2021 Cadillac Escalade Super Cruise Review: The Hands-Free Future of Highway Driving
Cadillac's Super Cruise turns the already excellent Escalade into the standard of the world.
You step up into the 2021 Cadillac Escalade, you get it on the highway, and the Super Cruise light illuminates itself on the dash. You click the button, a strip of light on the steering wheel turns green, and then that's it. For all intents and purposes, you're just a supervisor. Hands are off the wheel, eyes are on the road, away you go down the Interstate.
When this happens, everything changes. Really, you're no longer in a car as you know it. In my case, you're in a big luxurious room on wheels that, for as long are you're on a mapped highway—which was every highway I drove on—you just have to keep looking ahead. You begin to adjust to your surroundings, you get more curious about what's on the radio. A question pops into your head: What do I do now? Besides shut off the heated steering wheel, that is.
2021 Cadillac Escalade Platinum, By the Numbers
- Base Price (as Tested): $77,890 ($112,465)
- Powertrain: 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V8 | 10-speed automatic transmission | four-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 420 @ 5,600 RPM
- Torque: 460 lb-ft @ 4,100 RPM
- Curb Weight: 5,822 pounds
- EPA Fuel Economy: 14 mpg city | 19 highway | 16 combined
- Quick Take: Sell all your shit and buy this thing.
The 2021 Escalade Platinum is one of the biggest luxury SUVs you can buy and the Lincoln Navigator's arch-nemesis. It's a seven- or eight-passenger behemoth with a big giant everything and a massive reputation to boot. In its latest iteration, it finally lives up to the hype it's been building for five generations—especially when fitted with Super Cruise, General Motors' $2,500 advanced driver-assistance system. Any trim that has the word "Platinum" in the name gets it as an option, and my loaner was equipped as such. Once Super Cruise turns on, the question of "What do I do now?" is an easy one to answer.
You flick on the heated and cooled massage seats. Whatever music you eventually decide to listen to sounds the best that you've ever heard it because it's being piped out of a 36-speaker AKG system. So it better. You can also—so long as you're attentive—eat, drink, rub your hands together in anticipation like a cartoon villain. Or just relax.
This is all made possible by Super Cruise, Cadillac's hands-free highway driver-assist. As far as I'm concerned, it's truly one of the best driver-assist systems out there. You get on the highway, a light blinks on in the dash, and after the click of a button, you can take your hands off the wheel as the car maintains a set speed, stays in its lane, and changes lanes when you toggle the turn signals. Since GM has mapped pretty much the entire Interstate with LiDAR, you can travel mile after mile without ever touching the steering wheel. Think of it as a really advanced radar cruise control and lane-centering system combined into one.
Cadillac makes it clear that it's absolutely not a self-driving system, which becomes obvious if you try to abuse it. If you take your eyes off the road for more than five seconds, the green light on the steering wheel starts blinking. After that, it's only a few seconds before the light goes red, the system tells you to regain control, and you have to wait several seconds until it re-enables itself.
It's also careful about where it can be used. For instance, it knew if there was a construction zone ahead. If that was the case, it alerted me to regain control well before I crossed through it. This applied to any parts of the highway it encountered that were unmapped or under construction. It wasn't a common occurrence, but the Escalade always handled it well, letting me re-enable Super Cruise as soon as it was safe to do so.
If you don't regain control when Super Cruise tells you it's going to shut off, the car gradually begins decelerating until it turns on the hazard lights and stops completely. If you're a repeat offender and must re-enable the system multiple times, it will eventually lock you out altogether. A voice tells you that the system is shutting off for good—I imagined it was Mary Barra—and then you must shut off the engine to get Super Cruise back.
I got locked out once and I didn't let it happen again. Why? Because Super Cruise is not something you're going to want to live without once you've had a taste. It handled every traffic situation I encountered, from twisty dual carriageways like New England's Merrit Parkway to erratic drivers between Boston and Philadelphia. It stayed in the center of its lane, it slowed down for tighter corners, and if other drivers got too close—truck drivers, mostly—it would nudge itself over to make you feel a little better.
It changed lanes smoothly when I asked it to via the blinker stalk, taking a brief moment to make sure the coast was clear and then moving over smoothly and predictably. It would sometimes get confused and hang between two lanes if I didn't hold the stalk down until most of the car was in the other lane, but that was user error more than anything. It was also one of the few things that could be qualified as a "mistake" that Super Cruise ever made while I was using it.
If you find yourself driving long distances consistently, Super Cruise is really a must-have, and if you're curious whether or not your local highways are mapped with LiDAR, Cadillac has a convenient page on its website to tell you. You'll notice if you look at that map that it covers almost every major stretch of Interstate, meaning if you wanted to hop on Interstate 80 in New Jersey and drive all the way to California, hands-free, you could.
Speaking of the Interstate, the longest I spent without touching the wheel of this Escalade was about 150 miles on my way from Philadelphia to Boston. Generally, the only time the system wasn't enabled is when I had to change highways or if there was a construction zone. It was always just a matter of time until it came back online, though.
This system changes the way you think about driving on the highway. It's no longer, "Oh god, I have to spend three hours on the Interstate." It's, "Oh, God, after I spend three hours on the Interstate I'm actually going to have to stop supervising and drive this thing."
The Good Continues Off the Highway
That's not to say this new Escalade is bad to drive. In fact, if you read my previous review of a non-Super Cruise-equipped Escalade, you'll know it hides at least a portion of its immense weight effectively due to advanced magnetic shocks and adaptive air suspension. Thanks to its 420-horsepower, 6.2-liter V8, it also has plenty of power, and the 10-speed automatic transmission is just as sweet as usual: shifting smoothly, quietly, perfectly. It's good to drive for an SUV, but Super Cruise makes the mundane part of getting from point A to B feel like even more of a chore than it already is. You wish you could turn it on in more circumstances.
But what really makes all of this work—what makes this new rolling house you're in feel like somewhere you want to spend time—is the interior you get with the top-of-the-range "Platinum" trim. The previous "Premium Luxury" Escalade I had felt solid and luxurious. This Platinum car is over the top. The wood is some of the most ornate and tasteful I've ever seen in a vehicle, every soft-touch plastic surface in the cheaper car is now upholstered in supple white cotton. It's just hard to believe this is based on the Tahoe at all.
Despite all of this, not a lot of people notice that you're driving an Escalade with no hands. But with a sticker price of $112,465, they should. Cadillac needs to do a bit of a better job marketing Super Cruise when a car is equipped with it. Put a badge on the outside so people know what they're missing when they pass you on the highway. Make the Super Cruise logo something visually interesting, not just a steering wheel, or a boring-looking driver-assist switch. Autonomous driving was just a dream for GM 70 years ago, but behind the wheel of this Escalade, you get the impression that it's finally beginning to be realized. Show us that!
And if I'm going to spend a little time complaining, the only real fault of this truck is its size. It's tough to park by yourself, the automatic parking system doesn't work very well, and it takes up most of its own lane. Super Cruise feels great in something this big because it's so comfortable, but there were multiple instances during my time with the Escalade that I wished I was in something smaller. There is no getting around this thing's sheer physical mass.
The Standard of the World
It's impossible to end on a negative note for this truck, though. I said before not many people realize you're Super Cruising hands-free down the Interstate. But the few who do notice really notice.
One guy in a Bentley Bentayga on Merrit Parkway did. Midway around a sweeping left turn, his passenger looked over, uttered something to him, and they both took quick glances looking over at me, and then my steering wheel, and then back at me. I looked back and imagined what they were thinking.
It didn't matter they were in a car that, when comparing base prices, cost double what this Escalade does. The badge on the front of his Bentley didn't matter either. At that moment, he was driving, and for all intents and purposes, I wasn't. I was just making sure the car didn't mess up, which it never did.
For $112,465, this Cadillac is worth far more than every penny. But even having said that, I'll be the first to admit that the brand still has work to do in order to fix its reputation. It has spent much of the 2000s—arguably far longer than that—struggling to nail down its identity. "Standard of the World" used to be a complete joke.
In this Escalade, though, it's just not so funny anymore.
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