If the big, in-your-face grille on the 2002 Cadillac Escalade isn't enough to grab your attention, the V8 just inches from that grille certainly will.

The new 6-liter, Vortec 6000 overhead valve V8 generates 345 horsepower -- more than any other sport utility vehicle. Mated to a four-speed automatic, the engine is available only on the Escalade and only on the all-wheel drive model.

The new Escalade, the first substantive redesign of the model that debuted in fall 1998 as Cadillac's first SUV, is already in showrooms as an early 2002 model. It goes far to halt criticism that Cadillac's premium SUV is a mere and pricey makeover of other General Motors Corp. sport utilities.

To be sure, this 2002 Escalade still shares its platform with lower-priced GM siblings, specifically the 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe and 2001 GMC Yukon.

For example, the Escalade, Tahoe and Yukon all have a 116-inch wheelbase, 198.9-inch overall length and 78.9-inch width. Front-seat room is identical among the three, and even with its more powerful engine, the Escalade has the same 26-gallon gas tank that the Tahoe and Yukon have.

But that arresting grille, which stopped lots of people in their tracks during my test drive, and the big, vertical headlamps alongside as well as the bigger-than-before 17-inch wheels add a distinctive and Cadillac-like presence.

Inside, there's more room than in the predecessor Escalade, which was the 2000 model since there were no 2001 Escalades.

There's an immediate sense of spaciousness as you climb up into this tall vehicle and settle in the front seats. Gosh, they seem wide -- and so does that center console between the seats. Even large-sized adults can find comfort here.

The second-row seats in the 2002 Escalade also are roomier than before, providing 2.7 more inches of legroom and 0.3 inches more shoulder room than the predecessor vehicle had.

For the first time, a third-row seat -- capable of holding three riders -- is standard in the Escalade.

"Women shopped us and went to the (Lincoln) Navigator for the third-row seat," said Susan Docherty, Escalade brand manager.

Navigator has always had a standard third-row seat.

But note that third-row riders in the Escalade can sit squeezed together, the middle person has no head restraint and only a lap belt, and the seat sits close to the floor.

But third-row headroom of 38.6 inches and 36.1 inches of legroom surpass that of the Navigator. The Navigator, however, has more headroom and legroom in the second-row seats than does the Escalade.

Zebrano wood, highly polished and with lots of vertical lines, is swathed all over the Escalade center console and on other areas inside and also helps differentiate this SUV from others.

Leather seats with lots of cushion, striking silver-colored circles around the gauges and a Bose Acoustimass sound system all add distinction.

But the new, in-dash, six-CD player is located down at the center console area rather than higher up on the dashboard by the other stereo controls.

The ride is eminently comfortable, with most bumps nicely cushioned. The Escalade manages large bumps with a bit of bounce, as you'd expect in a truck-based SUV, but it was never jarring.

There's no shifting or input needed from the driver to engage the all-wheel drive system. It's on all the time, normally splitting the torque so 38 percent goes to the front wheels and 62 percent go to the back.

But when wheel slip is detected, the system can immediately transfer power to the wheels that have a firmer grip so the vehicle can get moving.

There is no extra low gear, but traction control is included. So is Cadillac's StabiliTrak system and road-sensing suspension.

Inside, the vehicle is impressively quiet, with just a bit of wind noise at highway speeds from the large outside mirrors and standard roof rack.

Power comes on quickly, despite the fact the Escalade is a hefty 5,809-pounder. Just a touch on the accelerator can push you back in the seat and most of the time, shift points aren't noticeable.

Justly proud of the new Escalade's segment-leading horsepower, Cadillac even touts the Escalade as "the most powerful SUV" on the vehicle window sticker. Note the vehicle's 345 horses are just 3 horsepower above the 342 of the previously most-powerful SUV, the Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG.

The Mercedes, however, maintains its place as the "fastest" SUV since its torque of 376 foot-pounds at between 2,800 rpm and 4,500 rpm can help propel this vehicle from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds.

It takes the heavier, 2002 Escalade -- with 380 foot-pounds of torque available at 4,000 rpm -- 8.57 seconds, Cadillac said.

Fuel economy is poor. I averaged 13.6 mpg during combined city/highway driving. The Escalade is rated at 12 mpg in the city and 15 mpg on the highway.

Notably, the recommended fuel is regular.

But the speed-sensitive, recirculating ball steering feels too light and numb for my tastes.

Thankfully, the Escalade comes standard with running boards. I needed them to climb up inside, especially when I was maneuvering to get in and back to the third-row seats.

The Escalade has a healthy 10.7 inches of ground clearance and offers excellent visibility from inside.

Unfortunately, though, rear door openings aren't as large as I'd like, rear-door windows go down only about halfway and some of the plastic trim pieces on the test Escalade weren't well-aligned.

For the first time, the Escalade will be offered as a two-wheel-drive model with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price and destination charge of $47,990 this year. The all-wheel-drive Escalade starts at $49,990, including a $700 destination charge.

This compares with the 2001 Navigator, which starts at $48,480, and the 2001 ML55 AMG, which starts at $66,545.

Targeted buyers of the new Escalade have average household income of $125,000 and average age of 50, Cadillac said. Forty-five percent will be women.

Because the 2002 Escalade is new, Consumer Reports does not provide predicted reliability.