Over the past couple decades, it’s been agonizing to watch Cadillac grapple with its car lineup in an attempt to out-German the German automakers. It’s as if they were embarrassed about their own remarkably rich and historic heritage, one that stretches back to the industry’s beginnings. What customers truly desire from Cadillac is generous size, commanding performance, exceptional comfort and convenience, wrapped in flamboyant attire that’s unafraid of what it is. In the last decade, only the Cadillac Escalade delivered that true essence of Cadillac.
Perhaps that’s why Cadillac’s most expensive vehicle is second in sales only to the XT5 crossover, even though, until now, the Escalade seemed little more than a GMC with an attitude problem.
Happily, that has changed with the introduction of the redesigned, fifth-generation 2021 Escalade. Masterfully executed and brimming with state-of-the-art technology, it’s the first true Cadillac in decades. And, for the first time, the Escalade’s essence truly makes it a Cadillac.
To call it an intimidating presence is an understatement given its sheer mass and 22-inch wheels. Yet its style is a sublime updating of the Escalade’s familiar form, with styling inspired by the Escala concept car, a sedan originally meant for production. Yes, the flashiness is there, but delivered in a more refined fashion. Yes, Cadillac’s trademark vertical lighting is — thankfully — still evident, and the test vehicle was clad in Cadillac’s new Sport trim, which features black trim across the exterior; Luxury, Premium Luxury and Platinum models wear slightly different details.
But it’s the interior that proves to be the biggest surprise. It’s here where past GM accountants have wielded their knives with overzealous, parsimonious efficiency. But the 2021 Escalade’s cabin is the highest quality Cadillac interior seen in decades, one anchored by a stunning, curved 38-inch OLED display that stretches atop most of the instrument panel, an inspired design choice that avoids the lazy solution offered by other automakers, wherein a rectangular screen is stuck onto the instrument panel with all of the thought of a Post-It note.
The center of the display, a curved, 15.9-inch gauge cluster, offers a number of display options, including augmented reality, which can be overlaid with directions from the navigation system or displaying Night Vision, controls for which can found on the left side of the touchscreen.
Other interior details are similarly impressive: the woven cloth on the doors and lower dashboard, the quality of the leather and stitching, the exquisite single piece of wood that spans the instrument panel, the crisp, rich color of the touchscreens. It feels opulent, something not always true of recent Euro-obsessed Cadillacs. Still, the screen’s controller knob and other switches and buttons are straight from the GM parts bins. For this kind of money, can’t the finishes be upgraded?
One thing that was upgraded was the remarkable audio system, one of the best I’ve experienced in any vehicle. The AKG Studio system comes with 19 speakers, a large enclosed subwoofer, and is powered by a 14-channel amplifier. An optional AKG Studio Reference system ups that to 36 speakers powered by three amplifiers and 28 channels. Its sound is so astonishingly good, it clearly reveals SiruisXM’s pathetic AM-radio-level sound quality. The audio speakers are also used for navigation instructions, with direction instructions emanating from the audio system’s left- or right-hand speakers depending on which way that you’re turning.
It’s all placed in an expansive cabin with 40% more third-row legroom and 68% more cargo space behind it, thanks to the Escalade’s longer wheelbase and longer overall length. And the luxury immersion continues once underway. It’s then that there’s little doubt that you’re driving a Cadillac.
Credit the Escalade’s new platform, which finally incorporates an independent rear suspension and GM’s magnetic ride control suspension, the latter using magnetically sensitive fluid to damped road shocks. When coupled with an optional air suspension with automatic load-leveling, the suspension provides an astonishingly comfortable, soft ride, one that instantaneously reduces ride motions when cornering. Handling is far better than you’d expect, with precise steering and confidence-inspiring braking.
Initially, the Escalade will come with a 6.2-liter V-8 rated at 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque; an optional 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder diesel engine rated at 277 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque will come later. Both engines mate to a ten-speed automatic transmission. Rear-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive is a $3,000 option. Cadillac’s Super Cruise is available, which uses LiDAR map data, GPS, driver attention technology, and a slew of cameras and radar sensors to facilitate hands-free driving and lane changes on highways.
The V-8’s power evokes Cadillacs of yore, with abundant torque to move this Escalade with ample authority. That said, the Escalade doesn’t offer the off-road controls some luxury SUVs offer, but it’s not needed; few will ever venture off-road any farther than running over the bush at the end of the driveway. But there is an available Trailering Integration Package, which offers up to nine camera views, integrated trailer brake controller and a trailering app that offers trailer profiles, tire pressure and temperature monitoring, and an extended side blind zone alert.
It all makes for a vehicle that’s the first true new Cadillac in decades, an indulgent, intelligent return to form that makes for a compellingly oversized contemporary luxury statement.
2021 Cadillac Escalade
Base price: $77,490
Engine: 6.2-liter V8
EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 14/19 mpg
Fuel required: Premium
Length/Width/Height: 21 1/8 1/76.7 inches
Ground clearance: 8-10 inches
Cargo capacity: 25.5-94.2 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 7,500-8,200 pounds
Curb weight: 5,822 pounds