Auto review: 2021 Cadillac Escalade goes back to the future

The 2021 Cadillac Escalade Sport features black trim across the exterior. (Cadillac/TNS)
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By Henry Payne The Detroit News (TNS)

For you Dream Cruisers nostalgic for the huge 1950s Cadillac Eldorado Sevilles that once ruled the earth, check out the 2021 Cadillac Escalade.

Skyscraping rear tail lights. Massive chrome front grille. Twenty-two-inch silver wheels. Monster 6.2-liter V-8 under the hood. Acres of interior cowhide. It’s stunning. The King of Bling.

If the Queen of Soul were still around, she’d get hers in pink.

But this Escalade is more than a boulevard head-turner. In keeping with Cadillac’s founding mantra for innovation, this old-school land yacht is on the bleeding edge of new digital technology. With two wheels in the past and two wheels in the future, it is a bridge to Cadillac’s coming electric transformation. It’s a “Star Trek” command center built on a truck frame.

What else? The distinctive, chiseled profile of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade.

In the 21st century, Cadillac has struggled to do battle against German competitors as a performance brand despite a talented squadron of alphanumeric dogfighters like ATS, CTS and CT6. The proper-name Escalade, meanwhile, has carried the century-old Cadillac flag, using technology and style to pamper celebrity.

The Escalade posits the solution that Cadillac’s future lies in its past.

The 10-foot-long cutter aims to inspire a new generation of electric cruisers with proper names like Lyriq and Celestiq. Cruising through Ann Arbor, the Escalade had serious presence, turning heads with its headlights like a rolling Fox Theatre marquee.

Its face is leaner than before. Modeled after the stunning Escala concept, the chrome is more subtle. Its slit, horizontal headlights suggests an athletic celebrity that watches its calories.

But this blockbuster saves its best scenes for the interior. The dashboard will shame corporate boardrooms. Sitting atop acres of luscious brandy wood is a curved, 38-inch OLED screen — the largest in the industry. You could do IMAX movie premieres on this thing.

The big screen serves as a preview of the Lyriq EV’s 33-inch screen. The screen of the Lyriq (due late 2022) will be one continuous window, whereas the Escalade is three screens in one. It’s a reminder that Caddy was an innovator in the luxury space with head-up displays (Escalade’s got that, too), but Cadillac hasn’t jumped the shark this time.

Where its first innovative CUE system drove owners screaming into the street with its button-less, haptic-touch interface, you can access the Cadillac’s deep infotainment offerings in multiple ways: touch-screen, BMW-like remote rotary dial and voice-control. I used elements of all three.

Google Maps still trumps any in-car navigation system, and the Cadillac generously offers Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto connectivity. But like Audi’s spectacular panoramic Google Earth map display in the instrument panel, the Caddy has a trick up its sleeve that Google Maps can’t offer …

I pointed the nav system to Zingerman’s Deli, its front door nestled in a confusing maze of one-way Ann Arbor streets. After exiting the freeway, I poked “Augmented Reality” on the screen’s far-left quadrant, and the 14.2-inch instrument display switched to video of the street ahead.

An arrow pointed the way on the road, but another series of directional arrows grew in the video display as my turn approached. I found the precision useful in Ann Arbor’s confusing college-town streets, though I would recommend only using it in low-speed streets.

The video display is available at highway speed, too, but can be distracting. I was essentially looking through double windshields, so large is the instrument display. Better to stick to the traditional “Map” display on the highway.

And now for its next trick …

Cadillac will also option the latest Super Cruise technology for use on geo-fenced interstates and divided highways. With a steering-mounted laser focused on your face to make sure you don’t (ahem) leave the helm, SuperCruise is the best self-driving system on the market even as Tesla can do more tricks on two-lane roads where the Cadillac system refuses to go.

Whether Cadillac users will embrace such a sci-fi system in such a massive vehicle remains to be seen. Autonomous systems make Mrs. Payne veeeery nervous.

My test Escalade was not equipped with Super Cruise, and its standard adaptive cruise-control system was underwhelming compared to better systems from more affordable brands like Subaru and Mazda.

It’s an oversight in Cadillac’s otherwise technological tour de force. Check out the Caddy’s self-park feature. Or seat-specific volume control. Fifteen camera views. Soft-close doors. Air suspension that’ll drop 4 inches to help you in the car. Teleport to Mars (kidding).

When it’s not giving you a peek at the future, the Escalade is refining the past.

Commuting across Metro Detroit’s high-speed freeways and cattle-car secondary roads, the Escalade is a magic carpet riding on available magnetic shocks and Escalade’s first-ever independent rear suspension. Like Astaire and Rogers, they are quite a team. Under car-guy Mark Reuss, GM’s been obsessed with athleticism and light-weighting, and even the Escalade benefits.

Where the CT4 and CT5 sedans will wow you on a twisty road, the Escalade will lull you into believing it sits on a unibody chassis, so sure-footed is this Hulk in a tuxedo. Only when I clattered across Huron River Road railroad tracks — the ladder frame shifting under me — was I reminded this Caddy still sits atop an old-school, Silverado pickup architecture.

The athletic obsession brings more creature comforts. Thanks to the independent rear suspension, third-row thrones have more well room so your 6-foot-5 reviewer could comfortably sit behind himself sitting behind himself. The third-row space is complemented by more second-row legroom, part of the Escalade’s comprehensive remake.

Well, except for that big boat anchor up front. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The small-block 6.2-liter V-8 has been a workhorse in everything from pickups to ‘Vettes, and it does its usual yeoman’s work here. Its 460 pound-feet of torque (the same amount in an available turbo-diesel, if that flips your switch) is always ready to pull the sled — and more with my tester’s tow package.

In keeping with Escalade’s magic-carpet treatment, the V-8 is mated to a silky 10-speed transmission. That dynamic duo also does duty in the Chevy Tahoe, Suburban and GMC — impressive three-row yachts in their own right.

But the Escalade is the future of tech. They’ll remember it at the Dream Cruise in 2080.


2021 Cadillac Escalade

Vehicle type: Rear- or four-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $77,490, including $1,295 destination charge ($110,585 4WD Platinum as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8; 3.0-liter turbo inline-6 diesel

Power: 420 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque (V-8); 277 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque (diesel)

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing capacity, 8,000 pounds as tested

Weight: 5,822 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/18 highway/16 combined (V-8 with 4WD)

Report card

Highs: Oh, that screen; smooth ride

Lows: Super Cruise is super, but adaptive cruise-control is average

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
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