When the first-generation Escalade was unveiled in 1999, it was Cadillac’s hasty response to the Lincoln Navigator and the Lexus LX, but skeptics might say it was barely more than a re-badged GMC Yukon Denali. Over the next three generations, the Escalade came into its own as a massive cruiser that appealed to our reptilian side, offering quiet comfort from a rolling army bunker.
As the curtain lifted in Hollywood tonight on the all-new 2021 Cadillac Escalade, the third, final, and most luxurious uppercut from General Motors’ three-pronged full-size SUV attack looks like it’ll land squarely on the chin. This all-new fifth-generation Escalade looks to capitalize on what customers love about the outgoing model, while offering substantial gains in key areas such as technology, interior space, and driver assistance technology.
Even while the rest of the Cadillac product portfolio became mired in alphanumeric gobbledegook (which will soon end), the Escalade nameplate has remained blissfully untarnished—evidence of Cadillac’s supreme commitment to not fussing with a longtime cash-cow. Rightfully so, as well. On average, the Escalade buyer is the brand’s youngest customer, which means Cadillac needed to nail this redesign to keep these people engaged and invested.
The Escalade is the most attractive of the three new GM full-size SUVs, which also includes the Chevrolet Suburban/Tahoe and the GMC Yukon/Yukon XL. Gone are the cascading, vertically-oriented headlights (pushed out as far to the side as possible) on the outgoing Escalade. In their place are horizontally-oriented headlights placed atop the front rectangle on the ride. Vertical daytime running lights adorn the lower sides of the vehicle, helping to accentuate the Escalade’s upright and imposing front end. The rest of the sheet metal follows suit, offering a familiar silhouette but with more pleasing lines throughout the sides and rear of the vehicle. Relative to its cousins at GMC and Chevy, the Escalade exudes class with a welcome restraint. It’s not dull, but certainly not as exuberant as whatever the Yukon has going on.
The real party pieces come once you hoist yourself up and into the driver’s seat, where the piece de resistance is undoubtedly the enormous, 38-inch curved OLED display. The design for this presentation was inspired by the breathtaking Escala concept car, which debuted at Pebble Beach in 2016. Cadillac says that choosing OLED display technology enables “perfect blacks,” because there is no need to backlight the screen as with traditional LED displays. The OLED screens also boast twice the pixel density of a 4K TV, offering exceptionally sharp images.
Cadillac’s use of OLED eliminates the need for a shroud over the top of the screen to protect it from light. The resulting dashboard sits much lower, adding to the airy feel inside the front area of the cabin. The OLED display is comprised of a 7-inch touch screen to the left of the steering wheel, a 14.2 inch screen (without touch functionality) directly in front of the driver serving as an instrument cluster, and a 16.9-inch touch screen to the right of the driver serving as the main infotainment interface. It’s a handsome layout, with tasteful touches like a Cadillac crest on the backside of the main screen that illuminates as the owners approach.
The driver’s screen will offer four cluster layouts–gauge view, navigation view (think Audi’s Virtual Cockpit technology), night vision, and a trick augmented reality layout with active route guidance. That last view utilizes the front camera to project real-time direction graphics onto the road ahead. While this will be helpful in some scenarios, it’s not hard to see someone deciding to drive watching just this screen, which could be a safety concern.
Lest those in the second row feel left out of the technology game, the 2021 Escalade will also offer 12.6-inch touch screens fixed to the back of the first-row seats. The screens have swipe to share capability (the ability to share content from one rear screen to the other with a simple swipe towards the other screen), and offer navigation interfacing as well as capability for Bluetooth headphones and two HDMI ports.
Cadillac tapped Vienna-based audio firm AKG to develop two truly outrageous sound packages for the new Escalade. The Studio package offers 19 speakers, which AKG claims are custom-tuned to the vehicles trim materials. (Remember when 8 speakers was a lot for a car? Now double that is the lower-tier package.) For those who simply must have all the best noise, AKG offers the Studio Reference package, which includes 36 (!) speakers, amplifiers, and microphones positioned to create a “surround 3D” audio experience. The package is standard on the Platinum trim and optional on the Premium Luxury and Sport trims.
Speaking of trims, the Escalade will offer two distinct trim paths–Luxury and Sport. The base model will carry the Luxury trim name, and those looking to climb the Luxury branch can select the mid-tier Premium Luxury trim, or the top-tier Platinum Luxury trim. On the Sport side, the base Luxury trim becomes the Sport trim in the middle tier, and the Platinum Sport at the top. The sport branch–new for this fifth-gen Escalade and a result of buyers asking for that ubiquitous “all-black” look, will offer blacked out window and grille trim.
The Escalade, for now, will offer just two powertrain choices: The first is a standard 6.2-liter pushrod V-8, producing 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque. The second is a Duramax 3.0-liter straight-six turbo diesel, which boasts a hefty 460 lb-ft of twist at just 1500 rpm, as well as 277 horsepower. Both engines will mate to GM’s Hydra-Matic 10-speed automatic, which in the Escalade, features sport mode and intelligent downhill detection to pre-select lower gears when it senses downhill conditions.
Like its Yukon and the Suburban/Tahoe cousins, the Escalade sees massive gains in interior space, courtesy of a new independent rear suspension (IRS) setup in place of the old solid-axle arrangement. Third row legroom increases by 40 percent to 34.9 inches on the standard length model, (the lengthier ESV gets 2.1 inches of additional legroom) while cargo space behind the third row increases by 68 percent. In the luxury space, more is always better, so these gains are sure to serve Escalade owners (and riders) well.
Cadillac will offer three suspension setups for the Escalade–coil spring with passive dampers, coil spring with magnetic ride control, and air ride adaptive suspension with magnetic ride. The air-ride suspension, available on Premium Luxury and Sport models and standard on Platinum models, will adjust the vehicles height according to the driving conditions. Entry/Exit mode will drop the vehicle two inches, and drivers who engage 4-Low on the transfer case will see it raise two inches from standard height.
As previously announced, the 2021 Escalade will offer Enhanced Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving technology. The updated version of Cadillac’s already-impressive driver-assist technology brings lane change functionality on top of existing features like lane-keep and adaptive cruise control.
On the whole, the 2021 Escalade is a compelling offering right from the get-go, but that doesn’t make it a guaranteed home run for Cadillac. When it was announced in September of 2018 that Cadillac would move its headquarters back to Detroit after a four year “study-abroad” trip in upscale Manhattan, many viewed it as a failure by the company to elevate its brand image to the ultra-luxury space it aspired to occupy. While that may be a reach, it feels as though the brand is still trying to find itself. The CT6-V, Cadillac’s most compelling offering since the ATS-V and CTS-V were killed off, was basically dead on arrival itself. Now that CT6 production is kaput, Cadillac has a brilliant 4.2-liter twin-turbo DOHC engine on its hands, the Blackwing V-8, and nowhere to put it. An Escalade-V seems like it would be a natural home for this motor, but for the time being, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
Cadillac needs the new Escalade to pay off, big time. The Mercedes-Benz GLS, the BMW X7, and the Lincoln Navigator are already vying for wealthy buyers who want to trundle around in three-ton luxo-barges, and they’re all doing it quite well. In 2019, Escalade sales were down 3.9 percent compared to the previous year, likely due to an aging platform relative to its competition. That the drop was that minor on such an aged platform bodes well for the new Escalade.
North American sales will begin in late 2020. Cadillac has not released any information on pricing at this time. With the 2021 Escalade, Cadillac hopes to turn the tide with an appealing mix of technologies, luxury features, and an ungodly amount of audio equipment. It’s the Escalade–not a facelifted XT5, not a boring new XT6, not even an all-new EV—that for the time being best represents Cadillac’s ambitions to once again be The Standard of the World.