The Cadillac Escalade needs no introduction, a fact that is in and of itself worthy of introduction. Despite competing in a full-size luxury SUV segment teeming with new models, and despite coming from a brand that seems to grasp for new alphanumeric badges every six minutes, the Escalade has become a household name and a universally recognized vehicle. And oh, so successful—Cadillac says Escalade owners are its wealthiest customers, not to mention its youngest.
“It has an indescribable presence,” says exterior designer Therese Pinazzo. “People know what it is.”
All to say the formula works, and Cadillac hasn’t messed with it. The 2021 Escalade is new, like all of General Motors’ full-size SUVs, but it retains the qualities that have made it successful over the last two decades. Body-on-frame? Check, although the rear suspension is now independent and replaces the outgoing live axle. General hugeness? Check. Wheelbase and overall length have both grown a few inches; the even longer Escalade ESV, stretching nearly 19 feet, remains on offer. All around extra-ness? Heavy check. “We knew that we could not water it down,” explains Pinazzo.
If anything, the Escalade’s been cranked up. Twenty-two inch wheels now come standard. The massive grille now has a bolder and more premium texture, and the headlamps contain a potpourri of vertical and horizontal elements. Cadillac emblems large and small embellish nearly every body panel.
The biggest upgrades from the previous model—and the most significant differentiators from GMC and Chevy SUVs—can be found inside. In our test car’s Premium Luxury trim, practically every surface from the waist level up has been slathered in leather, wood, aluminum, or all three. Like the exterior, those surfaces have been gilded with thoughtful design flourishes, such as intricate perforations on the top of the dash.
Areas below eye level, however, seem to have received less attention than one might expect in a vehicle that can easily crack six figures. (Our test car stickered at $100,685, even without big-ticket options such as the $3000 four-wheel drive system.) For instance, the lower half of the driver’s-side door wears a piece of molded plastic about the length of my shin. Every automaker this side of Rolls-Royce uses low-cost materials, but many are cleverer at hiding it.
Still, the Escalade is an enjoyable place to sit, regardless of which seat you happen to be in. The new independent rear suspension means even the third row can now comfortably accommodate six-footers, a bragging point for any SUV but a particularly important one for a vehicle that counts professional athletes as a core buyer set.
A curved OLED screen that sweeps from the center console through the gauge cluster makes clear that this is a very tech-forward vehicle. Some of the features on offer are very helpful—we can’t imagine parking this yacht without the crystal-clear birds-eye view that displays on the gauge cluster. Others, such as an “augmented reality” that renders the road ahead on screen, seem more like party tricks. The biggest trick of them all—“look Ma, no hands”—wasn’t on our test vehicle but will be offered on Escalades soon enough in the form of Enhanced Super Cruise, Cadillac’s most advanced autonomous functionality.
Despite all that, what’s really noteworthy here is that the tech doesn’t dominate the experience as it has in earlier Cadillacs (the term “CUE,” the brand’s acronym for its former, finicky touchscreen, has slipped out of the Escalade’s press materials). Physical buttons and knobs stand in for most basic functions, including climate control and stereo volume. The buttons themselves are not quite as nice as those in the best competitors—Lexus knobs in particular feel like they come off a $50,000 stereo amp—but they’re well damped and generally a grade above commodity-car fare.
Whereas the Escalade’s primary rival, the Lincoln Navigator, has switched over to turbo V-6 power, Cadillac retains a normally-aspirated 6.2-liter V-8 as its standard powertrain. A 3.0-liter diesel is now a no-cost option. (We did not have opportunity to test the diesel here but have sampled it in a Silverado and found it refined and efficient, if a bit lacking in verve.) The small-block is down on power, EPA fuel economy ratings, and towing capacity compared to the Navigator. Nevertheless, we’re glad it’s still here. The V-8’s subdued rumble and smooth-as-glass power delivery perfectly suit this vehicle’s character and confidence.
The overall driving experience is similarly copacetic. Steering is light but precise and well weighted. Optional magnetorheological dampers and an electronically-controlled limited-slip rear diff, two goodies we know and love from Cadillac’s performance cars, do yeoman’s work here keeping the nearly three-ton SUV in check, even under heavy braking and during quick lane changes. The new rear suspension and optional air springs, along with the vehicle’s size, fool you into thinking Southeast Michigan has well-kept roads: bumps register only vaguely, like ripples from a Sea-Doo lapping up against a cruise ship.
You won’t confuse the Escalade for one of Cadillac’s sport sedans or, for that matter, any sedan. Rather, it drives like a rose-tinted version of how an old Cadillac goes down the road: Finger-tip light steering, commanding V-8 power, and magic-carpet ride. Roll down the windows, crank the 36-speaker stereo, and you feel, even in 2020, like the world is yours to conquer. This mega-dose of old-fashioned American optimism is what you’re really paying for with an Escalade, in the same way that BMW owners are paying for a sensation of steely German competence.
There’s irony in the fact that this closest mechanical, dimensional, and spiritual descendent of the sprawling Cadillacs of yore is also the brand’s most successful modern vehicle. Over the last two decades, GM has sent engineers to the Nürburgring and marketers to New York in an effort to build better BMWs. These days, the General is hard at work on an all-electric lineup of better Teslas. The billions in spent development dollars have resulted in some very good cars that have never quite registered with the general public. Driving the Escalade, one can’t help but wonder if all that effort might have been better spent building better Cadillacs.
2021 Cadillac Escalade 2WD Premium
Base price/as-tested price: $77,490/$100,685
Highs: Supple ride, smooth power delivery, undeniable swagger.
Lows: Some sub-par interior finishes, falls short of Navigator’s power and efficiency.
Summary: The Cadillac of Cadillacs.