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Gambling on Cadillac's Escalade hybrid

Wheels takes a Cadillac Escalade hybrid to Atlantic City and comes up snake eyes.

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – In the poker bar of the Trump Plaza casino they’ll supply you with “free” beer, as long as you keep feeding the video poker machines in front of you.

IN PHOTOS: Escalade to Atlantic City

While you play, you get the feeling that you’re getting drinks on the house. Meanwhile, the video bandit in front of you is slowly but surely siphoning off your bankroll.

There’s a video display in the centre console of Cadillac’s new hybrid Escalade, too. It shows how you are using General Motors’ two-mode gas-electric system, and it makes you feel like you are saving fuel and greenhouse gases as you cruise along in your 2,795 kg luxury behemoth.

But what are the odds that laying down an extra $15,000 for the hybrid version of the Escalade will pay off in the long run? Asking buyers to pony up almost $100,000 for such an over-the-top road warrior in an era of looming corporate bankruptcy, widespread mortgage defaults and layoffs seems like a long shot for GM.

So to test whether the fuel-savings promise of the hybrid ‘Slade was a sure thing or a sucker’s bet, Wheels hatched a plot to drive to this mecca of gambling on the U.S. East Coast. A 10-hour-plus journey to the land of The Donald through recession-stricken America would be plenty of time to get familiar with all that the hybrid ‘Slade – that symbol of Bush-era excess – had to offer.

To up the ante, we made our gambling bankroll dependent on how much gas we could save by driving the hybrid Escalade, compared with what we would have used in the non-hybrid version (see sidebar).

Visions of throwing down a cool $100 (U.S., of course) on red at Roulette to double our savings egged us on as Wheels editor Mark Richardson and I cruised down through New York and Pennsylvania. Maybe two high rollers could even win enough to pay for the palatial digs at Trump Plaza.

Taking turns to watch James Bond on the Escalade’s optional $2,295 rear DVD entertainment centre on the way there only stoked our delusions.

Trouble started soon after we hit the poker bar.

“You mean if I have three spades in my hand, it doesn’t mean I have three of a kind?” one of us – not me – asked after several losing hands. “Since when?”

Dice seems pretty easy – but what’s with all those incomprehensible numbers and words all over the craps table? Even Roulette baffled us with its complex ways of betting with various colours of chips. And don’t even mention Baccarat or Blackjack.

Casino Royale this clearly was not.

But then, Trump Plaza is a far cry from a tony casino for European high rollers. The high-end card tables carried a minimum $500 bet – chump change for any suave James Bond type. And the rows upon rows of slot machines weren’t being fed by a crowd exactly dripping in diamonds and gold.

In fact, it was a far more luxurious world inside the Escalade than it was inside the walls of Trump’s betting palace.

Where the casino-hotel was accented in gold-flocked kitsch and glitz, the ‘Slade was swathed in fine leather upholstery and wood trim to the standards you’d expect from a high-end SUV.

Overall fit and finish was high, and there were the usual luxurious appointments, like seat heaters (and coolers), high-end sound system (with MP3 player hook-up), sat-nav (which stubbornly refused to highlight much-needed Starbucks outlets) and DVD system.

More important over the course of 20 hours of driving were the driver’s and passenger’s seats. These proved to be comfortable and supportive, helped by the infinitely adjustable ergonomics of both thrones.

They were also the one place we were truly high rollers – we could stare down at the riff-raff from our perches inside the ‘Slade as it rolled along the freeway.

For a truck this size, you’d expect there to be plenty of room inside, and there certainly was up front. But the rear seat was more cramped than expected, with a seat back anything but supportive for long-term movie viewing. Somewhere near Scranton on the return trip, lying down to watch a DVD was more comfortable.

There were some odd design choices, too, that became noticeable during the 20 hours behind the wheel. The buttons to flick through the onboard computer displays were awkwardly placed behind the transmission stick when in drive, the steering wheel felt thin and plasticky despite being trimmed in real wood, and the retro-looking clock was all but illegible.

If GM can come up with something clever like a two-mode hybrid, why can’t it also design a cabin clock you can read or a steering wheel that telescopes – especially in a $100,000 truck?

Other options on our tester included $1,425 power retractable running boards and Premium “Infrared” colour paint for $1,500, bringing its total price to $98,900.

The Escalade bills itself as a seven-seater, but the rear seat wouldn’t be much good for anyone with any height as there are no wells to put your feet in. That third row can be tumbled forward for extra room, but to get any storage space, you have to remove them.

We left our bags perched on top of the folded down seats because it was easier. Perhaps you’re supposed to leave the removal of seats from a Cadillac to the hired help.

Not that we’d ever know. Judging by the results of our gambling, it’s unlikely we’ll ever end up having our own hired help.

Even the simplest games of chance, like Roulette and Blackjack, became more baffling the more we watched the savvy veterans lay down their money.

So we stuck to what we thought we knew – drinking beer in the poker bar. In the end, one of us was $8 in the hole, while the other was only down $5. But after four or five “free” beers, which the casino charged about $5 for elsewhere, you could argue we actually wound up ahead of the game.

We sure did.

It was our own fault, of course. If we’d prepared more thoroughly, we’d have been able to figure out the rules of the casino better and maybe risked more money.

In the same way, if we’d read up on the Escalade’s fuel consumption compared with the hybrid version, maybe we wouldn’t have driven 20 hours to play the slots.

Perhaps then we would have just driven to Casino Rama – much closer to home – and really saved fuel.

Andrew Meeson is the editor of wheels.ca. He can be reached at ameeson@thestar.ca

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