“Some people don’t always think ‘Cadillac’ when they think of an Escalade,” Rob Hunwick, Cadillac’s lead exterior designer, told us at a launch event in New York City today. “They don’t say, ‘I drive a Cadillac,’ they say, ‘I drive an Escalade.’”
Hunwick’s point was to indicate the recognition and strength of the Escalade name, and it’s a good one. Throughout Cadillac’s ups and downs, there really only was one car people consistently knew and were able to name. That was the Escalade. And now that the 2021 Cadillac Escalade is finally here, it’s a true Cadillac flagship that’s worthy of going toe to toe with something outside of General Motors’ usual humdrum. Something like a Mercedes-Benz GLS, a BMW X7 or a Lincoln Navigator.
When Cadillac called the now-deceased CT6 its “flagship,” a part of me was never totally convinced. I recognized the car was nice, but definitely not over-the-top opulent I knew a flagship luxury car had to be. Its interior couldn’t hold a candle to anything from BMW or Mercedes-Benz and its reception was really lukewarm at best. I wanted plush leathers that would swallow me whole. Carpets I’d lose change in. A sound system that could accurately replicate a butterfly’s heartbeat. Shit like that.
The Escalade is the last real Cadillac, as Raphael Orlove observed in 2013, and it’s a sentiment I still agree with today, seven years later. The Escalade always felt like it existed as an outlier from the usual Cadillac offerings—least of all because it has an actual, discernible name instead of an anonymous jumble of alphanumeric nonsense. “Escalade” brings to mind something large, something imposing. Even to people who aren’t car-people. What does ATS-V mean to anyone? Nothing whatsoever.
And the 2021 Escalade is definitely large. The front grille is expansive and it forces you to be physical: you must step up into it when you open its doors. A running board unfolds automatically to give you a leg-up. Once you get inside, a lush interior awaits.
The Escalade Cadillac had on display for us to check out was in the top-tier Platinum trim. So its interior felt like stepping into a private plane: thick white carpets on the floor, creamy white leather seats, cloud-like headliner trim, and beautifully inlaid wood accents a Chris-Craft owner would have appreciated.
Did it finally happen? Did GM finally create an interior that could be considered luxurious? And not just Detroit-specific luxury, but luxury enough to stand on its own against the European automakers? Because it certainly seemed so. The Escalade steps up its game so incredibly much compared to the other cars Cadillac offers it seems to occupy its own stratosphere of the lineup. A château built next to the modest two-bedroom that is the XT4, XT6 and the like. And it all comes down to the details.
The tail lights, if you look closely, are multi-layered and multi-dimensional.
The doors themselves feature five different types and colors of trim—fabric is now in again, but never in places (such as the armrest) that you’d touch regularly or would be difficult to clean. The doors also have soft-close abilities.
The buttons and switches are substantive to the touch.
The dashboard evolves to a patterned metallic cover as it approaches the windshield.
Then there’s the screen. It’s a thin and curved OLED display, 38 inches total when measured diagonally. The touch sensitivity mirrors a smartphone’s; the colors are vibrant, the blacks very black. It’s fed by the two-megapixel, wide-angle cameras festooned all over the Escalade’s body. This screen will definitely not be cheap to replace.
And finally, the new Escalade will be offered with Super Cruise as an option, which is GM’s semi-autonomous driver function. Super Cruise is perhaps one of the best and coolest things GM currently offers and it was a crime that it took the company damn near three years to put it on the best car it currently makes. (My conspiracy brain believes Cadillac insisted on calling the CT6 the “flagship” even though it wasn’t because that was the first car it offered Super Cruise with. GM knew the CT6 wouldn’t sell in huge numbers, because sedan, and therefore would reduce the number of Super Cruise users on the road, thus avoiding potentially litigious situations.)
Cadillac’s had a rough couple of years, but at least it’s got this Escalade now. It is the one car Cadillac really could not afford to screw up. I’m not saying this is the car that’ll turn the whole operation around, but it’s at least proof to me that someone at the company can build something people actually want to buy.
I haven’t driven the new Escalade yet, but after sitting in it today and understanding Super Cruise’s capabilities, I’ve never been more convinced the Escalade has been Cadillac’s flagship all along.