Cadillac is in an interesting position right now. The company wants to launch a new brand identity, but its most iconic product doesn’t really mesh with that new direction. Cadillac has said many times that from here on out, all its new vehicles will be electric. That leaves its flagship, the Escalade, in a weird spot.
The Escalade is the pinnacle of the current Cadillac lineup. It’s the company’s most luxurious, most expensive, and, for the past 20 years, most important offering. But it doesn’t represent how Cadillac wants to be viewed: cutting edge, environmentally conscious, premium in a European way. The Escalade embodies an older Cadillac, one that values big bodies and bigger engines. That’s a problem, because the Escalade sells enormously well.
So how does the Escalade make sense for a brand that doesn’t want to be seen as Escalade-ish? Does that even matter? Can a single model transcend the brand it comes from?
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(Full Disclosure: Cadillac lent me a 2022 Escalade with a full tank of gas to putt around in during a long weekend in Savannah, Georgia.)
To understand the Escalade now, we have to look back at where it came from. It has been the top dog of American luxury since it debuted back in 1999. Since then, our appetite for big and powerful SUVs has only grown, and the Escalade has grown with it. In the beginning, it was nearly impossible to tell the Escalade from a GMC Yukon. Now, with the fifth-generation Escalade, you’d be hard-pressed to know the two were even related, especially on the inside.
The truck I drove was a well-appointed but not fully loaded “Premium Luxury” model, MSRP $105,915. That may sound like a ton of cash — and it is — but it’s almost a bargain compared to its competitors. My test vehicle also had $100 knocked off due to features missing because of the chip shortage; no four-way lumbar or locking steering column for me.
The 2023 Escalade I drove was finished in Mahogany Metallic, a deep brown color that I liked a lot when combined with the parchment interior. It was a nice departure from the conventional all-black interior. Also, brown is an elite paint color for a car. The seats were comfy, the ride was delightfully smooth, there was room for a small family to live inside and never meet. There was enough power from the 420-hp 6.2-liter V8 to make me look like a real asshole in Savannah traffic. Super Cruise was fantastic.
This is all stuff you know. That’s not why we’re here today. We’re talking about what Cadillac means as a brand, and what the Escalade means for Cadillac.
When I first drove this Escalade, I was extremely impressed. It was about as smooth and comfy as a car could be. And why wouldn’t it be? It costs more than a hundred grand and is literally the tippy-top of Cadillac’s lineup. A few weeks later I drove a different Cadillac. The Lyriq represents where Cadillac wants to go. It’s electric. It’s stylish without being brash. It’s packed with cutting-edge technology and hopes to beat the European luxury brands at their own game. It embodies everything Cadillac wants to be, better than the Escalade ever could.
That’s where the real issue lies. The Lyriq is $40,000 cheaper than the Escalade, and you do not give up much of anything in exchange.
The Lyriq makes the top-dog Escalade feel outdated. In the Escalade, the technology isn’t as well integrated or up-to-date. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was the way the screens are arranged. The Escalade’s displays are formed in three pieces: a small readout on the left of the instrument panel, a separate gauge screen, and an infotainment screen on the right. On the Lyriq it’s all one unit. It’s seamless. It’s the next step. This one aspect of interior design is a microcosm of the entire Escalade problem. I don’t want to say the Escalade is a has-been, because it’s still an incredibly competent and popular vehicle. But it’s not the car of tomorrow. It isn’t what Cadillac wants to be.
To me, the Escalade feels like the end of something. It’s the last of the Cadillac we used to know — the Cadillac of chrome grilles and big V8s. That doesn’t make the Escalade bad. I’d put it up against just about any other high-end luxury SUV from Germany, Sweden, England or Japan But it’s still the end of this type of vehicle.
Cadillac says all of its new models going forward will be electric. GM’s Ultium platform has already proven itself to be up to the task of hauling around enormous amounts of girth.
For the past decade or so, it’s been hard to tell whether Cadillac follows the Escalade, or the Escalade follows Cadillac. The opulent SUV is clearly Cadillac’s most important model, still, even as the company aims down a different path.
The next Escalade will be electric. It will be a better example of what Cadillac wants to be. It will have a lot to live up to, because despite the fact that the fifth-generation Escalade is a bit old school, it’s still very, very good.