2021 Cadillac Escalade Review: The Standard of the World Takes Back the SUV Crown

Even without Super Cruise as tested here, the new Escalade will blow you away.

Peter Holderith

Let me be as frank as I can with you: this new 2021 Cadillac Escalade probably doesn't quite match the levels of hand-holding luxury that something like a top-trim Mercedes, BMW, or Porsche SUV might offer. It's just not that kind of truck. It's a really smart version of what, really, is a childish take on making a luxury SUV. Bigger is better, so the Escalade is the biggest. Big engines are also better, so 6.2-liters it is. Big touchscreens are also all the rage now, so this one is... well, I think you see where I'm going here.

The Escalade has always been like this: a rolling symbol of American opulence mixed in with our love of huge trucks. But now it's finally taken a big step towards its competition in terms of technology and overall quality. Yes, you can actually cross-shop this and something like a Mercedes G-Class. No, that's not a joke.

Peter Holderith

Let's finally trash the "Will Cadillac actually get it right this time?" trope, because in this case, the brand has. What has arguably been Cadillac's strongest product in recent years is now even better; a V8-powered luxury-liner that scares off other SUVs with its bigger wheels, louder speakers, more engine, more leather, more everything. It's impressive, ostentatious and worth the price tag.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium Luxury, By the Numbers

  • Base Price (as Tested): $77,490 ($102,010)
  • Powertrain: 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V8 | 10-speed automatic transmission | four-wheel drive
  • Horsepower:  420 at 5,600 RPM
  • Torque: 460 lb-ft at 4,100 RPM
  • Curb Weight: 5,822 pounds
  • 0-60 mph: 6.1 seconds (est.)
  • EPA Fuel Economy: 14 mpg city | 19 highway | 16 combined
  • Quick Take: Put this interior in every Cadillac, make every Cadillac like this.

On the Outside and Underneath

But before I go heaping any more praise on this thing, the size must be addressed. 

Peter Holderith

The front end of the Escalade is tall. It doesn't look great in a lot of photos because, well, it's massive and slab-sided. It looks best in person. What's more important on the front of this car is what you don't see. Visible if you look carefully are the car's night vision camera on the lower right—which I'll talk about more later—and its high-resolution front-view camera, located right under the Cadillac crest. 

What's missing is a massive radar sensor, which is nowhere to be found despite this truck having radar cruise control. I'm guessing it's positioned opposite the night vision camera on the black plastic lower fascia, but in any case, it's integrated very well unlike many other vehicles equipped with the same feature.

The rest of the truck's exterior is defined not by carefully integrated cameras and sensors, but simply by how big it is. There's plenty of glass and visibility while you're moving is good, the wheels are massive yet the tire sidewall is still substantial, and chrome accents adorn areas typically left blank on lesser vehicles on this platform. And speaking of this platform, it boasts the latest all-new independent suspension found on GM's latest full-size trucks. 

Peter Holderith

My test car was equipped with adaptive air ride suspension and magnetic ride control, which both try really hard to hide the 5,800-pound curb weight. They're actually, surprisingly, somewhat successful in doing this. The Escalade absolutely does not drive like a smaller car, but you don't get a sensation of impending cornering doom when the road deviates from the arrow-straight. It's mostly flat, composed, and gives the driver plenty of confidence. Editor-in-Chief Kyle Cheromcha says that the Escalade he was briefly loaned was not equipped with magnetic shocks nor air suspension, and it was seafaring business as usual. If you want a smoother ride then, perhaps don't get the magnetic shocks.

Drivetrain-wise, I think it's time to make this truck electric. Big V8s have plenty of power and this particular 6.2-liter works well with GM's 10-speed transmission, but I now wonder how much faster, quieter and efficient it could be if it cribbed from that new GMC Hummer EV's playbook

Despite this thing's massive fuel tank, my range estimates hovered around 350-miles on a full tank, a distance within the capabilities of fast-advancing battery tech. Sure, it would be heavier, but the Escalade is pretty much the heaviest car out there, a few more pounds aren't going to hurt it. 

Peter Holderith

That relatively short range is due to the Escalade's absolutely pitiful fuel economy. Around town, the EPA estimate seemed right on the money at 14, but on the highway I was able to get an easy 20-21 MPG without really trying, exceeding the official 19-mpg figures. 22 could certainly be had in a pinch, but it's really not worth the hypermiling hassle to pick up one mpg, especially in something as quiet and comfortable as this car. 

Driver Assistance, But Not With Super Cruise (Yet)

The Escalade's driver-assist features work reasonably well. The lane-keep assist is not lane centering, so it will bounce you around within the lane if you offer it no direction. The radar cruise also works ok, but it can often accelerate a bit too hard, which is unsettling. 

I wanted to test the latest version of Cadillac's objectively excellent Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving assistance system, but sadly, my tester didn't have it as an option. Super Cruise will be available on the Premium Luxury, Sports and Platinum Trims as a $2,500 option, but it isn't immediately available at launch—we're told that will happen in the months to come, which may explain its absence here.

I'm eager to try it soon because I think it'll give the Escalade a considerable edge over other trucks in this range. After all, hands-free driving with Super Cruise is what this car is meant to do. It isn't fun to drive. It's a luxury SUV. 

If you do a fair amount of traveling on the interstate and you're thinking of getting one of these, don't buy it without Super Cruise. 

Cadillac Steps Up Its Interior Game

Cheap plastics, bad switchgear, you've heard it all before in reviews of Cadillacs. Here are the bad parts of this car's interior: the volume knob doesn't feel great to turn, the infotainment selector doesn't either, but they're both finished in cold metal, not cheap plastics. The fake wood on the dash is also a bit too fake and glossy, and the climate control switches could use some more illumination at night. Also, the steering column is straight Tahoe. If you're really concerned about the quality of the plastics on your car's steering column, well, maybe consider something else.

Peter Holderith

Besides the column, there are no vast panels of polycarbonate depression and there's no huge blow-formed palisade next to your knees. It's all quality stuff centered around one of the biggest digital displays ever fitted into any car. This display is not only huge, it's separated into three distinct sections that are lag-free, operate with intuitive interfaces, and curve around the driver ever-so-gently. It's also thin enough—about half an inch thick—to actually grab, which makes using the system much easier while you're on the move. 

The small screen located to the left of the instrument cluster is particularly useful, able to display trip information, adjust the reasonably good heads-up-display, and control some of the truck's many cameras.

Speaking of those cameras, this truck has more than a film crew, and there are at least as many sensors as there are visual aids. The "Augmented Reality" camera located in the dashboard is interesting. It's high resolution, works at 60 frames per second, and will overlay navigation instructions onto the road ahead of you. Really, this feature is sort of gimmicky because it just places an arrow hovering above the road in an attempt to direct you. What it should do is highlight the road's actual surface. 

A camera feature that also displays on this same screen and is much more useful is the infrared night vision camera. If you want to get an Escalade and you live in a rural area, check this box. This camera spots deer, people, and even animals as small as dogs, highlighting them in a bounding box from a long-distance away. 

In an attempt to show how this system worked without freight-training through the local wildlife, I decided to place a hot dog in front of the car outside on a cold day. Certainly, I thought, the truck would detect it as an animal and highlight it. Well, my fat little dog Charlie was let out at just that moment, and he ate it. The Escalade's infrared camera indeed recognized him as an animal, so thankfully you can still see what I mean.

The effect of this system is that it gets rid of that "Is that a deer?" moment when you're driving along the road with a quick glance down onto the instrument cluster. It put my mind at ease a few times, but really, all of these camera features should be thrown up onto the HUD, especially the night vision feature where there are no worries about glare because the system only operates at night. Having to glance down takes very little time, but it's still time spent not looking directly at the road. I'm sure in the next few years, systems like this will transition up onto the windshield.

The truck's other cameras were all accessible from the massive center display, and they're nearly as high quality as the AR camera. There's one for monitoring the space ahead of the truck's tall nose, a reverse camera (of course), one to help you align a trailer hitch, and a few other side-facing cameras for the 360 camera system. Speaking of this 360 camera, it's only stitched together OK, but it works very well in conjunction with this truck's battery of sensors, making parking far less nerve-wracking than you expect.

Beyond all of this tech, it's also worth noting that the leather, while excellent, was a $2,000 option. The rear-seat entertainment system was also optional. You can cast to the two screens easily from Android devices using the Miracast app, but you'll find it harder with Apple devices. The headphones it came with were not of great quality, so if you're using that system in your personal car, you should definitely use your own headphones.  Overall though, most everything feels good, the windows go up almost completely silently, and everything just... works. There's nothing that stands out on this car which is mind-numbingly frustrating. 

And it wouldn't be right to not mention the Escalade's sound system, which is very good even without receiving the upgraded speakers, as my test car didn't. For whatever reason, you have to check the "Adaptive Sound" box in the audio settings for the system to really reach its full potential. Before you do this, it only sounds OK. Afterward, it's great. This system really was the cherry on top of the best Cadillac interior I've experienced in recent memory.

Answering Your Questions

About two weeks ago, I asked readers what they wanted to know about this new Escalade. Well, now it's time to answer those questions, at least, the ones I can.

Q: "From the previous experience from the 4th generation Escalade, how good is ride and handling for the 5th generation model? Which area is more noticeable on this new platform, ride or handling? How comfortable are the seats? Does the climate control heat the whole car immediately and efficiently?  If you get a chance to drive at night, how efficient are the headlamps?" -- John L Smith Jr.

A: I touched on this previously, but it's worth mentioning again. The ride is bordering on what one would consider "firm" with the adaptive shocks and adaptive air suspension. It definitely has no problem controlling its immense heft. It's not a sports car, but it handles a lot better than other trucks I've driven at a similar size. It feels very stable and composed, and there's even some steering feel. It's a very manageable chassis overall. Without these shocks and suspension tuning, I'm told it's a pretty typical Escalade.

Climate control typically takes a minute to really heat up the entire vehicle, but remote start makes this process quicker.

Q: "How bad do those big LCDs wash out in sunlight? Granted, in some situations, it's going to be inevitable—the sun shining in through the side windows and landing right on the screen will wash out any LCD no matter what. But is the LCD properly viewable in other situations?" -- EMH

A: Perhaps it was just very overcast when I tested the car, but throughout my entire time having it I never experienced any uncomfortable glare. There was glare on the piano black trim below the screen, but none on the screen itself. Perhaps it has some new screen filter or something along those lines, or maybe the curvature has something to do with it, but I never experienced bad glare. 

Again, I tested the car during winter in upstate New York where the sun was mostly not visible most of the time, and I only had the truck for a week.

Q: "GM made a point to really try and differentiate the siblings from the base Chevy and GMC trims, to Denali, and then to Escalade. I know they hit it out of the park with the new Denali trim vs. Base, but is the Escalade really a step above the Denali, or about the same?" -- coxmr

A: I haven't driven a Yukon Denali, but looking at detailed photos of the Denali interior, I would say that yes, the Cadillac's is very different and superior. The Cadillac's massive screen is really something else. It's not only cool-looking, it's very functional and put together well. It's the opposite of other systems where it just looks like an iPad slammed into the dashboard. 

The Denali steering wheel is also similar, but not the same. The Cadillac gets metallic switchgear where the Denali does not, and indeed most (all?) of the other switchgear in the interior is different. The climate controls are completely different and have nothing in common with any other vehicle on the platform, and the Denali doesn't get an infotainment controller like the Cadillac does. Really, it's hard to spot similarities between the two, besides the steering column which I mentioned previously.

Really, the more I look for similar areas, the less I find. Heck, even the glovebox is different on the Cadillac, something I would expect to be carried over. It's not even worth trying to say what's still the same, because so much is different. And for the record, It doesn't feel like a cheap car from the inside, so changing all of this stuff really does pay off. The seats are also much nicer in the Escalade, especially with the optional leather. Good question!

Q: "Finally, is there convenient storage for 2 smartphones in the center console or dash? I cannot believe how few interiors provide sufficient real estate for both driver and front passenger to store their phones and beverages. From the pictures, it appears maybe only the driver can store their phone in the square cup (with the USB cord coming from in front, requiring the phone to be stored upside down), despite the center console occupying 6 square feet of front cabin space. It would be great if the review included a photo that shows the interior in typical use by a family of four—2 phones out, 2 beverages in front and at least 2 more in back. Maybe a roll of paper towels and a stuffed labradoodle for good measure." -- KimJungIllest

A: KimJungIllest, whatever your real name is—please don't kill me with a nerve agent—you had a lot to ask, some of which I hope was answered by my previous answers. 

To answer your question about interior storage, there's plenty for smartphones. There are spacious pockets next to the driver's knee on the center console where you can throw one, and a nice pouch right in front of the armrest which can charge a device wirelessly while stowing it. There's, of course, plenty of USB ports to go around.

As far as beverages go, there's a cupholder for the driver and passenger, but no others on the doors. You'll have to move to the rear set of center-mounted cupholders if you have more than one drink. There's really plenty of space in this truck though, so you'll always find a place to put stuff. I'm pretty sure it's the biggest car for sale besides the long-wheelbase ESV, so if there isn't sufficient space you can send me an angry email if you get one. I promise I will respond begging for mercy.

Q: "The front end is hideous, the inside looks decent enough but is probably one step above Mattel-grade plastic (it IS a GM truck, after all), and it's way too much money for a tarted-up Tahoe.  Cadillac used to be a unique, luxury car that could hold its own against any other car in the world.  It's been a joke, however, since at least the Cimarron debacle, way back in '82.  If I had the kind of money that would allow me to purchase this vulgar, Brobdingnagian beast, I'd spend it on something else." -- rickrolle

A: Hey, I think that's the first time I've ever heard those things—especially a mention of the Cimarron—in the comments of an article about a Cadillac! Props for being original. You also didn't ask me a question. Rude!

This truck is truly a step ahead of what you are saying, and I know that because I didn't want to like this truck. Take a test drive. You'll probably agree with me. If you don't, send me an angry email. Or just send me an angry email anyway! It's in italics at the bottom of this review. Super easy to find.

Q: "Do you think dealers will accept my house as part of the down payment?" -- Lets Go

A: Take out a home equity loan for the down payment. Don't spend your own money on that!

Q: "I am really curious on fit & finish of that interior." -- protodite

A: I shortened your comment, sorry. It's far better than what I expected, and besides the steering wheel/column, It doesn't share a ton with the lower-trim trucks on this platform. I was impressed by how well everything worked, felt, and looked—besides what I mentioned in the copy. And those steering wheel buttons that it does share with the Yukon Denali also feel great, so it's not like the Escalade is worse for it.

Peter Holderith

Cadillac Gets This One Right

Driving this truck around for a week became preferable to the endless monotony of working from home these days. Stuck away from my desk with a surprise meeting looming, it became a comfortable, wifi-enabled office. On long-distance cruises, it was relaxing to be in, as the driver or a passenger. Everything in this truck adds up to make it not just the best Escalade ever, but a great truck, period. 

And while the Escalade will always suffer slightly from sharing a platform with two lesser vehicles, this time around that's far less evident than it ever has been. If you need to get seven people somewhere as comfortably as possible, this one of your best bets. And when Super Cruise finally reaches this thing, it will be the best bet. Cadillac's success, then, has a simple formula. Just make all of its vehicles more like this new Escalade, and add Super Cruise. It's really that easy.

Email the author at peter@thedrive.com