What's the best vehicle for a long road trip? Some would probably say a minivan, while others might suggest a unibody crossover – but after driving 250 miles from Atlanta to the Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade should probably be on that list too.
We hesitantly booked the luxurious SUV for the long drive, unsure if the 5,800-pound vehicle would be able to tackle the steep inclines and twisty mountain roads required of it. But it was obvious after a short while on the road that the Escalade was more than up for the journey.
The V8 offered plenty of grunt for uphill climbs, the optional Magnetic Ride Control system delivered extreme comfort and exceptional competence in the curves, plus there was plenty of tech to keep front and passengers entertained. So if you can swing the $107,915 as-tested price, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade is an awesome vehicle over long distances.
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The Cadillac Escalade stands at 76.7 inches (6.4 feet) tall from tire to roof. It's one of the largest SUVs on sale today and absolutely looks it, hulking over every other vehicle in the car park. Slim LED headlights attempt to modernize the otherwise garish, oversized look – and they sort of help – but the too-big grille with horizontal chrome inserts takes up most of the face. And waterfall-like LED accents adorn each side of the bumper surrounded by chrome trim.
That chrome extends to the side profile too, separating the second- and third-row windows with a single piece of shiny metallic. The wheels pictured here are the most basic on offer for this trim – 22-inchers with 14 spokes and finished in bright silver. There are three better wheel options if you're willing to spend $1,995. The backside of the Escalade isn't any less gaudy, with its overuse of chrome trim and badging, but the vertical taillights are a nice touch that help offset those shiny exterior pieces. And you can get this car in any standard color you want, as long as it's black; every other color is a $625 option or $1,125 for Crystal White metallic.
Inside is where the Escalade comes into its own. Handsome Whisper Beige leather coats the seats, jet black leather accents cover the dash, and a dark lacquered wood-grain lies between. Typically we’re down on lacquered wood, but somehow Cadillac pulls it off here; it doesn’t feel out of place for a cabin that looks extremely modern otherwise.
The piece de resistance is the massive array of screens atop the dash. A16.9-inch OLED display occupies the upper portion of the dash – largest in the class – joined by a 14.2-inch digital instrument cluster and a third 7.2-inch screen just to the left of the steering wheel, all arranged in a swooping semi-circular design. Although the Escalade's exterior is still very old school, the cabin feels like a futuristic cockpit.
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In the 245-plus-mile trek between Atlanta, Georgia, and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the Cadillac Escalade proved to be the perfect highway companion in more ways than one. With the optional MagneRide suspension equipped, the ride quality was sublime. The Escalade absorbed every imperfection in the road, even handling dirt pull-offs with poise. Not even the 22-inch wheels hampered the experience; never once did the Escalade feel too harsh.
The Whisper Beige leather seats were perfect too, with impressive bolstering for the driver and front passenger, cooling functionality in the first row, heating in both, and standard 12-way power adjustability. Never once was my butt or back sore in the four-hour journey. On top of that, impressive levels of sound deadening made the cabin whisper quiet, apart from some howling of the V8 when you bury your foot into the pedal.
Even the third-row was spacious and comfy enough to shove a friend back there. With 38.2 inches of headroom and 34.9 inches of legroom, the Escalade has one of the roomiest back seats in the segment. Only the Ford Expedition (36.1 inches) and Chevrolet Tahoe (36.7 inches) have more headroom, and the Lincoln Navigator has more legroom than anyone (40.9 inches). But if it's third-row legroom you're really after and still want the Caddy, the ESV has 36.6 inches on tap.
With a trio of screens measuring 16.9 inches, 14.2 inches, and 7.2 inches, the 38.3 inches worth of displays inside the Escalade is the most you'll find in any car today (until the Jeep Grand Wagoneer and its 75 inches of screen real estate go on sale). And that's not even including the two seatback-mounted tablets in the second row, but more on those in a minute.
The 16.9-inch central OLED touchscreen projects a crystal clear image with a minimalist user interface that is extremely easy to use. Unlike the traditional GM display with its color-coordinated roundels, the Escalade's unique UI projects white icons atop a black screen, with smooth scrolling functionality and options that are easy to decipher. There's even a vertically oriented quick-access screen with one-touch home, music, and navigation options. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto both come standard on all trims, and this Premium Luxury model gets a head-up display too.
Directly in front of the driver sits a 14.2-inch digital instrument cluster that's equally crisp and fully customizable. The driver can swap the traditional gauges for things like a full-size map, a night-vision camera feed (a $2,000 option), or an HD front-facing camera for certain situations. And nearly all of that is customizable via the 7.2-inch screen just to the left of the display, which also serves as an on-board computer.
In the second row, passengers have access to two sizable displays with HDMI support and a full-size 110-volt outlet, located behind the center console. We brought along a Nintendo Switch, which kept the adult children in the second row entertained for the whole trip. You can also plug-in an Amazon Fire Stick or something similar to watch your favorite streaming services via standard W-Fi.
For as heavy and hulking as this body-on-frame SUV is – tipping the scales at around 5,835 pounds in this spec – the Cadillac Escalade handled the curvy roads of the Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee surprisingly well. With a standard air suspension setup plus the optional Magnetic Ride Control equipped (part of the $2,700 Performance package), the advanced setup kept the Cadillac composed, mitigating as much body roll as physics would allow. The steering was surprisingly responsive, too, with no noticeable dead-on-center feel common in some truck-based SUVs.
The 6.2-liter V8 delivered its 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet with complete and utter smoothness. On the highway, it was easy to forget that there were eight working cylinders underhood at all – and sometimes there wasn’t, thanks to the cylinder deactivation system. Even on uphill climbs on our way through the Smokies, the engine offered up ample amounts of grunt, only protesting slightly on the exceptionally steep stuff – though, any vehicle of this size would. The 10-speed automatic, meanwhile, shifted effortlessly all the while.
With that said, the Escalade is no performance SUV. The body-on-frame setup – as good as it is – still makes the SUV waftier than its unibody alternatives. Something like the BMW X7 or Mercedes-Benz GLS is significantly better to drive. And there's still more power to extract from that V8, which Cadillac has planned with the upcoming Escalade V.
Although SuperCruise hands-free driving wasn’t equipped on our range-topping tester, for some reason, the Cadillac Escalade still offers an advanced suite of active safety equipment out of the box. The base version gets a forward-collision warning, front and rear pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, a 360-degree overhead camera, automatic high-beam headlights, and a rear-seat reminder. The Premium Luxury model reviewed here adds a lane-change alert and lane-departure warning at no extra cost.
But if you want the more advanced safety equipment, like adaptive cruise control and full-speed automatic emergency braking, that will cost you $3,650 as part of the Driver Assist Tech package. On our long trip, that option felt well worth the price of admission; the Escalade cruised along with adaptive cruise control working flawlessly, maintaining a steady pace to the cars in front of it.
With a hulking V8 and a 5,800-pound curb weight, fuel economy is about as poor as you’d expect. The 2021 Escalade actually gets worse fuel economy than it did last year, returning 14 miles per gallon city, 19 highway, and 16 combined in this four-wheel-drive spec. The previous version achieved 14 city, 21 highway, and 17 combined with all-wheel drive.
The latest Lincoln Navigator with all-wheel drive is better, achieving 17 mpg combined. The GMC Yukon with the same 6.2-liter V8 and all-wheel drive matches the Cadillac with 16 mpg combined.
The base Escalade Luxury starts at $76,195 for a two-wheel-drive model, and all-wheel-drive adds $3,000 to the Escalade’s price across the board. At that cost, the Escalade is one of the more expensive options in the class – indirect rivals like the BMW X7 and Mercedes-Benz GLS start at $74,900 and $76,000, respectively, while the Caddy's main competitor, the Lincoln Navigator, just barely undercuts it with an asking price of $76,185. Only the Land Rover Range Rover is more expensive for 2021, asking $92,000.
Our tester is a range-topping Premium Luxury Platinum model, which starts at $100,595. All-wheel drive adds $3,000 to that, and two options bring the total price to $107,915. The Shadow Metallic paint is $625 and night vision is another $2,000.
But even as the top-trim version, Cadillac still doesn’t make Super Cruise standard. The safety feature is a steep $2,500 option on this Premium Luxury Platinum model as well as on the adjacent Sport Platinum model. For a vehicle already this pricey, it’s ridiculous that Super Cruise isn’t standard.
Escalade Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Cadillac Escalade: Review
2021 Cadillac Escalade Premium Luxury Platinum 4WD