Raising the Bar: 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV

Our first introduction to the 2021 Cadillac Escalade came all the way back in 2017. During the NAIAS in Detroit, then-CEO Johan de Nysschen shared his excitement over the development of the next-gen Escalade. At that point, the Escalade was only 2 years into its fourth generation, but Cadillac engineers and designers were already hard at work. A lot has changed at Cadillac since that conversation. A new CEO, a new headquarters location, and a new brand focus of electrification have changed the course of the company’s future. But throughout decades of change at Cadillac, the Escalade remains one of the brand’s constants.

The Escalade is a see-and-be-seen luxury SUV. Our tester, an ESV Platinum model, represents the largest and most opulent Escalade available. The ESV adds an extra 15 inches of total length to the biggest Cadillac, all of it dedicated to adding an additional 26.7 cubic feet of cargo space when all the seats are folded down. Visually, Platinum models have a unique Galvano grille and massive 22″ 10-spoke polished alloy wheels. The brightwork of the grille, window and door trims paired with the polished wheels adds an air of luxury to the Escalade’s clean, sharp styling. If you’re looking for something more sinister, the Sport trim replaces brightwork with gloss black, a mesh-style grille, and 22″ 12-spoke wheels with black accents. In truth, there’s no bad looking Escalade. Cadillac’s signature grille shape and vertical lighting elements work well when supersized. In Dark Mocha Metallic, our tester had the charm and sophistication of a New York City brownstone. It also felt about the same size.

Beneath the sharp new styling, there’s a mix of familiar and all-new components. The standard 6.2L V8 and 10-speed automatic transmission is relatively unchanged with its 420hp and 460lb-ft torque. For the first time, however, the Escalade offers an optional 3.0L turbo-diesel engine with the same 460lb-ft torque available at a much wider rev range, ideal for towing. 2021 Escalades feature an all-new independent rear suspension paired with the next generation of Magnetic Ride Control for improved ride quality and handling. An available Air Ride Adaptive Suspension system provides load-leveling and ride-height adjustments at all four wheels. The system can lower up to 2 inches for easier entry/exit and for improved aerodynamics at speed or raise the body for more ground clearance. Finally, an electronic limited-slip rear differential is available to help send power to the wheel with the most grip. All together, the Escalade is the most comfortable, composed, and yet engaged driving experiences we’ve ever had in a luxury SUV.

Climb inside the palatial interior and you’re ensconced in a plush, roomy environment. Our tester’s Whisper Beige color with Gideon accents combined warm hues and textures to elevate the interior surfaces to best-in-class luxury. Soft leather is stretched and stitched over many interior surfaces. Lower elements feature a woven fabric that feels a bit like denim, rather than the expected soft plastics or vulnerable leather. Gloss wood and polished metal accent the interior as well, a welcome change from the industry trend to use gloss black. Cadillac’s interior designers went the extra mile to make the cabin feel unique and resilient to daily wear-and-tear. The new rear suspension configuration requires less intrusion into the cabin space, making more room available for passengers and cargo. The floor is lower and the third row is set further back than ever before. The end result is easier access to the second and third rows, a more natural seating position, and an extra 10-inches of rear legroom for third row occupants. The real star of the show, however, is the Escalade’s unique dashboard, featuring 38 inches of total curved OLED display space. OLED screens provide more vibrant colors and a much higher contrast ratio that typical screens found in automotive applications. The reason why has to do with the difference between OLED and typical LCD screens. In a standard LCD screen, the LCD panel sits in front of a bright backlight. Different colors are created when each pixel filters that backlight. For an LCD pixel to be black, it must filter as much of the light as possible, but the filter isn’t perfectly opaque and there’s microscopic spaces between pixels where light bleeds through. In an OLED display, each pixel has it’s own organic light emitting diodes that can be driven independently to produce their own light and color, meaning there’s no backlight required. Not only does this allow for thinner screens, it means that pixels can be turned off entirely when displaying “black” parts of the picture. Colors don’t wash out in the backlight bleed and night driving is much easier since the “black” parts of the display aren’t emitting any light at all.

While the screens themselves are impressive in their automotive application, the onboard technology features and interfaces is also best-in-class. There’s just the right amount of physical buttons and switches paired with touch screen controls, making the extensive menus and options feel intuitive and easy to use. Notably, the small screen to the driver’s left toggles on an all-new augmented reality-enabled navigation view or the infrared night vision view with pedestrian detection. The AR navigation broadcasts a live forward-looking street view with directional overlays onto the driver cluster. In addition to front cameras of all kinds, there’s a 360-degree composite surround vision and rear camera mirror so there’s no doubt about what’s going on around the big Cadillac’s perimeter. Rear seat occupants also have their own individual 12.6″ touchscreen displays with HDMI and USB inputs plus screen casting capability from Android phones. But even with all that, the most talked-about feature of the 2021 Escalade is the36-speaker AKG Studio Reference audio system. This is AKG’s first automotive audio system and they’ve done a fantastic job. The system produces a warm sound that is fantastic for instrumental mixes and discovering layers of depth you’ve never heard from your favorite tracks. We spent several hours over the course of the week just enjoying our favorite playlists. But the system over emphasize with punchy bass, leading us to dial the bass EQ down to -4. We’d love finer controls in the onboard computer to really make the most of this system. It has a few fun party tricks, however. The audio prompts for navigation match with the surround sound, so a left turn alert plays out of the left speakers. There’s also a conversation enhancement mode which, despite the name, doesn’t make the driver any more interesting to talk to. It uses an onboard microphone to project voices throughout the cabin, just in case a disembodied voice is required to deliver a stern warning to the kids in back.

The Escalade earned much praise in the driver’s log as we racked up 665 miles over the course of the week. As previously mentioned, the ride quality is superb. From the helm, the Cadillac feels effortless to drive. Plenty of power and positive steering feedback make it easy to point and place this behemoth. It’s a superb long-range cruiser, which is exactly why we took in it out of state for a snowshoeing adventure. Our week also brought 36 inches of snow in a single storm, which the Cadillac handled with aplomb once we sufficiently cleared off its massive body. Overall, complaints were minor and only began to appear after spending a prolonged time behind the wheel. From the driver’s seat, we weren’t thrilled with the brake pedal feel. The pedal felt spongy, like it needed constantly increasing pressure to provide a linear braking response. That’s not the most confidence inspiring sensation when trying to slow down a living room. And all its interior volume, there’s surprisingly few cubbyholes and bins for storage. Our tester’s optional console cooler might be convenient for some, but the extra insulation limited the interior volume greatly. Finally, the Escalade’s aggressive rear collision prevention system consistently mistook snowbanks for oncoming vehicles, slamming on the brakes when backing up, causing a good deal of panic where none was warranted. But other than a few too many snowbanks out to get us, the Escalade was a popular companion.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the all-new Escalade is that Cadillac sets the new standard by being evolutionary, not revolutionary. An independent rear suspension is an evolution for the platform, for sure. One that has smoothed the ride, refined the handling, and expanded the interior capacity. Inside, curved OLED displays and augmented reality are just the next technological evolution of the for automotive interfaces. If you’ve shopped for a computer, game console, or TV lately, you might already be familiar with the tech. What takes it to the next level, in my opinion, is the thoroughness and attention to detail Cadillac has demonstrated in designing and assembling the Escalade. For the first time, it feels built like an S-Class and not a Tahoe. That is an impressive statement. Cadillac has managed to raise its game without changing the game; the 2021 Escalade is still the pinnacle of American luxury motoring.

-Christopher Little

2021 Cadillac ESV Platinum$105,995
Night Vision$2,000
Power Retractable Assist Steps w/ Perimeter Lighting$1,750
Console Cooler$700
Dark Mocha Metallic$625
Puddle Lamps w/ Cadillac Crest$135
Destination Charges$1,295
As-Tested MSRP$112,500

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