The tail end of 1998 was a turning point in the auto industry, but we probably didn’t realize it at the time. For the first time, the flagship models from both Cadillac and Lincoln were not cars, but SUVs. While both were derided at the time by the press as gussied-up versions of their volume-brand siblings, buyers flocked to them, hip-hop artists started name-dropping them in their lyrics, and the American subconscious shifted further towards seeing the SUVs as the driveway symbol of success.
There were several luxurious SUVs that preceded the Escalade and Navigator, like the Jeep Grand Wagoneer, Land Rover Range Rover, and Toyota Land Cruiser. And Lexus and Mercedes-Benz were getting into the game at the same time with the RX300 and M-class. Special editions of more-everyday SUVs primed buyers for this evolution of the American showroom as well. One other factor was the death of the General Motors B body (and D body) rear-wheel-drive platforms in 1996. The Escalade and Navigator were significant because they were not only American, they were also the closest thing to traditional American luxury: Big, comfortable, and with a V-8 under the hood.
Lincoln jumped on the burgeoning luxury SUV bandwagon midway through 1997 with the 1998 Navigator. Essentially a Ford Expedition underneath – Ford’s answer to the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon – the Navigator came with its own hood and front end styling, and was loaded up with plenty of standard features like rear climate control and an in-dash CD changer. For 1999, the Navigator came with an optional 32-valve, 5.4-liter version of Ford’s modular V-8, pumping out 300 horsepower. That was a big number for a truck back then, and it was good for a 9.9-second 0-60 mph sprint according to Car and Driver. With a base price of $39,310, the Navigator offered a lot more space – and pounds-per-dollar – than the similarly-priced Town Car. In 1998, Lincoln moved almost 44,000 Navigators, more than half the total of Town Car sales and about 19,000 more than the Continental.
The Cadillac Escalade arrived in the fall of 1998 as a 1999 model, a rush job in response to Lincoln’s success with the Navigator. Essentially a GMC Yukon Denali (which was also new) with a Cadillac grille and badges, the Escalade was widely considered to be a tarted-up Tahoe, albeit one with very comfortable heated leather front seats. Even with the steep asking price of $46,525, more than 23,000 buyers took the Escalade home in its first two years of production.
Sentiment towards giant, lumbering SUVs for everyday, on-road use was mocked at the time. Brock Yates, in Car and Driver‘s first drive the 1999 Escalade, said the Navigator “… is establishing itself as a runaway hit with customers who appear to believe that sheer barn-sized bulk available only in an artfully converted pickup truck is the new key to status.” He summed up the Escalade as something for those “in desperate need of an SUV to counter the sneers of your Lincoln-owning fellow clubbers, the Escalade is for you. For the rest of us, a vast array of alternatives waits in the marketplace.”
Motor Trend had a more favorable take on the Navigator, saying “This Lincoln goes almost anywhere the biggest, ugliest member of the current crop of beastly off-roaders goes with impressive levels of mechanical refinement and interior comfort, yet it still looks smart parked in front of the Ritz.” Despite the praise, you can sense some derision for the SUV. Back then, the critics underestimated the appeal of an oversize vehicle and a tall driving perch. History shows that consumers didn’t care so much about compromised handling or comparatively bad fuel economy.
The second-generation Escalade came in early 2001 (as a 2002 model) and changes propelled it ahead of the Navigator in sales, with the help of the Chevy Avalanche-like Escalade EXT. The lead extended in 2003, with the addition of the extra-long Escalade ESV. Sales peaked in 2004 at 62,250. Meanwhile the Navigator was updated for 2003 with its own distinctive interior style, separate from the Expedition. The 2007 model year brought the third-generation version of the Lincoln, which hung around for 10 years amid a general decline in sales paired with Ford’s neglect of the brand. Lincoln’s resurgence includes a new-for-2018 Navigator that stickers above $100,000 for the long-wheelbase version in Black Label Trim.
Cadillac will also let you spend six figures today if you go for Platinum trim, which plenty of people do, and the average Escalade buyer is much younger than that of the rest of Cadillac’s offerings. The once rebadged GMC is now the coolest Caddy, a rolling symbol of success. The CT6, with the advanced Super Cruise driving aid and 550-hp Blackwing V-8 in the V model, might technically be Cadillac’s flagship, but the Escalade remains the standard bearer.
20 years ago, the idea that either of these vehicles would be a bigger aspirational buy than the traditional sedan was a novel idea. In reality, the launch of the Navigator and Escalade predicted the shift away from cars towards crossovers and SUVs. If there’s anything that hindsight offers, it’s to wonder why Cadillac and Ford didn’t do more to build on the success of these two models by continuing to beef up the lineup with more SUVs. Once successful exercises as badge-engineered profit centers, the Escalade and Navigator today sit atop the American luxury pyramid.