First Spin: 2021 Cadillac Escalade
Cadillac’s trademark “Standard of the World” tagline was first employed by the luxury brand after winning the 1908 Dewar Trophy, an honor presented by Britain’s Royal Automobile Club to recognize carmakers for “furthering the interests and advancements of the industry.”
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Though use of the Standard of the World slogan has lapsed from time to time over the past century, Cadillac’s marketing team has kept the familiar words handy, applying them mostly to print advertising at irregular intervals.
Sadly, it has been several decades since anyone would claim with any degree of sincerity that Cadillac was, indeed, the Standard of the World. One reason for this is that Cadillac is now positioned as a mainstream premium brand, generally priced and cross-shopped against products from Lincoln and lower-priced offerings from the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz. This puts Cadillac in a difficult place from which to make claims of absolute global superiority. Additionally, a generation of lackluster product offerings, including most models designed and sold in the Eighties and Nineties, did considerable damage to Cadillac’s reputation.
At least initially, the first Escalades seemed poised to be another blight on Cadillac’s good name. Though a sales success from its inception in 1998, the big, brash, overtly trucky Escalade was initially regarded by the automotive media—and much of the buying public—as a cheap, easy, and cynical way for Cadillac to cash in on America’s budding hunger for SUVs.
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Literally a re-trimmed Chevrolet Tahoe with an upscale price tag, the chrome-laden Escalade became a rolling tribute to indulgent living and was quickly embraced by both hip-hop culture and spend-happy suburbanites. Any concern regarding the impact of selling a giant, fuel-thirsty, arguably garish SUV to Cadillac’s reputation as a purveyor of refined luxury vehicles became moot as the Escalade quickly became the single most profitable vehicle in the entire General Motors lineup.
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Funny thing about the Escalade, though: With each new generation, the big Cadillac became less and less a showroom sore thumb, and more the core element by which the brand was defined. Though the Escalade is still closely related to the Chevrolet Tahoe—and Chevy Suburban, as well as the similar GMC Yukon and Yukon XL—Cadillac designers have taken care to see that the Escalade stands alone among GM’s big trucks, by giving it unique interiors, more powerful standard engines, and the sort of premium features that customers would expect to find on true luxury vehicles. And now that crossovers and SUVs account for roughly two thirds of all light-duty vehicle sales, the Escalade seems exactly like the kind of thing you might find at an American luxury-vehicle dealership.
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And, as this is published, Cadillac dealers are welcoming the first wave of fifth-generation Escalades into their showrooms, likely encouraged by the seemingly countless advancements and new features the big profit generator boasts. More importantly, perhaps, the 2021 Escalade represents Cadillac’s best effort in at least a generation to produce a vehicle that is arguably best in class.
The Escalade, like its downmarket Chevrolet and GMC cousins, is a larger vehicle for 2021. The standard-length Escalade rides on a 120.9-inch wheelbase and measures 211.9 inches long overall—respectively, that’s 4.9 inches and 8 inches longer than the previous-gen model. The long-wheelbase Escalade ESV now rides on a 134.1-inch wheelbase (up 4.1 inches) and stretches 227 inches overall (up 2.7 inches). Both variants are now 2.4 inches taller as well.
The added length pays off in terms of passenger room and comfort. Except for front-row head- and legroom, both of which decline by less than an inch for 2021, passenger room is more generous. Standard-length Escalades now boast up to 42 inches of second-row legroom (a 3-inch improvement) and 35 inches of third-row legroom (up 10 inches.) The ESV shares the standard-length Escalade’s second-row dimensions, but boasts 37 inches of third-row legroom, up 2 over the ’20 ESV.
Predictably, cargo volume has expanded for 2021 as well. The big news (pun intended) is the added cargo volume aft of the third-row seatbacks. Standard-length models now accommodate up to 25.5 cubic feet of stuff (up from 15.2), and ESVs up to 42.9 feet (up from 39.3).
Also new for 2021 is Escalade’s rear suspension. Replacing the previous generation’s solid-axle/coil-spring arrangement is a sophisticated independent multilink system which, in part, allowed Cadillac to lower the cargo-area load floor, creating some of that additional cargo space discussed above.
Returning for 2021 is GM’s Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) adaptive suspension system. Found also on other GM vehicles (including the Chevrolet Corvette), MRC uses sensors to “read” the road and make real-time shock-absorber adjustments accordingly. The MRC is supplemented on higher trim levels by Cadillac’s new Air Ride Adaptive Suspension, which, among other functions, lowers the vehicle for easy entry and exit, and raises the vehicle for added off-road clearance when needed.
Also returning for 2021 is Escalade’s burly 6.2-liter V8, which is again rated at 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque. Newly optional is a 3.0-liter turbodiesel six, which is rated at 277 horsepower and matches the V8 exactly for torque. Both engines mate to a 10-speed automatic transmission and a limited-slip rear axle, and offer available all-wheel drive. The EPA rates Escalades equipped with the V8 engine at 15 mpg in the city, 20 on the highway, and 17 combined. Those numbers each drop by one on AWD models. Diesel-engine estimates are not yet available.
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If you’ve heard any of the buzz preceding the launch of Caddy’s new big rigs, you’ve liked heard about the “OLED” curved instrument panel. The OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screens cover a whopping 38 inches of dashboard space, and include a trip-computer panel to the left of the instrument panel, the instrument panel itself, and the console infotainment screen in what looks convincingly like a single flowing panel. The “organic” part of OLED is the curve of the panels, which wrap gently around the driver, providing better sightlines and arguably easier touch operation. Per Cadillac, the Escalade is the first vehicle to employ a curved LED panel.
All of this tech is used to good effect. Cadillac boasts that the resolution of the OLED display is sharper than that of a 4K TV, a claim which seems reasonable to us; the screens also seem nearly impervious to washing out in bright sunlight.
The infotainment-touchscreen look and operation will feel familiar to anyone who has experienced either earlier versions of Cadillac’s CUE operating system or Apple CarPlay. For drivers unwilling to smudge the touchscreen, a BMW iDrive-like rotary knob can be employed for most functions instead.
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It’s the huge instrument panel (IP) which impresses most. The IP can be used in any of four modes, two of which present various combinations of information. Another appears as a conventional gauge cluster, including a large, round speedometer. The fourth mode allows the driver to view the same navigation-screen map as displayed on the main infotainment screen, but at a different scale—which proved surprisingly handy when this editor chose to sneak through a subdivision in search of a shortcut around traffic during one especially challenging commute.
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Also available is Augmented Reality Navigation, which displays a forward-facing camera view on the IP screen and overlays the real-time video image with graphic—and very easy to follow—navigation arrows and prompts. This can be especially helpful when trying to determine what lane on the highway to stay in, or which off-ramp to take. The Augmented Reality system can also be handy when driving directly into the sun, as the filtered image is free of haze and glare.
Other controls are largely convenient and easy to manipulate. Kudos to Cadillac for keeping the console area clean and uncluttered.
Speaking of the interior, Consumer Guide’s access to the new Escalade thus far has been limited to a standard-length Platinum model with 4WD. The top-line trim level’s cabin presents well, with plenty of high-grade leather, luxurious-looking real-wood trim, and tastefully applied bright accents. We did notice a few spots—the lower seat sides when viewed from outside the truck—where some materials cost-cutting seems to have taken place, but from a seated position in the vehicle, the cabin looks, well, world class.
On the road the V8 engine shines, providing plenty of power and working well with the polished 10-speed automatic transmission. The once-prominent exhaust note seems to have been squelched a bit for 2021—though a welcome burble can he heard when taking off from a stop, or when passing or merging. Otherwise, the Escalade cabin is impressively quiet; in fact, it is among the quietest vehicles we’ve reviewed in some time.
Ride quality, too, is impressive. The Escalade offers four drive modes: Tour, Sport, Off-Road, and Tow/Haul. Tour is the default standard mode, and in this setting the Escalade’s ride quality is sublime. Selecting the Sport mode firms things up a bit, with little detriment to ride quality. In Sport mode, the Escalade is surprisingly easy to hustle through traffic, and the reduced lean in corners is welcome. We would be loath to suggest this big Caddy is actually sporty, but it gets around well given its mass. We suggest keeping the Escalade in Sport mode until you hit the highway, and falling back to Tour mode for optimal ride comfort. Note that our experience is limited at this point to an Escalade equipped with the Air Ride Adaptive Suspension. We hope to report on a less-well-equipped example sometime soon.
The Escalade list of safety and driver assistance features is almost too long to list, but in addition to the expected features are front pedestrian detection and braking, rear pedestrian alert, automatic emergency braking, rear camera mirror, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-change alert with blind-spot alert, and lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning. Also, a high-definition surround-view camera can be activated at any time to assist with low-speed, tight-spot maneuvering.
Cadillac’s enhanced Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving system will also be available on the 2021 Escalade, but was not included on our test truck. You can read about our experience with an earlier version of this system here.
Cadillac claims it has largely held the line on Escalade pricing, but that doesn’t prevent us from wincing a little when reading the window sticker. The Escalade is offered in five trim levels for 2021: Luxury ($76,195), Premium Luxury ($82,995), Sport ($85,595), Premium Luxury Platinum ($99,995), and Sport Platinum (also $99,995). All of these starting prices are sans options and the $1295 destination charge.
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For each trim level, moving to the long-wheelbase ESV adds exactly $3000 to the bottom line; adding all-wheel drive also tacks on a $3000 premium. The Sport models are new for 2021; they don’t include any performance upgrades, but do add specific trim elements such as a unique mesh grille texture, black grille surround, and black bodyside moldings.
Consumer Guide’s well-equipped 4WD Platinum came to $110,565. For the record, we averaged a reasonable 17.7 mpg in a test that consisted of a slight majority of highway driving. So, we were right on par with the Escalade’s EPA-estimated economy.
A quick note about the new AKG audio system: We’re not audiophiles, but to this editor’s ears, this is one of the best car-audio systems currently available. Note that we’ve only been exposed to the top-line 36-speaker Studio Reference system, and not the standard 19-speaker arrangement found in lower trim levels.
So, is Escalade the large-luxury-SUV Standard of the World? Having spent little time with SUVs such as the Bentley Bentayga and Rolls-Royce Cullinan, we’re not entirely comfortable passing that judgement. That said, the 2021 Escalade is certainly the vehicle in Cadillac’s lineup most worthy of a “best-in-class” nomination.
The new Escalade is certainly everything returning shoppers could want in a huge Cadillac SUV. For 2021, the truck is now brimming with high-tech features and a heightened level of refinement that may well lure European big-truck intenders out of their rides. Color us impressed.
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2021 Cadillac Escalade