2021 Cadillac Escalade's features and tech propel luxury SUV to leadership
If it’s possible to be simultaneously iconic and underappreciated, the Cadillac Escalade qualifies. The 'Slade – a nickname I despise, but hey, how many vehicles are special enough to have nicknames these days? – is the ride of choice for star athletes and celebrities, featured in music videos and prime time soaps like HBO’s “Succession.”
When you arrive in an Escalade, you have arrived.
Despite that, know-it-all auto writers like me tended to dismiss the Escalade when the conversation turns to the best luxury SUVs. A friend who knows the auto industry as well as anybody I know looked at me like I’d spit in the soup bowl a few years ago when I answered an oil exec’s question about their next vehicle with, “Have you driven the new Escalade?”
So, tell me, have you driven the new Escalade? You should. New from the ground up for 2021, Cadillac’s flagship has features, technology and comfort that belong in any conversation about the world’s best big luxury SUVs.
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Buyers decided that a long time ago. The Escalade’s been Cadillac’s most profitable and luxurious vehicle for nearly a generation, achieving $100,000-plus prices and a status that makes it recognizable around the world.
The Escalade’s critics dismissed it because it was based on the same platform as GM’s large pickup trucks, a footnote that means as much to luxury buyers as the fact that their $1,500 Glenroyal Scottish leather briefcase and a McDonald’s hamburger both started out as cattle.
Based on my recent daylong test, the 2021 Escalade’s a match for anything on wheels when it comes to luxury, technology and the ability to make the miles disappear in comfort.
The 2021 Escalade – the fifth generation of the SUV, which debuted as a 1999 model –is bigger than the outgoing model, with a new platform that increases cargo space and comfort for passengers in the third row of seats. The wheelbase of the "short" model grew 4.9 inches, to 120.9. The bigger Escalade ESV’s wheelbase grew 4.1 inches to 134.1. The vehicles' overall lengths are 211 inches and 226.9 inches, respectively. The growth was in response to new models of the Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition, key competitors along with the smaller BMW X7, Lexus LX 570 and Mercedes GLS, all of which offer three rows of seats.
The other big chassis change was the adoption of an independent rear suspension, moving the Escalade even farther from its pickup corporate cousins. The IRS delivers a smooth ride and improves rear seat comfort and cargo space because it allows for a lower floor, which creates a more natural seating position in the third row.
The Escalade has tons of passenger space, enough to maintain a CDC-approved 6 feet of social distance between front- and rear-seat occupants. Rear legroom increases as much as 10 inches, depending on how far back or forward you slide the second-row seats.
The second-row seats – captains chairs standard, a bench optional – also provide plenty of space, and a standard twin 12.6-inch touch screen entertainment system in the top-of-the-line Platinum model I tested. Mounted to the back of the front seats, the screens have USB and HDMI inputs for games and video. Rear occupants can also scout the route ahead for food, points of interest, etc., and ask the driver to divert for them. The navigation and audio systems are integrated to provide other features including mic and speakers for easy conversation from front seat to rear, and augmented reality navigation.
The exterior styling is familiar. The body appears a bit smoother overall, but the biggest change is narrow horizontal headlights. Cadillac’s signature vertical running lights and taillights remain.
Augmented reality and hands-free driving
Augmented reality makes the world your video game, imposing directions for the correct lane, upcoming turns and even dropping map pins on your destination on video of the street ahead that’s projected into the instrument cluster. You can also have a traditional map view projected there, or use arrows in a head-up display on the windshield. The OLED display for instruments, nav, AR and night vision is crystal clear. As is the OLED touchscreen in the center stack that controls audio, nav, phone and more. The Escalade has conventional buttons for audio and climate, plus good voice recognition and a rotary controller in the center console, enough choices that everybody should be able to use their preferred method to control features.
Based on my brief drive, I expect augmented reality navigation to be useful without distracting the driver.
An even briefer ride with an engineer demonstrating updates to Cadillac’s Super Cruise system for hands-free driving on a limited-access road was equally persuasive.
I look forward to getting to know both systems better in a longer drive that tests them fully.
My Escalade had a 420-hp 6.2L V8, 10-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. There was plenty of power. The ride was quiet and smooth, thanks to a suspension that included adaptive suspension and the latest Magnetic Ride adaptive shocks.
The EPA rates the Escalade I tested at 14 mpg in the city, 19 on the highway and 16 combined. The key combined figure trails the Lincoln Navigator but beats the Lexus LX 570 and Mercedes GLS 580. The Escalade, Lexus and Mercedes were all tested with premium fuel, while the Navigator was certified with less expensive regular.
Prices for the 2021 Escalade start at $76,195 for a rear-wheel-drive model with a 6.2L V8 engine that produces 420 hp and 460 pound-feet of torque. Four-wheel drive adds $3,000. A 10-speed automatic transmission is standard on all Escalades. The long-wheelbase Escalade ESV costs $3,000 more than the regular wheelbase model.
A 3.0L straight-six diesel that produces 277 hp and 470 pound-feet of torque will be available later this year. Its price isn’t available yet.
Obviously, Escalades are expensive, but those prices are competitive with other vehicles in its segment. The Escalade’s comfort and advanced features make it a solid value.
Previous Escalades generally had excellent engineering, but frequently disappointing interior materials. The look and feel simply wasn’t up to what Lincoln and Mercedes offer. The new model addresses that with a choice of seven different wood trims, real aluminum trim, leather-wrapped instrument panel and doors and tufted-leather seats. The trio of OLED screens reaching 38 inches from the left edge of the instrument panel to the middle of the vehicle add to the impression with vibrant colors, sharp details and responsive touch controls.
There’s also plenty of storage. The wireless charging bin for phones will be too small to fit iPhone Maxes and the like, however. It was tight enough to damage a virtually indestructible Bodyguardz case on my iPhone 11. A standard lay-flat charging pad would be more accommodating and would have room for larger devices. There’s certainly room for one.
The Escalade AWD Platinum I tested stickered at $109,270. All prices exclude destination charges.
Selected standard features on 2021 Cadillac Escalade Platinum:
- 22-inch wheels
- Air ride adaptive suspension
- Electronic limited slip differential
- Magnetic Ride Control
- 16.9-inch OLED infotainment touch screen
- 14.2-inch OLED instrument cluster display
- 7.2-inch OLED control panel
- AKG Studio Reference 36-speaker audio system
- Wireless charging
- Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
- Rear seat entertainment system with dual 12.6-inch touch screens
- Soft-close doors
- Rear camera mirror
- Head-up display
- Panoramic power sunroof
- Remote start
- Heated steering wheel
- Heated and ventilated front seats
- Memory for driver settings
- 16-way power front seats with massage
- Semi-aniline leather seats
- Leather wrapped interior
- Suede headliner
- Three-zone climate control
- "Conversation enhancement" audio for third row
- Hands free power tailgate
2021 Cadillac Escalade at a glance
Base price: $76,195
As tested: $109,270 (excluding destination charges)
All-wheel-drive seven or eight-seat luxury SUV
On sale fourth quarter 2020
Engine: 6.2L V8 with cylinder deactivation
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Power: 430 hp @ 5,600 rpm; 460 pound-feet of torque @ 4,100 rpm
Estimated EPA fuel economy: 14 mpg city/ 19 highway/16 combined.
Wheelbase: 120.9 inches
Length: 211 inches
Width: 81 inches
Height: 76.6 inches
Curb weight: 5,822 pounds
Assembled in Arlington, Texas