The biggest compliment awarded to the 2021 Cadillac Escalade while I was driving it had to do with how “swaggy” it was.
It transcended being simply “cool” and has been elevated back to its glory days of hip-hop in the 2000s, when the large and in charge SUV was mentioned in songs and featured heavily in music videos. Back then, the Escalade was endorsed by the swaggiest entertainers and has since faded into the background. But with this new-generation model, the SUV looks ready to take that swag crown back.
Completely overhauled, the 2021 Escalade is now one of the most luxurious, high-tech, comfortable – and yes, swaggy – ways to drive.
Everywhere I drove, people were staring at this giant red SUV, which struck me as unusual because while it does look imposing, it’s not a rare exotic car or anything of the sort. “That is a sick truck,” one young man told me. “Just wow,” another person said, looking impressed.
It could be that the Escalade is physically so enormous that it’s tough not to look at (the taillights alone are nearly a metre tall), but done in this metallic red paint and blacked-out accents and floating roof, this Sport Platinum model looks the business. As far as large SUVs go, this is one of the most stylish because it eschews dramatic creases and ultra-aggressive grilles for a clean lines and more conservative style that looks good now and will age gracefully.
That theme continues inside with soft surfaces, rich leathers, authentic trim materials, varying textures, and customizable ambient lighting that all combines to create a cohesive and luxurious interior. Although some controls are obviously shared with Chevrolet models, this SUV still pulls off swaggy remarkably well.
This body-on-frame SUV (one of only a handful left) is powered by a hard-working 6.2L naturally aspirated V8, which outputs 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to all four wheels via a 10-speed automatic transmission, which works unobtrusively and intuitively, never struggling to hook up or know exactly where it should be. The V8 is smooth and, while it’s not fast, it delivers power convincingly for a vehicle this heavy and both passing and merging on the highway are stress-free affairs. It sounds a bit coarse under full throttle, but Cadillac offers a cat-back performance exhaust system that should fix that minor gripe.
There’s also a 3.0L diesel six-cylinder engine available as a no-cost option that outputs 277 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque and will likely save drivers a lot at the pumps without sacrificing the pulling power needed to get this giant and whatever it’s towing charging forward.
Driving Feel: 7/10
Hustle this giant through a corner and you’ll feel confident, but it’s not exactly rewarding; it’s a lot of vehicle, which makes it a handful through twisting roads. While it feels planted and composed, it’s simply too large to feel sporty, and it doesn’t need to, so that’s not a complaint against it, but just something to keep in mind. I also wish the brakes relayed more information to the driver. They work well enough at bringing this heavy SUV to a stop, but there’s very little feedback.
I expected the Escalade to have a smoother ride quality, especially since this Platinum Sport model was outfitted with the brand’s fantastic adaptive air suspension with magneto-rheological dampers (optional on Premium Luxury and Sport models but standard on the Platinum) that constantly adjust for road imperfections. Even with its new multilink independent rear suspension that was supposed to smooth things out, a lot of road imperfections could be felt from the cabin, even in the softest drive mode (touring). This could be caused by the enormous 22-inch wheels, but there’s also a chance that more luxury-focused trims might be softer and more forgiving. This suspension can also lower and raise the SUV by about 50 mm up or down either for better fuel economy, more ground clearance for off-roading, or easier entry and exit.
Fuel Economy: 6/10
My as-tested average at the end of the week with mostly highway driving was 13.5 L/100 km, which is notably higher than its official highway rating of 12.4 L/100 km. Earlier in the week, when I was doing more city driving, the Escalade was averaging 16.6 L/100 km, a bit better than its official 16.8 L/100 km city rating. The diesel engine hasn’t been rated yet by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), but it’s expected to be more efficient. The engine also has a fantastic stop/start system and cylinder deactivation that can barely be felt.
The Escalade comes standard with every safety feature imaginable including automatic emergency braking, forward collision alert, pedestrian detection, a surround-view camera, rear pedestrian alert, teen driver profiles and restrictions, and automatic high-beams. Available extras included in higher trims are adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, night vision (optional), rear cross-traffic alert, rear automatic emergency braking, and a trailer blind-spot monitoring system.
The vehicle also alerts drivers when they’re approaching a school zone so they can slow down, but the chime itself is pretty loud and I couldn’t figure out how to turn down the volume. Still, it’s incredibly useful. As a whole, the systems work together well without being too jarring. The adaptive cruise control was smooth and natural feeling, assisting the driver instead of fighting with them for control.
The Escalade has every feature imaginable, but the star of the show is the enormous curved OLED display that measures 38 inches diagonally. Cadillac says the screen has twice the pixel density of a 4K TV, and if you don’t speak nerd, that translates into incredible clarity, contrast, and colours. The touchscreen is very responsive and Cadillac makes full use of the screen’s surface area, meaning there are no black dead zones, even when using the wireless Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. This not only looks slick but also allows more information to be displayed more often, which means less digging through menus.
The 14-inch gauge cluster screen is just as stunning and looks better than the TV I have at home and Cadillac makes great use of this by putting fancy graphics everywhere for what is typically a very boring part of a car. With four main views, a driver can easily toggle between gauges, a full navigation display, a night-vision camera that highlights pedestrians or animals, or an augmented-reality display that overlays animated navigation directions over a live camera feed of the road ahead. I found the augmented-reality display a bit distracting to use, but it’s still impressive.
There are just too many excellent features to list, but some standouts are the centre console fridge/freezer, digital rear-view mirror camera display, an easily accessible parking assistant that automates the trickiest parts of parallel and perpendicular parking, the rear-seat infotainment touchscreens, the crisp audio system that includes a voice amplifier so people in the front can hear the people in the back better, and a huge head-up display (HUD).
Enough USB ports are included in all three rows for each passenger and there’s two HDMI ports for the second-row entertainment system. The front row has both USB-C and USB-A ports, but the second and third rows have only USB-C. It’s a minor inconvenience, but nothing a new cord or adapter can’t fix. The screens in the second row are also touchscreens, offer phone mirroring, and come with Bluetooth headphones. Combined with the SUV’s Wi-Fi hotspot, it’s a miracle for road-tripping families who can either hook up a game console or DVD player to the entertainment screens (there is a three-prong household electrical outlet in the second row and in the trunk) or have the kids use their iPads to watch YouTube videos and play games. We took my partner’s kids to an alpaca sanctuary about one and a half-hours away and they didn’t speak the entire time, making the Wi-Fi hotspot priceless.
Sound systems and headlights are two aspects I never mention in car reviews because they’re normally unremarkable, but I have to make an exception here because both are unusually excellent. The upgraded 36-speaker sound system with speakers everywhere – including in the headrests – is one of the best I’ve experienced and offers a truly immersive experience, while the headlights cast a wide and bright beam to illuminate the road ahead and the surrounding areas better than most.
User Friendliness: 9/10
This might be the industry’s only navigation system that I prefer using over Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. It pulls Google Maps data and the best feature is that when you get to your destination, it pulls up a street view image of your destination so you know exactly what you should be looking for. The smartphone navigation also isn’t compatible with the HUD or the augmented reality display, so using the native system is really the way to go. The HUD also shows a ton of information, even what lane you need to be in, and speed limit information. Perhaps the only gripe I have with it is that you have to flip keyboards to type in letters and numbers; they should really be on the same screen.
All the controls make logical sense and are exactly where you expect them to be. Climate controls are analogue buttons, and hard home buttons for the most used functions (audio, navigation, home screen, etc.) make the infotainment system so simple and user-friendly to use.
Finding anything though the central touchscreen is also quick and easy – menu structures are simple and make sense so you can find almost anything in two taps or less. The screen itself is super responsive and quick to react, but it can also be controlled by a scroll wheel near the gear selector, which is better to use while in motion because the screen can be a bit far to reach.
Surprisingly, the Escalade is also easy to park, with its excellent 360-degree top-down parking camera with dynamic guides making it simple to navigate the gargantuan SUV into any spot.
While the Escalade was too big to fit inside my condo’s parking garage, that huge size lends itself well to fitting people and cargo. The seating configurations are impressive and useful with the third row able to be folded flat and put back into place with buttons on the trunk. It also automatically folds the headrests down, saving drivers a step and meaning the seats can be folded down in one swift movement instead of getting caught on the seats in front. The second row can also be folded flat using buttons in the trunk, but have to be put back into place manually. The second row can also slide forward and back to give the people in the third row more room, and the third-row passengers have a button that slides the second-row captain chair forward and tumbles the seat upwards to make entry and exit from the third row easier.
There are ample places in the cabin to store small items, from huge door pockets to smaller cubbies hidden everywhere. There’s 722 L in the trunk, 2,064 L with the third row folded, and an enormous 3,427 L with the second row stowed. It was enough to cram a queen-size mattress in there to bring to the dump.
A Cadillac is nothing if not comfortable, and this Escalade is comfortable for every passenger – even the ones in the third row. On a long drive up to cottage country, the driver’s seat proved supportive, while every passenger I had made a point to mention how much room they had to lounge. Automatic running boards also make it easy for people to enter and exit. The cabin is also remarkably quiet, isolating occupants from wind and road noise well, however, that also made it easier to hear the creaking coming from the dashboard and door panels, a quality issue that was tough to ignore.
The Cadillac Escalade, the brand’s most famous, long-standing, and popular model starts at $89,798, and for that price, it’s not well equipped. Leather seats, ventilated seats, adaptive cruise control, and a sunroof aren’t even standard – all things that come standard in vehicles costing a fraction as much. The top-trim Sport Platinum model tested here starts at $117,798. For this price, not including such excellent features like the console fridge/freezer (an extra $805) or the Super Cruise semi-automated hands-free driving technology ($2,875) as standard seems like a missed opportunity for the brand to showcase the best it’s got.
For a long time, Cadillac made excellent-driving vehicles but dropped the ball on the little details that can make or break a luxury car. With this Escalade, the brand finally closed the loop and has created a fully realized luxury SUV that impresses in almost every aspect. While the Lincoln Navigator, the Escalade’s cross-town rival, was previously setting the standard for swaggy American luxury, the Escalade seems poised again to wrestle that crown back.
|16.8 / 12.4 / 14.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
|722 / 2,064 / 3,427 L behind 3rd / 2nd / 1st row
|2021 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Sport Platinum
|Price as Tested
$8,665 – Infrared tricoat, $1,395; console refrigerator, $805; 22-inch 12-spoke gloss black wheels, $4,165; night vision, $2,300