2021 Cadillac Escalade First Drive Review: Big, Baller

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Cadillac’s Escalade SUV is a king-sized luxury luminary, and the debut of an all-new version goes beyond simple car introduction to full-scale cultural event. Entering its fifth generation, what was once a rebadged GMC Yukon is now a distinctively styled flagship, albeit one that still shares its basic mechanicals with that GMC as well as the Chevy Tahoe. But General Motors has worked hard to ensure its latest batch of full-size SUV triplets are fraternal rather than identical, an effort most apparent inside the Escalade’s decadent cabin.

The New Escalade’s Interior Is Seriously Impressive

We’ll get to the rest of the 2021 Escalade in a minute, but this rig really is all about its interior, a tech- and feature-dense cocoon that finally befits a six-figure luxury SUV—at least in the top-spec Premium Luxury Platinum model we tested. It is seriously nice in there.

The star of the show is the massive OLED screen—all 38.0 inches of it—that’s subdivided into three distinct sections ahead of the driver. There’s the 7.2-inch capacitive menu panel to the left of the steering wheel, the 14.2-inch display that serves as the instrument cluster, and the incredible 16.9-inch screen perched atop the center stack. All are contained within one arcing frame with an illuminated crystal Cadillac emblem on its rear face. The clever packaging, as well as the tonally warm strips of wood placed near the screens, help the Escalade avoid the cold, clinical feel of other models featuring vast amounts of digital real estate. We’re looking at you, Mercedes.

The entire infotainment system is responsive, intuitive, and easy to operate. Features such as augmented-reality navigation in the instrument cluster, smartphone-like touch controls that are properly responsive, high-res night vision that marks pedestrians, and a massive amount of personal customization are at minimum state of the art in luxury-car gadgetry and at most really friggin’ cool. A rotary knob on the center console can also be used to control the main screen, a welcome touch for those who prefer physical switchgear. The imagery on the curved OLED displays—which are about as thick as a sheet of paper and twice as pixel-dense as a 4K television—is beautifully vibrant and clear.

Those descriptors apply, too, to the AKG audio systems. Our test Escalade—Testalade?—had the 36-speaker, 28-channel Studio Reference system, and everything from jazz to pop to indie rock to classical sounded deep and rich. (A 19-speaker, 14-channel AKG Studio setup is standard.) A 360-degree sound stage and custom programming allows individual instruments and elements to clearly occupy a space inside the vehicle, whether that’s to the front, sides, or rear. A similar function also allows navigation instructions to be given from the direction of the turn ahead; need to make a right, and you’ll hear it from the right side of the vehicle.

As in GM’s other full-size SUVs, the Escalade offers a lot more interior space thanks to stretches in overall length and wheelbase, as well as a move to an independent rear suspension. There’s a 68 percent increase in cargo space behind the third row—you can now fit more than a couple of pool noodles—and 41 percent more legroom in the way-back, and Cadillac claims more cargo space in any seat up or down configurations than any other vehicle in its class. Additional space is of course available in the long-wheelbase ESV version, which costs $3,000 more than an otherwise identical standard model.

The 2021 Cadillac Escalade Brandy interior with Very Dark Atmosphere accents and full leather seats with faceted quilting.

We can’t emphasize enough what an incredible job Cadillac has done with the interior design and quality. Buyers can variously choose from nine interior colorways, four seat stitch patterns, and seven different (real) woods, and the material selection and the way in which they’re combined is tasteful and elegant—a huge leap forward from the riot of joints and seams in Cadillac’s last-generation models.

In the Platinum, leather wraps nearly everything that isn’t brightwork, a screen, or a switch, and the overall aesthetic even manages to elevate some of the parts-bin pieces shared with lesser GM vehicles. Shiny, hard plastics are used sparingly and thankfully in places you’ll rarely notice them, while careful detailing (like perforations that echo in the upholstery, speaker grilles, and dashtop) prove Cadillac’s sweating the small stuff. All good news for a luxury SUV that costs $109,965 as equipped, as was the fact it was screwed together much better than the $83,720 2021 GMC Yukon Denali we recently reviewed.

The Best-Driving Escalade Ever

The Escalade’s mighty 6.2-liter V-8 packs 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft, all delivered in the effortless manner common to the great Cadillacs of the past, those huge, whooshing couches that surfed around town on a wave of power and torque.

But this Caddy is no couch, in that the 2021 Escalade drives with newfound refinement and confidence. Credit the Platinum’s standard air springs and Magnetic Ride Control, which admirably corral body motions and are better tuned than in the aforementioned Denali. There’s still some of the GMC’s wheel patter over high-frequency imperfections, and larger bumps will send some shudders to occupants—the Escalade doesn’t quite reach Audi or Mercedes-level ride quality. But it all comes well within the acceptable range for a body-on-frame luxury SUV that can tow up to 8,200 pounds with the gas V-8. (A diesel engine will soon be an option.)

The steering is nicely weighted and quite accurate, important for parking a vehicle stretching 17 and a half feet from stem to stern, but it also means few adjustments are needed to track straight on the freeway. The brakes are strong and confidence-inspiring, with linear pedal travel, and the standard 10-speed automatic transmission is so invisible you’d think the gears were made of sateen-covered velvet. The Escalade has a stately comportment suiting its status as the brand’s flagship.

The 2021 Escalade seems to indicate Cadillac is once again capable of delivering a decadent, class-competitive luxury vehicle. The brand has for years said it wants to again be known as the Standard of the World, and if this new SUV is any indication, it’s closer to doing so than it has been in a very long time.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium Highlights

  • Finally a proper world-class interior
  • Much improved driving dynamics
  • Still a hugely capable SUV with 8,200-pound max tow rating
  • More cargo and interior space
  • Great standard and greater optional audio systems
Surround Vision is a standard feature that employs four exterior cameras to provide a 2-megapixel bird’s eye view of the scene around the vehicle.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium Luxury Platinum Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $104,290/$109,965(base/as tested)
ENGINE 6.2L OHV 16-valve V-8/420 hp, 460 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-8-passenger, front-engine, 2WD or 4WD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 14-15/19-20 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 211.0 x 81.0 x 76.6 in
WHEELBASE 120.9 in
WEIGHT 5,635-5,822 lb
0-60 MPH 6.8 sec (est)



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