2021 Cadillac Escalade Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Oct 19, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Cadillac deals!

A pop-culture icon and the flagship model for Cadillac, the Escalade full-size luxury SUV gets a complete redesign for 2021. While the styling adopts the latest Cadillac themes, the primary changes relate to passenger comfort, cargo space, technology, and driving dynamics. The familiar 6.2-liter V-8 carries over from the previous Escalade, while a new 3.0-liter turbo-diesel inline 6-cylinder engine is available.

Cadillac offers the 2021 Escalade in standard and extended-length body styles, the latter known as the Escalade ESV. Luxury trim is standard, with Premium Luxury and Sport versions building on it with additional equipment. Platinum versions of each are also available. Four-wheel drive (4WD) and the turbo-diesel engine are options on each version of the SUV. 

2021 Cadillac Premium Luxury Shadow Metallic Front View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated an Escalade Premium Luxury equipped with 4WD, extra-cost paint, the Performance Package, the Driver Assist Tech Package, the AKG Studio Reference high-end audio system, the rear-seat entertainment system, and retractable power assist steps with perimeter lighting. The price came to $102,310, including the $1,295 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Cadillac deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade, it is helpful to understand who buys this large premium SUV and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 64% of Cadillac Escalade owners are male (vs. 66% for the segment), and the median age of an Escalade owner is 56 years (vs. 54).

Owners say their favorite things about the previous-generation Escalade were (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving feel, powertrain, feeling of safety, and interior design. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle ranked highest in comparison to the large premium SUV segment:

  • Exterior styling
  • Operating vehicle remotely
  • Power of engine/motor
  • Getting vehicle set up
  • Sound of engine/motor

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the outgoing Escalade were (in descending order) the setting up and starting, driving comfort, infotainment system, getting in and out, and fuel economy. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle ranked lowest in comparison to the large premium SUV segment:

  • The quietness of the cabin while driving
  • Rear seat comfort
  • Interior styling
  • Quality of materials inside the vehicle
  • Vehicle protection

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Escalade ranked 2nd out of five large premium SUVs.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Cadillac deals!

In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides his perceptions about how the 2021 Cadillac Escalade measures up in each of the ten categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

Cadillac gets the new Escalade's styling precisely right. In front, the SUV adopts cues first shown on the automaker's Escala concept vehicle, its bold grille flanked by narrow LED headlights. Vertical organic LED (OLED) running lights and horizontal lower bumper elements give the Escalade a squared-off jawline for a properly brawny appearance.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium Luxury Shadow Metallic Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Every Escalade includes standard 22-inch aluminum wheels, and four different designs are available. Premium Luxury trim employs polished chrome to define the lower bodywork and roof C-pillar, while Sport trim's blacked-out look gives the appearance of a floating roof. 

Around the back, the SUV's traditional vertical OLED taillights fade into the roof, while the familiar, polished chrome (black on Sport) spear underlines the back window. Rectangular exhaust finishers square-off the lower bumper.

The result is a clean and contemporary SUV that is unmistakably a Cadillac.

Interior

Though the new 2021 Escalade shares its platform and mechanicals with the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, you'd never guess it while sitting inside the cabin. Bespoke design, premium materials, and exclusive technologies make sure of that.

2021 Cadillac Escalade Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Cadillac's new three-piece 38-inch curved glass OLED instrumentation and infotainment display dominates the cabin, which the automaker says comes in nine different color, trim, and pattern combinations. Black leatherette is standard with Luxury trim, while all other Escalade models feature leather with various color, stitching, perforation, and quilting options. Depending on the trim level and interior color, one of seven different handcrafted kinds of wood decorates the cabin.

Quality permeates nearly every aspect of the interior, and the multi-color ambient lighting is tastefully subdued. Lower trim panels are plastic and have a surface coating to eliminate gloss and rid them of a hollow sound when you rap your knuckles on them. Still, soft material would be more appropriate in most of these locations. 

Storage is skimpy for such a large SUV, though you can get a refrigerated compartment for the Escalade.

Getting In and Out

The previous Escalade's owners rated entering and exiting the SUV almost last on their lists of their favorite things about the SUV. That's easy to understand, considering that you must climb up and into an Escalade, and its size is incompatible with tight parking spaces. The 2021 model is improved in this regard, though.

Wide power deploying running boards and soft-close doors help with getting in and getting out, as do larger door openings and the SUV's lower interior floor. Thanks to the bigger interior, loading the second- and third-row seats is also more comfortable than it used to be. 

Everything that makes the Escalade easier to enter also counts when it comes time to disembark. But there's no getting around this Cadillac's size. You'll want to leave plenty of room on either side of it.

To access the cargo area, push the Cadillac crest emblem, and the power tailgate rises to reveal a much larger cargo area behind the third-row seat. In the standard Escalade, you'll find 25.5 cubic feet. The ESV, which commands an extra $3,000 (making it a bargain), supplies 42.9 cubic feet of volume.

Power-folding third-row seats quickly expand the space, but before you try to use them, make sure the second-row seats are not in their rearmost position. Otherwise, the third-row seats won't fold flat. With them folded down, the Escalade provides 63 cubic feet of cargo volume while the Escalade ESV offers 81.5 cubic feet.

Second-row captain's chairs are standard, and a bench seat is available at no extra cost. Either way, with these seating locations folded down, the Escalade swallows 109.1 cubic feet of cargo while the ESV accommodates 126.6 cubic feet.

These numbers represent a significant improvement over the previous Escalade. How did Cadillac manage this achievement? It switched to a new independent rear suspension design, ditching the previous beam-axle setup. In turn, this change allows for a lower cabin floor. Add the new Escalade's longer wheelbase and lengthier sheet metal, and one result is dramatically improved cargo capacity.

Setting Up and Starting

Press the new Escalade's engine start button, and the familiar rumble of a 6.2-liter V-8 engine is faintly evident through its layers of sound deadening material.

The 38-inch OLED instrumentation and infotainment displays come to life at the same time, showing a brief opening sequence as the technology loads. The wait is blessedly short, and then you've got three different displays to configure. To the left is a small 7.7-inch touchscreen with a handful of functions. To the right, a 16.9-inch touchscreen infotainment display offers a broad range of customization. In the center is a 14.2-inch instrumentation display that you can also configure to personal preferences.

Before setting off on the test drive, I spent 25 minutes going through everything. The Escalade is a complex vehicle with many customization options, and Cadillac supplies helpful imagery with explanations shown on the infotainment display. This process is not as easy as it is in other Cadillac models, but it is not surprising given the Escalade's high-tech nature.

Infotainment System

Cadillac says the Escalade's 38-inch curved-glass display is three separate screens fused together, an approach not unlike what other automakers are doing. 

Here, though, the curvature and shape of the display lends the Escalade industry-leading sophistication, and each screen features twice the pixel density of a 4K television. This is not a backlit solution, either. Instead, each pixel is programmed to deliver pure black backgrounds and a broad range of colors. 

Cadillac says it applies a special film to the display glass to reduce glare and improve visibility from all angles. With bright afternoon sunlight angling through the driver's window, there was some diminishment in terms of visibility, but mainly this related to brightness and not the driver's ability to read the displays.

The instrumentation offers Gauge, Augmented Reality (AR) Camera, and Map modes. With the Gauge view, the driver configures three data panels. With AR Camera and Map views, the information takes over the entire display. You choose the view using the infotainment system via the Settings menu and Layout selection. While driving the Escalade, I wanted to switch between all three, so this Cadillac needs to add a "View" button on the steering wheel similar to an Audi with Virtual Cockpit technology.

The infotainment system is a mix of familiar Cadillac menus and icons, with numerous new ways to configure and interact with the system. For example, you can press, hold, and move app tiles to different locations. You can also store the most common ones you want to access in something called an "app tray."

Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as Near Field Communication, make it easy to pair your smartphone to the system. I did so and could stream Pandora and make and receive phone calls, but for some reason, I was unable to use Apple CarPlay. This is what the infotainment screen said:

Apple CarPlay could not connect. Make sure CarPlay is enabled on the phone. Press retry to attempt to connect this phone. You can also connect this phone to USB to start Apple CarPlay. 

You interact with the infotainment system using familiar touch, swipe, and scroll actions on the display. Alternatives include helpful knobs and buttons on the center console, which you'll find invaluable, unlike in other Cadillacs. Additionally, the Escalade offers controls on the steering wheel and a voice recognition system.

Having spent the week before my Escalade drive in a Cadillac CT5 sedan, I expected a flawless performance from the SUV's voice control technology. Instead, in response to my request for directions to the nearest hospital, it wanted to send me to a pet care location hundreds of miles away. In response to another request for directions to my favorite locally owned restaurant on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, it tried to send me to Oaks Court in Boulevard, California.

Furthermore, the voice control technology does not operate the climate system. You cannot, for example, ask to change the cabin temperature to 70 degrees. This is true with other Cadillacs, but the expectation with this new, high-tech Escalade is that the climate system would offer voice control.

The AR Camera technology is outstanding. Though it's not useful on the freeway, it proved helpful in finding my way through a dimly-lit neighborhood and is undoubtedly terrific when seeking destinations in the city. Still, you need to look down at the instrumentation to experience the turn arrows that grow in size as you approach your next turn, and that's distracting. These would be much more helpful superimposed on the windshield, perhaps using the head-up display. 

Speaking of the head-up display, it remains visible when the driver is wearing polarized sunglasses, unlike similar technology from a long list of auto manufacturers. When you arrive at your destination, a Google Street View image of the house or building shows on the infotainment screen, a nice touch.

Cadillac is the first automaker to use AKG Acoustic components in a vehicle. The standard setup includes 19 speakers, while the optional AKG Reference studio 3D surround sound system uses 36 speakers. The test car had this system, and with everything set to factory defaults, it sounds sensational. No doubt, someone who likes to fine-tune their audio settings will find perfection here.

Additionally, the system supplies separate front and rear passenger volume control, and a conversation enhancement system allows natural discussion between occupants of all three rows through the SUV's stereo speakers. Drivers can turn this function on or off using a button on the steering wheel, and it automatically disables when the windows are down to avoid wind noise amplification through the speakers. 

Navigation prompts issue from the speakers on the side of the SUV corresponding to an upcoming turn. The voice volume gets louder as you get closer to the turn, similar to how the turn-ahead arrow on the AR Camera display gets larger as you get closer.

Dual rear 12.6-inch entertainment touchscreens are available, attached to the front seatbacks. Passengers can connect to the Escalade's 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and stream content from an Android device through Miracast, and both a 110-volt power outlet and HDMI connections support onboard gaming. A route-tracker function keeps passengers informed of travel progress, and they can send destination requests to the driver, who can accept or decline them.

Whew! That's a ton of technological sophistication, and it collectively represents a major improvement over the previous Escalade.

Keeping You Safe

Cadillac equips the 2021 Escalade with a long list of safety features. Highlights include Teen Driver parental report card technology, OnStar connected services with automatic crash notification and emergency calling, and a rear-seat reminder system

The SUV also has a full slate of standard advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). Adaptive cruise control, full-speed forward emergency braking, rear automatic emergency braking, and automatic seatbelt tightening are options for all but the standard Luxury trim level.

Next-generation Super Cruise will be available later in the model year. It's a Level 2+ semi-autonomous driving technology that allows true hands-free operation on approximately 200,000 miles of limited-access highways all around the U.S. Updates include new software for smoother and more accurate operation and a new automated lane changing system when the driver signals the intent. You still need to pay attention; Super Cruise won't work if you're not looking at the road and ready to take control at any time.

The test vehicle did not have Super Cruise, but it did have the Driver Assist Tech Package containing the ADAS upgrades. The lane-keeping assistance technology did a great job of keeping the big Escalade within its lane on the narrow backroads between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, working in a subtle, discreet manner.

However, the ADAS did produce a false forward collision warning alert as the Escalade emerged from the freeway underpass on southbound State Street in downtown Santa Barbara. More concerning, while driving up the Conejo Grade on the 101 freeway between Camarillo and Thousand Oaks, the ADAS experienced a momentary panic attack.

I was traveling in the Number 4 lane at about 75 mph. As the Escalade bent into a curve, the SUV approached a semi-truck moving at a much slower rate of speed in the rightmost Number 5 lane. The ADAS identified the truck as an obstacle and applied immediate braking, reducing the Cadillac's speed to about 60 mph before it realized the truck wasn't an obstacle. Luckily, nobody was traveling immediately behind the Escalade when this happened.

Additional safety-related technology includes no fewer than 15 high-definition cameras looking forward, to the side, and to the back of the Escalade. They provide numerous trailer-towing views, a surround-view function, and a rear camera mirror function. A Night Vision system with infrared detection is also available for the new Escalade.

Semi-autonomous parking assistance is also onboard and, given this Cadillac's sheer size, it will undoubtedly come in handy for many drivers.

Powertrain

Cadillac Escalade owners like the power and sound of the SUV's engine, and that praise should continue in the redesigned 2021 model. That's because Cadillac carries the 6.2-liter V-8 over, and it still makes 420 horsepower and 460 lb.-ft. of torque. A 10-speed automatic transmission with a Sport mode and paddle shifters is standard.

The V-8 features direct fuel injection, automatic engine stop/start, and a new Dynamic Fuel Management system that operates on between two and all eight cylinders, depending on the situation. Despite these gas-saving measures, the EPA fuel economy rating measures 16-17 mpg in combined driving, depending on whether you've upgraded from two-wheel drive (2WD) to 4WD. 

If you want better fuel economy, Cadillac offers a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel inline 6-cylinder engine for the Escalade. It doesn't cost anything more, and though final EPA ratings were unavailable as this review was published, it will undoubtedly prove more efficient. It makes 277 horsepower and matches the V-8 engine's 460 lb.-ft. of torque, supplying the latter lower in the rev range. It uses the same 10-speed automatic as the gasoline V-8.

As expected, the 6.2-liter supplies robust power, and the 10-speed automatic never got a shift wrong during testing. The test vehicle also had the Performance Package, which installs an electronic limited-slip differential at the rear axle. And if you're so inclined, a Performance Upgrade Package adds a performance air intake and a cat-back performance exhaust system for a more aggressive note.

Driving modes include Tour, Sport, Off-Road, and Tow/Haul. The Escalade's maximum towing capacity measures 8,200 pounds, coming up 500 pounds short against its primary competitor, the Lincoln Navigator.

Fuel Economy

When equipped with 4WD, the new Escalade should get 16 mpg in combined driving. On the testing loop, the SUV averaged 15.9 mpg. Given the Cadillac's 24-gallon fuel tank, this translates into 381 miles of range, but since you'll leave yourself a little cushion, plan to stop at the gas station every 330 miles or so.

Driving Comfort

Improved comfort is a crucial hallmark of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade, facilitated by the new independent rear suspension, the lower cabin floor, and the stretched wheelbase. Now, passengers in the newly sliding second-row seats enjoy better leg support and space for their knees and feet.

More noticeable, the third-row seat is dramatically improved over the old Escalade. Adults can fit now, and most of them won't be unhappy about it. In addition to more legroom and foot room, the seat itself sits high enough off the floor to provide proper thigh support. 

Up front, the test vehicle's seats had heating and ventilation. Buttons on the door panels activate these features, and orange lights indicate they are working. These lights should be blue when you're using the ventilation function. Cadillac offers front seat massage with Platinum trim.

Second-row occupants benefit from heated cushions, but the test vehicle did not include rear side window sunshades. Second-row ventilation is unavailable.

Front and rear climate controls give everyone the ability to tailor temperature for their space. In front, they're arrayed on a classy piano-key control panel that takes the form of a Cadillac chevron. The testing day was a warm one, and the Escalade's air conditioning proved effortlessly capable of cooling the interior.

Driving Feel

In addition to the new rear suspension design, the test vehicle had Magnetic Ride Control 4.0 adaptive damping and a 4-Corner Air Ride air suspension system. As a result, the Escalade's ride was excellent despite its 22-inch wheels and 275/50 tires.

These components allowed the Escalade to blaze over the speed humps in my subdivision at 35 mph like they didn't even exist and to traverse rough pavement with potholes without much in the way of impact harshness. Ride isolation seemed better than in a GMC Yukon Denali recently tested on the same driving route, with less noise, vibration, and harshness.

Switch from Tour to Sport mode, and the Escalade handles a writhing canyon road about as well as can be expected. The stiffer suspension setting attenuates unwanted body motions, and the cornering grip exceeds the ability of the front seats to hold you in place.

You'll want Tour mode the majority of the time, though, since your driving won't involve the clipping of apexes. Cadillac does an impressive job of filtering most road surface irregularities out and perfectly calibrates the steering for low-speed parking maneuvers and higher-speed freeway travel. The Escalade is reasonably quiet, too, despite its brick-like exterior and massive tires.

Cadillac could stand to fine-tune the brake pedal feel and modulation. As it stands, it feels a bit hard, stiff, and numb, but while they don't feel exceptionally responsive or robust, all it takes is a hard push on the pedal to experience the Escalade's stout braking capability.

Final Impressions - Find the best Cadillac deals!

In the 2020 J.D. Power APEAL Study, the outgoing Escalade ranked second in overall appeal behind the Lincoln Navigator, a surprising showing for an older design. Now, the redesigned 2021 Cadillac Escalade is not only a palpable upgrade over the loaded versions of the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, but it is also a significant improvement over the previous Escalade. 

While it remains to be seen if it can unseat the Navigator from the top of the appeal list, it seems a foregone conclusion that Cadillac will sell a whole bunch of these new 'Slades.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience in test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2021 J.D. Power

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