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2021 Cadillac Escalade Test Drive Review
With the redesigned 2021 Cadillac Escalade, the automaker addresses criticism leveled at the previous version of the full-size luxury SUV while advancing the model in terms of design, quality, and technology.
Youthful aspiration often translates into adult acquisition. When the first Cadillac Escalade went on sale and quickly became an American popular culture icon, the oldest Millennials were just getting their driver’s licenses, and the youngest weren’t born yet. Today, this “digital native” generation raised on rap music is turning 40, moving to the suburbs, and raising families. Plus, it is poised to inherit a reported $68 trillion from Baby Boomers by 2030, the largest wealth transfer in modern history. Despite suffering through the Great Recession and now a global pandemic, will Millennials spend their passed-down windfalls on a six-figure full-size SUV that gets 16 mpg? Some will, and in so doing, they’ll get a mighty impressive and technologically sophisticated, fifth-generation Cadillac on 22s.
Look and Feel
Cadillac has shown numerous impressive concept vehicles in recent years, each suggesting design cues that would ultimately become a reality. The most recent was the Escala, and its influence is evident in the face of the redesigned 2021 Cadillac Escalade.
From there back, however, the new 2021 Escalade doesn’t rewrite any styling playbooks. It sits on standard 22-inch wheels for the first time in its history, displays crisp creases on its flanks, and offers a familiar look at the rear, with tall, vertical, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) taillights stretching up and fading into the roof.
You can buy one for as little as $76,195, a black-on-black example with leatherette upholstery, the standard-length wheelbase, and rear-wheel drive (RWD). It’s decently equipped, too, but offers little in the way of upgrades. Most buyers will want the shiny Premium Luxury ($82,995) or blacked-out Sport ($85,995) trims. For maximum luxury, both are available with a Platinum trim upgrade ($99,995). Add $3,000 to each if you want the extended-length Escalade ESV and its more substantial cargo space.
Our test vehicle had Premium Luxury trim with four-wheel drive (FWD), Shadow Metallic paint, a 36-speaker AKG Reference premium sound system, a rear-seat entertainment system, power-retractable side steps with ground lighting, a Driver Assist Tech Package, and a Performance Package. All in, including the $1,295 destination charge to ship it from the Arlington, Texas factory, our Escalade wore a $102,310 sticker price.
Is this SUV worth that kind of money? Only you can answer that question. From a critic’s perspective, the new Escalade is a cut above the Chevrolet Tahoe High Country and GMC Yukon Denali with which it shares its platform and powertrains. It also does a far better job of justifying its price premium than the previous Escalade ever did. With no more than a glance inside the cabin, that much is clear.
Though Luxury trim comes only with black leatherette and a single wood trim choice, all other versions of the Escalade provide standard leather and various perforation and quilting patterns. Platinum models offer semi-aniline premium leather, leather-wrapped interior panels, and a simulated suede headliner. No fewer than seven different wood trims are also available.
Our Premium Luxury test vehicle had Parchment leather over a Jet Black base, with mini-chevron perforations and Tamo Ash wood. It looked terrific, but the test vehicle’s light-colored carpets and mats were already soiling with less than 1,000 miles on the odometer. Also, given the six-figure price tag, the test SUV’s plastic lower dashboard and door panels are hard to forgive. Cadillac coats them to reduce gloss and eliminate hollowness, but they should have soft padding at this price.
In the past, it has been said there is no replacement for displacement. But with the all-new 2021 Cadillac Escalade, that’s not true. A 3.0-liter turbo-diesel inline six-cylinder engine is a no-cost option that replaces the standard 6.2-liter V8 engine.
Most people are likely to stick with the V8 because of the way it sounds and performs. Cadillac even offers a Performance Upgrade Package for it, complete with a performance air intake kit and a cat-back performance exhaust system that undoubtedly adds some menace to the V8’s muscle. And with 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque on tap, delivered to the rear or all four wheels through a 10-speed automatic transmission, the hefty Escalade has no trouble in the acceleration department.
The V8 employs direct fuel injection and an automatic engine stop/start system to improve fuel economy. It also has Dynamic Fuel Management technology that allows the engine to operate on as few as two cylinders, depending on the situation. According to the EPA, our 4WD test vehicle should’ve returned 16 mpg in combined driving. We averaged 15.9 mpg on a 140-mile test loop.
If you’re interested in the turbo-diesel, know that it makes 277 horsepower but the same amount of torque as the V8. And that torque is available sooner in the engine’s rev range. Since torque is responsible for what you feel from behind the wheel when you’re accelerating, it should prove satisfying when you step on the go pedal. Official fuel economy estimates are not final for the Escalade diesel, but this same engine provides up to 27 mpg in combined driving in the Chevy Silverado.
As game-changing as the turbo-diesel could be, what’s more impressive is the Escalade’s improved ride and handling qualities. Starting with a new independent rear suspension design that replaces the previous beam-axle setup, the ride is smoother and better controlled, helping to take some of the sting out of the now-standard 22-inch wheels and tires.
However, what really makes a difference is the next-generation Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) 4.0 adaptive dampers and the new 4-Corner Air Ride air suspension. Together, they effectively quell all unwanted ride and body motions. Bounce, jounce, and roll are nearly non-existent, especially if you switch from Tour to Sport driving mode. Better yet, the driver and passengers don’t suffer the head toss that typically plagues heavy and tall SUVs.
Our driving route included several back roads winding across the mountains between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and the Escalade Premium Luxury equipped with MRC and 4-Corner Air Ride did a remarkable job of hustling the hulking SUV over hill and down dale. In the city, crumbling pavement was evident but not bothersome, and though the Escalade is enormous, it is also remarkably maneuverable. If there is anything to criticize here, it’s a brake pedal that could offer improved modulation.
The Escalade is most at home on freeways. With the V8 operating in its most efficient range, it effortlessly glides along, proving itself better isolated from the engine, road, and wind noise than the GMC Yukon Denali. And when the next-generation version of Cadillac Super Cruise becomes available later in the model year, it will be even more appealing as a long-distance cruiser.
Form and Function
As impressive as the Escalade’s improved ride and handling qualities are, the bigger story is the larger and more useful cabin. The new independent rear suspension design allowed designers and engineers to lower the SUV’s floor, and the longer wheelbase and overall vehicle length contribute to additional interior volume. The result is significant gains in passenger room and comfort, as well as cargo capacity.
Front-seat occupants won’t notice much difference between the old Escalade and the new one, aside from the overall design, quality, and high-tech controls. Heated seats are standard, ventilated seats come in all but standard Luxury trim, and Platinum trim adds massaging seats. Comfort is easy to come by, thanks to standard 12-way and available 16-way power-adjustable front chairs.
Heated second-row captain’s chairs are standard, with a three-person bench seat available at no extra cost. These seating locations slide forward and back, and the bottom cushion supplies more generous leg support than in the old Escalade, improving comfort. Triple-zone automatic climate control is standard.
Power-release second-row seats tumble forward to create improved access to the Escalade’s third-row seat. Here, the changes are nothing short of amazing. Adults can fit into the third-row seat now. And in comfort. The lower cabin floor and longer wheelbase pay considerable dividends in legroom and leg support, making the new Escalade a far more useful tool for carrying passengers.
The benefits extend to cargo capacity, too. Behind the third-row seat, the Escalade now supplies 25.5 cubic feet of cargo space. Buttons in the cargo area will quickly power-fold the third-row seats, but you need to make sure the second-row chairs are not in their rearmost position in their tracks. Otherwise, the third-row seats won’t fold flat.
Once you’ve folded the third-row seats down, the Escalade is ready to accommodate 63 cubic feet of cargo. If you need more than that, flatten the second-row seats to maximize cargo capacity at 109.1 cubic feet of volume.
Those figures apply to the standard-length Escalade. If you need even more room, choose the extended-length Escalade ESV. With this model, your extra three grand in purchase price provides 42.9, 81.5, and 126.6 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the third, second, and first rows of seats, respectively.
Cadillac equips the new Escalade with a long list of high-tech features, starting with an industry-leading implementation of OLED instrumentation and infotainment screens housed in a curved-glass display measuring 38 inches across. Cadillac says it offers greater pixel density than a 4K television, with each pixel programmed for deep, true blacks and a seemingly infinite range of color. The application of a unique film on the surface of the glass successfully resists glare.
If that sounds daunting in terms of complexity, rest assured that if you’re comfortable with a modern smartphone, you’ll have no trouble using the Escalade’s futuristic displays. There are, however, a handful of user experience improvements Cadillac could make.
For example, the 14.2-inch instrumentation screen offers a choice between Gauge, Augmented Reality (AR) Camera, and Map displays. To change between them, you must use the center 16.9-inch touch-sensing infotainment screen and dive three menus in to switch between them. When you’re driving, this is less than ideal. Cadillac should offer a quickly accessible way to switch between these three views.
Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and I had no trouble pairing my iPhone XS and streaming music via Pandora or making and receiving phone calls. But, for some reason, Apple CarPlay would not work for me, and after checking my phone settings (as suggested by the Escalade), it wasn’t clear why.
The Escalade’s voice recognition technology was unable to interpret two of my standard voice prompt tests accurately. While driving between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, I asked for directions to the nearest hospital. The response, twice in a row, was to a veterinarian in Chula Vista on the Mexican border. When I asked for directions to a favorite locally-owned restaurant on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, the Escalade interpreted my request as needing directions to Oaks Court in Boulevard, California. Furthermore, drivers cannot change climate system settings using voice commands, an expectation in a new luxury SUV with this technology level.
Unlike in other Cadillacs, in which the physical controls on the center console are mostly redundant and easy to ignore, in the Escalade, they’re a necessity. That’s because they’re often preferable to use instead of the touchscreen, steering wheel controls, or voice controls.
Despite these observations, the Escalade’s technology is mighty impressive. The AR navigation is standard and super-imposes directional turn arrows onto the camera view shown on the instrumentation. They grow larger the closer you get to your upcoming turn, and when you arrive at your destination, a Google Street View image of the house or building shows on the infotainment screen.
A 19-speaker AKG premium sound system is standard, and it issues navigation voice instructions from the side of the SUV corresponding to the direction in which you’ll turn next. The voice instructions increase in volume the closer you get to the turn, similar to how the AR arrows grow in size. Microphones placed in all three rows of seats amplify conversation through the speakers, and the driver can turn this system on or off as is desirable.
A 36-speaker AKG Reference sound system, complete with stainless steel speaker grilles, is optional. The test vehicle had the AKG Reference components, and they’re sensational. This high-end audio system also offers separate volume control for the front and rear passengers.
A full-color head-up display is standard for all but the Luxury trim level. It remains visible when the driver is wearing polarized sunglasses and provides a wealth of data related to speed, the audio and navigation systems, and a paired smartphone.
Cadillac Escalade safety starts with the SUV’s sheer size. At a minimum, this SUV weighs 5,635 pounds, which means it will crush most other vehicles into which it collides.
Good thing Cadillac equips every 2021 Escalade with forward collision warning, automatic forward emergency braking at speeds below 50 mph, and front and rear pedestrian detection. A Safety Alert Seat buzzes the driver’s bottom when any of these features detects a potential hazard.
Cadillac also equips all Escalades with Teen Driver parental report card technology, front and rear parking assist sensors, a surround-view camera system, and a rear-seat reminder designed to prevent parents from accidentally leaving a child in the SUV. With a paid subscription to OnStar and Cadillac Connected Services, the Escalade has automatic crash notification, an SOS emergency calling function, and more.
Premium Luxury and Sport trim raise the safety ante with standard blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, lane-departure warning, and lane-keeping assistance systems. A standard rear camera mirror provides an unobstructed view of what’s behind the Escalade. To this, an optional Driver Assist Tech Package adds higher-speed forward emergency braking, rear emergency braking, automatic seatbelt tightening, and adaptive cruise control to the mix.
Our Premium Luxury test vehicle had this upgraded package, and all of these advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) worked smoothly and in a refined manner. During the 140-mile test drive, however, there were a couple of false alarms.
First, while driving up a small hill toward a set of railroad tracks, the Escalade’s forward-collision warning system issued an alert when no threat existed. It did not engage the brakes, apparently realizing its mistake before doing so.
Second, and more concerning, a false braking event did occur while driving on Southern California’s 101 freeway up the Conejo Grade between Camarillo and Thousand Oaks. On this uphill stretch, five lanes of traffic ascend the side of a mountain. Semi-trucks stick to the far right lane, flashers on, trudging up the grade at a slow pace. People who don’t know how to drive clog up the far left lane, in part because they forget that when driving up a hill, they need to push harder on the accelerator pedal to maintain their speed. This situation makes the three middle lanes the faster-flowing ones.
We were in the lane adjacent to the truck lane, with the adaptive cruise control engaged. As the Escalade entered a bend in the freeway, it identified a slow-moving semi as an obstacle, issuing a collision warning and immediately applying the brakes, dropping the Cadillac’s speed by 15 mph in a matter of seconds before realizing its mistake and resuming travel. Fortunately, nobody was behind the Escalade when the SUV’s technology committed this error.
Later in the model year, Cadillac will offer its next-generation Super Cruise technology for the Escalade. A Level 2+ system, Super Cruise provides hands-free, autonomous driving on about 200,000 miles of limited-access highways across the U.S. Improvements to Super Cruise include smoother and more accurate operation as well as an automated lane-change function when the driver uses the turn signal to execute the move. As is true of any Level 2 ADAS, drivers must pay attention and be ready to take control at any time.
There are two ways to think about a Cadillac Escalade when it comes to cost-effectiveness.
Keeping in mind that full-size SUVs are a logical choice only if you need to tow or haul heavy loads, they’re not a cost-effective form of transportation if those tasks are not on your family’s “To Do” list. And even if you plan to use one for these purposes, paying thousands more for a luxury-branded model doesn’t help the cost-effectiveness equation to pencil.
Compared to other full-size luxury SUVs, the new 2021 Cadillac Escalade makes a stronger case for itself. Still, its base price is higher than every competitor except for the Land Rover Range Rover. If measuring value in terms of sheer size, though, the Cadillac ESV has but one direct rival, and that’s the Lincoln Navigator L, which carries a base price that’s $3,800 more than the Caddy.
Regardless of length or trim level, the Escalade’s natural nemesis is the Lincoln Navigator. Lincoln offers a compelling package of ownership perks, while Cadillac supplies a turbo-diesel engine at no additional cost. The Navigator can tow more trailer weight, while the Escalade can hold more cargo. The Lincoln has an old-school mid-century modern design aesthetic, while the Cadillac is more aggressive and futuristic.
Previously, concrete reasons existed for selecting the Navigator over the Escalade. Now that Cadillac has resolved its full-size SUV’s comfort, cargo, technological, and dynamic shortcomings, Lincoln’s clear advantages are gone. Choosing one or the other now comes down to nothing more than personal preference.
And there are lots of reasons to personally prefer the Cadillac, especially if you’re a newly flush-with-cash, digital-native Millennial needing to haul a brood and tow a boat or trailer.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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