Twenty Years of Cadillac Escalade, America’s Bling Thing

Where were you when you first saw an Escalade? Do you recall the lesser but identical Yukon Denali? Twenty years have elapsed since the Escalade’s introduction, and the luxury brand of wreath and crest has never looked back.

But today, we’re going to.

It was a real first-ever, in the true sense of the term. Back in 1998, marketing people didn’t just apply a “first-ever” to their product, then put a bunch of disclaimers in small print at the bottom (Ahem, EcoSport). The luxury company which from time immemorial produced sedans, coupes, and convertibles was going to enter into the burgeoning luxury truck segment. It was (and is) a segment full of young, juicy customers with hefty wallets.

Since the latter part of the 1980s, Cadillac tried to shake off its Old Folks of Florida image. Sporty Touring Coupes gave way to Touring Sedans, which gave way to things called “TS,” which probably meant Totes Sporty. But Cadillac needed more. Knowing it couldn’t hang with the brand prestige of its import competition, the brand went the other way.

The bling way.

Escalade got its start in 1998, when it debuted to the Louis Vuitton crowd at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The first Escalade wowed with differences to its twin, GMC’s Yukon Denali. There was a different grille, and Cadillac emblems in place of GMC ones. There were also a few slight revisions to the interior, and a Bose stereo. As the orders came in, GM realized it wasn’t enough.

Bigger, more square, and considerably more festooned, a second-generation Escalade followed in short order. Now with many greater visual differences to its plebeian GMC cousin, Cadillac took the time to get it right. The first generation was available only for model years 1999 and 2000; there was no 2001 model. For 2002, the new generation was ready for prime time. Presto.

Pitched against imports like the Range Rover and Lexus LX, the Cadillac was distinctly bigger, brasher, and chrome-ier. Just what Americans wanted, it was instantly a hit with youths, dealers of cars and illicit products, TV shows, and music videos. GM decoded what the younger customer wanted, and handed it to them on a heavily gilded platter.

The Escalade tilted the fortunes of the Cadillac brand. Sales of 23,346 in 2000 grew to 62,250 in 2004. Model offerings expanded as well, into the long-wheelbase ESV, and the Avalanche-like EXT. Even today, ask the average person what an Escalade is — they’ll point out this generation.

Since then, the power of Escalade has been Cadillac’s cash cow. A third generation on the GMT900 platform debuted in 2007, and was replaced by the current K2XL version in 2015. Outselling its passenger car offerings handily, Escalade racked up 37,694 U.S. sales in 2017. Competitor Lincoln cries in the corner with the Navigator, which managed 32,908 sales if you add up 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Even with Lincoln’s new-generation Navigator now on the scene, Cadillac still outsells its rival — 16,927 Escalades over the first half of 2018, to the Navigator’s 9,115.

Twenty years on, Escalade still wins.

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