For as long as large body-on-frame luxury SUVs have been around, there has been a battle between the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator. In the few recent years, the Navigator has proudly healed its king-of-the-hill status over the outgoing Cadillac Escalade. Now, with the redesign of the Escalade, the big Caddy is grappling at the Navigator’s large body-on-frame luxury SUVs top-dog status.
For the 2021 model year, the Escalade is redesigned with many welcomed tech advancements and rides on an available air suspension system, definitively making it feel like the best-riding vehicle of its class. Many areas of concern were addressed in the new Escalade that consumers had a bone to pick with the outgoing model. However, there are still a few things that, in my opinion, are missing from what I expected out of a vehicle appears to eagerly be crowned the newfound king of full-size luxury SUVs.
Powering the new 2021 Escalade is a returned champion, the proven 6.2-liter V8 engine of the past still producing 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque and mated to the latest 10-speed automatic transmission. The choice for retaining the proven V8 engine isn’t necessarily a bad one, it’s one that I feel was to keep buyers coming back for more – because there was never really anything wrong with the Corvette-inspired pushrod V8 engine other than its ability to drink copious amounts of unleaded fuel if you start pushing the large Escalade hard (14 mpg city/19 mpg highway for the 4WD Sport Platinum). As you expect, not much has changed in the department of acceleration as the new 2021 Escalade weighs almost the same as its predecessor. Zero to 60 mph still comes in just a tick over 6 seconds and the smoothness of the 10-speed automatic transmission does well to often land in the proper gear upon most demands. The familiar setup allows you to tow up to 8,300 pounds.
Where performance has leaped for the 2021 model year is in the chassis dynamics and overall ride quality, thanks to a move to independent rear suspension and the delightful air suspension option that I think is a must, as has three ride height settings that you can control manually or allow the system to automatically lower the vehicle for an easier exit or entry. Thankfully, the air suspension, combined with the millisecond-quick-reacting magnetic ride control (magnetorheological dampers), elevate the ride smoothness and its ability to adapt to rough road surfaces without upsetting the chassis, in addition to keeping the body level no matter how much you load up the Escalade. In the past, as most would know riding in an Escalade equipped with the massive 22-inch wheels such as these dark painted ones on my Escalade Sport Platinum test vehicle, the ride quality was jiggly and sometimes upsetting at the slightest dip or heave in the road. Now, the 2021 Escalade equipped with air suspension and using magnetic dampers, has a refined and polished ride that also seems to aid in the near-5,800-pound SUV’s handling abilities. While you would never willingly push an Escalade to its limits on back twisty roads, there seems to be more driver confidence in the way the vehicle feels and turns in. To me, it feels smaller than it is at times, somewhat like it’s Navigator competition.
The new 2021 Cadillac Escalade embodies some forward-thinking tech, mainly its unique set of infotainment system screens, now a new OLED curved screen setup that collectively measures 38-inches from three compartmentalized screens. The setup starts with a 7.2-inch OLED touch control panel screen far to the left of the configurable 14.2-inch OLED gauge cluster display (normal gauge display, full-screen navigation map display, augmented reality display for navigation, and a night vision display), and then completed with the larger of the three screens, a 16.9-inch OLED center screen that brings the latest Cadillac infotainment system to life. The system, altogether, has a learning curve to overcome initially but later proves to be “workable” for most. There’s a mirid of embedded functions throughout the menu sets and are all presented in the best contrast ratio you can find in an automobile, thanks to the utilization of OLED technology. In a way, the screens almost look like they are fixed illuminated buttons due to the nearly infinite contrast and clarity you get out of an OLED screen. If there was ever anything to set the Escalade apart from most vehicles on the current market, it is the clever use of OLED screens that are carefully encased in chrome and stitched leather trim.
Keeping with the new tradition of using forward-thinking tech, the new Escalade gets one of the best-sounding audio systems that I have experienced in a new vehicle, a 36-speaker AKG Studio Reference system that elevates sound by smart speaker placements. There are even speakers in the front seat headrests that are carefully tuned for just the right amount of output to combine it with the surrounding sets of speakers, and the system doesn’t distort a bit when the volume is turned up to the max. A conversation enhancement feature is nicely integrated so the driver can “talk” to the rear passengers with an amplified voice because the second and third-row almost have their own zip code with the amount of space you have.
As far as the second-row goes, there’s a little left to be desired. While the second-row captain’s chairs get heating and plenty of manual seat adjustments, the competition (even in the non-luxury space), get cooled seats and even massaging second-row seats in something like the Mercedes-Benz GLS. The Escalade, unfortunately, doesn’t offer either. When the Escalade is often used for toting movie stars around, or just used as an Uber Black vehicle, there needs to be some additional luxury amenities in the second-row, at least. Good on Cadillac for including heating, ventilation, and massaging features for the front seats, in addition to having two 12.6-inch entertainment touch screens for the second-row seats in the upper trim levels.
Surrounding the 38-inches of screen real-estate as the focal point for the interior, there’s the lavish appointment of leather, soft-touch surfaces, and just the right amount of accenting trim and stitching throughout the cabin. The wood trim, unique in each of the several interior color selections, adds a welcoming softness to the interior that you expect in a luxury vehicle. The spaciousness of the Escalade goes without saying that you get to have your cake and eat it too. In the normal wheelbase variation of the Escalade as in my test vehicle, there’s ample room throughout for all of its 7-passengers. Opt for the Escalade ESV and you get even more room out back with the largest cargo area offered in such a vehicle.
In the area of safety, the Escalade brings all of the adaptive features on the market to the forefront, which includes lane departure warning/mitigation, blind-spot monitors w/trailer side blind zone alert, forward collision warning/emergency braking, a bright and clear color heads-up display, rear cross-traffic warning w/emergency braking, front pedestrian braking, rear pedestrian alert, and adaptive cruise control with the availability of Cadillac’s latest supercruise autonomous driving system (supercruise not equipped on my test vehicle, unfortunately).
Cadillac’s quest to become a more recognizable luxury force as an American automaker starts with the Escalade, and GM knows this. The new 2021 Escalade is a good move in the right direction to continue such a path, but there’s still just a little work to be done to conquer all as you start to see large 3-row luxury crossovers move into the Escalade’s territory where they tend to extend the luxury appeal more throughout the whole vehicle, not just the seats up front. However, the new 2021 Escalade comes out swinging strong and there’s nothing in its specific segment that can knock it out right now, even when my loaded-up test vehicle costs $112,095. So, which one would I pick, a new Lincoln Navigator Black Label or the new Escalade? I would have to go with th Escalade – it’s marginally better in my opinion mostly due to the welcoming suspension system setup, something I feel the Navigator is a small step behind. Otherwise, the two are excellent contenders and it ultimately comes down to preference.
One thing to quickly note: Even though the Escalade still essentially shares its bones with the GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban, there are many features and luxury amenities that are saved for the Escalade, in addition to the cabin being mostly different from its distant relatives, which attempts to justify the premium that you pay for such a definitive Luxury SUV. Some may agree, while some will be satisfied with a new Yukon Denali like the one I reviewed a few weeks ago.