2021 Cadillac Escalade first drive review: American swagger


This is the Cadillac we’ve been waiting for. The¬†Escalade has been transformed from merely ordinary into something truly outstanding. Sure, the brand’s recent crop of products has been OK, including the engaging CT4-V sedan and handsome XT6 crossover, but these vehicles still don’t quite hit the mark, let down by questionable powertrains and less-than-stellar interiors. But none of this applies to the new Escalade. No, it’s not tuned to handle like a sport sedan, but it still drives well for something so large. This imposing SUV is extremely luxurious, yet it isn’t the least but stuffy or old-fashioned. It offers segment-leading technology that avoids being intimidating or difficult to use. In short, Cadillac has at long last delivered a true luxury contender. No if, ands or buts, this is a flagship model to be proud of.

Caddy’s caveat-free machine has the goods to square off with rivals from Germany, Japan and America to compete on equal terms, though you may not realize it at first glance. The new Escalade’s exterior is certainly recognizable — and handsome — but overall, it’s fairly sedate and unexpectedly demure, even in supersized ESV form, the model seen here. Inside, though, it’s a completely different story.

It seems General Motors’ designers must’ve blown most of their budget creating this Cadillac’s inner sanctum. Showing how much thought the company has put into this vehicle, it’s available in something like nine different interior trim combinations, with unique colors, wood finishes and leather perforation patterns depending on the model. Platinum versions, which sit at the pinnacle of the Escalade range, feature buttery-soft semi-aniline cowhides in all three rows and loads of standard equipment. Quality is a high point, too. Poke at various trim pieces or bezels and nothing feels cheap or frail, everything is nicely finished and solidly built. About the only thing I don’t like is the silly electronic shifter, which looks like an old, brick-style cell phone. Also, it remains to be seen how premium lower-trim interiors will be, but if this top-shelf model is any indication, they should be pretty majestic, too.

The 2021 Escalade’s comportment is praiseworthy. Like its sister SUVs from Chevrolet and GMC, the addition of an independent rear suspension has, among other things, dramatically improved ride comfort in the second and third rows of seats. Adult passengers should have little to complain about, even if they’re sitting in steerage.

Chances are, the first thing you’ll notice about the 2021 Cadillac Escalade’s cockpit won’t be the stitching or door handles, it’s the screens. Sprawling across the dashboard are three individual OLED panels which measure more than 38 inches across. Subtly curved and beautifully integrated into the overall design rather than tacked-on like an afterthought, these seemingly overlapping displays provide perfect blacks, low glare and, according to Cadillac, the largest color range in the automotive business. Seriously, this unprecedented amount of screen real estate makes for super impressive standard equipment, and these displays are far from just eye candy. Like GM’s other recent infotainment systems, the one in this vehicle is superb, booting up quickly, responding immediately to inputs and never stuttering or lagging. Pinch-to-zoom on the navigation map, for instance, is as responsive as the smartphone in your pocket or purse. For added convenience, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as is a wireless device charging pocket on the center console.

Those OLED screens… are amazing!

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Further satiating today’s tech-obsessed motorists, the new Escalade offers plenty of high-end goodies. Augmented-reality navigation is perhaps the coolest and it’s a feature that’s standard across the model range. When a route is active, the system overlays directional arrows on top of a video feed of where you’re driving, which is then piped to the center screen from a forward-facing camera. The closer you get to a turn, the larger and more animated the directional arrows get, making it nearly impossible to miss a navigational cue. This Cadillac can also be had with night vision. The latter isn’t particularly useful in most situations, but it can be handy for detecting animals or pedestrians in low-speed areas. Making this beast of an SUV just a little easier to park, the standard 360-degree camera system offers a dizzying array of different angles, which you can easily cycle through with just a few taps of your finger. The new Escalade can also be had with an awesome AKG sound system that makes even highly compressed music, like satellite radio, come alive around you, though it’d better be good considering it has no fewer than 36 speakers.

But what about Super Cruise, GM’s groundbreaking hands-free driving aid? Well, a newly enhanced version that can automatically change lanes will be offered on the Escalade before year’s end. Unfortunately, the model I’m testing here is not fitted with this headlining feature, though it does have regular adaptive cruise control, which is smoother and more responsive than some competing systems.

Matching its primo interior, this Cadillac is also supremely quiet and smooth, even when ripping down the highway. On rare occasions, you can get a tiny, tiny bit of body-on-frame jiggle, but that’s really only on horrifying road surfaces. This vehicle’s steering is secure and its body remains firmly planted when navigating corners at speed. The available lane-keeping system seems ineffective, seemingly doing little to keep the Escalade on the straight and narrow.

Augmented-reality navigation takes advantage of the Escalade’s forward-facing camera.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Wind, tire and powertrain noise are all quieter than gossip behind your back. Matching that refinement, this vehicle’s ride quality is superb, too. Top-shelf Platinum models come with magnetic dampers and adaptive air suspension, the fanciest of three different setups offered on the Escalade. This combo delivers a ride that is both supple and controlled, far better than the Yukon Denali I tested recently, which, strangely enough, had the same suspension arrangement.

All of GM’s new, full-size SUVs are huge, but the extended-length models like the Chevy Suburban and this Escalade ESV are positively gargantuan. While turning corners, I’m constantly looking to make sure I don’t cut things too close or clip any wayward pedestrians. If you’re not careful, you could practically take out a whole elementary-school class and not even realize it. Of course, parking can be a chore, too, aggravated by the Cadillac’s tall hood and limited rearward visibility.

This luxury barge is hauled around by a smooth and snarly 6.2-liter small-block V8 that delivers 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. It makes this Caddy plenty potent, although I still slightly prefer how the Lincoln Navigator’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 performs, slightly. The latter has a huge load of torque right in the middle of its operating range, whereas this naturally aspirated V8 needs to rev a bit to really get going. Rectifying this, before the year is out, a 3.0-liter diesel inline-six will be available in the Escalade, delivering 460 lb-ft of twist from an estimated 1,500 rpm.

Who doesn’t love a good V8 engine? A diesel will also be available in this Cadillac before the year is done.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

No matter the engine, a 10-speed automatic transmission is standard fare and it’s very nicely calibrated. In testing, I have not experienced any shift harshness, annoying lags or other bad behavior, plus it’s responsive to drop gears when your right foot calls for a bit of extra speed. With four-wheel drive, the Escalade ESV stickers at 14 miles per gallon city, 19 highway and 16 mpg combined. In mixed driving, I’ve been averaging round 17.7, which isn’t that great, but at least it’s better than the EPA combined rating.

When it’s time to slow things down, the Escalade’s brake pedal is a bit rubbery, but it’s easy to modulate and firm enough that it feels like you have generous stopping power in reserve. That’s important for a vehicle practically as heavy as the crawler that used to move the Space Shuttle around. Indeed, a four-wheel-drive Escalade ESV is no featherweight, clocking in at one full shopping bag shy of 6,000 pounds. Even so, this vehicle is still quite capable. My review unit’s maximum tow rating figures to be a stout 7,900 pounds, and when it comes to cargo hauling, the ESV is hard to beat. There’s 42.9 cubic feet of room in the way-back, but fold both the second- and third-row seats down and that figure balloons to 126.6 cubes, far more than you get in a Mercedes-Benz GLS or BMW X7; it’s even a good bit more generous than what the extended-length Navigator L provides, which maxes out at 120.2 cubic feet.

It’s kind of like a big ol’ box on wheels.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

The 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV’s base price is suitably rich, kicking off at about $80,500 delivered. The regular-length model is $3,000 cheaper. As you can guess, in Sport Platinum trim with four-wheel drive, this unit is far, far pricier. Including about six grand in options and $1,295 for destination fees, my tester rings up for $112,965. A princely sum, indeed.

But you know something? I’m not even mad about that. Thanks to its driving refinement, abundant yet easy-to-use tech and opulent interior, this price tag seems totally fair. The 2021 Escalade is the nicest, most thoughtfully crafted Cadillac to come along in years. It is truly a flagship-worthy vehicle.


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