From its massive, multi-purpose high-definition touchscreen to an impressive all-new rear suspension and ride control, the ’21 Cadillac Escalade makes a strong bid to retain its status as the top seller in the large luxury SUV segment.
Introduced two decades ago, the fifth-generation Escalade now competes with not only the crosstown rival Lincoln Navigator but also entries from Infiniti, Lexus and Land Rover. Horning in are the more-popular large luxury CUVs from marques such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. The competition is stiff.
The walk-up to the new Escalade sets the tone: white perimeter lighting appears, highlighting the mirrors, door handles, front and rear corners. A Cadillac crest floats on the back of touchscreen, appearing to hover over the instrument cluster. Power running boards deploy.
Climb aboard and interior lighting and instruments awaken, welcoming as we settle into the supportive perforated-leather 18-way adjustable, massaging bucket seat.
Grabbing attention is the 38-in. (96.5-cm) curved OLED touchscreen (pictured below), an industry first, featuring three neatly integrated horizontal screens: a 16.9-in. (42.9-cm) infotainment display, a 14.2-in. (36-cm) reconfigurable instrument cluster and a 7.2-in. (18.3-cm) left-hand panel that provides easy access to functions such as the HUD, augmented reality, night vision, mapping and navigation or a simple analog gauge cluster.
Yes, it’s a lot to take in – and we’ve yet to leave the driveway in our $113,565 tester. This is a big vehicle, with a nearly 5.0-in. (127-mm) stretch in wheelbase and an 8.0-in. (203-mm) increase in overall length in the standard model (+4.1 in. [104 mm] wheelbase and +2.7 in. [69 mm] overall length in the ESV).
Our Platinum 4WD ESV, with a base price of $107,290, is at the top of a price walk that starts at $77,490 for a Luxury 2WD non-ESV model ($80,490 for 4WD).
On the road, the big 420-hp, 460-lb.-ft. (624-Nm) 6.2L small-block V-8 (pictured below) is never at a loss for power, with seamless calibration between the 10-speed automatic transmission and the engine operating in multi-cylinder mode, an upgrade from last year’s model.
We continue to be impressed by General Motors’ Dynamic Fuel Management that chooses one to eight cylinders to operate, depending on load and demand.
A 2019 Wards 10 Best Engines and Propulsion Systems honoree in the Chevrolet Silverado, there’s never a hiccup. On-demand response is almost instant whether from a stop, the critical 45-mph (72-km/h) passing power or punching the accelerator at 60 mph (97 km/h).
There’s a roar from the usually muffled engine as it builds to the 5,600-rpm peak, snapping off quick shifts with zero loss of momentum. The 12V stop/start, new for ’21, produces a jiggle on shut down, but restart is whisper quiet and smooth.
Rated at 14/19/16 mpg (16.8-12.4-14.7 L/100 km) city/highway/combined on premium fuel, compared with the ’20 model the now-larger Caddy suffers a 2-mpg (0.87 km/L) decline in highway fuel efficiency. In our test drive, a mix of two-lane roads and interstate, we recorded 13.5 mpg (17.4 L/100 km).
A second powertrain, a 277-hp, 460-lb.-ft. 3.0L turbodiesel, arrives as a no-cost option late this year.
Huge Upgrades in Ride, Handling
A lot has been made of the all-new independent rear suspension, mostly focused on how it opens up cargo room and legroom in the third row. But the result is on par with happened when Ford opted for IRS in the Expedition nearly two decades ago: surprisingly predictable handling for such a monster-sized machine.
Get into the power in a corner or on an entrance ramp and the ’Sclade digs in and holds on, with the fourth-generation magnetic ride control fighting body roll until the tires finally lose a bit of traction and the yaw control kicks in to stabilize everything. It’s quite impressive and builds driver confidence.
Brakes are excellent and the air-spring ride is smooth in most circumstances. We did note some shuddering in the rear suspension on uneven pavement, but overall the stiffer body structure and upgraded steering-column rigidity keep the truck tightly on track.
One caveat: the steering could use a more aggressive return to center. When making tight turns at intersections, for instance, distinct driver action is required to bring steering back on-center.
UX Stunning, Interior Opens Up
Yes, the massive screen is a showstopper. The integration is slick, with stitched leather and satin edging defining each screen area.
During our short test drive we find it easy to quickly pair a phone, use voice commands and figure out the touchscreen options, but the central controller knob and some of the steering-wheel switchgear require additional learning.
The highly touted augmented-reality system’s arrows and cues are helpful but aren’t up to the level of competitors’ systems that call out granular information such as individual street addresses.
That said, we’ve yet to see a better virtual-reality display – the high-resolution street-view image projected onto the instrument cluster often is more vivid than what your eyes see through the windshield. The night vision employs yellow blocks to highlight pedestrians in crowded urban settings (or distant wildlife), making it much more useful at a glance than past iterations.
Arriving late this year is Enhanced Super Cruise, featuring automatic lane-change capability. A $2,500 option on Platinum models (requires an additional $3,650 Driver Assist Package on non-Platinum models), the feature comes with a three-year subscription but costs $15-$25 per month after that. For now, buyers will have to make do with GM’s solid adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping systems.
The Escalade eschews the overstuffed pub feel in favor of a well-appointed interior (pictured below) highlighted by handsome seats that are supportive without being too stiff, comfortable without being too cushy.
The wide horizontal layout of the dash evokes a spacious feel, with the massive center console now housing the shifter (moved from steering column) where it is surrounded by a variety of controls, cupholders and pockets, including an upright wireless phone charger.
Dark wood and satin trim pieces almost hide the air vents arrayed across the midsection of the dashboard. Small splashes of light accent the door panels, backlighting the satin trim. Mood lighting also illuminates the floorboards and doors, changing shade when the ignition is pushed.
Captain’s chairs in the second row are supported by a full array of controls in the center stack, which also contains a deployable set of cupholders. Massive 12.6-in. (32-cm) adjustable screens adorn the seat backs.
The third row is much-improved in terms of legroom, although the bench still rides fairly flat to the floor and is thinly bolstered compared with the front and second row. Access improves via the flip-and-fold second-row, which also slides fore and aft to provide extra legroom. USB-C outlets are on both sides of the third row along with soft-touch armrest and hip pads for outer passengers.
Cargo room is truly mongo, with power seats now folding completely flat, making way for long items and piles of gear. The side panels are carefully designed to avoid any intrusions into the cargo space, which is a huge bonus.
Some interior nicks: The lower door panels and lower B-pillars employ a cheaper-grade plastic. Some door pockets have sharp edges, and none of the pockets are flocked to reduce noise and rattling.
One oddity, there’s some road noise emanating from the rear of the cabin, depending on the road surface. It’s quiet inside, but it’s not a soundproof vault, either.
Finally, Escalade engineers spared no expense on audio, offering AKG technology backing its optional 38-speaker sound system that offers perfect sound imaging on demand. A 19-speaker AKG unit is standard.
Cadillac’s redesigned ’21 Escalade represents a significant leap for GM’s luxury SUV, a vehicle fighting to retain volume in what is now a 16-vehicle segment, including large luxury SUVs and CUVs.
Cadillac sold 35,000 Escalades last year and now brings an all-new top-level competitor that justifies its six-figure sticker.