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2021 Cadillac Escalade: First Drive

Amazingly luxurious and technologically advanced.

Jason GondermanAuthor, Photography

We've driven the all-new 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe and the 2021 GMC Yukon but hadn't gotten a chance to pilot the third of GM's fullsize SUV cousins, the all-new 2021 Cadillac Escalade—until now. Vastly different than either of GM's other two family haulers, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade aims to set the bar for what fullsize luxury should be. And if our short time behind the wheel is any indication, the company has nailed it.

When we say short, we mean short. The 2021 Cadillac Escalade was in our driveway for fewer than 24 hours. Still, in that short time we were able to do almost everything that an Escalade owner would short of valeting it at a fine steakhouse. We loaded up a pair of child seats and hit the carpool lane, cruised the town, and took to the highway. As our time wore on, the Escalade continued to impress us more and more.

Starting with the engine, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade is powered by a choice of either a 3.0L Duramax diesel or 6.2L gasoline V-8, and both are backed by a 10-speed automatic transmission. Our tester came equipped with the 6.2L V-8 engine. Churning out 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque, the portly Escalade had no issues with power. Passing is a breeze, and acceleration is brisk. With that said, power delivery in the Escalade did feel a tad more subdued than we've experience from the 6.2L in other products. While the Escalade does have a smooth, luxurious feel to it, we would love for the flagship luxury SUV to pack a bit more punch. Other SUVs in the same class and price range often boast 500 or more horsepower. Dropping a supercharger on the Escalade's 6.2L V-8 would sure do the trick.

 

The 10-speed automatic transmission proved lovely as always, with silky-smooth shifting seemingly tuned just for Escalade. Our test model was fitted with four-wheel drive with a true two-speed transfer case with low range. We're still not entirely sure who would be using low range in an Escalade, but we appreciate that it is present. For our driving time we left the transfer case in auto, allowing it to use front drive when necessary, similar to a traditional all-wheel-drive setup. The 2021 Escalade also features an electronic limited-slip rear differential (goodbye Gov-Lock!)

Suspending the 2021 Escalade is the same four-wheel independent suspension found on the Tahoe and Yukon. A new independent rear suspension not only improves ride quality, but also increases rear seat passenger legroom and comfort significantly. Standard on Escalade are the company's Magnetic Ride Control dampers, and our tester was fitted with the optional air suspension. While this setup is very similar to what was found on the Yukon AT4 we tested previously, the ride quality was vastly improved (which is saying a lot because Yukon was very good). Pretty much all road undulations and imperfections are smoothed out, providing among the finest highway ride we've experienced outside of a high-end exotic. There's still a touch of body roll, but that's going to be hard to mitigate with such a large vehicle. To say the suspension is good would be quite an understatement.

 

Moving inside, the new interior of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade is the definition of pure luxury by an American standard, at least. The Whisper Beige interior of our test vehicle was really quite nice. From the seats to the carpet, and headliner to door skins, nearly every inch of the interior is covered in fabric of some kind. If it's not fabric, it's metal or wood. There's very little in the way of visible plastic, which is astonishing. That said, because of the light palette of this particular interior, anyone with children will destroy it in about three days flat.

We were blown away by the 38 combined inches of curved OLED displays on the dashboard. The infotainment screen measures 16.9 inches, the instrument cluster is 14.2 inches, and off to the left of the driver is a 7.2-inch OLED control panel. When measured together, diagonally, these three screens add up to the full 38 inches. The display is incredibly crisp, and the system is quick and responsive. The depth of information contained was too great for us to even scratch the surface of in the course of one day. Navigation worked phenomenally, and the augmented reality nav screen was fun to play with. Speaking of fun, our tester was fitted with night vision, which uses a forward-facing infrared camera to detect heat sources in the dark. The system can detect people and large animals in pitch darkness more than 300 feet away. We only had a few minutes of testing time on this function, and it worked flawlessly for us. Both night vision and augmented reality are fun party tricks when showing off the vehicle to friends and family as well.

 

What really blew us away, however, was the utterly amazing AKG Reference audio system. With 36 speakers, powered by three amplifiers, and pumping through 28 channels, the AKG Reference system is a force to be heard. Bass is powerful and deep, and highs are crisp and clear. We played everything from hard rock, to classic country, to dance and hip-hop, and the system rendered all of them with amazing clarity and power. It's a bold statement, but we'd venture to say this was the best audio system we've ever sampled in an automobile.

If we were to come up with one complaint, it would center around Cadillac's integration of Apple CarPlay. We're big CarPlay fans and use it all the time. In the 2021 Yukon we experienced zero issues with wireless CarPlay. In the Escalade, however, this was not the case. The system frequently dropped the signal or just refused to connect. And what we're sure is a constraint of the Apple software, we hated that the CarPlay screen didn't use the full available real estate of the massive OLED infotainment screen and instead left a lot of blank space. It was also displayed at what seemed to be a lower resolution than the vehicle's native graphics. While none of this is likely Cadillac's fault, it was saddening, nonetheless.

Overall, our time with the 2021 Cadillac Escalade was short but superb. The vehicle was quiet and luxurious, powerful and smooth, and made a bold statement wherever we went. There are loads of Easter eggs to be found all around, with the Cadillac script and crest placed all over (for example, a Cadillac crest is displayed on the ground to show where to swing your foot to open the rear lift gate, and a small crest on the back of the instrument panel illuminates as you walk to the vehicle). We're excited for more seat time in the future, and to sample the 3.0L Duramax diesel engine and Enhanced Super Cruise functionality, both of which are coming soon.

 

2021 Cadillac Escalade Platinum

Base price: $102,995
Price as tested: $109,340
Engine: 6.2L V-8
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Horsepower: 420 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 460 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm
Towing capacity: 8,000 pounds
EPA fuel economy rating: 14 city/19 hwy/16 comb
Actual calculated economy, 148.1-mile trip: 14.75 mpg