When we captured this '02 Escalade on film in the beginning of March, the new Cadillac SUVs had barely shown up on dealers' doorsteps, and there certainly wasn't time for any modified versions to be traveling the roads. What you see here is one of the first (perhaps the first) customized '02 Cadillac Escalade in the country.

In stock format, the new Cadillac Escalade is an improvement over the previous three model-years. Sporting a redesigned exterior, the '02 Escalade is more stylish, bolder, and makes a dramatic statement on the road. It is also emblazoned with the new (cleaner and larger) Cadillac crest and wreath emblem the first Cadillac vehicle to do so. The 6.0L powerplant (available with the all-wheel-drive package) is the most powerful SUV, boasting 345 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. For 2002, there's also a two-wheel-drive version of the Escalade as well as audio upgrades and an eight-passenger version.

The Escalade that graces these pages, however, goes far beyond the improvements that Cadillac built into its new model. International Motoring, an auto accessorizing business located in Altadena, California, ordered several of the first Escalades to come off Cadillac's assembly line with the express purpose of modifying and customizing the new models. The company was started by Gene McClendon and originated as a mobile car wash, which later became a successful auto detailing business. Gene later teamed up with Roman Phifer, a longtime friend and 10-year veteran of the NFL (currently a linebacker with the New York Jets), and the pair put together a team of specialists to supply high-quality aftermarket-equipped vehicles to discerning customers. International Motoring clientele include Stacey Augmon of the Portland TrailBlazers, Rodney Peete of the Oakland Raiders, NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson, Charlie Clemons of the New Orleans Saints, and the late Eric Turner of the Oakland Raiders.

This Escalade is the daily driver of Roman Phifer and nicely illustrates what can be achieved by International Motoring with a well-chosen array of aftermarket equipment. Exterior modifications are somewhat limited, but certainly serve to set the Cadillac apart from the rest. Perhaps the most noticeable of these upgrades are the impressive and stylish 22-inch chrome Antera wheels wrapped with low-profile Dunlop SP Sport tires. The wheel and tire combination is a real head-turner, and so is the fact that the Escalade was lowered 5 inches in front and 3 inches in the back. With its hunkered-down stance and eye-catching rolling stock, the Cadillac attracts attention wherever it travels. A final bit of exterior customizing comes by way of chromed tow hooks in the front of the vehicle, lending some added style.

Although the Escalade's 345hp powerplant certainly propels the vehicle down the road with power to spare, International Motoring wanted to create a vehicle that would offer dramatic performance. The company turned to RW Automotive in Sylmar, California, to install a WhippleCharger supercharger on the big 6.0L V-8 engine. This was the first such installation of a WhippleCharger on an '02 Escalade, and RW is working closely with Whipple Industries to ensure that the supercharger kit performs to Escalade owners' discriminating needs. The supercharger kit brings the Cadillac's total horsepower to more than 500 ponies -- a real herd of power. For some additional horsepower, and in order to better expedite the flow of exhaust gases, a custom dual exhaust was installed in place of the stock exhaust system.

Pop open the doors to the Escalade and you're greeted with an interior right out of Car Audio magazine, with enough audio and visual goodies to satisfy the most jaded electronics enthusiast. The system starts with an Eclipse head unit/controller that incorporates a 5.8-inch LCD screen in its design to display system operational graphics, GPS information, or DVD movies. Other dash-mounted equipment include an Eclipse DVD player and a six-disc CD changer. There's also an Eclipse GPS navigation system for finding the way when lost and a Sony PlayStation 2 for entertainment along the way.

The video system is particularly impressive, especially for rear-seat passengers because they're treated to an Audiovox 13.3-inch flip-down monitor. Wireless headphones are on call for use with DVD movies, PlayStation, or stereo entertainment. The sound portion of the mobile electronic's extravaganza includes Eclipse three-way speakers, 5.25-inch rear door speakers, a pair of 12-inch subwoofers mounted in a custom enclosure in the back storage area, and a trio of Rockford Fosgate amps custom-mounted behind the second row of seats. Clarion switchers and controllers round out the system. For a final inside touch, all the Escalade's interior trim pieces were redone in red burlwood.

Although Cadillac '02 Escalades are just now hitting the road and should be a big success with SUV enthusiasts, this International Motoring-modified Escalade should steal the show. As Roman Phifer makes his appointed rounds in his head-turning Pewter customized Escalade, he has the satisfaction of knowing he's running ahead of the pack.