When we had our chance to experience the 2018 Lincoln Navigator Black Label sometime ago, we adored its interior, elegant driving manners, and its yacht-esque styling both inside and out. We were so impressed, that we decided to test its chops with a road trip to northern and western Michigan where it performed almost flawlessly. But we always had an eye on giving domestic rival Cadillac the chance to issue a rebuttal. Cadillac reps obliged, and allowed us to experience an Escalade on our home turf. But can the Escalade (a model that once dominated older Navigator iterations in sales) still be able to assert its muscle against its Lincoln counterpart? Or have the tables turned on the once mighty Escalade?
Art & Science Styling That’s Showing Its Age:
The exterior styling of our Shadow Metallic hued Premium Luxury tester is still a bold styling statement, but at the same time, it also feels as if the Escalade is stuck in a time loop. Many of its rivals have either been freshened with more modern styling, or in the case of the Lincoln Navigator, redesigned outright. But this has allowed the Escalade to retain its eye catching good looks, which have a high degree of presence due to the big front grille, as well as its elegantly honed headlights. Like a diamond studded belt buckle, the toothy grille and the fore-mentioned headlights tell you all you need to know about the clientele that Cadillac is trying to cater to, especially those that like standing out in a crowd versus blending in with the scenery.
The basic design shares much of its hard points and roots with the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, and naturally there are some telling signs of these origins, especially in the side profile and roofline. Cadillac designers did make a good attempt at being different by adorning the rear of the big Caddy with big vertical LED taillights that do give the Escalade enviable night time distinction, and are a leg up over the more mundane lightbar treatment that Lincoln chose to use on the Navigator. This is also an example of the finer details that differentiate the Cadillac from its lesser corporate siblings, and that should please luxury SUV buyers looking for a noticeable step up. This also pleased our relatives, who were eager to see all the Cadillac’s charms at our family Christmas dinner, and showered praise and compliments on the Escalade’s curb appeal.
Unlike the short wheel base Lincoln that we had prior, the Escalade that arrived at our Metro Detroit outpost was the longer ESV variant. Benefitting from a 20-inch stretch in wheelbase, our tester had loads of curb appeal, and some observers likened it to a giant limousine. Our tester had big 22-inch rims, which are thankfully standard on all but the base Escalade. They look sharp, but do lose a step to some of the hoops wielded by some of its rivals, especially the Mercedes GLS, and the Infiniti QX80.
The Grinch Known as CUE:
The interior of our Premium Luxury grade tester lacks some of the special touches offered by the range topping Platinum model, but slip inside the cabin, and you are still rewarded with a relatively upscale and beautiful cabin that is adorned with swaths of leather, real open pore wood trim, heated and cooled front seats, as well as cavernous rear seat room, with Cadillac designers adding a rear seat entertainment system to encourage occupants to spend time back there. An old school column shifter is another sign of the Escalade’s truck origins, and we hope that GM will follow the lead of its rivals, and either adopt a push button style transmission or a modern floor mounted shifter. The latter would actually work just fine with some of the decent ergonomics that are on display here, and it would bring the Escalade more in line with some of their sedan models. Once you are fully nestled inside the cabin, you and the lucky front passenger are greeted by ample amounts of leg and headroom, as well as a commanding view of the road. Buyers also benefit from a whole suite of goodies, including heated and cooled leather seats, tri-zone climate control, Bose premium audio system, heads up display, and more
However, they are also greeted by arguably the one demerit that has always dogged current Cadillac models, the brand’s CUE system. CUE (Cadillac User Experience) is designed to help make the center console look sleek thanks to the implementation of a mostly capacitive layout for the touch sensitive controls (some hard buttons are retained for more mundane functions) and is an improvement over the button heavy blitzkrieg that defines its lesser siblings. Unfortunately, this purely touch focused layout falls flat on its face in practice, with our tester’s CUE system displaying laggy behavior, and lacking the precision needed for delicate inputs like turning up the volume (which is done with a finicky touch sensitive slider bar.) This version of CUE lacks the controller that newer versions have, and we really wish Cadillac will eventually add it to the Escalade, since it is arguably the best model they have currently available.
A perk of our ESV grade tester is that it also boasts tremendous amounts of cargo room with the seats folded down. We decided to put this to the test, and used the big Cadillac to haul some cargo to the annual family Christmas party. This included four large garbage cans (and accompanying lids) as well as minor items needed for the party. With a protective tarp covering the floor, the Escalade managed to easily swallow it all, while still having ample room for second row passengers. When folded in the way we used, it expands cargo capacity to 76.7 cubic feet while folding all the rows rewards occupants with a cavernous 120.9 cubic feet of space. The third row seats can be folded up or down electronically, but the second row still requires a good pair of muscles to formally fold down, but thankfully the effort involved is not too cumbersome, and the seats fold down very smoothly. After this task was finished, the Escalade’s services were enlisted once again, this time in hauling a medium sized television to one of Emily’s neighbors which the big Cadillac handled without breaking a sweat.
A Muscular Soundtrack:
Underneath all the luxury trappings and the formidable capability is the soul of a muscle truck that is begging to be unleashed. While the Escalade is far from being a performance offering, the massive V8 lurking under the hood certainly tries its best at creating that impression. Like the Chevrolet Tahoe RST we recently sampled, power comes from GM’s familiar 6.2 liter V8, which also sees duty in the GMC Yukon. It sounds awesome, and with 420 horsepower on tap, it moved our tester with plenty of authority and confidence. Fuel economy is not this engine’s strong suit, but the amount of acceleration and thrills it provides helps mask this flaw to a certain degree, and really ups the fun factor too. The Navigator’s twin-turbocharged Raptor sourced 3.5 liter V6 makes more power at 450 horses, but it lacks the visceral soundtrack that only a pure V8 can deliver.
Another thing we liked is the 10-speed automatic that is bolted to this engine. Unlike the older eight speed that originally came with this iteration of Escalade, the shifts this time around are virtually impeccable with very minimal gear hunting, and buttery smooth shifts to match. The transmission also allows drivers to tap into all the engine’s sweet spots, and get optimum acceleration even at freeway speeds. Handling on the other hand is typical of its body on frame kin, with a noticeable amount of numbness and body roll when the big Caddy was asked to dance in corners. Instead, our rig preferred to be more of a long distance cruiser, with our tester standing out in freeway driving. This should please families looking to haul a trailer and take the family on long road trips, but might offend those used to some of the fancier footwear worn by entries such as the Dodge Durango SRT, as well as some of its German rivals.
Pricing for the 2019 Cadillac Escalade is reflective of the elite segment that it is competing in. While base model Escalades have a base price of $75,195, options and higher trim levels can cause this price to rapidly increase. Our Premium Luxury grade model is a rung below the range topping Platinum variant in the family tree, and that causes it to wield a higher base price of $88,195. Our tester was opulently loaded, and the figurative laundry list of equipment (along with the $1,295 destination charge) helped push the final figure to a whopping $97,465. The optional extras included the $2,000 Kona Brown Leather package, $1,750 power running boards, and the $600 22-inch wheels.
This pricing puts a fully loaded Premium Luxury variant just under a range topping Platinum model in price, and as an indirect result, our tester was actually even more expensive than a base $96,395 Navigator Black Label. Removing the optional frills did little to change this, and our rig still managed to be pricier than its Lincoln equivalent, the $85,205 Reserve model. This trait makes the Caddy’s long term value hard to justify considering that the Black Label offers better interior appointments and materials, while the Reserve trim has a lower base price, and more flexibility for owners to play with options without pushing the admission price too high.
This trim level does gain a bit of ground when compared to its German rivals, with the Escalade in Premium Luxury trim costing less than similar offerings from Land Rover and Mercedes Benz, with prices for both the GLS Class and a Range Rover easily crossing over the $100,000 barrier when stacked with options. The Land Rover comes with a supercharged 3.0 liter V6 for the bulk of its trim levels (with a diesel also optional,) but buyers looking to match cylinders with the Escalade will have to pay accordingly for the privilege which nets them a higher 510 horsepower supercharged V8. As for the GLS, it also comes with a V8, but here it is turbocharged, and the base GLS 550 actually has a slightly lower base price than our test vehicle. That changes of course when buyers tack on options and other goodies.
Overall the 2019 Cadillac Escalade does a good job of sticking to its core essentials. It’s big, brash, and is jam packed with style, practicality, and luxury. However, in an era where the rest of the luxury SUV segment is changing all around it, the next generation Escalade will need to evolve in a definitively different direction to allow it to regain the ground it has lost, while also allowing it to take on the Navigator’s renewed challenge head on. As it stands, the Navigator has turned the tables in this domestic rivalry by dethroning the Escalade after a long time playing the underdog. But we still look forward to the eventual debut of the next generation Escalade, to see if it has the tools necessary to deliver a sizable rebuttal to its longtime domestic adversary.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.