While we ran into a convenience store to get some water, the staff of a nearby marijuana dispensary came outside to gawk at our ride: the new Cadillac Escalade. From the longing in their eyes, we’re guessing they either loved it or they were high. Perhaps both.
Early Escalades were lightly warmed-over GMCs but proved to be a badge-engineering success. A few cosmetic differences, a wreath and crest, leather-trimmed seats, Zebrano wood on the instrument panel, a standard big V-8, and a high price made Cadillac’s SUV a status symbol. The profit margins had GM execs swan-diving into pools of gold. Later iterations added more exclusive-to-Cadillac goods, but the Escalade formula remains largely the same today.
The new model continues to share its underpinnings with the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban and the GMC Yukon. And just like in those trucks, the big advancement for the 2021 Escalade is the addition of an independent rear suspension that frees up space for cargo and third-row passengers.
The Cadillac of Tahoes comes standard with a long list of equipment, including a heated steering wheel, a 20-speaker audio system, keyless start, and a 420-hp 6.2-liter V-8. Surprisingly, one thing not baked into the $77,490 base price is leather seating. You’ll have to choose the Premium Luxury trim or better if you want real cow instead of leatherette.
That’s not to say the Escalade is lacking in frills. Much like its predecessors—which introduced things like adaptive magnetorheological dampers to GM’s full-size SUVs—the new Slade debuts some tech that should trickle down to its platform-mates. One such element can be found in the Caddy’s interior, which elevates it from nice truck to legitimate luxury SUV. In addition to the rich-looking materials, there’s a curved OLED display that spans much of the dash. It’s actually made up of three screens totaling 38.3 inches. In front of the driver, a 14.2-inch display shows the gauges. To the right of that, a 16.9-incher controls the infotainment, the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interfaces, and various vehicle settings. A 7.2-inch screen to the left of the gauge display offers trip info and the controls to pull up the available night-vision view or augmented-reality nav in the middle screen.
Two high-profile options will not be present at launch: Cadillac’s semi-autonomous Super Cruise system and a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel engine. Pairing the two might just make the Escalade king of the road trip. Fuel economy isn’t out yet for the diesel, but we expect an EPA highway estimate of at least 24 mpg. With the 6.2-liter V-8, our 6270-pound four-wheel-drive Escalade ESV (that’s Suburban length) earns a 19-mpg highway stamp, but it averaged 14 mpg during its stay with us, matching its EPA city number.
Platinum models feature a 36-speaker sound system from AKG, which is a division of Harman best known for studio microphones and headphones. Audiophiles may rightly question the need for so many speakers given mobile audio is so compressed and adding speakers can’t recover the lost fidelity. Cadillac understands that but points out that the AKG setup can create differential audio levels within the cabin. That means the kids in the second row can rock out to whatever kids rock out to while the adults up front aren’t as annoyed.
Chrome lovers will want to skip any model with “Sport” in the name, as those trim levels replace the shiny stuff with black bits. Sport models also bring magnetorheological dampers and an electronically controlled limited-slip rear differential. But before you go testing out the legitimacy of the moniker, know that all of GM’s 2021 sport-utilities on this platform have an aggressive stability-control system. When merging onto the freeway from a cloverleaf, the Escalade cut power at a very mellow 38 mph. And the Slade’s max grip of 0.71 g is worse than a Jeep Gladiator Rubicon’s.
A top-of-the-line Sport Platinum edition, like the one shown here, starts at $107,290 in long-wheelbase form. Curb appeal and name cachet aside, the case for buying a six-figure version of Chevrolet’s and GMC’s very similar SUVs is pretty thin. The Escalade, at 5.9 seconds to 60, is no quicker than a 6.2-liter Yukon, and the new Suburban and Yukon both boast luxury-car-grade 65-decibel solitude at 70 mph, same as the Slade. All of them drive well, too. But status symbols aren’t built on rationality, and the Escalade’s status is undeniable; just ask your local medicinal-marijuana professionals.
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