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Turning circles

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According to the e-mails I receive every day, size matters. I’m inclined to agree, at least when it comes to the best vehicles to take on a holiday shopping trip.

Maybe you live out in the wilderness, but I’m surrounded by crowded suburbs full of people who head for the shops as soon as December appears on their calendars. And they fill up the parking lots like sardines in a can.

My car in last week’s parking-lot wars was a Cadillac Escalade, a luxury sport-utility vehicle built on the same platform as the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon. It’s a huge 5,800-pound vehicle that’s 19-feet long and is powered by either a 5.5- or 6.0-liter V-8. It stands over 6-feet high and sits on 17-inch wheels with a whopping 10.7 inches of ground clearance.

The Escalade is a great long-trip car. There is no more luxurious vehicle, and with its easily accessible third row of seats and great headroom, it’s versatile, too. Among the welcome features on my tester were heated leather seats that resembled Barcaloungers, Zebrano wood slathered over any flat surface, XM satellite radio, six-CD changer and a backseat DVD player with wireless headphones for the kids. Talk about a living room on wheels! A roaring fire would have been nice, but I didn’t see it on the options list.

The $50,000-plus Escalade is a true Cadillac on the highway, with a smooth ride that is never as annoyingly cushioned as the company’s products in the days before it discovered performance (and started going after a younger audience). The steering is speed-sensitive and quite light. Point it and cruise, with the commanding view of the highway that today’s drivers crave. You like sitting up high, as many SUV owners do? You got it in the Escalade. As long as you can handle the dismal 12/15 miles-per-gallon fuel economy and can find lots of gas stations, you’re in good shape.

But we’re talking parking lots, remember? The Escalade is not friendly to the standard parking space. Have they shrunk, or are they just filling up with monster trucks? I was constantly trying to edge the big black barge into a too-narrow slot without taking out someone’s rear-view mirror. It’s a good thing the Escalade has a feature called Ultrasonic Rear Parking Assist, because it offers imminent audible warning that you’re about to back into something. You need a lot of road to turn this land yacht around, and that’s in short supply during Christmas shopping assaults. I managed to keep the Escalade out of harm’s way, but it was nerve-wracking.

In an interesting contrast, I tested the Escalade right before meeting up with its second cousin, the GMC Sierra Denali, a luxury pickup to Cadillac’s SUV. They performed similarly on the highway, and you’ll still need a really big garage, but the Denali was a much-improved parking-lot contender, thanks to Quadrasteer, or four-wheel steering, which truck commentator Mark Savage calls the "next big thing." Pioneered by GM’s close collaborator Delphi, it is only available on the $44,000 Sierra Denali.

Honda introduced four-wheel steering on the Prelude in 1988, and I don’t recall being impressed with it. But the Prelude was a small car that cornered fairly well, anyway. The Denali is big (with a 143-inch wheelbase), and the computer-controlled Quadrasteer cuts its turning radius by 21 percent, down to 37 feet. That’s comparable to a Saturn Coupe.

At slow speeds, the Denali’s rear wheels move in the opposite direction of the front wheels; on the highway, they follow the front wheels, which makes towing and lane changing easier. It’s relatively simple, it works, and I expect to see it in many truck and large SUV fleets very soon. Denali fuel economy is still dismal, by the way — 12/15, just like the Escalade.

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