Review: The 2021 Cadillac Escalade Finally Feels Like a Bona Fide “Luxury” SUV
Though it still shares a platform with Chevy and GMC, pretty much everything else has received a serious upgrade
Throughout the many rebrandings and pivots undergone by Cadillac over the last decade, one vehicle has remained a shining constant. The Cadillac Escalade’s hulking presence has generated reliable profits for an automaker seemingly unable to find consistent sales in any segment other than full-size sport utility vehicles, and with almost a quarter century of heritage behind it, it now stands as the longest-running nameplate in Cadillac showrooms.
The opulent Escalade’s traditional formula — an ultra-luxe take on the same mass-produced pickup and SUV platform used by Chevrolet and GMC — has been both a blessing and a curse for Cadillac. Inexpensive to build, the three-row hauler offers margins as massive as the zip code of space it occupies while lumbering down the highway, but its somewhat pedestrian origins have been difficult to shake from the minds of buyers unwilling to give it a shot alongside equally pricy European fare.
For 2021 much of that changes. Not only have the Escalade’s invisible underpinnings been given a substantial upgrade, but so have its cabin and feature set. As a concerted effort to separate the Cadillac from its more affordable cousins (the Chevrolet Tahoe and the GMC Yukon), it’s a resounding success, and one that should help broaden the SUV’s appeal.
Soft Power, Spoken Loudly
If anything, the redesigned Escalade presents as even more imposing than in years past. Featuring a near-upright front end dominated by a massive shield grille framed by Cadillac’s unmistakable vertical LED light signature, the truck’s sheet metal is intended to dominate the visual conversation at each and every stoplight.
Inside, however, things are significantly softer — and far more advanced — than ever before. It starts with the hides on the $104,290 Sport Platinum trim tested here, which stand tall when compared against the fine upholstery offered by the similar GMC Yukon Denali (long the Escalade’s closest bogey). Just make sure you step up from the base model, which is inexplicably outfitted with synthetic seat skins.
Elsewhere the attention to detail is also impressive, the interior wrapped with a high-end feel that communicates the window sticker via the fingertips rather than just the eyes. The decision to abandon the company’s largely unloved CUE infotainment system has also cleaned up much of the switchgear and controls on the steering wheel and center console.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the Escalade’s biggest wow-inducing interior element. The entire dashboard is dominated by a trio of OLED screens arranged so as to suggest as single digital element, broken only by a small set of interior frames that add focus to the various displays. To the left sits a trip meter that also doubles as a control set for the Cadillac’s two new party tricks (night vision and augmented-reality navigation), which are themselves displayed on the gauge cluster screen located directly in front of the driver. To the far right is a huge touchscreen that in some ways duplicates and in others enhances what the driver has been presented elsewhere.
Familiar Running Gear, With a Twist
Mechanically, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade carries over the previous year’s 6.2-liter V8 nearly unchanged. Paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission and an available four-wheel drive system, it offers a more-than-sufficient 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque, with the option to ditch it for a diesel mill if fuel efficiency is more important than punch.
An intriguing change is found at the rear of the Escalade, where a new independent suspension setup separates it from its Silverado and Sierra cousins. Now free of its solid axle, the Escalade not only smoothes out its on-road response (in combination with a set of air springs and GM’s excellent magnetic ride control dampers at each corner), but it also frees up a usable amount of cargo space inside the vehicle thanks to better placement of suspension attachment points.
A Formidable Package
Much of what Cadillac has newly introduced in the Escalade contributes towards a more satisfying ownership experience. Bulky past the point of being nimble, the SUV’s new independent rear still makes for more competently parsed corners, particularly should one encounter a bump or two at speed. The standard V8, while not as beastly as the beating hearts of rivals like the BMW X7 M50i or the Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class, is still more than a match for the Escalade’s extra mass.
The truck also impresses when hauling a full load. There’s conspicuously more third-row room for adult passengers for 2021 as compared to older Escalades, and the fold-flat seats free up mammoth storage for items as diverse as bicycles and full-size moving boxes, both of which the SUV swallowed with ease. An extended-wheelbase ESV model is also available for those with the confidence to regularly park a bus on their daily commute. Regardless of who or what is along for the ride, however, the Cadillac’s overall comportment is calm, collected and quiet.
From a tech standpoint the impression is more mixed. The gorgeous panoramic screen setup functions flawlessly, although drivers of more modest stature might strain to hit the further touch panel (with the rotary dial on the console an acceptable stand-in). Less intriguing are gadgets that go with it. The augmented-reality setup overlays video game arrows over a live video feed of the road ahead, but doesn’t feel any more effective than graphics-based nav systems, while night vision is only truly effective at spotting shoulder-side interlopers like joggers or animals in very low light (read: ex-urban) areas.
What was truly missed was Cadillac’s Super Cruise. This driver-assist feature makes use of hyper-accurate mapping alongside a network of sensors to deliver semi-autonomous, hands-free highway driving. Although introduced several model years previous on the now-departed CT6 sedan, it has yet to make its way into the Escalade feature set. The brand promises it will debut later in 2021, but it’s hard to understand why the vehicle was launched without the company’s most compelling safety system on the options sheet.
Now a Stronger Choice
The days of the Escalade being pipped by its well-equipped yet cheaper Yukon Denali cousin are over. The extra effort made inside the vehicle’s copious cabin, combined with an improved ride, helps it to stand tall even when compared against top dollar fare from overseas. With the 2021 model, Cadillac has finally managed to outpace its in-house competition while simultaneously catching up in a number of meaningful ways to its German challengers for full-size luxury SUV dominance.
Considering its price spectrum, which stretches from just under $80k to just over the six-figure mark, the Escalade also comes at a discount when compared to premium import fare. It seems likely that the automaker’s long-standing flagship it will continue to out-sell almost every high-end three three-row rival, especially to families seeking drivable living room with enough guts to tow a starter home behind it. That being said, Super Cruise is a feature worth waiting for, which means you might want to check in at the closest Cadillac dealership to get a timeline before plunking down your deposit.
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