Comparison Test: Full-Size Luxury SUVs

Review and photos by Dan Heyman and Brendan McAleer

Lincoln Navigator vs Cadillac Escalade vs Infiniti QX80

Dan says:

Dinosaurs. Behemoths. Tanks. Land yachts.

The two-ton hungry-hungry-hippo games are about to begin.

Call them what you want to call them, big SUVs – the scourge of the roads for some, smooth, refined, regal rides for others – are a market segment that simply cannot be ignored. Even now, with gas prices at a premium (actually, scratch that one for the time being…) luxury manufacturers continue to persevere in this segment for fear of missing on all the well-to-do customers and car-service drivers that love these so much.

But what of modernization? With all the electric hybridification and whiz-bangery we’re seeing throughout the automotive landscape, how relevant are these? Especially considering that many luxury manufacturers are flocking to alternative powertrains for their flagship models. Models that, many would argue, are in this very segment and perhaps even represented by the three you see here.

Brendan says:

But never mind all that, because what we've got here isn't so much a comparison as an argument. We drove them all, we disagreed; we sat on the results for a while, we disagreed; and when Dan and I got together again to sort out a winner from these three gorillas in the mist, guess what?

Any conclusion, much like the fog, cloud, and rain that plagued our day, was hard to see. Still, in the end a controversial winner was decided upon, one that I'm still not completely happy about. Chuck the marbles in the middle and hover your hand over the lever: the two-ton hungry-hungry-hippo games are about to begin.

 

Styling and Prestige

Brendan says:

Firstly, I think we can safely say that the Infiniti QX80 is one of the ugliest new cars on sale today. It looks like a glandular problem with a glandular problem. It looks like a beached whale. If you buy one in white and drive it down Main Street, eighteenth-century Nantucket whalers will chase after you, throwing harpoons.

By comparison, the Lincoln Navigator is far more reserved, and looks like a Ford Expedition with fancy taillights and the face of Sam the Eagle from the Muppet Show. It has the smallest wheels in the group with 20-inch blacked-out alloys, and I have to say it looks pretty good in this dark midnight blue.

There's no subtlety to the big Caddy, but that's not it's purpose. The Escalade is all about swagger, even if it’s driven by more Beverly Hills moms than Big Apple rappers, and it absolutely dominated proceedings whenever we parked these three big bruisers next to each other.

If you're shopping in this segment, then utility is important, but image is too. I'd argue that Ford has neglected Lincoln into a second-tier brand, and Infiniti isn't quite ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Teutonic rivals like BMW and Mercedes-Benz – performance-wise maybe, but not in snob appeal. However, while Cadillac's star doesn't shine as brightly as it did in the days of the Brat-pack, the Escalade is the one truck that can proudly carry the tagline, “the Standard of the World.” That's a big badge you've got there, Sheriff, but you've got the presence to back it up.

 

Interior and Comfort

Dan says:

Like the exterior, Brendan will tell you that the QX’s interior styling alone is enough for it to finish second fiddle to the Escalade.

Again, however, I have to disagree with my esteemed colleague.

The QX80 features nice materials, I found it to be less rattley and better-fastened-together than the Escalade (I’d even give the nod to the Navigator in this department, too) and the big one for me is just how accessible the QX80’s third row is.

Yes, yes, I hear you. There’s an ESV version of the Escalade that’s longer. That’s fine, but apart from adding a little more room back there, it doesn’t change the seats all that much. Perhaps it’s because there’s no longer wheelbase version that Infiniti felt it had to do better with the third row on the QX80. Whatever the case may be, that truck’s seats are plumper, easier to clamber into and look far better than those on display in the Escalade.

Otherwise, I have no issue with the woodgrain/leather steering wheel on the QX, you don’t have to suffer through Cadillac’s CUE system to activate your seat warmers – there’s just a couple of nice, metallic-bezeled knobs to turn – and it feels airier in the Infiniti. And in keeping with theme, the QX80’s seats are actually cushier than those found in either the ‘Slade or Navi; these are some of the best in the biz, and they don’t even benefit from parent company Nissan’s NASA-developed Zero Gravity seating. Now, include a couple of those, and Bob’s your uncle in the interior department.

The Linc? Well, I found it to be the easiest to see out of, and stepping from either the Caddy or the QX to the Lincoln is like stepping into a car. You sit low – which helps with the visibility – and everything is just a little easier to reach (my love for the QX takes a hit, here; that centre stack is quite a reach for the driver) than it is in the other two. They have GOT to do something about the dash in front of the front passenger, though; it is so broad and in your face, giving the impression of a leather-covered cliff in front of you. I’m also a tall chap; can you imagine what it must be like in there for a shorter rider?

Brendan says:

There are, indeed, some positives to be found on the interior of the QX80 – chiefly, a rest for your seared eyeballs because you don't have to look at the bulbous exterior any more. However, I will concede Dan's point that it's comfy in here, and the ergonomics aren't bad. The slippery wood trim around the entirety of the steering wheel rim bothered me more than a little on this damp day, and I do feel like the overall look of the dash is getting a bit dated, but it's aging well.

The Navigator is the worst of the bunch on the inside, with a dash that looks like a previous-generation Mustang. Oof, get it together, Ford.

And then there's the Escalade, with its much-maligned CUE system and haptic feedback buttons and all the rest. Of all the trucks here today, this one feels the freshest, the most upscale, and the one that best-disguises its utilitarian roots. I also think the chevroned seats fore and aft are a better look than the plusher thrones found in the other two, though perhaps not as cushy.

 

Ride and Handling

Dan says:

Awkward looks or no, there’s no questioning that the QX80 sits on a fantastically sorted chassis.

Alhough based on the venerable Nissan Patrol SUV we’ve never seen here and has a frame mounted atop the chassis, it just doesn’t belie those roots like the other two do.

It starts with the handling, perhaps best manifested in the fact that you can undertake maneuvers in tight places – a parking garage below your downtown condo penthouse, for example – that you really shouldn’t be able to pull off in a three-row, two-ton-plus SUV. It never ceased to amaze me how I’d just choose a parking stall, make a quick turn of the wheel and end up almost dead-centre, every time. A testament to my parking skills? Perhaps. But the fact that it’s almost as easy to place the enormous QX80 as it is some mid-size SUVs is a big plus.

The QX80 doesn’t have the softest ride here, though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not harsh by any means but it is a little firmer than what’s offered by the Navigator.

The Lincoln offers a fantastically smooth ride; you really do get that feeling that you’re hovering above the road surface a little, as if there’s some form of air suspension, which there isn’t. Nope, just a set of independent coilovers with a stabilizer bar, but it’s tuned for softness, that’s for sure.

Which is both a blessing and a curse. That “hovering” feeling, while comfortable on the straight and narrow, can be a little disconcerting once you start to turn or even switch lanes. There’s a distinct disconnectedness here; I could forgive it if it was only something you felt whilst pushing the Navi to levels that few likely ever will. However, we took some time on a relatively relaxed highway drive and still, it just wasn’t harmonious. It’s a sensation made worse in the wet, and we found ourselves in some pretty heavy downpour conditions.

Having said that, it was actually the Escalade that caused the most pause in the wet; it has the widest tires of the trio, and we found ourselves hydroplaning ever-so-slightly on two or three occasions. The Escalade's ride is improved from the previous generation, you’ll still encounter some bounciness over repeated undulations that just shouldn’t be present at this level of luxury. It’s only a real problem at speed, though; around town, the Escalade is fine, and it’s hard not to like that fantastic V8 burble you get through those dual tailpipes.

Brendan says:

The Infiniti did a little water-skiing for me as well, so I'm inclined to lay the blame on the bling or, as Milli Vanilli might do, blame it on the rain. This is why 22-inch alloys are silly – I know these things are the size of ocean liners, but they don't need to float like 'em at speed.

I thought the Navigator drove really quite well, feeling pretty compact, and with plenty of punch from the Ecoboost V6. Regrettably, an absence of jumps presented little opportunity for Flight of the Navigator jokes.

The Escalade's ride does indeed get a little choppy, and that's again the fault of the 22s. It sure sounds great though, with a lusty V8 growl that the other two don't have. Scoots pretty quick for a big rig too.

 

Performance and Economy

Dan says:

Ahh, everybody’s favorite topic, even at this level.

At first blush, the Navigator should be the winner based solely on the fact that it runs a twin-turbocharged V6 engine; the low cylinder count should keep gas usage low, while the turbos should keep the Navi happy at driving speeds and during towing; it works well on the F-150, so why shouldn’t it here? Well, we shall soon see.

The QX80 is the closest thing to a “dinosaur” in the group when it comes to engine choice. That right there is the same 5.6L V8 (no, it’s not an 8.0-litre…) that’s been doing the hauling, towing and earth moving in the Titan pickup for countless years, as well as the last gen Pathfinder, its massive Armada cousin and the precursor to the car you see here, the QX56. It uses aluminum for the block and heads, which saves weight, but that’s the extent of its nod to efficient motoring; no turbocharging or cylinder deactivation here. Just classic V8 grunt.

And there is plenty of grunt. Like the ease of parking offered by the QX, passing at highway speeds and even springing forward from a red light is accomplished without drama, thanks to the seven-speed automatic and the 400 hp and 413 lb-ft of torque on hand, that latter figure reaching peak levels at 4,000 rpm. Unfortunately, all that oomph comes with a price at the pump; the QX80’s 17.3 L/100 km fuel economy rate meant it finished at the back of the pack in this regard.

Like the Infiniti, the Escalade also has a V8; it comes in the form of a 6.2L, making a whopping 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque, making it the most powerful of the three. Unlike the Infiniti, however, the ‘Slade’s V8 does feature cylinder deactivation when cruising or shuffling through town. When in V4 mode, the “V8” script at the bottom of the gauge cluster switches to “V4”.

The Escalade’s fuel economy after the same distance? 11.84. That’s incredible. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the Navigator with all its V6 turbocharged goodness, was barely any better than the QX, earning 16.5 L/100 km. That’s a pretty big knock when your 380-horse count is the lowest here; you can see, however, why the engine does so well in the F-150 when you glance at the torque figure, which is a strong 460 lb-ft. That’s the most here, but the Navigator just didn’t feel as fast as the other two, which is always a benefit of natural aspiration.

As good as the QX’s V8 feels, you’ve got to hand this category to the Escalade. That fuel economy figure is fantastic, and better than GM’s claimed figures for trucks equipped either with the six-speed auto or optional eight-speed. Impressive.

Brendan says:

I know, right? 11.8 L/100 km is just ridiculous for a truck of this avoirdupois. In fact, it caused us both to question fellow writer Simon Hill, who kindly sat in to round out our convoy. “Are you sure you've filled it properly? Try it again.” This incredulity may have been somewhat annoying.

Short of GM pulling a Smokey Yunnick and bolting in a cheater auxiliary fuel bladder, the big bad Caddy's performance is jaw-dropping. It sounds the best, feels the quickest, isn't unmanageable around town, and returned great fuel economy. Three more reasons why it's still hovering around the top of my chart.

 

 

Features and Value

Our three big machines all have big price tags, but there's a definite hierarchy here.  Surprisingly, it's the Infiniti that'd nearly qualify as a bargain, starting out around $73K for a base model that's jammed with options. Power tailgate, rear DVD player, standard running boards, satellite navigation: this ain't a Micra, that’s for sure. Add in the tech package, as-equipped and you add more than 10 percent to the purchase price, but with an upgrade to 22-inch alloys, collision and blind spot warning systems, adaptive headlights, and intelligent cruise control, it's well bundled indeed.

Our Navigator was the least expensive of the trio, coming in at $76K plus freight and taxes. Like the Infiniti, the standard feature list is lengthy, and while Ford's Sync system isn't widely loved, it does become easier with familiarity.

The Cadillac is far and away the most expensive machine here, kicking off at over $90K right from the get-go. It has everything the fully loaded Infiniti does, once equipped with Cadillac's Premium Collection Package (an exhaustive list encompassing driver aids to a head-up display). Still, at a full $10K more than the QX, the Cadillac's option list fails to have standout features that seem worth the premium. Its style and presence are the aspects that justify the big ticket pricing here, at least in GM’s eyes.

 

Conclusion

Dan says:

Throughout our test, I fought and fought and fought.  I really did. I was really pulling for the Infiniti. Yes, it’s the oldest car here. Yes, that Steampunk exterior is really, really divisive but there’s just so much going for it in the engineering and interior quality departments that it’s very endearing. I also love the toughness associated with the QX80’s being based on the Patrol, a reliable rig that has been serving duty in the world’s hottest climes for many years.

The Cadillac is an impressive beast; there’s no question about it and buyers are coming back to it, helping halt a sales slide that’s been going on for a couple of years, now (2014 saw Cadillac sell more Escalades than in either of the two years prior). The Navigator’s supple ride, comfy seats (the second best here, I say) and those fantastic black rims mean it will have its followers.

Hard to argue with the Escalade's looks and operational efficiency, though.

Brendan says:

It is indeed hard to argue, but argue Dan did, citing the Escalade's ride, handling, and overall expense as three reasons it doesn't deserve to wear the laurels. It's still the one I'd recommend.

However, strapping on some welding goggles for protection and utilizing the left hemisphere of my brain, I have to concede the point. The QX is smoother-riding and handles better. It's less flashy inside, but feels like it'll last longer. The fuel economy advantage enjoyed by the Cadillac is probably irrelevant to most buyers in this segment, and those Patrol underpinnings do mean this thing would handle the rough stuff if ever it had to face it down (not bloody likely, but still).

FINE, DAN. You and your beloved Japanese heffalump can have this one. I still think it's almost too close to call, but at least we can both agree on one thing: improved though it might be, “Navigator” is a pretty ironic product name from a company that doesn't seem to know in which direction it's heading.

2015 Infiniti QX80 Warranty:
4 years/100,000 km; 6 years/110,000 km powertrain; 7 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/100,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance
2015 Lincoln Navigator Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 6 years/110,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 6 years/110,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance
2015 Cadillac Escalade Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 6 years/110,000 km powertrain; 6 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 6 years/110,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance
Dinosaurs. Behemoths. Tanks. Land yachts. Call them what you want to call them, big SUVs – the scourge of the roads for some, smooth... 9/16/2015 11:54:21 AM
2015 Infiniti QX80 2015 Lincoln Navigator 2015 Cadillac Escalade
Base Price $73,650 Base Price $75,110 Base Price $90,500
Optional Equipment $8150 (Technology Package – 22” Alloy wheels; blind spot, lane departure, and collision warning; adaptive front lighting; intelligent cruise control) Optional Equipment $1075 (20” Alloy wheels - $750; 4:10 rear gearing - $75; rubber floormats - $150) Optional Equipment $1980 (Power retractable running boards - $1920; wheel locks - $60)
A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1995 Destination Fee $1750 Destination Fee $1700
Price as Tested $83,895 Price as Tested $77935 Price as Tested $94,280
Optional Equipment