The 2021 Cadillac Escalade Is a Bullhorn for Your Bank Account

(Bloomberg) -- From where I sit, I’m seeing Motown’s automotive icons making a great comeback.

General Motors in particular. Yes, Ford survived 2020 better than most, with an electric F-150 pickup truck on the way and an exciting Bronco that everyone loves. But I give GM the edge: In the fourth quarter of 2020 alone, GM beat its own sales estimates when it sold 771,323 vehicles in the U.S., up 4.8% year over year, according to company figures, and besting the 4.4% prediction.

What’s more, the product mix at Detroit’s current darling has become astoundingly high-end and interesting (electric Hummer FTW). Sales of the more premium GM vehicles, such as the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, rose 30% in the fourth quarter, while sales of its more affordable Chevy Equinox dropped 22%, according to GM. On Jan. 5, the company announced that half of its completely redesigned, crown-jewel 2021 Cadillac Escalades had sold for more than $100,000 each in the final quarter of the year. That’s with a starting price of $76,195. Talk about signs of life.

Bigger Than Expected

I was especially interested to try the 2021 Cadillac Escalade. The redesigned fifth generation of Caddy’s first SUV—and the one preferred by everyone from Sylvester Stallone to Killer Mike—is touted in Cadillac advertising and marketing as the ultimate American SUV that consumers can get, at least until the electric version appears in 2025. I had heard the new one was going to be a real behemoth.

It did not disappoint.

Cadillac has urged us reporters to compare the updates to the design of the Escala. That’s quite a reach. While elegant in its own right, the Escala was a concept of a sedan shown on a golf course back in 2016. It was never intended for actual production. But the Escalade does deliver ample prestige just in its very existence—something certainly required when a price tag tips into six figures.

When it rolled up the street for my week of test-driving it, I was in fact surprised at the hulk of the new Escalade. It’s longer than both the Mercedes-Maybach GLS and the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, the two things I’ve driven most recently that, as you might imagine, are large. 

Cadillac added nearly five inches to the wheelbase of the previous model for a total of 120 inches long. If you include the length of the whole vehicle, not just the wheelbase, that’s 7.1 inches longer than the outgoing model, which is 211 inches long. (At 134.1 inches, the extended wheelbase edition is 2.6 inches longer than its predecessor.)

The new Escalade is 76.4 inches tall, about the same height as the very top of Russell Westbrook’s head. Cargo space grew by 11 cubic feet in the standard Escalade and by four cubic feet for the extended wheelbase models. A new independent rear suspension yields 10 more inches of leg room in the third row, where passengers in previous years practically had to curl to fit. 

In real terms, it all means that I, who stretches six feet in boots, could barely reach beyond the top of the car; the hood felt virtually even with my shoulder. Big is the overriding impression here, which is why I’m mentioning it first and foremost. As I cruised through the wide avenues of Beverly Hills and the graffiti-marked streets of the Arts District, the new Escalade easily outsized all the cars and SUVs around. Heck, at stoplights I could barely see over the hood to the rear end of the car stopped in front of me. (We may need a special provision that no one under a certain height—5 feet, 7 inches, say—be allowed to drive this rig without a booster seat.) 

The new Escalade is a gilded school bus of an SUV. It made me really miss (due to Covid-19) not being able to drive around with a whole slew of friends on a night out on the town, because that’s exactly where this rig would excel. 

Gilded in Glamour

The comfort has been amped up as well, with 38 inches of glorious OLED touchscreens that gently curve around the drivers’ seat. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, enhanced parking assist, heads-up display, and a host of safety and crash-avoidance systems all come standard. Night Vision and soft-close doors are optional, among other luxuries. It has heated and cooled front seats with additional lumbar support and a decadent sunroof that exposes the entire sky. When I climbed in for the first time, I sank into the Mulan leather seats like Katherine Hepburn on the silver screen; I swiftly fell in love with the warm, wooden accents lined like perfect pinstripes across the dashboard and center console. It felt like being ensconced in a cedar closet, surrounded by fine leather garments. 

At night, the Escalade greeted me with keyless entry and something like a low-key light show: as I approached, the daytime running lamps at the front pulsated twice, the rear LED light blades illuminated from bottom to top twice, and a Cadillac crest lit up on the back of the OLED Display. A spotlight with the same crest illuminated the ground as I walked up. (Cadillac cleverly calls the effect a “puddle lamp.”) 

The traditional Escalade brushed-chrome grille fences it all in, or you can choose one of two sportier-looking mesh-grille designs that are new for 2021. The headlights retain a slim vertical signature but add a narrow horizontal line on each bottom fender of the vehicle, further emphasizing its gargantuan width; the slab of tall windows running down each side of the vehicle enhance its presence, like the mirrored windows of a midtown Manhattan bank. The taillights line each side of the squared-off rear like illuminated tentpole pillars.

Power steps that fold down to assist getting into the vehicle are available, though ridiculous; if you’re tall enough to drive the thing, you’re tall enough to get in without them. They got in my way every time I tried to open the door. The optional rear-seat entertainment and 36-speaker premium audio, though, are must-haves that will make the Escalade feel like a home theater on wheels. I was tempted just to pop on some old music videos and have my boyfriend drive me around town while I watched/danced in the back. With just about everything on lockdown due to Covid-19, it was among the better options for the day. Cabin fever begone!

A Smooth Hauler

A platform shared by the Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe and GMC Yukon undergirds this Escalade. It’s driven by a 420-horsepower, 6.2-liter V8 engine and 10-speed automatic transmission. Four-wheel drive is available on the higher-priced trim lines. A 277 hp, turbocharged, 3.0-liter, inline-six diesel engine is also available, as is magnetic ride control for flawless acceleration and handling performance and a heavy-duty trailering package.

The drive itself feels … buffered. Buffered from the road that seems like miles (six feet) below. Buffered from road noise. Buffered from any edges so sharp as a hairpin turn or so wobbly as the Jell-o that some big and tall SUVs seem to become as they waddle down the road. Buffered from the haters and Instagram fakers and selfie-takers.

There will be plenty of those in a vehicle so opulent. With times as volatile as these, such overt signs of status are polarizing—if not at all scarce. (See the first part of this story; Bentley, meanwhile, just reported that 2020 was its best year ever.) For those who need the size of their bank account advertised loudly and proudly, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade is the perfect bullhorn.