Progress can be a potent symbol of just how far one has come in one development. A case in point is the 2021 Cadillac Escalade which is the most promising version of Cadillac‘s full-size luxury SUV. But it wasn’t too long ago that the model started as nothing more than a lightly dressed-up GMC Yukon with a Cadillac badge. The Escalade rapidly cleaned up its act and is now a segment benchmark. But the rest of the competition is evolving too, and we wanted to know. Can the 2021 Escalade evolve enough to not only retain its status in the kingdom but also help provide customers with more technology and luxury?
Chrome Laden Styling Adds Character To Escalade
The exterior styling of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade is arguably one of its biggest traits. The front fascia has been reworked, with the Escalade now sporting a larger front grille accompanied by a pair of elegant-looking headlights. Cadillac designers toned down the chrome slightly compared to the outgoing model, but it still allows the Caddy to be a very imposing presence when out on the road. The only SUV we see out on the road with bigger real estate is the BMW X7, but it’s important to note that the German is pricier than the Escalade when fully equipped. The hood is more muscular than before, and as you go along the side of our non-ESV grade tester, you’ll see a welcome crease that runs along the lower portion of the doors.
Like its platform mates, the rear styling is where the Cadilac’s elegant appearance starts to fall apart slightly. Like the outgoing model, the 2021 Slade still uses model exclusive LED-filled taillights, but the plain-looking liftgate and the frumpy bumper serve as unwelcome contrasts. It’s here where you will also find Escalade’s metric-based 600 badge. The number represents the amount of torque the 6.2 liter V8 under the hood makes in newton meters, with Cadillac claiming that it’s supposed to eliminate confusion. We are still baffled why Cadillac chose to do this, and instead of clearing up confusion, it just creates more questions.
Thankfully, we were immediately distracted by the massive 22-inch wheels that came with our tester. They looked very flashy and were very good at attracting attention from numerous observers. These hoops are among the largest that you can get on a Cadillac, and it goes to show that Cadillac designers covered all angles when it came to some of the finer details. As for how it sizes up against the equally elegant Lincoln Navigator, the Cadillac is a big step forward, but it’s hard to ignore the unique character that the Lincoln exudes.
A Refined Interior Fit For A King
But it’s the interior that ultimately makes or breaks a luxury SUV, and the Escalade manages to cram an impressive amount of luxury and technology into its refined cabin. While it’s still not quite on the level of the German competition, this is perhaps the closest Cadillac has come to matching them yet, and we really appreciate the strong emphasis on spaciousness and comfort. Slip inside, and you are greeted by a balanced mixture of leather and wood accents. The look this time feels much more connected, and it thankfully eliminates some of the garish compromises that defined the outgoing Escalade. That includes material quality with high-quality soft-touch materials located in all the right areas and the cheap plastics being mostly limited to the lower reaches of the cabin (which aren’t seen as often by prying eyes.
Look around, and you’ll eventually make a game out of finding all 36 speakers of the optional AKG sound system. This is a mighty system, and it brings plenty of sound to the cabin. To achieve this, some of the speakers are mounted in very unconventional places, including the top of the dashboard and even a few located in the ceiling. There’s so much speaker coverage, in fact, that the Escalade actually comes with a special mode that can move the bulk of the sound to either of the front passengers.
Moving back to the subject of spaciousness, there’s plenty of head and legroom for front passengers, with the massive sunroof not cutting into the headroom that much. Second-row passengers get their cool set of captain’s chairs, and room back here will make a VIP out of just about anybody. As is the case with other GM full-size SUVs, the third row is where the Slade does lose a bit of its luster, with space back there being noticeably tighter and best left for the smaller members of the family. Front occupants can fold down the third row from the front via a set of satellite buttons mounted in a control bank located by the rearview mirror. These switches can also fold the seats back up though the headrests will still need to be formally raised by hand.
Finally, it would be a crime to ignore the monstrous levels of technology that Cadillac has crammed in, and the bulk of this can be found inside the all-new OLED display screen. This massive swath of screen uses three different digital readouts and combines them into a very usable space. Cadillac claims that it has more clarity and definition than most flatscreen TVs, and that’s very evident when you play around with the system.
The configurable gauge cluster can be configured in several ways and can even show a full display of the map to help with navigating. It can also show augmented reality directions too, and while the setup here is not as advanced as Mercede’s unit, it’s still a potent conversation starter. The augmented reality function works by displaying various information in front of the driver on the gauge screen. That includes turn arrows, select signs, and even a floating pin icon that helps precisely mark your destination. As a bonus, it can even be used to operate the novel night vision system though buyers looking to see through the dark like the Predator alien will have to pay a hefty $2,000 to formally equip it to their rig.
Assertive Performance Gives Escalade Plenty Of Muscle
Our tester arrived with the 6.2 liter V8, which serves as the gasoline-powered choice in the family (select Escalade trims also get access to a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six diesel engine.) The smaller 5.3 liter will be relegated to the Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and the GMC Yukon, but we highly doubt buyers will miss it once the bigger V8’s charms sway over them.
Like before, it still puts down 420 horsepower, and that’s balanced out by 460 lb-ft of torque. The power here is very noticeable and helps give the 6.2 liter a strong character. A 10-speed automatic is a sole transmission here, and like before, it’s a smooth operator and works beautifully with the V8’s fat and abundant power curve.
That’s good because this V8 takes great pride in guzzling gasoline, with the EPA stating that it will do a mere 14 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the freeway. This is, of course, on top of its premium-only requirement, which will certainly be a formidable body blow to many fuel budgets. Our advice is to roll with the diesel version if you want the Escalade to truly be a fuel-sipping road tripper. Our tester did a good job neutralizing the bumps and ruts that dot Metro Detroit’s lunar-like roads, but the Escalade is not a track darling. While handling is very composed in everyday driving, the Escalade has no problem displaying copious amounts of body roll if asked to undertake more spirited driving.
While the Navigator’s 3.5 liter twin-turbocharged V6 has more low-end punch, it lacks the raw exhaust note of the 6.2 liter. It adds extra complexity to engine maintenance, especially with its turbochargers. The Escalade also has better brakes than the Gator, but we will deduct a point for the brake pedal having a long throw which can be a bit disconcerting at times.
As expected from an SUV in its elite segment, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade comes with a very potent price tag with base 2WD Luxury models starting at $77,890. Adding a four-wheel-drive system causes the price to jump to $80,890, with various options fattening things up further. Buyers looking to go for a range-topping Platinum model like our tester will be greeted with two choices (Sport or Premium), with the duo having the same $105,290 base sticker. Differences between the two are minor and are limited to mostly trim, with the Sport exchanging its chrome trim for blacked-out pieces.
Our Premium-focused tester came with over $5,210 worth of options which helped push the final price to just under $110,000 ($109,500) before taxes and fees. This pricing puts the Escalade into a fascinating situation. On the one hand, it’s less expensive than comparable BMW X7 and Mercedes GLS models, but it also manages to be pricier than a base Navigator Black Label. This tweener status might put off some buyers, but we suspect that many of them will be won over by the rumbly V8 as well as the massive OLED screen.
With this subtle mixture of old-school charm and space-age futurism, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade is perhaps the closest reflection of Cadillac as a whole. Once known for being behind the eight ball in some areas, Cadillac is trying to redefine itself by doubling down on novel technology and the broader ownership experience. That’s pretty evident in some of their recent advertising campaigns as well as models like the recently unveiled CT4 and CT5-V Blackwings. As for the Escalade, its role is clear, and if your looking for a technologically fueled heaven of luxury and convenience in your family vehicle, this big Caddy might be your proverbial golden ticket.
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.