The new Cadillac Escalade won\'t help save the planet or save you money at the gas pump. But it will carry eight people in a comfortable and stylish ride. April 21, 2006 My first impression of the 2007 Cadillac Escalade is that it's huge. My second: It's beautiful, too. Bulk and refinement don't usually go hand-in-hand, but Cadillac achieved both here. The full-size luxury SUV, which seats eight, is a study in contradictions, from the brawny 6.2-liter V8 engine and its optional 22-inch wheels to the smooth-riding suspension and minute detail of the carmaker's crest etched into the headlights. That much refinement doesn't come cheap, though. The all-wheel-drive model, in dealerships now, starts at $57,280, and a fully loaded model will set you back about $66,000. The two-wheel-drive, ESV and EXT models won't be available until the end of summer. You'll also spend a small fortune at the gas pump. The Escalade tops out at 13 mpg in city driving and 19 mpg on the highway. Cadillac boasts that it has improved fuel efficiency -- two miles per gallon on the highway compared with the 2006 model -- but let's be honest: No one would buy this behemoth to be friendly to the environment or cut fuel costs. With the recommended premium gasoline at recent prices, a year's worth of fuel for typical drivers will cost $2,800. Filling up with regular gas won't deliver as much power, but it won't harm the engine, either. Advertisement Even with concerns about fuel prices and consumer backlash against the full-size SUV segment, the Escalade has sold well. March 2006 sales increased almost 50% over March 2005 sales. No knock-off I let my colleague take the wheel first and didn't regret it as we pulled into the downtown Washington, D.C., rush. The streets felt too small for such heft and other cars barely reached the Escalade's beltline. While traffic seemed to cede to the big ute, we turned a good deal of heads. One older-model-Escalade driver nearly rear-ended a stopped car trying to check out the goods. Although it's adorned with seven layers of chrome from roofrack to running boards, the Escalade doesn't look remotely gaudy. The exterior lines are taut and elegant. The Escalade shares a platform with Chevy's Tahoe and GMC's Yukon, but this isn't just a rebadged luxe-mobile. The body is distinctly Escalade and includes unique front and rear fascias, HID headlights and LED taillamps, and doors. Advertisement Smooth operator It's my turn behind the wheel. As I opened one of those unique doors and climbed into the driver's seat (and at 5 feet 4 inches, I do mean climb), I felt powerful. We've ended up in the exurbs of Maryland, where the roads get smaller and the houses bigger. The Escalade seemed at home here. Handling was effortless, and the brakes were responsive as I maneuvered around the few other cars on the road on a Wednesday afternoon. This struck me as odd -- that moreo than 5,800 pounds of SUV could be so agile, but it even completes a U-turn in one fluid motion. There's power to spare, too. With 403 horsepower, it leaps off the line like a swimmer off the starting block. Our test model has every option, including the grippy 22-inch wheels that more than half of early buyers have selected (for an extra $2,995). With such large wheels, you might expect all the smooth riding of a monster truck, but we're not jostled a bit. Inside job The dash is clean and simple, but it contrasts drastically with the complex controls and instrumentation of the center panel -- expect to spend time with the manual. Standard interior features include leather-covered seats, Bose 5.1 surround sound, heated front and second row seats, and tri-zone climate control. Advertisement A power liftgate comes standard, but the industry's first power fold-and-tumble second row seats are a $425 option. The touch of a button sends the seat into an impressive fold, but watch your hands (or small children): It flips hard and fast. The reverse isn't accomplished automatically; considerable leverage is required to return the seat to its original position. Despite that small risk to tykes, the Escalade is tops for safety. It earned five-star ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for frontal collisions (rollover testing is yet to be done). The standard stability control system works in tandem with ABS brakes to prevent rollovers. But in the case of a rollover, the Escalade is equipped with advanced head curtain airbags. The airbags extend past the windows for all seating rows, making separate thorax airbags unnecessary. The bags inflate longer than the average airbag and are strapped in place to specifically anticipate the act of a rollover.