2021 Cadillac Escalade First Drive: One Big, Fancy Family Tank

The hyper-sophisticated new Cadillac Escalade has a big screen, a big sound system...and a big price tag.

2021 cadillac escalade front
Tyler Duffy

What is it?

The Escalade is Cadillac’s flagship, full-size, three-row luxury SUV.

Is it new?

All-new. Cadillac is launching the fifth generation Escalade for the 2021 model year. It’s bigger and swankier, with a new independent rear suspension setup and interior and exterior styling cues from the Escala concept.

Cadillac gave us about 24 hours with a Premium Luxury trim version, which still cost north of $100,000 as equipped, but was only the second rung on a five-trim ladder. (They give it such a fancy name, presumably, because no one dropping six figures on a car wants to feel like they bought the “SE” model.)

2021 cadillac escalade
Tyler Duffy

Why is it special?

Cadillac has reinvented itself repeatedly this century, but the brand’s lone mainstay has been the Escalade. It debuted in the late 1990s, when Cadillac gave its cars real names; and it shall endure well into the 2020s, when Cadillac returns to naming its cars. Unlike almost every other recent Cadillac, the Escalade has been the right car in the right segment for most of its life — the one that feels distinctive and premium, like a Cadillac should.

The Escalade is often the showcase for the heights GM engineering can achieve...even if some may lament how much of that engineering goes into civilizing a three-ton behemoth. The new version arrives at a critical moment, with Lincoln offering an excellent Navigator, Jeep mounting a new challenge with the Grand Wagoneer and manufacturers like BMW getting in on the luxury barge game.

2021 cadillac escalade
Tyler Duffy

How does it drive?

Until you start parallel parking, the Escalade does not feel like a massive truck. It delivers impressive performance; you feel sufficiently cosseted enough to justify your $100,000 SUV expenditure.

The engine — GM’s tried and true 420 hp 6.2-liter V8 — is a carryover, but Cadillac now pairs it with the super-smooth new GM/Ford co-developed 10-speed automatic transmission found in the F-150 and Chevy Camaro. (A turbodiesel option is coming soon, as well.)

A new independent rear suspension setup improves the Escalade’s on-road manners. Add in the Air Ride adaptive suspension and GM’s stellar Magnetic Ride Control, and you get a composed ride, even on the standard 22-inch wheels. You register the bumps, but they don’t penetrate through to your hands or butt. The Escalade even has a Sport mode; I tried it for a few seconds, wondered why I'd bothered, then shifted back to Tour mode.

Cadillac’s vaunted Super Cruise hands-free highway driving technology is coming to the Escalade, but it won’t arrive until later this year. Even further in the distance is a potential EV version. My V8 model, true to classic Escalade form, averaged fewer than 15 mpg, even with a substantial stretch of highway cruising. There’s no hybrid option; if you want better fuel economy, you have to get the diesel.

2021 cadillac escalade
Tyler Duffy

What’s the inside like?

It’s spacious. The new Escalade is about eight inches longer than the last generation; that, plus the switch to the independent rear suspension, results in about 10 inches of extra foot room in the third row and a lot more cargo space.

It’s also fancy. The Escalade has to outdo the GMC Yukon, a luxury SUV in its own right, and so it comes in heavy with the luxury and tech.

The Escalade’s centerpiece is the sweeping dashboard and Cadillac’s curved, continuous 38-inch OLED display, which the brand describes as “art as well as technology.” The infotainment screen section alone is 17 inches. The screen has about twice the pixel density of a 4KTV, and can accommodate a range of functions such as augmented reality navigation, night vision and pretending you're in a video game.

Cadillac offers an optional 36-speaker AKG surround sound stereo (it runs$4,300) which has many fancy functions I didn’t get to play with, like tailoring the audio output for individual seats. I’m not enough of an audiophile to ascertain whether it’s worth the investment; I can say that it did not noticeably enhance the impromptu dance party my wife and son had to “Tootsie Roll” by the 69 Boyz.

If you like material choices (and if you’re buying a $100,000 land yacht, you probably do), Cadillac offers nine different trims, seven different grains of wood and four different leather quilting patterns on the Escalade. Make sure to upgrade to the all-weather floor mats: my tester had the light “Parchment” interior with the standard ones, and they were ruined with footprints after one trip to a cider mill.

2021 cadillac escalade rear
Tyler Duffy

What’s it cost?

The base MSRP for the Cadillac Escalade is $76,195. My 4WD Premium Luxury trim Escalade started at $85,995, and more than $15,000 in options push it to $101,015.


2021 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Premium Luxury

Powertrain: 6.2-liter V8; 10-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive

Horsepower: 420

Torque: 460 lb-ft

EPA Fuel Economy: 14 mpg city, 19 mpg highway

Seats: 7

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