The “King of Bling” is back in all-new form. The original Cadillac Escalade redefined what a premium sport-utility vehicle was all about, though Caddy seemed to have lost its direction with recent iterations. Now the big beast is getting a complete makeover for 2021 and, with it, GM’s luxury brand hopes to regain its claim to being the “standard of the world.”
Whether any single product can pull that off is questionable, but there’s no question that the new “‘Slade” is one “bad-ass” SUV, as marketing manager Dave Schiavone likes to describe it. The 2021 Escalade is bigger – and roomier – than ever, with a rule-the-road presence. It’s also a high-tech showpiece, with an array of digital features that includes an augmented reality display and the latest version of the hands-free Cadillac Super Cruise system.
Overview: There was a time when SUVs were the purview of rugged outdoorsmen. Nothing transformed that image like the arrival of the original, 1999 Escalade. It quickly became a hit with the urban community, a must-have among athletes and a requisite prop in countless rap videos.
Over the past two decades, the Escalade has had to face off with plenty of new competition – with even more coming, including the reborn Jeep Grand Wagoneer set to launch next year. So, the challenge for Caddy was to add an array of new features, update styling – and address problems with the outgoing version of its flagship model. From our first experience behind the wheel, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade delivers on virtually all fronts.
Exterior: It’s always a challenge redesigning a brand icon, especially a massive SUV like the Escalade. As one might expect, the 2021 model’s looks have gotten an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, makeover. So, for Escalade fans, it will look immediately familiar, picking up on traditional cues while giving them a fresh feel.
That starts with the oversized Cadillac grille – which is offered in several different iterations depending on which model you opt for. (Like other recent Caddy products, the Escalade will follow a “Y” strategy, split between “Sport” and “Luxury” models.) The new grille is framed by new slit-like LED headlamps. Their horizontal layout may surprise some folks. But to placate traditionalists, the 2021 Escalade still features vertical LED running lights, as well as vertical taillights.
From the side, the 2021 ute features a more sculpted look, with a distinct crease just below the shoulder line and a subtle coke-bottle style curve to the door panels. To add to the ute’s presence, all versions now ride on 22-inch wheels.
Interior: A vehicle’s exterior design is what draws you in. But it’s the interior that keeps you happy. If you had a chance to check out the Escala concept that was introduced at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance a few years back, the 2021 Escalade picks it up almost down to the last double stitch of its leather and suede cabin.
But it’s the new, high-tech touches that will undoubtedly catch your eye. Open the door and the first thing you’ll notice is the near door-to-door video display. In fact, it’s actually four different screens, including the industry’s first curved OLED touchscreen that anchors the new Escalade’s infotainment system. There’s also an unusual, albeit smaller, touchscreen to the left of the steering wheel, as well as a digital display cluster visible through the wheel. All told, they compromise a total of 38 inches diagonally.
The Escalade has always been a big beast but, after you get past the massive collection of color displays you’ll discover the 2021 Escalade is bigger than ever. Sharing the same basic architecture as the GMC Yukon, the new Caddy gains eight inches of additional length, the wheelbase stretched by five. Equally significant, the SUV now adopts an independent rear suspension allowing for a lower floor. That’s especially welcome for third-row passengers who now gain a full 10 inches of legroom.
Powertrain: Two powertrain packages will be offered, including an upgrade of the outgoing model’s 6.2-liter V-8. It makes 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. And features like Stop/Start and cylinder deactivation help squeeze a little more distance out of every gallon of fuel at 14 mpg City, 20 Highway and 15 Combined.
Those who spend a lot of time towing or traveling long distances now have a no-added-cost option in the form of a 3.0-liter Duramax I-6 turbodiesel making 277 hp and 460 lb-ft.
Both are paired with a 10-speed automatic gearbox and start out with rear-wheel-drive. Expect to spend another $3,000 to upgrade to all-wheel-drive.
There had been rumors that Caddy might offer a hybrid version of the new Escalade. That’s not in the plans, GM President Mark Reuss told TheDetroitBureau.com. But stay tuned, an all-electric version just might be in the works.
Technology and Safety: We could do an entire review focused solely on the 2021 Cadillac Escalade’s suite of technologies. As we already noted, the instrument panel is almost completely covered in displays, including the curved, 15.9-inch gauge cluster. Caddy engineers have thought things through and allowed for plenty of flexibility. You can, for example, shift the navi map from the center touchscreen onto the gauge cluster in order to reduce the amount of time your eyes are off the road.
The small touch display to the far left, meanwhile, lets you select features such as night vision, camera view and augmented reality. The AR system, among other things, will overlay directions on top of the real-world imagery. Coming up to a complex intersection? No problem. It will place on arrow pointing to precisely where you need to make your turn. A head-up display also makes it easier to navigate.
We had a brief run with another feature we expect will prove quite popular with 2021 Escalade buyers, the latest iteration of the Cadillac Super Cruise technology. Since its launch on the now-gone Caddy CT6 sedan, it has grown to allow hands-free driving on about 200,000 miles of freeways and other limited-access roadways in the U.S. And Escalade gets a new feature: the ability to tap the turn signal and have Super Cruise execute a lane change for you.
Other nice features include the new AKG studio-quality audio system, with 19 speakers in the base version and 36 in the “reference” series. Second-row passengers get separate videoscreens that each can display separate programming. There are twin 120-volt outlets. And the outside Caddy crest lights up as you approach your vehicle.
Drive Impressions: There is no question that the ride and handling of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade are markedly improved when compared to the ponderous boat that was the prior generation SUV. It helps to have the latest-generation magnetic ride control suspension. It uses a magnetically sensitive fluid for its dampers and is so quick that each shock can go from full firm to soft in the time it takes the ute to travel barely an inch at 60 mph.
That said, this is no sports car. It’s still a massive beast that exhibited a moderate amount of body roll when flogging it around tight corners.
But steering is more precise, turn-in more predictable, and you no longer feel like you’re battling it to stay in your lane if there’s any significant crosswind. The 6.2-liter gas engine provided plenty of power, especially when executing a high-speed pass. We expect the diesel to be the option of choice for long-distance travelers and those with boats and other trailers, however.
Unlike some competitors, such as the Mercedes GLS, the 2021 Cadillac doesn’t offer much in the way of off-road capabilities – not that we expect that to matter to most of its potential buyers. The bigger issue is the downside of that added vehicle length: squeezing into a tight parking spot can be a challenge, especially in urban areas, so going with the optional self-park technology may be a wise choice.
Wrap Up: There are plenty of reasons to like the 2021 Cadillac Escalade: dramatic looks, great interior space, a comfortable ride and the latest onboard technologies among them.
But do be aware all that doesn’t come cheap. For 2021, prices are up on the Escalade. The base Luxury trim now starts at $77,400, including delivery fees, a jump of $1,000 over the outgoing ‘Slade. Fully loaded, the big SUV now runs into six figures, the Platinum and Platinum Sport models starting at $101,290, a whopping $8,000 jump over the outgoing Escalade. And you’ll shell out $3,000 to go from rear to all-wheel drive.
That said, for those who have the budget and who want a lavishly executed, full-size SUV, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade certainly seems to fit the bill.