Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: April 25, 2021
It feels a long time coming but this is the Cadillac that we have all been waiting for. The new Escalade has been thoroughly revamped, modernized, and joins the likes of BMW, Mercedes, and Range Rover with comparable style, road presence, and technology, all without losing the identity that made it a status symbol in the first place.
Larger, lower, and more spacious than the last model, the new fifth-generation Cadillac Escalade is trying to take advantage of the growing SUV customer base. Retaining that iconic boxy shape with towering vertical taillights, Cadillac has pulled back the wrinkles and injected a serum of youth for a bold yet familiar exterior design. 22-inch wheels come standard, and running boards are optional though we highly recommend them for those who may have trouble hopping into this sizable truck. And sizable it is. Out in the concrete jungle, the Escalade makes even a BMW X3 look like a small hatchback.
Inside is Cadillac’s most well-made, ergonomically sound, and upscale interior in recent memory. The attention to detail is impressive, from the keyless entry sensor on the door handle shaped like the Cadillac badge, to the high-grade buttons and knobs that may appear plasticky, but give positive and expensive feedback. Many of the contact panels will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a modern Cadillac (CT4, CT5) but there are a few upgrades, like the HVAC control screen that is fully digital and looks better than the variation on the XT6.
The star of the show is the curved OLED screen that comes standard on all Escalade models, and runs nearly 100 cm of diagonal display. There are three OLED displays that layer on top of each other for a stacked visual effect, giving it added depth. The left screen is 7.2-inches, the one in front of the driver is 14.2-inches, and the center screen measures 16.9-inches. The best part about OLEDs? They are only as thick as a sheet of paper. Bright, crisp, and housing twice the pixel density as the Sony 4K TV in my living room, Cadillac has managed to leapfrog its rivals with the highest definition screen I’ve ever seen in a motor vehicle. The curved angle looks good too, enclosing the cabin yet somehow amplifying the dashboard’s width. But like the Porsche Taycan that also uses extensive widescreens, the steering wheel rim constantly gets in the way, meaning you adjust your head back and forth to view the information you need.
Similar to Mercedes, Cadillac has integrated augmented reality with live street views and directional overlays into the instrument cluster. It works very well, especially when following unfamiliar GPS routes, though we didn’t see much of a point for it outside of that, and the head up display handles most of the directional commands just as well. Other neat features? We’ve got a rear camera mirror, 12.6-inch dual entertainment screens for rear passengers, night vision ($2,300), soft close doors, and optional Super Cruise ($2,875), a semi-autonomous driver assistance system that we reviewed in the CT6 Sedan.
The standard 19-speaker AKG sound system delivers crisp audio but the optional 36-speaker AKG system we had on test is even better. An Austrian company that normally specializes in headphones and microphones, this is their first application inside a motor vehicle, and they’ve nailed it with strong bass, zero distortion at higher volumes, and it even made my music connected via Bluetooth sound fantastic. Like Nissan and Infiniti, Cadillac has integrated speakers into the front headrests, and even the headliner and A-pillars, giving off that true 3-D surround sound experience. It’s going to take a sophisticated audiophile to confirm our opinion but we rate it just as highly as the Range Rover’s equally impressive Meridian system.
To augment its road-trip appeal, the wide center console houses a cooler compartment ($805) with two fridge settings (+5 and -5 C) that can hold about 4-5 standard water bottles. There is also a new feature called Conversation Enhancement. There are little microphones scattered across the interior that capture the voices of the driver and front passenger, and blend them into the audio transmitted to the rear seats, so that they can hear them better. When you opt for the 36-speaker AKG, the rear microphones also transmit dialogue back to the front. Furthermore, the Escalade uses a conventional gear shifter instead of a column stalk like other trucks, but it doesn’t impede the flow of the console and its large array of cubbies and cup holders. Cadillac has cleverly kept a mix of both USB-A and USB-C inputs as well.
When you are sitting in the driver’s seat and can’t reach the passenger side door handle, you know you are in a big car. Thanks to the larger platform and improved packaging, there is 40% more third-row legroom than before, and 80% more cargo space behind the third row. And with the new independent rear suspension, the floor isn’t awkwardly elevated for third-row passengers, giving them a more comfortable seating position without their knees shoved into their chests. Need even more space? The extended ESV model offers an additional 618 litres of cargo volume.
The 16-way adjustable front seats look fantastic, and the checkered stitching on the semi-aniline leather is exquisite, matching the Mercedes and BMW seats in its soft, tactile qualities. They are as comfortable as they look too - heated, ventilated, and with a strong massage function with multiple modes to fine tune your masseuse. Shame that the window sill is too narrow to rest your arms on. The second row is cavernous with seats that are easily adjustable with two levers. The first lever slides the seat front and back on its rails, allowing easier ingress into the third row, while the second lever flips the seat down for loading large items.
The Escalade offers two engine choices: a naturally aspirated 6.2-litre V8 carried over from the previous Escalade, and a new Duramax 3.0-litre diesel inline six-cylinder that should make the most economical and practical sense for a large truck like this. Better yet, Cadillac doesn’t charge extra for the diesel, and sits alongside the Range Rover Td6 as the only two diesel offerings in the segment.
Our test vehicle came equipped with the V8. Producing a healthy 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque, it’s a proper workhorse and a welcome companion due to its meaty low-end acceleration. The V8 is very linear in its power delivery, exhibiting a more polished and predictable behaviour than the turbo-six in the Lincoln Navigator. It makes a decent noise too, grumbling like a typical, small-block V8 war drum. Mated to a smooth 10-speed automatic transmission, you’d never notice it grinding away behind the scenes, and we never had to resort to the paddle shifters either. Our week-long test drive over a mix of both city and highway driving yielded an impressive fuel consumption average of 15.5 L/100km, thanks to cylinder deactivation, ten gears, and start stop technology. The V8 requires 91-octane premium fuel, though, so expect some pricey fill-ups.
Handling is exactly as you would expect from a substantial body-on-frame truck, but the Escalade isn’t that unwieldy, managing low- and high-speed corners with impressive stability and body control. The independent rear suspension really isolates a lot of those vertical motions that jitter the spine, and while the harshness still comes through when negotiating pockmarked roads and bumps, it’s more subdued and significantly less intrusive than before. Though, I’m not quite convinced that the ride is any better than the equally impressive GMC Yukon that uses the same platform and adaptive air suspension.
A true evolution of Cadillac’s halo product, the new Escalade aces every critical department, yet never forgets its roots. The ride is impressive though not class-leading, the V8 performs admirably, and the clever suspension manages to isolate occupants from the majority of unwanted motions. From the crispy OLED screens and finely-stitched leathers, to the greatly improved third-row seating, the Escalade is as impressive as ever, and sets the benchmark for what we can now expect from a large upscale SUV.
Model: 2021 Cadillac Escalade Sport Platinum
Paint Type: Crystal White Tricoat
Base Price: $117,798
Price as Tested: $126,363
Length/Width/Height (mm): 5,382 / 2,059 / 1,948
Engine: 6.2-litre V8
Horsepower: 420 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 460 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, 4WD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 16.7 / 11.1
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 15.5
Tires: Bridgestone Blizzak; P275/50R22