Excerpt from High and Mighty by Keith Bradsher, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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High and Mighty

SUVs--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way

By Keith Bradsher

High and Mighty
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2002,
    464 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2004,
    512 pages.

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Picking the most offensive SUV ad is hard, because there are so many candidates. My favorite is the nearly full-page newspaper ad that Cadillac ran for its huge Escalade in early 1999. The Escalade was photographed from a point about five feet in front and about two feet off the ground, so that the vehicle's huge grille looms over the viewer. The windshield above is entirely black, giving no hint of who inside is bearing down on the viewer. Trees are a blur of motion around the sides of the vehicle but the SUV itself is in perfect focus as it hurtles forward. It looks just like what you might see in the last second of your life as you looked out the side window of your car and suddenly realized that a big SUV had failed to stop for a red light.

The text of the ad is even more frightening. "YIELD," it commands at the top, in inch-high, underlined letters. In half-inch letters under the Escalade is another warning, delivered in parentheses: "(Please Move Immediately To The Right)" The large type text below continues in the same tone: "You might as well give in now. Because this is the new Cadillac Escalade. The one luxury SUV so powerfully built and intelligently equipped, it's designed to be, well, irresistible. With the standard go-everywhere support of the OnStar system, Escalade brings you virtually unlimited personal concierge services, emergency assistance and directions, right at your fingertips. And no other SUV in the world can make that claim. So tell the other luxury SUVs to yield the right of way. Because Escalade is coming through."

Underneath was the Escalade slogan, in white lettering against a solid black box. "Escalade: It's Good To Be The Cadillac."

You might be more likely to survive if you were in the Cadillac in the ad than in whatever lower-riding car it was about to hit. But few people reading the ad carefully could possibly conclude that "to be the Cadillac" was "good" in a moral sense. Nor is it good for public safety and the environment to have even some people "be the Cadillac" in the sense of this ad.

The ad's advice for other drivers to yield is actually pretty good advice, however, as the Escalade can be a hard vehicle to control even for an experienced driver. The steering is sluggish, the suspension vague and the brakes not as effective as car brakes. I climbed in one of the early Escalades in early 1999 at Detroit's airport for a test drive, but was so appalled by its unresponsive steering that I drove straight home. I called Cadillac and asked them to pick up the vehicle and take it away. Cadillac has improved the Escalade somewhat since I first drove it, but it still has the nimbleness and ride quality of a pig on stilts.

While the Escalade's sheer bulk may provide some protection in collisions with cars, that does not mean it is especially well designed for safety in other crashes. Regulators give it a so-so three-star rating (on a scale of one to five) for driver survival in a frontal crash with another vehicle of the same weight or with a solid object, like a bridge abutment. Many large cars and minivans now carry five-star ratings and the rest typically earn four stars. The regulators also took the extremely rare step of noting that while thigh injuries are not included in calculating survival odds, Escalade drivers are at unusually high risk of a fractured femur in a serious frontal crash.

Cadillac, a division of General Motors, rushed the Escalade onto the market in 1998, a little over a year after the Lincoln Navigator went on sale and was an instant hit. To make the Escalade, GM essentially put lots of chrome and optional equipment on a GMC Yukon SUV, which in turn is little more than a fancy version of a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. The Tahoe, in turn, uses the underbody and a lot of other parts from the full-size Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. So Cadillac was essentially taking a $20,000 work truck, tricking it up with lots of chrome, leather seats, and a fancy stereo, and selling it for close to $50,000. This is how automakers have earned enormous profits on full-sized SUVs.

Copyright Keith Bradsher 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Public Affairs. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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