2021 Cadillac Escalade Review: A Pop Culture Icon Gets a Glow-Up!

Cadillac redesigns the Escalade, resolving many of the SUV's shortcomings

Originally published on July 2, 2021

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As an American cultural icon, the first Cadillac Escalade was a rushed response to Lincoln’s 1999 model year release of the Navigator. Based on the Chevrolet Tahoe, the Escalade quickly became a de facto symbol of success in American music, media, and suburban enclaves.

To preserve this prestige, Cadillac puts more distance between its SUV and the one wearing the Chevy bowtie badges with each subsequent redesign. That's especially true for the all-new 2021 Cadillac Escalade, which is more clearly separated from other GM full-size SUVs to ensure its exclusivity and competitiveness.

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For 2021, the Escalade continues in regular and extended-length body styles (Escalade ESV). It has a standard gasoline V8 or an available turbocharged diesel six-cylinder engine, offered in Luxury, Premium Luxury, Premium Luxury Platinum, Sport, and Sport Platinum trim levels. Base prices range from just under $80,000 to nearly $103,000.

Cadillac provided a 2021 Escalade Sport Platinum for this review. It had the standard 6.2-Liter V8, 4-wheel drive, Onyx Package paint, a night vision system, and a handful of additional upgrades to bring the price to about $112,000, including destination charges.

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With the redesigned 2021 Escalade, Cadillac blends its latest design themes with the SUV's traditional cues. Choose Sport trim to tone down the chrome, or select one with Platinum in its name to maximize luxury. Multiple wheel designs up to 22 inches in diameter are available.

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Our test SUV's Crystal White Tricoat paint contrasted sharply with its blacked-out trim and wheels, giving the Escalade Sport Platinum a custom appearance. Inside, premium leather upholstery with a color-matched dashboard, door panel, and console surfaces gave the SUV a luxurious look, feel, and scent. However, the plastic used for certain portions of the cabin, such as the seat base covers, did not appear up to par for a six-figure price tag.

A four-corner air-ride suspension is available, and you can program it to lower the SUV closer to the ground to make getting in and out easier. Regardless of passenger row assignment, comfort is impressive—including the third-row seats. That’s because Escalade's new independent rear suspension design allowed Cadillac to lower the SUV's floor, creating more space for second- and third-row passengers. However, the test vehicle's heated, ventilated, and massaging front seats are likely where you’ll want to sit.

Cadillac takes pride in the Escalade's high-tech cabin, particularly the curved 38-inch glass screen covering three different digital displays. The left 7.2-inch touch-control panel and the 14.2-inch digital instrumentation display are easy to use and reference, though bright sunlight can create glare and fade. The sizable 16.9-inch infotainment system touchscreen is comprehensive, yet simple to navigate.

Piano-key climate controls, Cadillac's electronic joystick-style shifter, and primary physical infotainment controls decorate the dashboard and center console. The overall interior ambiance is more like a car than a truck, which is to the Escalade's benefit.

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The new independent rear suspension also adds cargo room to the Escalade. With its standard wheelbase, it supplies 25.5 cubic feet (cu. ft.) behind the third-row seat, 63 cu. ft. behind the second row, and a maximum of 109.1 cu.ft. Choose the Escalade ESV for even more capacity at 42.9, 81.5, and 126.6 cu.-ft., respectively.

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Most General Motors vehicles share a common infotainment system platform with nearly identical user interfaces, but the Escalade's technology is different. From the display screen's size to the user experience, it works unlike any other system in the GM family.

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Highlights include near field communications (NFC) for Bluetooth pairing, wireless smartphone mirroring, enhanced satellite radio (with subscription), connected services including a Wi-Fi hotspot (with subscription), wireless smartphone charging, and a navigation system with augmented reality capabilities.

Furthermore, a 19-speaker AKG audio system is standard, while a 36-speaker AKG Studio Reference high-end system is available. These implementations represent the first time AKG has offered automotive audio components, and the test vehicle's 36-speaker setup sounded magnificent.

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Additionally, the Escalade offers a rear-seat entertainment system with dual 12.6-inch touchscreen displays mounted to the front seatbacks, complete with the ability to stream content via Wi-Fi. My digitally native children had no trouble figuring out how to use it.

Cadillac's standard advanced driving assistance system (ADAS) offering is skimpy with Luxury trim, but the test vehicle had nearly all available upgrades, including enhanced automatic parking assist and night vision. It did not, however, have the new enhanced Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving technology.

Super Cruise is a hands-free adaptive cruise control that works on most limited-access highways in the U.S. and Canada. When certain conditions are met, and as long as the driver is paying attention, Super Cruise maintains a safe distance from vehicles ahead, centers the Escalade in its lane, and allows drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel. The enhanced version can even change lanes if the driver signals that intention.

Based on a recent test-drive in a Chevrolet Bolt EUV equipped with Super Cruise, the technology is effective. But when the driver monitoring camera determines that you're doing something other than paying close attention to the road ahead, it will hand back control by flashing a green light on the steering-wheel light bar to alert the driver. If it detects continued lack of attention, the light bar will turn red without hesitation and eventually prepare to come to a complete stop.

As tested without Super Cruise, the 2021 Escalade's ADAS collection offers smooth, refined speed and lane management. However, during an evaluation of a different Escalade earlier this year, the adaptive cruise control erroneously perceived a slow-moving semi-truck in an adjacent lane on a curve to be an obstacle and applied hard braking when it wasn't necessary.

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Cadillac equips the Escalade with a standard 6.2 Liter V8 engine. It makes 420 hp and 460 lb.-ft. of torque and powers the rear wheels or all four wheels through a 10-speed automatic transmission. In combined driving, the EPA says the V8 returns 16 mpg or 17 mpg, the lower figure applicable with the optional 4-wheel-drive system.

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A turbocharged 3.0-Liter diesel inline six-cylinder engine is available at no extra cost. This engine makes 277 hp but matches the gasoline V8 for torque output, and at much lower engine revs. The diesel is also more efficient, rated to return 22 mpg or 23 mpg, with the 4WD model earning the lower EPA estimate.

Drivers can choose between Tour, Sport, Off-Road, and Tow/Haul driving modes. Depending on the configuration, the Escalade's maximum tow rating is 8,200 lbs. (8,000 lbs. for the diesel).

The test vehicle had the gasoline V8 engine and the Autotrac 2-speed 4WD transfer case with 2-Hi, Auto, 4-Hi, and 4-Lo settings. The Escalade V8 averaged 15.9 mpg on the testing loop, nearly matching the official EPA estimate for this powertrain. Based on experience with the turbodiesel inline six-cylinder in full-size Chevrolet and GMC pickups, it is an excellent power plant offering robust acceleration combined with effortlessly good fuel economy.

However, the diesel can't match the 6.2-Liter V8 when it comes to delivering a satisfying engine and exhaust note. It sounds great at idle; and when accelerating, the Escalade supplies robust amounts of power. The transmission is excellent and we had no issues with the steering and braking systems. Despite its massive 22-inch wheels, the Escalade Sport Platinum provides a remarkably tight turning radius.

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Those massive wheels and the 275/50R22 tires wrapped around them degrade ride quality a bit. The situation is helped by the Escalade's next-generation Magnetic Ride Control 4.0 (MRC 4.0) adaptive damping suspension and new independent rear suspension (IRS) design. Additionally, the test vehicle had the adjustable 4-Corner Air Ride suspension. But even with this techno-wizardry in place, the impact of the 22s on the ride quality was evident over sharper bumps and cracks in the pavement.

Handling, however, is dramatically better with all of this gear. From the sizable tire contact patches and the IRS, to the Sport settings for the MRC 4.0 and Air Ride suspension, the new Escalade hustles around corners and through curves. But it's still a massive vehicle weighing upwards of 5,500 lbs., so you probably wouldn’t characterize this SUV as “fun to drive” because there is nothing light and tossable about this behemoth.

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With the redesigned 2021 Escalade, Cadillac resolves several problems with the previous model.

First, the new suspension design makes the Escalade's third-row seat comfortable for most children and adults. Second, that same engineering solution frees up a load of extra cargo space. Third, the suspension changes (including MRC 4.0 and Air Ride) improves the ride and handling.

Furthermore, the new technology aboard the Escalade keeps the SUV competitive in the large luxury SUV segment. The diesel engine option makes the Escalade more efficient to drive. And the design, inside and out, further distances the Cadillac from its Chevrolet and GMC cousins.

Thanks to these changes, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade is a far more appealing vehicle than before and remains worthy of its pop-cultural icon status.

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Christian Wardlaw
My first word was “car.” That’s what I’m told, anyway. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with them. The design. The engineering. The performance. And the purpose. I’m a car enthusiast who loves to drive, but I’m also most interested in the cars, trucks, and SUVs that people actually buy. Anybody can tell you that a sports car is fast. What you need to know is whether or not you should buy that new SUV, and why. My life purpose is to help you make that decision.