WASHINGTON — The Cadillac Escalade EXT, a $53,000 chrome-trimmed luxury pickup with leather bucket seats, a seven-speaker stereo system with satellite radio and a global tracking system, is the vehicle most targeted by thieves, a study by the insurance industry found.
It's the second year in a row that an Escalade has been at the top of the list, which was released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Escalade sport utility vehicle topped last year's list; this year, that SUV is third.
The Nissan Maxima, a midsize sedan, is the second most likely to be stolen among newer vehicles. The Maxima's theft rate went up after the company began installing expensive, high-intensity headlights as standard equipment in 2002, the institute said.
The institute calculated which newer vehicles are most likely to be stolen by looking at theft claims per 1,000 insured vehicles from model years 2001 to 2003. The Escalade EXT had a claim rate of 20.2. The lowest-ranking vehicles — the Buick LeSabre, Buick Park Avenue and Ford Taurus station wagon — had claim rates of 0.5.
The Escalade EXT, which starts at $53,665, debuted in 2002. Owners often add custom wheels and spinning rims that can increase the vehicle's cost by more than $10,000 — and help make it seven to eight times more likely to be stolen than the average new vehicle.
"Stolen Escalades are sometimes found resting on blocks without their wheels," said Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the insurance institute's Highway Loss Data Institute.
Hazelbaker said the Escalade EXT has a standard anti-theft ignition immobilizer, which prevents the vehicle from being started without the right key, but it may not be as effective as newer systems. General Motors Corp. spokeswoman Kelly Wysocki confirmed that the Pass-lock system, which is on all current Escalades as well as 2005 models, is aging and said GM is considering a change soon.
A design change may cut down on theft rates for the Maxima. The 2004 Maxima has headlights that won't fit into earlier models, so the theft rate may go down because thieves won't be trying to steal the headlights to put on older models, Hazelbaker said.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said immobilizers have been the most effective way to stop thefts. Rader said, however, that no prevention efforts are perfect.
"The bottom line is that if a determined thief wants your vehicle, there's not a whole lot that you can do," Rader said.
The institute said overall theft claims have declined steadily from an average of about 15 per 1,000 insured vehicles in 1980 to 2.5 in 2003. At the same time, the average insurance payment per theft claim has been rising. The average insurance payout for an Escalade EXT theft claim is $14,939, compared to $5,928 for all vehicles.
The insurance institute's list is one of several most-stolen vehicle lists released each year. In May, Chicago-based CCC Information Services Inc. said the 1995 Saturn SL was the nation's most stolen vehicle based on the ratio of thefts to registered vehicles. The insurance institute says that list tends to reflect the most popular vehicles on the road rather than the most likely to be stolen.