First Drive

First Drive Review: 2021 Cadillac Escalade is big and beautiful, but not the best to drive

The Cadillac Escalade is one of the most luxurious SUVs you can buy.

Photo courtesy of Cadillac

Cadillac has given the 2021 Escalade the tagline "Never stop arriving" which seems apropos for a full-size SUV that shows up in nearly every way. Having undergone a complete redesign, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade finds itself securely at the top of the company's lineup showcasing the high-tech features and plush accommodations buyers are looking for.

The three-row SUV is built on the same platform as the Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe, and the GMC Yukon at the General Motors Arlington Assembly plant outside of Dallas. The platform is ridged and good, allowing the Escalade and its brethren to take on corners at speed without fear of coffee spilling.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium LuxuryThe Escalade continues to have a commanding presence on the street.Photo courtesy of Cadillac

That also means that it's big. Huge, in fact. But, the Escalade isn't so big it's unmanageable. Sure, you'll need a stepladder to see below the hood. But, how many Escalade owners are doing their own maintenance these days? Camera views help tremendously, as does safety technology.

As tested in the Premium Luxury trim, the two-wheel drive Escalade was powered by Cadillac's standard 6.2-liter V8 that's paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission, a fresh addition to GM's offering list. The power plant delivers 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque, just as it is in the SUV's full-size GM stablemates, and has the same SAE-certified horsepower and torque top-out points. It's a competent power plant but it works better in the Yukon Denali.

Why?

That's the big question. The two SUVs are nearly the same weight – pushing 5,800 pounds – and were similarly equipped underneath, as tested. Yet, the Escalade drove like it had a 1,000 pound-boulder strapped into the second row. It didn't feel as agile or swift as the Yukon, but also didn't give the feeling like you're towing when you're not.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium LuxuryThe Escalade's imposing body style is not so large that it proves unmanageable. Photo courtesy of Cadillac

The Escalade was test driven back-to-back-to-back with other vehicles in its segment, the Yukon and the Ford Expedition, and it proved to be, hands down, the least maneuverable. Those poor limousine service drivers in L.A. are not going to enjoy working their way up, and then back down the snaked driveways of the Hollywood elite in this Cadillac.

However, once they get on the road and are able to sit back and relax a touch with their clientele all buckled up, they're going to enjoy the drive. The tester wasn't equipped with GM's Super Cruise, which is a hands-free driver assist technology, but the addition would be a welcome one as the lane keep assist isn't as proactive as other systems from other automakers, and the massive Caddy requires a driver's full attention to stay in the lane.

The 2021 Escalade's massive standard 38-inch OLED screen display area is the highlight of the interior and likely the biggest talking point of the vehicle. Its layout is sensical, proves to not be distracting while driving, and supplies just the right amount of information without going overkill on moving graphics.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium LuxuryThe OLED display darkens to deep black at night, giving your drivers' eyes a rest.Photo courtesy of Cadillac

The best part of the tech, which is actually made up of three separate screens under the same thin housing, is that it quickly and smoothly goes to near-black, giving drivers the least amount of distraction possible while on the road at night. Its resolution is twice the pixel density of a 4K television.

Though a minor issue, the screen's design does not allow for turn signal indicators to be easily seen as they are positioned directly behind the steering wheel rim. With the indicator's generally soft tone, it's easy to miss when an indicator remains on when exiting a roundabout or merging into traffic.

Surrounding the Escalade's screen are a variety of appointments, some of which feel and look luxurious while others do not. These are, however, typical General Motors product quibbles. The synthetic materials on the dashboard, and thin leather door inserts are not as luxe as what you'll find in SUVs made by Cadillac's rivals. Not that anyone will notice them for long with the OLED elephant in the room.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium LuxuryThe layout of the OLED display is easy to understand and read on-the-fly. Photo courtesy of Cadillac

Seats in the Escalade are comfortable, providing ample room. No matter the row, the upholstery is well-executed and the ride is sublime as the suspension easily soaks up the road's imperfections. It's a vehicle the aforementioned elite won't mind being seen in and will look forward to riding in.

Along with its comfortable seats and enough legroom in all three rows for adults, one of the best parts of the Escalade is its sound system. It's the first vehicle with an AKG system (offered with either 19 (standard) or 36 speakers), and it pairs the system with an already-quiet cabin. The sound is all-encompassing for front row occupants and musical elements are separated, coming at you like you're at a concert, rather than listening to a glossed-over recorded session. Turning it up, the quality of the sound is not lost. D-E-lightful.

Individual technology elements of the Escalade are why buyers should choose it over the Yukon and the Lincoln Navigator. The OLED display, Super Cruise, and AKG sound system make the Cadillac a step up from its competition even though its drive feels like a step down.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium LuxuryCadillac has made the seats of the Escalade comfortable and appointed them well. Photo courtesy of Cadillac

The Cadillac Escalade is pricey. As tested it was well over $85,000, and that's just a mid-grade model. The Escalade faces stiff competition from the Yukon Denali, which comes in at least $15,000 cheaper and delivers a better drive experience. The similarly priced Navigator is also an elegant option that's sure to be upgraded with Ford's hands-free driving technology in the not-too-distant future.

There may be a sleeper competitor on the horizon. The Jeep Grand Wagoneer is set to debut soon and will likely rival the Escalade with its sound system and elegant design, and come with a similar price tag.

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Performance luxury SUV

The Cadillac Escalade-V starts at almost $150,000

The Escalade-V gets a $149,990 starting price

Cadillac

Cadillac teased an ultra-powerful Escalade-V a while back, and now we have all the details. The 2023 SUV will feature a supercharged 6.2-liter V8, plenty of luxury, and a stout six-figure price tag.

The 2023 Escalade-V comes with a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that makes 682 horsepower and 653 pound-feet of torque. It features a hand-built design and shares much of its underlying engineering with the CT5-V Blackwing. It's paired with a ten-speed automatic transmission and full-time active four-wheel drive.

2023 Cadillac Escalade-VUnder the hood, there's a supercharged 6.2-liter V8.Cadillac

Cadillac gives every Escalade-V air ride adaptive suspension and magnetic ride control. The driver can customize the suspension and feel using the SUV's selectable driving modes. The system can also raise or lower the ride height by to .8 inches, and the SUV comes with a launch control system that helps it get off the line with explosive speed.

Inside, the Escalade-V builds on the top trim of the standard SUV with zebra wood accents, massaging front seats, and a heated steering wheel. It's got the same amazing tech, too, with a curved OLED display that runs the length of the dash, navigation, voice commands, wireless Apple Carplay and Android Auto, an augmented reality navigation system, and a 36-speaker AKG Studio stereo. Cadillac Super Cruise is available.

2023 Cadillac Escalade-VAn extended ESV variant is also available. Cadillac

The 2023 Cadillac Escalade-V goes on sale this summer. Starting pricing lands at $149,990, and Cadillac offers an extended-wheelbase ESV version of the high-performance SUV.

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Lincoln will not make a performance variant to compete with Cadillac.

Lincoln

TheLincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade have been duking it out at the top of luxury SUV rankings for decades, but there’s one area of the Caddy’s development that Lincoln won’t touch. In a recent interview, a company executive told Ford Authority that it has no plans to create a performance variant of the Navigator to compete with the upcoming Escalade V from Cadillac.

2022 Lincoln NavigatorThe new Navigator features several upscale touches and excellent tech. Lincoln

That means the Navigator will stick with the powertrain it’s carried for years, which is a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine that makes 440 horsepower and 510 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired with a smooth ten-speed automatic and either rear- or four-wheel drive. While there’s more than enough power to get the hulking Lincoln moving, it’s not a powertrain that inspires excitement or engagement, and though beefy, it’s tuned much more for comfort and quietness than drama.

Though more than adequate, those specs are a far cry from the numbers we expect from the Escalade V. The full-size bruiser from Cadillac is expected to get a supercharged 6.2-liter V8, similar to the unit seen in the CT5-V Blackwing and Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. We don’t know power numbers yet, but the engine should deliver horsepower and torque numbers in the high 600s.

Cadillac Escalade VThe Escalade V will be massively powerful. Cadillac

That Lincoln is taking a different approach isn’t surprising. The automaker has already announced its intention to go all-electric, so pouring more time and resources into creating a performance gas-powered SUV isn’t in line with its goals. Company executives have also expressed a desire to avoid imitating rivals, so the decision to leave a performance Navigator behind is not surprising.

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