It’s easy to forget that General Motors is an engineering powerhouse. The company is infamous for industrial-grade cheesiness and unmitigated cost-cutting, so its groundbreaking, game-changing stuff often debuts on forgettable products that fail to showcase the company’s ingenuity. In the rare case that GM manages to overcome its worst instincts and fit its incredible technology on a truly compelling product, it produces a world-beating vehicle. The 2021 Cadillac Escalade is one such example.
I can’t say I was expecting it. That Cadillac used to be the Standard of the World sounds more like a cruel punchline than an accurate fact. Despite being the flagship of GM’s fleet, Cadillac often feels lost at sea; the company has a vast arsenal of research and development talent, but seemingly no real clue where to point it. Nearly 20 years ago the company launched the first production magnetorheological damper, a truly revolutionary technology that would go on to appear in Ferraris, Audis, Shelby Mustangs, and Corvettes. But it launched on the Cadillac STS, a car so wholly forgettable that I had to google it to make sure I was getting the visuals right.
This helped kickstart the company’s performance kick, during which it caught up to the chassis tuning and powertrain prowess of the golden age of BMW. When it arrived at the top of its self-created Everest, Cadillac realized that no one really cared. The cars still had cheap interiors and the same stigma. Besides, sedans were dying, and the folks who wanted BMWs kept buying BMWs. So instead of buying the vehicles built with the wrong goals, Cadillac buyers opted for cars like the XT5, which seemed to be built with no real goals at all. The lone exception to this entire plotline was the Escalade.
The Escalade avoided the constant name changes, the pivots, and the misplaced ambitions. It kept doing what it did, never particularly amazing but always beloved by its slice of executives and hip-hop stars alike. Somewhere along the way, Cadillac realized that this is the only nameplate it had to work with. It would be what reinvented Cadillac, like it or not. Now, at long last, they’ve put the money in to make it happen.
The design leans into what has always been at the core of the Escalade brand: Brash, in-your-face excess. There is no subtlety here, just a gut-punch grille with a slab-sided monster behind it. It is clean, simple, and overwhelmingly huge. It makes no attempt to imitate the svelte shrink-wrapped muscularity of its German competition. The Escalade may lack the badge snobbery of a Mercedes-Benz GLS or a BMW X7, but neither will ever match its sheer presence. There’s a swagger here, the kind you get from I-got-mine-centric American excess. To some, this is vile. But they weren’t going to buy Escalades anyway.
Inside, you’ll find that for the first time ever an Escalade interior can back up a six-figure price tag. Supple leather and lacquered wood cover every surface, arranged in flowing patterns with aluminum brightwork as an accent. There is a massive curved OLED screen the likes of which you’ll only find in a Porsche Taycan or a $5000 TV. In front of it, another OLED forms the digital gauge cluster, with another small OLED screen serving as your trip computer and settings panel.
Those LG OLED screens mean that a black pixel is truly black; it is emitting no light. That makes every animation, every block of text more contrasty and beautiful. It’s also aided by LG software. Instead of relying on its own proprietary but dated infotainment system, GM outsourced software development to the consumer electronics firm. The result is a system more polished, smoother, and more intuitive than you’ll find just about anywhere in the automotive industry. From its gorgeous graphics to its mix of touch and rotary controls, the Escalade’s digital interface is a marvel. Some may prefer the touch-only (and look-away-from-the-road) Tesla alternative, or the tactile ease of BMW’s iDrive controller, but the Escalade easily lands among the industry leaders.
Press hard on any material and you’ll find that the interior isn’t as iron-sided as that of a Lexus or a Mercedes. And the gray plastic that’s plagued the General’s vehicles for generations still makes an appearance. But the key focal points of the interior are exceedingly high quality. Even the stereo has gotten a major upgrade, with metal grilles hiding a new AKG audio system and up to 36 speakers. It lacks the clarity of a Lexus system or the forceful presentation of the best Meridian unit, but the dazzling array of speakers gives your music industry-leading instrument separation and simulated depth. Its attempts to create true surround sound out of stereo music can sometimes muddy up a track, but when you dial the surround slider back a bit you get truly jaw-dropping moments from this setup. More importantly, GM’s decision to ditch the mediocre off-the-shelf Bose units and work with Harman automotive on a new system shows both much-needed attention to detail and an understanding of the Escalade’s buyers.
That attitude is most apparent on the road. Simply put, the Escalade is the best-riding body-on-frame vehicle I’ve ever driven. Town Cars, Ram 1500s with air suspension; nothing else quite matches the poise of the Escalade. In both the Premium Luxury (with air springs) and Sport Platinum (with air springs and MagneRide), the Escalade is masterful at easing huge potholes and superbly comfortable for highway cruising. And with the optional and industry-leading Super Cruise hands-free semi-autonomous system, my Sport Platinum tester was probably the single best road trip vehicle on sale today.
After all, you get smooth, endless power from the 420-hp 6.2-liter V-8; hectares of space in which to spread out; the quietest cabin of just about any SUV; room for seven; a proper trunk behind them; and the option to pull up to 8200 lbs in max trailering spec. The interior is phenomenal, the seats are great, the audio system is delightful, and the driver assistance is the best in the business.
That phrase is what I keep landing on. The best in the business. The Escalade surely has its faults; it devours fuel, its materials are not quite as refined as those in a top-trim Mercedes, and there still is some vibration in the driveline at idle. It is no sports car, no Alpina XB7. What it is is a shockingly quiet, composed, refined, and advanced cruiser. It offers better infotainment, better ride quality, better tech integration, better driver assistance, and better powertrains than you can get just about anyone else. It is a stunning example of what GM can actually do when it gets its proverbial head out of its proverbial skyscraper-sized ass. More than anything, though, the Escalade is proof that GM still knows how to build a world-beater.
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