The Big Question
Is it a car? An SUV? A pickup truck? Whatever you call it, Cadillac's Escalade EXT is a wide load that drives like a dream.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – Not that anyone gives such matters much thought, but the badges that automobile companies paste onto their cars are intriguing. Case in point: Porsche's shieldlike logo, which features a peppy horse, is fashioned after the coat of arms for the German city of Stuttgart, onetime locale of a fabled stud farm. (Insert Freudian Porsche buyer reference here.) The circular insignia of BMW conjures up a whirling propeller; the famous Mercedes tristar pays homage to the Daimler engines that conquered land, sea, and air or, as some claim, is simply a doodle drawn by Gottlieb Daimler on a postcard to his children; and Volkswagen's interlocking letters were the result of a workaday office competition--the winner received 100 deutsche marks for his handiwork, a corporate fleecing rivaled only by that of the woman who drew the Nike logo.

I was forced to contemplate this subject when a diamond-pearl 2005 Escalade EXT appeared in my driveway, barnacled with Cadillac logos. Now, as you learned in school, the insignia is a rendering of the family crest belonging to Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, storied French explorer and founder of, ahem, Detroit. (Fame can be cruel.) At one time, Monsieur Cadillac's crest included leafy wreaths and cavorting ducks. In 1998, however, a designer carved the logo into a block of gold, red, blue, and black encircled by a silver garland. The company then proceeded to glue, stamp, and emboss every conceivable surface of its vehicles with this new badge, a branding frenzy that has reached its apogee in the Escalade. Logos blare from the wheels, dashboard, seats, floor mats, engine block, and steering wheel. As a coup de grâce, the carmaker affixed massive Frisbee-size versions of this brooch to the grille and tailgate, where they stare unblinkingly, like hypnotic, cyclopean eyes. Best not to look.

Once safely past their gaze, however, you'll find that the EXT is darn nice. The vehicle occupies a niche Cadillac calls "reconfigurable luxury sport utility trucks," which essentially means an SUV that has been chopped into a truck, with a few canny flourishes added. This trend toward Swiss army knife multiplicity began with the Chevy Avalanche and continues in a variety of vehicles with cabins or payload areas that can be folded open, peeled back, or shuttered closed, depending on mood. (Imagine a large version of your child's transformer toy and you have the idea.) In the case of the EXT, Cadillac has taken its very popular Escalade and chipped out the back third of it, leaving a 5-foot-long truck bed. On the rare occasions when you're hauling something 8 feet long, you engage the vehicle's "utility enhancement system," which is the wonderfully highfalutin phrase Cadillac coined to describe how the rear window can be removed, the midgate dropped, and the rear seats folded flat, thus extending the bed to the front seats. With practice, the swap can be accomplished in about a minute.

Exactly how many EXT owners actually make use of this capability is unclear. The truck was rolled into showrooms for the 2002 model year, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the vehicle is used less by the foreman at the local construction site than by the vice chairman of the local bank. Thus, in default mode (that is, all buttoned up), the EXT is a plush, abundantly powered, nimble SUV, with leather seating for five, rear DVD player, wireless headphones, and touchscreen navigation. Thankfully, it also has park assist, a splendid feature given that this rig is a startling 18.5 feet long. The booming yet fluid V-8 engine, with 345 horsepower, keeps the truck zipping along without effort, even with a boat or two attached. And Cadillac, one of the most tech-forward automakers in the industry, has seeded the truck with its current array of gadgetry. Perhaps the most impressive is the road-sensing suspension system, which reads surface conditions 1,000 times a second, adjusting for slick or soft or corrugated roads within 20 milliseconds; married to Cadillac's variable-speed steering system, it gives the EXT a ride more like that of a luxe sedan than of what it actually is: a damn big truck.

Not that you'd ever know it. The EXT is perhaps the only vehicle of its size and power that a driver can steer by fingertip while reclined in the captain's chair, listening to Debussy on the XM satellite radio. Despite its length and weight, the truck handles like a vehicle half its size, a sensation that does not vanish even as you rumble over the curb, down the gulch, through the mud, and back onto the road. This odd but successful fusion of qualities is precisely what Cadillac had in mind when it undertook its own transformation, about the same time it redid that logo. Seeking to cast off the stench of its 1980s debacles (recall the Cimarron?), the automaker released a concept vehicle known as the Evoq, which reflected Cadillac's new ethos, called "Art & Science." Basically, the company hoped bold design and advanced technology would drive sales. Stealing visual cues from sources like the stealth bomber and Bang & Olufsen audio components, Cadillac began to release vehicles with cruelly sharp corners, bladelike edges, stacked headlights, vertical taillights, angular grilles, and hard profiles--the antithesis of the swoopy excess of Cadillacs past. The first full incarnation of this new vision was the CTS, followed by the EXT, SRX, XLR, and STS. (Apparently the company blew its creative wad on design, rather than product names.) In any case, the tactic worked, and Cadillac has been reborn. One unexpected engine of sales is the company's newfound popularity with the hip-hop/professional athlete/monied slacker set. Thus, some EXTs now boast "tasteful enhancements," as the company puts it: 20-inch rims, souped-up audio systems, dual-screen entertainment centers, "exclusive beverage containers," and badges, badges, badges. After convening a series of focus groups, Cadillac marketers determined that prominent, abundant deployment of this insignia is the root of the EXT's success. Me, I'd credit the truck itself, but I seem to be in the minority. Not long after I (reluctantly) relinquished my test EXT, I received a comforting parting gift from Cadillac: a key chain--complete with massive logo. Say the word and it's yours.