Year Of The Truck

Ah, yes, 2003. It was a very good year. That was the year where we here in America were subjected to multiple launches of new and redesigned trucks and SUVs.

Most outstanding that year was the redesign of General Motor’s big SUVs, the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade. Add to that a new Ford Expedition and you have a sweep of ultra big SUVs, those based on truck platforms, with truck-like rides and truck-like gas mileage.

Enjoy these Retro Reviews of the Cadillac Escalade, Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition from the 2003 model year:


2003 Cadillac Escalade

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Caddy’s First Truck Gets a Facelift

by James E. Bryson

In today’s automotive world, many ideas and traditions are being smashed with urgency and determination by the makers themselves in an attempt to gain a larger foothold in the American market.

The biggest example of this new paradigm shift can be found with the new Porsche Cayenne…an SUV from the world’s premier sports car builder and sacrilege to Porsche enthusiasts around the globe.

On these shores, one has to look no further than the eternal purveyor of luxurious decadence to find how the mighty SUV has swayed them into a sales race with the rest of the automotive world.

The Cadillac Escalade began life in the late ’90s as an answer to the question that no one but the marketers asked: Where is the Caddy of SUVs?! Based on the corporate architecture underpinning the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, the Escalade has only recently gotten itself a new face and more defined mission from the higher-ups at GM.

The first thing you may notice about the ’03 Escalade is its new nose. The “plastic” surgeons made a tuck here and a lift there and produced a front fascia that resembles the corporate design philosophy of “Art & Science”.

We like the change mostly because it gives the Escalade a bigger differentiation from its corporate cousins, the aforementioned Yukon and Tahoe. Unfortunately, that’s about the most different the outside of the Escalade gets from the other two; side panels and rear hatch are pretty similar across the board. Of course the biggest difference in the rear is the HUGE Cadillac emblem on the rear liftgate, which is repeated at front, natch.

When you first step into any Cadillac, you notice a few things: The smell of the leather permeates your very being with richness and euphoria. The comfort of the seats rival many recliners. The attention to detail is painstakingly on target and the fit and finish, with the more recent entries at the forefront, are top notch.

We enjoyed getting to know all the power accessories associated with the front seats. First was the adjustment choices; the seats had 10 ways-yes, we said 10- to adjust, not counting the moveable pedals. Then there was the multizone heat for the front seats: back and bottom cushions had heating options and, if you so chose, you could heat just the back or both back and bottom; nice choices for those of us that enjoy heat on our backside. It’s a great way to stay away from the chiropractor as well.

Second row seating was almost as nice, with heated seat cushions for the bucket-style rears and climate and radio controls for the rear passengers…it is close to heaven for busy parents and a lot of fun for anyone else who gets the privilege of sitting back there. The third row was of the small-but-livable-for-short-periods-by-an-adult variety. We found it to be quite comfy for a flexible adult (of which we are not) but watch that head, the headliner comes down rather sharply back there, ready to smack the noggin of those brave enough to sit way back there.

Getting the rearmost seats in and out of the truck was another story. We found the numbers on the handles intuitive for which one to hit first, second, etc…but the weight and awkwardness of reaching into the truck and yanking them out would be a deterrence for us if we owned the rig.

A little more on the operation of putting the seats down to get them out: We found hitting the levers marked one, two and three was easy to get the seats folded and flipped for more space or removal. The difficult part was getting the seats upright again; the awkwardness (that word again!) of holding the number two lever and pulling up the seat back was difficult but not impossible. We would like to see a spring-load or other means to help get the seat upright…especially in an expensive “luxury” SUV like the Escalade.

The dash and surrounding areas are well appointed and feel great to the touch. We especially like the “Bulgari-inspired” clock on the lower portion of the center console; it lent a more old-school touch to the luxury-ness of the Escalade and was not pretentious or overdone. Good job kudos go to Caddy’s engineers on this one.

A review of a GM vehicle equipped with XM Satellite Radio just wouldn’t be complete without some gushing on our part about the virtue and wonderful content of the service…consider us gushed, for now.

Our Escalade came with only a few options to speak of for its $56,599.00 list price. There was the almost obligatory rear seat DVD entertainment system ($1295); 17-inch chrome wheels ($795); XM Satellite radio (a well-spent $325); and a towing package ($169).

Factor all that with the base price of $53,205.00 and the destination charge ($770) and you get the picture.

Is the Escalade really worth a $10-$15k premium over the proletarian Tahoe? This is a similar question we asked between the Avalanche and Escalade EXT and we found in that test that if you like the extra luxury features and prestige of the Caddy it would not disappoint.


2003 Chevy Tahoe

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The Rock of Chevrolet’s SUV Sales

by James E. Bryson

Back in the days before ads were everywhere, rock icons seldom gave permission for their work to be featured in an advertisement.

Sometime in the last decade or so that all changed. Look no further than rock icon stalwart Bob Seeger and his now infamous “Like a Rock” that Chevrolet has been using to tout its pickup trucks for some time now.

We vividly remember the controversy Bob had to endure for “selling out” one of his more recent hits to help Chevy sell more product. But, somehow, he came through it and lives on, much like Chevy trucks and their stone-hardened image.

Taking all that into consideration, we got to drive around in an ’03 Tahoe, in 2-wheel-drive, non-luxurious form…after having a week with an Über-luxury Escalade in our grip. What a difference a week makes!

The funny thing we found about the Tahoe is that it is every bit of a contender against other SUVs in its class, even though it was without the one attribute that most SUVs tout louder than any other…the ability to traverse terrain that no mere car can ever hope to handle.

That said, we find it more appealing to us in RWD form because of the gain in gas mileage, albeit a small gain (15/19 city/highway for RWD and 14/17 for 4WD). Also, the RWD model is a bit lighter and seems more nimble (read tighter turning circle) than its 4WD sibling. And, we have to mention the widely known fact that most SUV owners DO NOT take their rigs off road. At all. Nor do they really ever plan on it.

Alas, it is now that we must look at the lowest form of SUV…the RWD model. The truth of the matter is that the Tahoe we drove, with a really cool shade of red paint called Redfire Metallic, was all that and a bag of gourmet chips.

Like we mentioned before, the best part of driving an SUV sans 4WD is its tighter turning circle. We noticed this most in our smallish parking lot at the humble abode. We were able to get around and into the tight parking spaces much easier than other large SUVs we’ve recently tested. Call it a testament to greater turning ability.

We also noticed, though not as much, a different sort of ride characteristic with the RWD Tahoe: It was smooth, not jarring like some four-by-fours can be. It was close to Cadillac standards…in a plebian Chevy of all places!

Inside, the Tahoe was generic General Motors big SUV. The dash and center stack is the same as in all other full-size trucks, well thought out and executed. It feels as if yours truly has actually owned a big GM truck, which is not the case.

We were a bit disappointed that with only 3000 or so miles on it that the leather seats were already showing signs of wear. The leather on the outside side bolsters was wrinkled and looked almost ready to crack.

Another seat story was that of the rearmost third row…while actually functional for adults, it seemed superfluous on a Tahoe. Behind the seat was little room for parcels or groceries or luggage. Getting the seats out was easy, if you don’t mind lifting 40 pounds out of your SUV every time you need to haul something bigger than a breadbox. At least the seats had rollers and fit easily into place afterward.

On the price front, our test Tahoe was on the expensive side, in our opinion, for a 2WD truck. The base price, which included four-wheel ABS-equipped disc brakes, power and heated outside mirrors, power windows and locks, cruise, CD radio, load-leveling shocks and myriad upgraded safety features over last year, was $33,506.00. Not a bad price for what you get.

The as-tested price, however, reached astronomical proportions for a proletarian (remember, this was a 2WD truck) Tahoe: $42,745.00, which included a destination charge of $755 and over $8k in options.

The option list included the LT preferred equipment package with many nice features like leather seats, the Vortec 5300 flex-fuel V8, a six-CD in-dash unit with Bose speakers, six-way power heated seats, power adjustable pedals and automatic climate control ($3945); a rear seat DVD player ($1295); a personal security package included front side impact airbags, steering wheel controls and OnStar ($875); third row seats ($760); second row bucket seats ($490); XM Satellite Radio ($325); Trailering package with transmission oil cooler ($260); locking rear differential ($232); P265/70R16 tires ($125); Homelink transmitter ($107) and a 3.73 rear axle ratio.

We were quite pleased with the Tahoe overall. Though the price was still pretty high for only a two-wheel-drive vehicle, we found that it didn’t matter too much that is wasn’t a 4×4. What mattered was that it sat high, like any self-respecting SUV will, and that it was comfortable and semi-luxurious.

Would we buy a Tahoe at this price when we could get and Avalanche, Expedition or any other number of similarly priced SUVs? Probably. Would we feel cheated by the lack of four driven wheels? Not one bit, as long as we stay out of the mud holes and keep the wheels on the pavement, and the occasional gravel trail.


2003 Ford Expedition

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Look out Tahoe!

by James E. Bryson

While most companies seem content to focus on the small or mid-size SUV, Ford and Chevrolet have been waging all-out war for the crown of biggest, baddest, most functional SUV on the planet.

While we like a good knock-down, drag-out fight as much as the next person, we have taken a keen interest in this battle because of what it stands for in the lexicon of the American psyche: Bigger and newer is better.

Take the ’03 Ford Expedition, for example: It is slightly larger than its predecessor but the real news is with the independent rear suspension (IRS) and myriad new safety features borrowed from the new-for-’02 Explorer like the safety canopy system with rollover sensors that inflate a large airbag when the sensors detect the vehicle flipping over (neither of which GM offers on its big SUVs).

The IRS makes for a nice, comfortable, controlled ride that no other truck or SUV outside of the Ford family can match. We really noticed the new suspension while driving over bumpy roads, especially on freeway ramps where a live axle setup would have bounced us all over the place. Instead, we found the Expedition following the line we chose and it never even hinted at veering off course when a bump of frost heave got in our way. We actually found ourselves looking for big bumps and road imperfections because the lack of axle hop was making us giddy with delight and we just had to make sure we weren’t dreaming about the smooth, solid ride.

The only drawback of such a large vehicle has to do with the laws of physics. Reactions to lane changes were subtle but there. Body roll during cornering was also noticeable but not nearly as much as last year’s Expedition without the IRS.

The new design is a direct evolution of the previous model. It’s more muscular and broad, better to keep the wheels planted during an emergency maneuver. It kind of looks like a Daddy explorer; While this makes for a good familial resemblance, we think a little better differentiation would have made more sense.

As for the interior, the Eddie Bauer model we drove was extremely well appointed, to the point of encroaching on the Navigator’s turf: leather seats, captains chairs for front and rear seat passengers, the power folding option for the third row seat, navigation system, moon roof and climate controlled seats, which we totally fell in love with!

Those seats, with finely stitched leather and comfortable bolsters that kept us in place and kept fatigue down, were heated AND cooled. We really enjoyed the heat in the cold mornings and the cool in the afternoon sunshine. We highly recommend other manufacturers to jump on this bandwagon.

Other interior niceties included the optional navigation system and six-disc in-dash CD changer. We lumped these two items together because they are part of the same unit…the nav screen doubles as the control center for the radio. Fortunately, everything worked well together, though it did take some time to figure out what button performed which function (of course we didn’t dare look at the owner’s manual).

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a luxury SUV without the DVD system to keep the kids occupied. We like these players because most are versatile, offering inputs for video games as well as wireless headphones so as not to disturb mom and dad whilst they are driving.

Another nice feature with this redesign is the power-operated third row seats. We actually got back there and can honestly say that we found it comfy for short trips but anything more than a half hour and we’d have to spend a few days with the chiropractor. The power function is good for “oohs” and “ahs” upon first showing but then becomes second nature in converting the truck from people- to cargo-hauling modes and vice versa.

The only real downside to this luxury SUV is its price, and not just the sticker. We drove all over and didn’t get much better than 12 miles per gallon, according to the trip computer. While we weren’t expecting miracles, the fluctuating price of gas makes us really wonder about ancillary costs like gas and insurance.

The sticker was another sticking point for us. Sure, we loved the luxury features, but unless you own a small country or made a lot of money on your company’s misfortunes, paying almost 50G’s for a Ford truck is pushing it. (But if we had the money to blow, this would be at the top of our list.)

Our tester topped out at $49,275.00 with a base price of $41,195.00 and destination and delivery charges totaling $740.00.

On the options list, we were charged $795 for the second row of captains chairs, $800 for the power moon roof, another $795 for Advance Trac (Ford’s traction control system), $1995 for the integrated navigation and radio unit, $580 for the safety canopy system, $455 for the power function for the third row seat, a measly $625 for the climate controlled front seats and $1295 for the rear-seat DVD system.

The environmentalists can complain all they want about big SUVs draining the Earth of its resources, but as long as there is a market for these behemoths and as long as they are made as well as this Expedition, people will buy them. These trucks are popular for a reason and that reason is versatility.

This new Expedition is more versatile, has better handling characteristics and is better looking than before…all the more reason for us to recommend this over its GM counterpart.


Thanks for stopping!!!

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James E. Bryson

Cars make the world go 'round!

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