Big and bold
THE GOOD
  • Vast improvement in quality
  • Handling and performance
  • Organic LED (OLED) infotainment and instrumentation
THE BAD
  • Plug-in or hybrid powertrain would improve fuel economy
  • Suspension on the firmer side
  • It’s simply massive

Back in the late 1990s, as the SUV segment started to gain steam, someone at General Motors (GM) had the bright idea to slap some body cladding and Cadillac badges on a GMC Yukon and call it the Escalade.

It may have helped the company’s bottom line, but it certainly didn’t help the brand’s reputation. And on it’s gone in the years since, with very little to separate the big Caddy from its mainstream siblings. New from the ground up, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV is a welcome departure from the recent past, differing far more from Chevrolet and GMC variants than before, while also being vastly improved in every way.

Styling: 8.5/10

There is no mistaking the Escalade for anything else on the road. Not only is the extended ESV version simply massive, but its styling is bold. From the moment you approach the vehicle, it greets you by illuminating itself. Design and taste are highly subjective, but I found the first four generations of Escalade appeared garish. Featured in music videos and purchased by professional athletes with newly secured contracts, they were the calling card for the nouveau riche.

Thankfully, exterior styling has matured in this new model. It’s still extravagant, mind you, but it feels more sophisticated than previous generations. It also looks like its own model rather than a Yukon that’s gone off its diet like previous attempts.

Once inside, the lavish interior is also now drastically different from Chevrolet and GMC models – even the Yukon’s range-topping Denali trim. Everything from the dash to the seats and switchgear are unique.

Safety: 8.5/10

The Escalade gets a host of safety features, including blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection both front and rear, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control with GM’s optional so-called Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving mode. Nighttime driving is made much easier thanks to crisp, bright headlights, and automatic high-beams that activate and disengage seamlessly.

Features: 9.5/10

The Escalade comes suitably equipped. Opting for the Premium Luxury Platinum trim gets you adaptive cruise control, head-up display (HUD), and a self-parking feature. Consisting of three different screens, the visual display is nearly one metre wide. The Organic LED touchscreen is intuitive, responsive, and easy to navigate. The new screen setup from Mercedes-Benz does give the Caddy a run for its money, though.

The 36-speaker sound system is simply magnificent. Listening to a curated playlist on Spotify, I was able to pick out nuances of songs I’d never heard before on songs I’ve listened to a hundred times. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard equipment and no longer require a cord. The Escalade also features wireless charging and a subscription-based Wi-Fi hotspot. Second-row passengers also get large touchscreens that are equipped with both USB and HDMI ports, while the centre console also features a fridge.

User Friendliness: 9/10

Driving the Escalade felt somewhat akin to having a helpful butler on standby, since it had a tendency to not only meet but anticipate my needs. Open the door and the running boards lower to greet you and provide an easier ingress. Start it up on a chilly morning and the three-stage heated seats and steering wheel are already activated for your comfort. Driving at night is made easier and safer by the effective headlights that feature automatic high-beams. Engage reverse and the massive infotainment screen offers a wide-ranging view of what’s behind you.

Some manufacturers seem to go out of their way to make engaging with their infotainment systems as complex and counter-intuitive as possible, so the ease with which the Escalade’s interface functions is a breath of fresh air. Thankfully, Cadillac has upgraded the tactile functions of its dash-mounted switches that were previously infuriating to operate. HVAC controls get their own cleanly laid-out buttons, while virtually every other function under the sun can be adjusted through the massive touchscreen – the industry’s largest.

Practicality: 7.5/10

A six-figure behemoth luxury SUV is not something I would associate as being inherently practical per se, but needs are different than wants. If you happen to have the means and want to transport friends, family members, or high-rolling clients in style and comfort, then there aren’t many vehicles that would be as suitable as the Escalade ESV. Palatial interior cargo capacity, ample seating for most families, and respectable towing capacity mean the Escalade can carry its own weight. [At 3,583 kg (7,900 lb), it can actually pull more than its weight. – Ed.]

The adaptive air suspension is an option on Premium Luxury and Sport models but is standard on the Platinum. It allows the vehicle to raise and lower to provide more ground clearance on that cottage road or drop down for improved fuel economy. The function thankfully also allowed me to access my parking garage, which was made easier to navigate with 360-degree camera views that pop up on the massive 38-inch infotainment screen.

Comfort: 8.5/10

Even on low-profile 22-inch winter tires, the Escalade’s interior is quiet and serene. Tromp on the throttle and you’ll ever so slightly hear the large V8 echoing through the dual exhaust pipes that are tastefully integrated into the rear fascia, but road noise is at a minimum even on the highway. Phone conversations can be had clearly at low volume, while it also offers multiple levels of amplification among passengers that emit through speakers in the headrest, so there’s never a need to raise your voice. It’s downright civilized. Leather, wood, and brushed stainless steel feel high in quality with an aesthetically pleasing design. It should come as no surprise given its size that even those with larger proportions in any direction will have more than enough space to stretch out.

Power: 8/10

The V8 under the hood makes 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm. It’s certainly not wanting for output, however, it does have a great deal of weight to carry around with a curb weight of 2,718 kg (5,992 lb) – and that’s before it’s loaded up with passengers and their possessions. Even so, acceleration is more responsive than you’d expect from a vehicle of its stature. Power comes on smoothly whether you’re accelerating from a standstill, passing on the highway, or entering an on-ramp thanks in part to the quick-shifting 10-speed transmission.

Driving Feel: 8.5/10

The heated leather-wrapped steering wheel feels secure and substantial, offering a considerable amount of electronic assist back to centre. The longer wheelbase of the ESV makes for a smooth ride, but suspension damping is on the firmer (dare I even say sporting) side. It doesn’t get upset or lose composure over rough surfaces, though. The multi-link rear suspension assists with ride quality and handling, while also offering more room in the rear for cargo or passengers’ legs so they won’t feel like they’re being folded up like a pretzel. Higher end trim levels also get an air suspension system.

There are numerous drive modes available, which truthfully didn’t feel that different from each other. Despite the ESV’s size, braking is suitably well sorted. Driving down a narrow snow-covered road in Ontario’s cottage country, an energetic puppy that was being walked without a leash appeared in the middle of the road seemingly out of nowhere, but thankfully I was able to stop in time, much to the relief of both the owner and me.

Fuel Economy: 6.5/10

If you want to play, you’ve got to pay. Despite having cylinder deactivation, the massive ESV is unsurprisingly no fuel miser. A diesel powerplant is now offered as a no-cost option in addition to the traditional large displacement V8. Both the 3.0L six-cylinder diesel and V8 come exclusively with four-wheel drive. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) figures for the 6.2L V8 engine are 16.8 L/100 km in the city and 12.4 on the highway for a combined rating of 14.8.

My experience in real-world driving conditions was bang on the estimated value, which truthfully has never happened to me before. Over the course of a normal week of driving through a variety of weather conditions, on winter tires, with a heavy foot, I averaged 14.8 L/100 km. The new diesel powerplant does reasonably better, with ratings of 12.0 L/100 km in the city, 8.9 on the highway, and 10.6 combined.

Value: 8/10

Ringing in the register at $127,503 as equipped, the Escalade ESV may not be affordably within reach for most SUV buyers, but it does offer a lot of comfort and content for the money. It isn’t the least – or most – expensive vehicle in the segment among the models with which it would be cross-shopped such as the Lincoln Navigator, Lexus LX 570, BMW X7, Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class, or possibly a Range Rover HSE if you don’t need the third row of seating.

The closest competition is clearly the long-wheelbase Lincoln Navigator which starts at $98,750; its twin-turbocharged 3.5L engine capable of producing 450 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque with a fuel consumption rating of 15.0 L/100km on the highway and 11.5 in the city. A Lincoln similarly equipped to the ESV would run you $109,600, but it doesn’t offer the same level of luxury or sheer presence of the new Cadillac. The Mercedes-Benz G 550 is arguably the only SUV on the market that can compete with the Escalade’s ability to grab attention until the new fully electric GMC Hummer starts hitting showroom floors, but they are both much different beasts. The tangible feeling of quality has drastically increased to the point where the Cadillac feels like a worthwhile expenditure, even in this lofty segment of luxury full-size SUVs.

The Verdict

The 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV feels like a welcome and long overdue resurrection for the brand by offering a luxury vehicle worth bragging about. Materials in the top trim levels feel suitably high in quality and advanced technology feels well sorted and seamlessly integrated. The number of full-size luxury SUVs available on the market is not a long list, but if you happen to be in the market the Escalade is worth a look. It’s been a long time since I suggested anyone check out a Cadillac, but the brand’s flagship has made significant strides. If it’s important to you that the SUV you drive makes a statement, then you can’t get much bigger or bolder than the Cadillac Escalade ESV. It isn’t just good – it can now be called the Cadillac of full-size SUVs and actually mean something.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 6.2L   Model Tested 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV Premium Luxury Platinum
Engine Cylinders V8   Base Price $121,298
Peak Horsepower 420 hp   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 460 lb-ft   Destination Fee $2,100
Fuel Economy 16.8/12.4/14.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $127,503
Cargo Space 4,044 / 2,665 / 1,175 L behind 3rd/2nd/1st row  
Optional Equipment
$4,005 – Dark Moon Blue Metallic Paint, $900; Console Refrigerator, $805; Night Vision, $2,300