2021 Cadillac Escalade First Test: Finally What it Should Be
Finally! Finally, Cadillac has been allowed to deliver what we’ve always believed it’s capable of. For well over a decade now, the brand has brought us incredible bones, incredible performance, and incredible handling, but faltered on the luxury, on the details. The 2021 Cadillac Escalade sets things right, and not a moment too soon.
We’ve known since the early days of “Art and Science” that Cadillac can build a fantastic chassis, not that the Escalade ever got one. We’ve known from the early days of General Motors that the parent company can develop incredible technology, when it wants to. We’ve known for over a decade now Cadillac can do jaw-dropping design built from world-class materials, at least when it comes to concept cars. We’ve always assumed, then, that Cadillac was being held back from its true potential. No more. The 2021 Escalade is what happens when GM puts real money toward a product, when it stops thinking with spreadsheets and starts thinking with passion.
2021 Escalade Interior
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We can start this review nowhere but the interior, a traditional Cadillac weak point resoundingly rectified. The materials! Cadillac has long made a fuss about its “cut and sew” (sic) materials, but the labor is just one factor in the result. The materials being cut and sewn matter, as does how they’re arranged. This is what wows about the new Escalade. Our top-shelf Sport Platinum-trim test vehicle was fitted with the Whisper Beige interior with Gideon accents. It is, in a word, stunning.
Cadillac’s inspired decision to use linen-like suiting fabric as an accent deserves thunderous applause. Applied to the lower door panels, lower dash, and even lovingly wrapped around the glove box door and into the latch recess, it brings an unmatched elegance to the Escalade. What would typically be soft-touch plastic of some quality—or at best, leather—is instead a new and interesting texture. Expect it to be copied sooner rather than later.
Above it, the wood trim is equally impressive. The parquetry laid across the dash, doors, steering wheel, and consoles is the type typically found only in hand-built ultra luxury vehicles costing two or three times more.
Nearly everywhere else is leather of the highest grade we’ve seen in a modern GM product and plastic parts that mostly fit the price point and, crucially, are mostly unshared with lesser GM products. Go looking for trouble, and you’ll find it, as some editors did. Cadillac employed a mix of bespoke brushed metal-look and matte black materials for various controls, and many of the black buttons look and feel like something you’d find in a Chevy. The control stalks behind the steering wheel are Chevy parts with chrome trim added. These are the sort of thing you have to pick at in order to take issue with the new Escalade’s interior.
2021 Escalade Tech
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Rising above it all is the showstopper: 38 diagonal inches of OLED screens forming a graceful arc across the left half of the dash. Frankly, it makes Audi’s strategy of pulling out manual controls and gauges and plugging screens into the holes look lazy. Technically three screens with the look of two, there’s an instrument cluster panel sitting immediately in front of a larger wraparound panel with touchscreens to the left and right. The digital instrument cluster and large infotainment screen to its right are impressive in their own right, but the little touchscreen to the left of the instrument cluster is a particularly neat touch. It’s useful, too, as it separates out the trip computer, instrument cluster function selection, and head-up display controls so you don’t have to go digging through menus for them.
All three screens produce razor-sharp images in vibrant colors, and the touch panels react immediately. The instrument cluster, in particular, has an impressive ability to project a full-screen map, a night vision camera view, and an augmented reality camera view with navigation arrows overlaid onto the road ahead. It’s a more effective application than Mercedes-Benz’s system, which puts the augmented reality with navigation arrows over on the center infotainment screen, much farther afield from your line of sight. Glancing down at the instruments is just more natural.
Connected to it was the optional 36-speaker AKG Studio Reference stereo, reason alone to spring for a higher trim level where it’s standard. We’d rank it among the best car audio systems on the market, period. Listening to classical music on it is like sitting in the orchestra. Other, lesser car audio systems, even good ones, sound like garbage after you’ve listened to this one a while.
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Impressive as the system is, though, we were baffled by certain user interface decisions. Pressing the hard button on the console for the phone screen brings up a list of every phone ever paired to the vehicle rather than taking you directly to the phone currently paired. Why you’d need to go through the menu and select the phone already paired in order to use the phone is beyond us. We were also confused as to why the instrument cluster screen is controlled from three different places. Selecting a function (gauges, map, etc.) is handled from the touchscreen to the left. When on the gauges screen, the right side of the screen is controlled from the steering wheel. The left side, however, can only be altered by digging into the settings menu on the infotainment screen. Every other car we can think of with a digital dash maps all those functions to one control. We also disliked having to raise the steering wheel so high in order to see the entire instrument cluster screen through it.
Rear Seats and Cargo Area
Moving rearward, we’re happy to find Cadillac kept up its standard through the second row and into the third. The quality of materials doesn’t suffer in the second row, and although the third has more plastic panels than the rest, they’re of good quality. The Escalade’s new platform and independent rear suspension have done wonders for the third row, which is now not only sized for adults, but comfortable. The only reason now to buy the even longer Escalade ESV is the cargo space, which is extremely small with the third row in use. The ESV will shuttle six or more to the airport with all their baggage in the back, not on the roof. The only incongruity we found were black plastic USB ports mounted on light beige panels, easy to find for the wrong reason.
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How Does the New Escalade Drive?
As important as any other improvement to the new Escalade is the new chassis and its independent rear suspension. Gone is the pickup truck live axle, replaced with a more compact multilink design and augmented, in this trim level, with air springs and adaptive magnetic dampers at all four corners.
Unfortunately, all that impressive hardware has to handle massive 22-inch standard wheels and a full-size, body-on-frame SUV that weighs over 6,000 pounds. We know GM’s magnetorheological dampers can work magic, which is why we’re a little disappointed here. The fine ride quality just isn’t as good as we’d hoped. The suspension handles big impacts well, but the small stuff—the cracks, the seams, and the frost heaves—all jolt their way through and into the cabin, even in the softest Touring drive mode. We hope this is endemic to the Sport Platinum trim level we tested and look forward to testing other, more luxury-focused trims. We’d also suggest a setting below Touring.
The upshot is this limited-slip differential-equipped sporty model handles shockingly well for such a big SUV. The Escalade feels planted in a corner, and the body motions are well controlled. The steering is direct and linear, and the brakes are responsive if a bit wooden. If you want to drive this thing fast, you really can, but that’s really not the point.
2021 Escalade Performance
You wouldn’t know that from the test data, though. Under instrumented testing, this sport-trim Escalade pulled just 0.60 average g on the skidpad, way less than a comparable 2015 model with the live rear axle. Likewise, the new model managed only a 30.1-second figure eight lap at 0.53 average g, way off the pace of the 2015 that did it in 27.4 seconds at 0.68 g average.
It’s far less surprising that the 2021 Escalade is slightly slower in a straight line. Weighing 168 pounds more than the 2015 and producing the same power, even the limited-slip differential and new 10-speed automatic couldn’t offset a weight-to-power ratio that’s slipped from 14.0 lb/hp to 14.4 lb/hp. As such, the new model is 0.2 second slower to 60 mph, getting there in 6.1 seconds. It’s likewise two-tenths slower through the quarter mile, needing 14.6 seconds at 95.6 mph (nearly 1 mph slower, too).
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Don’t blame the tires, either, because the 2021 model does improve significantly in one test: braking. Needing just 121 feet to stop from 60 mph, it’s stationary 12 feet short of the old 2015. That’s nearly the length of a two-door Jeep Wrangler.
Escalade Fuel Economy
The 6.2-liter V-8 is certainly trying its best. Updated with a more capable cylinder deactivation system but otherwise unchanged, it still makes a healthy 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque and sounds great doing it (though some editors found it a bit too loud for a luxury vehicle). GM’s 10-speed transmission didn’t have its best showing here, tending to hunt more than other products we’ve driven with it and too eager to take the high gear. After reading all that, you’d expect fuel economy to have improved in trade, but it didn’t. Both rear- and four-wheel-drive models saw fuel economy stay the same or, in most tests, drop by at least 1 mpg.
Using the adaptive cruise control can help with your own personal fuel economy, but it comes at the expense of a lead-footed experience. Like all 2021 Escalades, our test vehicle was not equipped with Cadillac’s industry-leading Super Cruise semi-automated driving technology. It’ll be available on the next model year, a big miss for Cadillac considering both how good it is and how popular it is with CT6 buyers. The standard system takes forever to accelerate when the car ahead is out of the way, then drops the hammer. When braking, it’s equally late to engage and hard on the pedal. This may be a sporty model, but it’s not how a luxury vehicle is meant to be driven or ridden in.
The Gist of It
The 2021 Escalade is a long-awaited and desperately needed step forward for Cadillac. This is the kind of product the brand needs to build to compete with a resurgent Lincoln and the ever-present and improving foreign competition. The Escalade should no longer be the default vehicle choice for the rich and famous based solely on reputation but because it’s finally the luxury product it should be. There’s room for improvement, yes, but we’re happy to report it’s little stuff. Finally, Cadillac is back.
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