2021 Cadillac Escalade First Drive Review - The Recipe for American Luxury

In the good old days – and by that I mean "before the arrival of the 2021 Escalade" – you bought Cadillac's big, attention-seeking SUV mainly for the fact that it was, well, big and attention-seeking. Times change, though, and while the new Escalade is no smaller or more frugal (Surprise! It's larger and thirstier!) it does finally bring more to the table than curb presence alone.

For the fifth generation, the Escalade puts its truck origins even further in the digital rearview mirror. More comfort, more attention to detail, and more gadgetry are combined with a cabin that has more usable space and is generally a far nicer place to find yourself, regardless of which row you're in. That, at least, is the theory.

The last-generation Escalade was showing its age aesthetically, but it definitely had a brash, almost Art Deco extravagance to it. The 2021 update, meanwhile, is a more modern, dare I say restrained affair. It fits in better with Cadillac's other SUVs like the XT6 and XT5, but I can't help but miss some of the melodrama.

It's still bigger, of course – 17 feet and 8 inches long, 6 feet and 9 inches wide, and 6 and a half feet high – with Cadillac stretching both length and height over the outgoing SUV. The grille is bigger and more shield-like, its dimensions only emphasized by the narrow, squinting headlamps either side. Two exaggerated J-shaped daytime running lights flow deep into the lower fascia.

There are hints of Cadillac's well-received Escala concept, and I only wish that had continued around to the side. The Escalade's crease-lines may be a little crisper, but it's still a little too easy to see the family resemblance to the Chevrolet Tahoe with which it shares a platform. At least, once you get to the back, those iconic vertical light bars are still present and correct. There's no mistaking what you're following when you're in the Caddy's wake.

This is a big SUV. Like, really, really big. When it arrived, I thought "huh, they should really have put it on 21- or 22-inch wheels to fill those arches," only to discover that these are the 22's.

The slab-sided proportions mean you have a reasonable idea where the edges are, though visibility below the belt line is dire. I'm 5 foot 8, and the top of the grille reaches my chest. You could easily lose sight of a toddler altogether. Cadillac sensibly adds its 360-degree camera and parking sensors as standard, along with front pedestrian auto-braking and rear pedestrian alerts, but I definitely felt wary in parking lots and on suburban streets. You have to go swiping through the infotainment system to find the camera option, too: I'd really have preferred a shortcut button.

It's not like the cabin is short of them. Cadillac has said a lot of the effort for this fifth-generation Escalade went into bringing its interior up to scratch, and you can tell. From the reassuring heft of the doors, to the high-quality leather, and of course that expansive dash-spanning display, it's worlds apart from the old model.

The entry-level Luxury trim (from $77,490 plus $1,295 destination) gets a 19-speaker AKG audio system; 4G LTE with WiFi; heating for the steering wheel, and first and second row seats; keyless entry and remote start; a power third row; tri-zone climate control; wireless phone charging; and wireless Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto. Only leatherette seats and no blind spot warnings seem an anomaly on the spec list, something the $84,290 (plus destination) Premium Luxury addresses.

By the time you reach the Sport Platinum of my test car, starting at $104,290 (plus destination), things are positively lavish. A tremendous 36-speaker AKG system; soft-close doors; rear seat entertainment with twin HDMI inputs; a head-up display; panoramic roof; rear camera mirror; ventilation and massage for the first row; adjustable ambient lighting; and extra leather wrapping for the trim along with a suede headliner. Throw in Night Vision, power retractable side steps, a cooler in the front center console, and the heavy-duty trailering package, and you're looking at spending just shy of $110,000.

Some things, Cadillac gets really right. The first and second rows are positively plush, with big, comfortable seats and plenty of space. I wouldn't be surprised if the third row was your third choice for a place to sit, but the longer wheelbase and suspension changes mean enough legroom for adults to avoid having their knees up by their ears this time. That's a welcome improvement.

I like Cadillac's willingness to experiment, too. This Whisper Beige interior combines soft semi-aniline leather with real metal and unique wood appliqués, broken up with bands of technical fabric that feel like linen rather than plastic. It'd be a devil to keep clean but it looks and feels great and, combined with the long glass roof and all that headroom, leaves the interior feeling incredibly spacious. You get 25.5 cu-ft of cargo space with the third row up, or almost 73 cu-ft with it down; drop the second row, and you're looking at 120.9 cu-ft. The 2021 Escalade ESV will get even longer, its extended wheelbase upgrading the maximum cargo space to 142.8 cu-ft.

First thing you see inside is the vast display. Or, more accurately, three displays: the Escalade's dashboard is topped by a trio of curved OLED panels that collectively measure 38-inches. The driver gets one for their instrumentation, plus a small touchscreen to the left that has the trip computer display and settings for the head-up display and gauge layout. A 16.9-inch panel handles infotainment and navigation duties.

Cadillac has sensibly kept physical controls for the core features, like a row of metal toggles for the HVAC, buttons for drive mode and – for those SUVs so equipped – 4x4 settings and air suspension height, and a navigation dial with shortcut buttons in the center console. Or, you can reach out and tap the big center display instead.

The new infotainment UI is a big step forward over existing Cadillac models, though I'm not sure it takes full advantage of the screen real-estate on offer. Load up Apple CarPlay or Android Auto – either wirelessly or with the USB Type-A or -C ports on offer – and the interface floats in a sea of inky OLED black, for instance. There's no easy split-screen view to allow apps to co-exist. It's a shame, as this latest version is so fast and responsive, you really do want to reach out and start swiping.

Headline feature is probably the augmented reality navigation, which comes standard on every 2021 Escalade trim. That beams a view of the road ahead to the driver's display, and then overlays upcoming turns on top of that dynamically. It's not the first such system we've seen but it works well, though I'd probably trade it for more capable voice control. Not only do you have to press a button to trigger Caddy's assistant – unlike the wakeword offered in other luxury cars – it's fairly restrained in its capabilities. You can control the music, navigation, and make calls, but you can't change HVAC settings, open or close windows, or access the SUV's other systems by voice.

It's not the only trim oddity. There's a useful audio system which surreptitiously boosts voices through the cabin so everyone can hear the conversation, but no in-car camera system for monitoring the back seats. Cadillac surrounds the new Escalade with cameras, but only activates them when you select reverse: other cars will show you what's in the adjacent lane when you hit the indicator.

You can assume me similarly frustrated that, at launch, there's no electric or hybrid Escalade either. Cadillac says it has an Ultium-based version of the SUV planned, but that all-electric model is still several years out.

What we get for now is a choice of two engines. Standard is a 6.2-liter V8, with 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque. A Duramax 3.0-liter Turbo Diesel – with 277 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque – is a no-cost option for those wanting a more frugal Escalade. Either way, you get a 10-speed automatic.

The V8 suits the Escalade's temperament, as well it should considering it's the only thing carried over from the outgoing SUV. Peak torque arrives at 4,600 rpm – the turbodiesel kicks that down to just 1,500 rpm, which should make it the tow-champion – though the sense is always one of steam engine-like momentum than sports car agility. The Escalade can go fast, sure, but while the beefy brakes feel up to the task, the kick you need to give them (and the resulting dive) to shed excessive pace dissuades any thoughts of road racing.

Better to cruise, then, and enjoy the uptick in ride comfort. All 2021 Escalade get a new independent rear suspension system for a boost in refinement, but the Platinum makes both Adaptive Air Ride suspension and Magnetic Ride Control standard.

Working in tandem, they grant the big SUV a little fluffy cloud of its own on which to float. Mediocre highway asphalt is smoothed away, the Escalade's standard Tour mode a worthy nod to the truck's long-distance cruising credentials. On even more unruly surfaces, though you'll feel their impact, what's most impressive is how difficult the Escalade is to unsettle. There's no wallow or bobbing; deep ruts don't leave the SUV bouncing like a settling ship.

For off-road purposes, the air suspension can lift the Cadillac higher still. It also automatically drops it down when you open the doors, to make clambering in and out a little more graceful.

Those grand cruises would be even easier with Cadillac's Enhanced Super Cruise, available as an option on all but the base trim. The hands-free, attention-tracking highway assistance isn't cheap – by the time you've added in the adaptive cruise, Performance Package, air suspension, MagneRide, and other options it demands, you're looking at $8,850 on the Premium Luxury; it's $2,500 on the well-spec'd Sport Platinum – but it's undoubtedly the jewel in the automaker's tech crown.

As before, Super Cruise can maintain your distance from the car in front, and keep your position in the center of the lane, using high-definition mapping for 200,000+ miles of divided highway in the US and Canada, all without requiring your hand on the wheel. What makes the head-tracking system "Enhanced" is that it can now automatically change lanes for you: tap the indicator, and the Escalade will look for a safe gap and then smoothly move over, without Super Cruise disengaging during the maneuver. My test car wasn't fitted with they system – it'll be available later on in production, Cadillac says – but I've been for a pre-production ride in it and come away impressed.

On the highway, the EPA says you could get 19 mpg in the all-wheel drive Escalade, compared to 14 mpg in the city and 16 mpg combined. The two-wheel drive version adds a point to each of those figures. My own mixed driving – with little thought given to economy – clocked up just over 14 mpg. Load up on passengers and cargo, hook up a trailer or horse box, and I'd be unsurprised to see single-digits.

Still, nobody ever picked an Escalade with fuel economy in mind. Cadillac's luxury SUV was always the ostentatious choice, but this 2021 model feels like a lot more than just unrepentant American excess. The combination of silky-smooth dynamics and the huge uptick in cabin quality, fit, and finish make for an unexpectedly enjoyable ride, while – a few odd omissions aside – the tech shows Cadillac isn't counting on nameplate and reputation alone to maintain the Escalade's healthy sales.

That was a necessary wake-up, of course. We're not short of big, luxurious three-row SUVs these days, and the German automakers are well in on the action. Cadillac's premium pricing leaves the 2021 Escalade fighting in the midst of some very strong competition.

What stands out is how well it rises to that challenge, and when Super Cruise arrives the Escalade will have something its rivals just can't match, at least for the moment. There's been a frustrating sense in the past couple of years that Cadillac, for all it may have done well, hasn't quite been able to find its identity in this new age of luxury. Turns out, it was working on the answer all along: now, it just needs to bring the new Escalade's recipe to the rest of its range.