Luxury SUV Comparison: Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX, and Mercedes-Benz GL

Three premium, full-size SUVs are similar in dimensions, but differ in character

Think about full-size luxury SUVs, and which model pops immediately to mind? Chances are, it's the Cadillac Escalade. However, shoppers can choose from half a dozen big premium SUVs. Here, we look closely at three: that American near-icon, a European brand, and another with an Asian nameplate. Actually, all three-Cadillac Escalade, Mercedes-Benz GL, Infiniti QX-are manufactured in the U.S.

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Cadillac Escalade Overview

First seen briefly in 1999-2000, Cadillac's Escalade adopted its current basic form in 2002, and was last redesigned for 2007. Early on, critics pounced on the Escalade as a cavalcade of bling, attracting flamboyant sports figures and celebrities. That attribute doesn't get as much attention anymore. In fact, the current Escalade appears to have eased toward the mainstream.

Essentially a decorated, premium rendition of the Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon, the Escalade flaunts more brightwork and a markedly higher price sticker. In addition to the regular Escalade, Cadillac offers an extended-length ESV edition, as well as an EXT car/pickup.

Not much changed for 2012, apart from available colors, navigation-system enhancements, and an available inclination sensor. Also available, to thwart thieves: shock sensor and wheel-lock systems. Revisions are even less notable for 2013, led by braking tweaks.

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Mercedes-Benz GL Overview

Mercedes-Benz added a GL-Class model to its SUV lineup for the 2007 model year, joining the midsize ML-Class that had been around since 1998. Redesigned for 2013, the second-generation GL-Class again comes with a choice of three engines: two 4.7-liter biturbo gasoline V-8s, or a 3.0-liter BlueTEC diesel.

The "first generation hit the nail right on the head," said president/CEO Steve Cannon during a press preview for the 2013 GL-Class, which is made in Alabama. "We're expanding our capacity here," which means "jobs in the United States."

Since the beginning, the GL-Class has been "purpose-built for the U.S. market," according to Mercedes-Benz. Dimensions haven't changed much. The 2013 GL-Class is an inch longer, almost an inch wider, and half an inch taller. Engines are more powerful and fuel-efficient. Weight has grown by about 50 pounds.

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Infiniti QX Overview

Nissan's luxury division launched the first-generation QX56 for 2004. The biggest SUV in the Infiniti family gained power during its 2011 redesign, along with freshened styling. Longer, wider, and lower than before, the reworked QX56 (now called, simply, QX) moved from its original manufacturing location in Japan to a U.S. factory. Revisions for 2012 included the addition of Blind Spot Intervention to the Technology Package, and a 15-speaker Bose Cabin Surround sound system to the Deluxe Touring Package.

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Sizable Dimensions Translate to Plenty of Passenger/Cargo Space

Size differences are minimal, but all three luxury SUVs are undeniably big. Regular Cadillac Escalade models ride on a 116-inch wheelbase and measure 202.5 inches long. A rear-drive model weighs 5,517 pounds (all-wheel drive: 5,718 pounds). ESV and EXT editions sit atop a 130-inch wheelbase.

Tipping the scale at 5,401 pounds or more, the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class has a 121.1-inch wheelbase and is 201.6 inches long overall. Weighing in at 5,590 pounds, the Infiniti QX is the longest of the trio: 208.3 inches overall, atop a 121-inch wheelbase. Height ranges from 72.8 inches on the GL-Class to nearly 76 inches for Cadillac's Escalade and Infiniti's QX (including roof rack).

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Three-Row Seating

All three full-size luxury SUVs have three rows of seating. 2013 Cadillac Escalade wagons seat either seven or eight, while the EXT sport-utility truck holds five. Seven occupants fit into the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, while the Infiniti QX may be fitted for either seven or eight. In all three models, cargo volume behind the rear seat is between 16 and 17 cubic feet.

Cadillac's Escalade and Infiniti's QX are built with traditional, body-on-frame construction. Mercedes-Benz employs unibody construction for the GL-Class.

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Plenty of Big-Engine Power on Tap-and It's Needed

All three Cadillac Escalade versions contain a 6.2-liter V-8 with Active Fuel Management technology, developing 403 horsepower and 417 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission mates with either rear-drive or all-wheel drive. One exception: the Escalade Hybrid contains a 6.0-liter V-8 rated at 332 horsepower and incorporating Active Fuel Management, working with two electric motors.

Mercedes-Benz wants its GL350 diesel model to be the most fuel-efficient full-size SUV in the world, but that goal has not yet been affirmed. Rated at 240 horsepower and 455 pound-feet of torque (up 15 percent from 2012), the BlueTEC diesel has a 26-gallon tank and 600-700 mile range. Highest-volume GL-Class model is the GL450, whose all-new birturbo V-8 develops 362 horsepower and 406 pound-feet (increases of 10 and 20 percent, respectively).

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Fuel-Efficient, Full-Size Performance

Stepping up a notch, the Mercedes-Benz GL550 holds a more potent V-8 rated at 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet. When it arrives early in 2013, the GL63 AMG will have a 550-horsepower engine that produces 560 pound-feet of torque. All versions have a seven-speed automatic transmission and 4Matic all-wheel drive.

Making 400 horsepower and 403 pound-feet of torque, the 5.6-liter V-8 engine in an Infiniti QX mates with a seven-speed automatic transmission. For 2011, that combination replaced a 320-horsepower, 5.6-liter V-8 with five-speed automatic. Offered in a single trim level with rear-wheel or four-wheel drive (including low-range gearing), the QX has an 8,500-pound peak towing capacity.

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Fuel Economy Still Falls Short, But Hybrid and Diesel Powertrains Score Better

Except for the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid and the diesel edition of Mercedes-Benz's GL-Class, fuel economy is definitely not a "plus." According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the regular-engine Escalade gets an estimated 13 mpg in city driving and 18 mpg on the highway. Picking a Hybrid raises the estimate to 20/23 mpg.

Mercedes-Benz's gas-engine GL450 model gets an estimate of 14 mpg (city) and 19 mpg (highway), while the GL550 drops to 13/18 mpg. With its BlueTEC diesel engine, the GL350 gets an estimate of 19 mpg in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway. For the Infiniti QX, with a single powertrain choice, the figure is simple if less than thrifty: 14 mpg in city driving and 20 mpg on the highway, with either two- or four-wheel drive.

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Special Features

As expected, each luxury model is packed with features, either standard or optional. Escalades are equipped with curtain-type airbags and front-row thorax airbags. Available features include blind-zone alert, power-retractable assist steps, rear parking assist, and a rear-vision camera. Platinum editions of regular and ESV Escalade models feature Magnetic Ride Control, claimed to be the "world's fastest-acting suspension," promising more precise body-motion control.

New features on the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class include standard Collision Prevention Assist, which senses road obstructions and can "ramp up" braking. Crosswind Stabilization is welcome, too. A Surround View Camera system provides a "virtual" 360-degree overhead view. Embrace 2, Mercedes-Benz's telematics system, is an evolution of the old TeleAid. GL-Class owners can established a "geo-fence," which sends an indication via text if the car leaves a specified area. Speed Alert is available, too. Luxury touches include an upholstered dashboard.

Standard 2013 Infiniti QX fittings include a navigation system with real-time traffic and weather information, leather-appointed seating, front/rear obstacle detection, and hill-ascent control. An Around View camera shows the entire area around the vehicle, right on the navigation screen. Standard wheels hold 20-inch tires, but 22-inchers are available. Roof-mounted curtain airbags include rollover sensing. A dual-screen DVD entertainment system is optional.

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On the Road in Big Premium SUVs

Escalades deliver a Cadillac-level ride much of the time, though rough spots may remind occupants that it's not a modern experience. The generally truck-like feel intensifies on harsher pavement, though stiffness is usually subdued. Even regular-size models are too big to maneuver easily, though light steering helps and handling is less cumbersome than some might expect.

Despite abundant weight, plenty of energy awaits in any Escalade, including the Hybrid. Delivery of that power might sound strong, but doesn't exactly feel effortless. Though more frugal than its mates, the Hybrid's engine doesn't always shut off when the vehicle comes to a halt. Slide-out running boards are wide enough to ease the otherwise-forbidding climb upward, but they retract with a noisy clunk.

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Unibody Vs. Body-on-Frame

Mercedes-Benz says its unibodied "GL is the S-Class of SUVs," referring to the German automaker's top sedan. In fact, the 2013 GL-Class comes across as practically the definition of big-SUV luxury. The GL350 diesel version could hardly be smoother in throttle response, ride, and steering feel/reactions. While delivering satisfying performance all-around, acceleration at highway speeds is somewhat tepid-markedly more eager from a standstill or at lower speeds. Tromping the gas in a GL450 at highway speed doesn't feel quite stirring, either, and there's a delay to downshift. Trouble is, GL responses are so smooth, it's hard to tell how much activity is taking place. Performance fans can, of course, move up to a GL550 or even the GL63 AMG-but at a hefty price differential.

With its amazing reactions on long, twisting two-lane roads, you'd hardly know the GL-Class was an SUV at all, much less a big one. Body lean is minimal. Steering is heavy enough for full control, but still easy, eliciting precise responses. Braking yields utterly linear reactions. Road noise is mild. On lumpy pavement or rocky gravel roads, the GL450's suspension copes well, though rough spots are felt. Seat bottoms are long, and front occupants get plenty of space. The navigation map isn't huge, but it's high, though a bright strip below it can reflect the sun. Entry isn't the easiest, because the front seat is positioned well inward from the door sill.

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Ride and Comfort

Though the Infiniti QX is easy enough to drive, it's difficult to fully forget you're in a big vehicle. You're higher up, facing a broad expanse of windshield and hood. Step on the gas and you detect the telltale, tight sounds of trickiness-albeit subtle in tone. You'd be forgiven for almost believing you're in a delivery truck rather than a passenger-carrying SUV. At least, until you sink back into the luxurious cushioning and observe the fine detailing of the interior. An Infiniti QX is strangely appealing to the senses, partly due to its subtlety in both appearance and behavior.

Acceleration with the Infiniti QX comes across as inherently powerful, almost effortless, belying the considerable weight being pushed ahead. Idle-speed vibration enhances the truck-like sensation, but the QX quiets down nicely as speed rises. Ride quality is at least on par for this league, while handling scores a bit higher than the norm. Little correction is needed on the road, as the QX heads right where it's pointed. The suspension is quite absorbent-gracefully smooth on the highway, with only modest commotion over urban pavement. Climbing inside almost demands use of the running board. Once inside, you enjoy plenty of space.

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Smooth Road Manners

A Mercedes-Benz spokesperson noted that the GL-Class "drives smaller" than it looks. That's true of all three full-size SUVs, but Mercedes-Benz does warrant that description a bit more than the competition.

Mercedes-Benz also leads this trio in refinement, due in part to its unibody construction. Like most GM vehicles, the Cadillac Escalade has improved in recent years, but it's still more of an old-fashioned vehicle than the others. The Infiniti QX falls in between, but closer to Mercedes-Benz.

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No Bargain Prices in This League

2013 Cadillac Escalade prices start at $64,165 (including destination charge) for a rear-drive base model, growing to a hefty $83,490 for the Platinum edition with all-wheel drive.

Mercedes-Benz's GL-Class starts at $63,305 (including destination charge for the GL350 Diesel, or $64,805 for a gasoline-engine GL450. Anyone who craves the hotter-performing GL550 can expect to shell out $87,805. Dealerships began to receive 2013 models in September, but the GL63 won't arrive until the first quarter of 2013.

Compared to other gas-engine models, the 2013 Infiniti QX is the least-costly member of this trio, though not by much. Pricing starts at $60,190 (including destination charge) for a rear-drive 2012 model, rising to $63,290 with four-wheel drive.

Is Cadillac's American-built biggie the top seller in its class? That depends on how you're counting. Considering a single body style, that honor goes to the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class; 25,139 were sold during 2011, close to the 2007 peak. Cadillac edges into best-seller territory only if the extended-length ESV and the EXT car/pickup are included in the total, and then only by a whisker. Sales of regular Escalades in 2011 totaled just over 15,000-far short of the 39,000 sold back in 2006. Meanwhile, Infiniti's QX wound up 2011 with about half the sales achieved by Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz, topping the 13,000 mark.

If none of these big premium SUVs quite suffices, shoppers have several additional choices, including the Audi Q7 (a relative newcomer from Germany), Lexus LX570 (from Japan), and the American-made Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac's long-lived, natural competitor.

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