2021 Cadillac Escalade first drive review: American swagger

This is the Cadillac we have been waiting for. L’Escalade has been transformed from just ordinary into something truly exceptional. Sure, the brand’s recent crop of products has gone well, including the addictive CT4-V sedan and nice XT6 crossover, but these vehicles still don’t quite hit home, disappointed by questionable thrusters and less than stellar interiors. But none of this applies to the new Escalade. No, it’s not tuned to handle like a sports sedan, but it still drives well for something this big. This imposing SUV is extremely luxurious, but it’s not the slightest but stuffy or old-fashioned. It offers segment-leading technology that avoids being intimidating or difficult to use. In short, Cadillac has finally delivered a true luxury competitor. No ifs, and no buts, this is a top model to be proud of.

Caddy’s no-warning car has what it takes to compete with rivals from Germany, Japan and America to compete on equal terms, although you may not realize it at first glance. The exterior of the new Escalade is certainly recognizable – and beautiful – but overall, it’s quite calm and unexpectedly modest, even in the oversized ESV form, the model seen here. Inside, though, it’s a completely different story.

It seems that the General Motors designers must have wiped out most of their budget by creating this Cadillac’s inner sanctuary. As a demonstration of the thinking the company has placed in this vehicle, it is available in something like nine different interior trim combinations, with unique colors, wood finishes and leather perforation patterns depending on the model. The platinum versions, which rank at the top of the Escalade range, feature soft and buttery semi-aniline cowhides in all three rows and plenty of standard equipment. Quality is also an important point. Hit the various trim pieces or frames and nothing looks cheap or flimsy, everything is beautifully finished and solidly built. The only thing I don’t like is the stupid electronic shifter, which looks like an old brick style cellphone. Also, it remains to be seen what the premium interiors with lower trim will look like, but if this high-end model is any indication, they should also be quite majestic.

The behavior of the Escalade 2021 is commendable. Like its twin SUV’s Chevrolet is GMC, the addition of independent rear suspension has, among other things, significantly improved ride comfort in the second and third row of seats. Adult passengers should have little to complain about, even if they are sitting behind the wheel.

Chances are, the first thing you’ll notice about the 2021 Cadillac Escalade’s cabin won’t be the seams or door handles, it’s the screens. Scattered across the dashboard are three individual OLED panels that measure more than 38 inches in diameter. Subtly curved and beautifully integrated into the overall design rather than stuck together as an afterthought, these seemingly overlapping displays deliver perfect blacks, low glare and, according to Cadillac, the widest gamut of colors in the automotive industry. Seriously, this unprecedented amount of screen real estate makes the standard equipment super impressive, and these displays are anything but a feast for the eyes. Like GM’s other recent infotainment systems, this vehicle’s is superb, starts quickly, responds immediately to inputs, and doesn’t stutter or slow down. Pinch-to-zoom on the navigation map, for example, is as responsive as the smartphone in your pocket or bag. For added convenience, wireless Apple CarPlay is Android Auto are standard, as is a pocket for charging the wireless device on the center console.

Those OLED screens … they’re great!

Craig Cole / Roadshow

Further satiating today’s technology-obsessed motorists, the new Escalade offers lots of high-end goodies. Augmented reality navigation is perhaps the most interesting and is a standard feature across the model range. When a route is active, the system superimposes directional arrows on top of a video feed of where you are driving, which is then piped to the center screen by a forward facing camera. The closer you get to a turn, the bigger and more animated the directional arrows become, making it nearly impossible to miss a navigation indication. This Cadillac can also be purchased with night vision. The latter is not particularly useful in most situations, but can be useful for detecting animals or pedestrians in low-speed areas. Making this beast of an SUV just a little easier to park, the standard 360-degree camera system offers a dizzying array of different angles, which you can easily scroll through with just a few taps of your finger. The new Escalade can also be equipped with a fantastic AKG sound system that makes even highly compressed music, like satellite radio, come alive around you, although it would be best to consider that it has no less than 36 speakers.

But what about Super Cruise, GM’s innovative hands-free driving aid? Well, a new improved version that can automatically change lanes will be offered on Escalade before the end of the year. Unfortunately, the model I’m testing here lacks this pavilion feature, although it does have smooth adaptive cruise control, which is smoother and more responsive than some competing systems.

Matching its premium interior, this Cadillac is also extremely quiet and smooth, even when speeding down the highway. On rare occasions, you can get a little, lowercase some body-on-chassis wobble, but it’s really only on horrible road surfaces. The steering of this vehicle is safe and its body remains firmly planted when navigating cornering at speed. The available lane-keeping system seems ineffective, apparently doing little to keep the Escalade on straight and tight.

Augmented reality navigation uses the Escalade’s front camera.

Craig Cole / Roadshow

The noise of the wind, tires and engine is quieter than the gossip behind you. Matching this refinement, the ride quality of this vehicle is also superb. The premium Platinum models feature magnetic shock absorbers and adaptive air suspension, the most elaborate of the three different configurations offered on the Escalade. This combination offers a ride that is both flexible and controlled, far better than the Yukon Denali I tested recently, which, oddly enough, had the same suspension layout.

All of GM’s new full-size SUVs are huge, but extended-length models like the Chevy Suburban and this Escalade ESV they are positively gigantic. As I turn corners, I constantly try to make sure I don’t cut things too close or hook up on wayward pedestrians. If you’re not careful, you could practically take out an entire elementary school class and not even realize it. Of course, parking can be a chore too, made worse by the Cadillac’s tall hood and limited rear visibility.

This luxury barge is towed by a smooth and streamlined 6.2-liter small-block V8 that delivers 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. It makes this Caddy very powerful, although I still prefer it slightly like the Lincoln Navigator’s 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6, slightly. The latter has a huge load of torque right in the middle of its operating range, while this naturally aspirated V8 needs some revs to really go. To rectify this, before the end of the year, a 3.0-liter inline-six diesel will be available in the Escalade, offering 460 lb-ft of torque from an estimated 1,500 rpm.

Who doesn’t love a good V8 engine? A diesel will also be available on this Cadillac before the end of the year.

Craig Cole / Roadshow

No matter the engine, a 10-speed automatic transmission is the standard fare and is very well calibrated. During testing, I didn’t experience any shifter stiffness, annoying lags, or other bad behavior, plus it’s responsive to lower the gears when your right foot calls for a little extra speed. With all-wheel drive, the Escalade ESV stickers at 14 miles per city gallon, 19 highway and 16 mpg combined. In mixed driving, I averaged 17.7, which isn’t great, but at least it’s better than the combined EPA score.

When it’s time to slow down, the Escalade’s brake pedal feels a little rubbery, but it’s easy to modulate and firm enough to make you feel like you’ve got generous stopping power in reserve. This is almost as important for a heavy vehicle as the crawler that moved the Space Shuttle. In fact, a four-wheel drive Escalade ESV is no featherweight, with a full shopping bag of under £ 6,000. Even so, this vehicle is still quite capable. My review unit’s maximum tow rating figures are 7,900lbs, and when it comes to freight transport, the ESV is hard to beat. There is 42.9 cubic feet of space in the way back, but fold both the second and third row seats and that figure balloons to 126.6 cubes, far more than you get in a Mercedes-Benz GLS or BMW X7; it’s also a bit more generous than what the extended-length Navigator L provides, which peaks at 120.2 cubic feet.

It’s a bit like a big box with wheels.

Craig Cole / Roadshow

The base price of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV is suitably rich, starting at around $ 80,500 delivered. The regular length model costs $ 3,000 less. As you can guess, in the Sport Platinum set-up with all-wheel drive, this unit is far, far more expensive. Including about six thousand dollars in options and $ 1,295 for destination fees, my tester plays for $ 112,965. A princely sum, really.

But do you know something? I’m not even mad about it. Thanks to its driving refinement, abundant yet easy-to-use technology, and opulent interior, this price seems totally right. The 2021 Escalade is the most beautiful and well-maintained Cadillac in recent years. It is truly a flagship vehicle.

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