model||Engine||Power||Torque||0-100kph||Top speed||Weight||Basic price|
|Cadillac Escalade||V8, 6162cc||414bhp @ 5600rpm||460lb ft @ 4100rpm||N/A||N/A||2739kg (151bhp/ton)||$92,500|
|Mercedes-Benz GL500||V8, 4663cc||429bhp @ 5250rpm||516lb ft @ 1800-3500rpm||5.4sec||250kph||2445kg (175bhp/ton)||$99,300|
“Why are you on this drive? You don’t like SUVs”
It’s a fair question raised by my C&P partner in crime AJ. In the past I have questioned the validity of Sports Utility Behemoths since, to me, unless you are a father of nine and enjoy nightly trips to Ikea for flatpack wardrobes, they’ve always seemed a little unnecessary.
There’s no denying the significance of premium SUVs in the Middle East though. Hardened 4x4s like the Jeep Wrangler and Nissan Patrol remain the purist’s weapon of choice for wadi and dune bashing, but sales of premium SUVs from the likes of BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Porsche that offer practicality, comfort and ‘presence on the road’ – alongside sufficient off-road capability – still significantly influence sales figures. Many for instance rolled their eyes sceptically when Porsche debuted the Cayenne in 2002, a model that today accounts for more than half the company’s revenue. Such is the influence of the burgeoning segment that even established models, known for harder edges earlier in their careers, have been given the premium treatment. The new Range Rover springs to mind…
The voice emanates from a walkie talkie in the cupholder by my right elbow. In the moments I’ve been musing my answer, I’ve forgotten to respond.
“Sorry AJ, was miles away…”
“So…why are you on this drive when you don’t really like SUVs?”
“…I want to know what I’m missing…”
You join us en-route to Hatta. Many’s the occasion we’ve put one 500+bhp sports beast to the test on some of our favourite driving roads. But today is different. Today, rather than rattling our innards to pulp with direct steering and turbo-ed bursts of acceleration, we’re on a premium cruise across country aboard two premium SUVs, a table at the prestigious Hatta Fort Hotel for a spot of lunch our goal.
Up ahead, AJ is at the wheel of, what many would argue is, THE definitive Luxury SUV, the Cadillac Escalade. Despite a rough debut in 1999 owing to questionable build quality and handling compared with its main rivals, comfort, a killer design and some handy celebrity endorsements mean the Escalade remains Cadillac’s biggest draw more than 15 years later. At the wheel of what he considers the poster child for Luxury SUV-ing (and the latest generation to boot), AJ is feeling confident.
And me? Well I’m piloting a vehicle we know well at crankandpiston.com, the Mercedes-Benz GL 500. For the past four months the big Merc has been part of The Management Fleet, and is thus well established with the team’s photography crew. There is more to this choice though than a celebratory farewell. An effective Luxury SUV must offer premium build quality and materials, superb ride comfort, lashings of space and ‘presence’, adjectives few manufacturers epitomise better than Mercedes-Benz. Now into its second generation after its introduction in 2006, the GL’s reputation among customers and critics has seen it legitimately run rivals from Range Rover, Porsche and Cadillac close. If one vehicle can take on the Escalade at its own game, it’s the GL 500.
Of course, since our two-way convoy houses 16 cylinders, 843bhp and a whopping 5184kg, fuel is the first order of business. It’s a pricey activity: everyone else has ‘conveniently’ forgotten their wallets so I’m shelling out for everything. Topped up though, both the GL and Escalade are good for more than 700km each, so this should be our one and only fuel stop. And since I need a second to recover from the hit my bank balance has just taken, it’s a good time to compare our contenders, nose-to-nose.
There’s no denying it, the Escalade is big. Seriously BIG. Even the Mercedes is dwarfed by the Escalade, the Caddy’s Art and Science infused front grille and beefed out bonnet making an imposing look. Said ‘bigness’ is further emphasised by those almighty (optional) 22-inch alloys wheels. The matt white paint does at least take the edge off – one does wonder how terrifying this thing would look in black – but there’s enough chrome detailing to keep the intimidation high. All the more ironic that at the back the bladed taillights are actually quite elegant.
Aggressive looks must be a pre-requisite for Luxury SUV design, since the Mercedes dons a similarly butch look courtesy of those massive air intakes in the front bumper, bonnet grooves and bulbous headlights, and some 19-inch AMG alloys. There’s less ground clearance on the GL though and less chrome giving it a much sportier atonement that the petrolhead in me can’t help but relate to, my first blue ribbon then going to the Merc.
Inside however the Escalade storms back into contention. True, I do wonder if the enormous column shift gearbox is a bit utilitarian for Caddy’s flagship model, but on the whole it’s a superb environment. Our ESV test model boasts an extended wheelbase, allowing more legroom for occupants. The second row bench has also been ripped out to make way for two captain’s chairs, into which you’ll slump like they’re made of marshmallow. Even on the third row comfort is surprisingly good, Cadillac having moved the rear axle in this fourth gen model to allow rear passengers more head and legroom. Six-footers and above won’t want to do full journeys in the back (it’s still a little cramped) but compared with the contortionist attempts needed for rival models – including, it has to be said, the GL 500 – it’s a revelation.
Where the Merc wins back some kudos though is in the front, the leather-clad buckets offering superb support and comfort in equal measure: it’s a notable difference to the Cadillac’s driver’s seat where more lumbar support wouldn’t go amiss. Our fully laden GL 500 also brings with it AMG detailing (check the floor mats), Bluetooth connectivity, and seat massagers that we almost wore down to the nub during our four-month loan period. The centre console is standard Mercedes fare, a bastion of buttons and rotary dials, alongside which you’ll find enormous cupholders and hidden storage compartments. It’s not the most elegant of layouts, and after much swearing, it’s decided that Cadillac’s CUE infotainment system is more intuitive than Mercedes’ setup. The Escalade gets the nod for cabin comfort.
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