Like a linebacker in an expensive suit, the Escalade has dynamite looks and slick moves, and while its price matches foreign competitors, its sophistication falls just short.
In the 16 years since the Cadillac Escalade first appeared as General Motors' answer to the Lincoln Navigator it's been a popular model, and for good reason: What you see here is essentially the flagship American luxury vehicle — a seven-seat SUV (eight if you get the second-row bench). The only other luxury vehicle made by an American company on American soil that's more expensive than the Escalade is a Tesla Model S, but its volume and appeal are so small that I feel safe in giving the crown to the Escalade (for now).
For 2015, the big Cadillac has received a complete redesign, as have its Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and GMC Yukon siblings (compare 2015 and 2014 models here). As before, if you need more space you can opt for the Suburban-sized, long-wheelbase ESV model. The powertrain carries over, but the sheet metal and much of the mechanical bits are completely new, resulting in an Escalade that feels different from the outgoing model.
Exterior & Styling
At first glance, this doesn't look like a mild makeover, with a new shape that's considerably sharper than the outgoing model. It has a creased, pressed look, but its bulk cannot be disguised as anything other than mass; the overall appearance brings to mind a linebacker in an expensive, well-tailored suit. The nose fully keeps with the current Cadillac look, featuring jewel-like headlamps that stretch up into the fenders.
In my test truck, the lamps were the optional full-LED style. A new body-side crease runs the full length of the truck, from the headlamps to the tail, and the doors no longer wrap into the roof like they used to. They're now fully enclosed in the body-side, which Cadillac says improves wind noise on the road. Out back, the taillights run from the bumper to the top of the roof, like a Volvo wagon. The look is modern, clean and nicely updated — a far cry from the phoned-in, mild makeover Lincoln gave the Navigator for 2015.
How It Drives
The only engine available in the 2015 Escalade is the big 420-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8, which is the optional large motor for most of GM's full-size pickups, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that drives either the rear or all four wheels. The engine is more than capable of eliciting some rapid movement out of the big Escalade, accompanied by a matching basso profundo soundtrack that lets everyone know that this is most definitely not a twin-turbo six-cylinder.
Acceleration is strong but not overpowering. Handling is surprisingly tight for such a big truck-based SUV, but the ride is the most impressive attribute. Cadillac's Magnetic Ride Control suspension is present here, actively monitoring changing pavement and terrain conditions and adjusting the shock absorbers in minute, nearly instant response to smooth out whatever you happen to roll over. It creates a calm, controlled, serene experience when driving over rough pavement or smooth asphalt. Even with the big 22-inch wheels, which on some vehicles produce a harsh and choppy ride, the Escalade just glides on with the faintest of cabin thumps and bumps, with no harsh feedback through the steering wheel or pedals. If the driving experience is a bit too calm for you, there's a selectable Sport mode that changes the transmission shift pattern, ride firmness and the degree of power-steering assist. But why anyone would want to put a behemoth such as this into Sport mode is a mystery — it will never be mistaken for anything approaching athletic, not with this size and mass to contend with.
Competitors are similar in price, but not in nature. The recently revised Lincoln Navigator has a new twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 as its only engine, replacing a V-8, which leaves the less-expensive Navigator with a 40-hp deficit versus the Escalade. Like the Escalade, however, it does have an optional active suspension that does wonders for its body-motion control. The Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is a worthy competitor: Not quite as big as an Escalade, it features far more powertrain options, from V-6 and twin-turbocharged V-8 gas engines to diesels. It feels a lot more expensive and sophisticated, as well. The Lexus LX 570 is a fancied-up version of Toyota's already impressive Land Cruiser, which is given an expensive Lexus treatment but just one powertrain. Like the Escalade, it's available only with a V-8 engine, but one that's nearly 40 hp shy of the Cadillac's figure.
Fuel economy for the Escalade is above-average for its class thanks to technologies like cylinder deactivation, but it will still give environmentalists fits. The 2015 4x4 model is rated 14/21/16 mpg city/highway/combined, and I managed to squeeze out 16.5 mpg during a week of mixed city and highway use. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the new turbocharged V-6-powered Navigator isn't any better than the more-powerful V-8 Escalade, rated 15/20/17 mpg for 4x4 models. That bests the Cadillac by 1 mpg in city and combined mileage, but falls short by 1 mpg on the highway. The Escalade is better than the V-8-powered GL550 and its 13/18/15 mpg rating, and even that is better than the LX 570's dismal 12/17/14 mpg rating. The fact that the big Escalade can do so well against physically smaller competitors with smaller, less-powerful motors speaks well to the engineering work that's gone into it.
The cabin is where Cadillac put a lot of effort, and it shows in a design that's light years ahead of the outgoing model (and puts the latest Lincoln Navigator back on the delivery truck). The newest Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon feature excellent, high-quality interiors, but the Cadillac's shapes and materials are even more impressive. Dark chocolate leather stitched in rich red thread covers the dash and doors, while real wood and matte-finish metal abound. The seats are big and comfortable, covered in equally high-quality leather. Thanks to exceptional attention to detail (including areas not normally clad with leather, like the panel between the dashboard and the door), the Escalade finally feels special inside, allowing you to forget its humble roots.
Second-row seating is available as individual captain's chairs (as my test truck had) or as a bench seat, giving the Escalade flexibility to seat either seven or eight occupants, as the third row technically seats three. It's a little tight for three full-sized adults back there, however; two is a much more reasonable idea, though it would fit three children.
Second-row legroom is not quite as plentiful as one might expect in such an enormous vehicle. Front-seat passenger space is also not as copious as expected, with the wide center console eating up a lot of real estate that could have been used for elbow room.
It is quiet, however, even at highway speeds. The V-8 delivers a muted burble through the floor that seems appropriate to the size of the truck, and though tire slap on expansion joints can be an issue, wind noise is largely absent — until one opens the shade for the optional moonroof and hears a rushing whoosh intrude upon the Zen calm. It may be that the moonroof isn't sealing properly, or just that the aerodynamics of a brick-shaped truck mean that this is where the wind noise will be, but it made me keep the shade closed when the moonroof wasn't open. With everything buttoned up, having conversations with any of the three rows of occupants is not difficult.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Despite the dramatically higher quality of the Escalade's interior, all is not perfect. My biggest gripe: The touch-sensitive panels that have proliferated through the Cadillac lineup like an invasive weed have finally appeared in the Escalade, and they're just as annoying here as anywhere else. The shiny black plastic surfaces attract fingerprints, and the haptic feedback 'bump' is simply no substitute for the quality feel of a well-done switch or button. These touch-sensitive panels are now used for just about everything in the Escalade, even ancillary controls like adjustable pedals and the glove box opener.
The standard Cadillac User Experience is a mixed bag, as it is in other Cadillacs. As multimedia systems go, it's easy to use and its many connectivity features provide a great deal of functionality. From the swipe motions for changing screens to the Pandora streaming audio, it's useful. But as with other GM multimedia systems, the voice controls are painfully slow. Push the button, speak your command, count to eight or nine and then CUE will usually do what you've asked it to do. That kind of delay is longer than it should be, and needs to be quickly improved.
Cargo & Storage
Being a full-size SUV, the Escalade has an amazing amount of room — more than you'll find in any import-brand luxury SUV — but there's less than there was last year due to a change in the way Cadillac has engineered the third row of folding seats. The Lincoln Navigator has an advantage over the Escalade in the way its rear suspension is configured, which allows the Lincoln to have truly fold-flat seats that drop down between the frame rails. The Escalade (and all of GM's full-size SUVs) cannot do this, and in previous generations that meant requiring the user to physically remove the third row of seats to get a truly flat load floor. The new Escalade's third-row seat folds flat, but at the cost of several inches of height above it.
How much did that impact the Escalade? It lost 1.7 cubic feet of cargo room, dropping to 15.2 cubic feet behind the third row. The modifications make the standard Escalade's cargo room the worst among its main competitors: The Navigator comes in at 18.1 cubic feet behind the third row, while the GL550 sports 16.0 cubic feet and the LX 570 has 15.5 cubic feet. With all rows stored, the Navigator comes out on top again with a standard 103.3 cubic feet to the Escalade's 94.2, the GL550's 93.8 and the LX 570's 83.1. If you require more room, the Escalade is also available in an ESV extended-length version, with most of the length increase coming behind the second row. That truck delivers 39.3 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row, expandable to 120.9 cubic feet. That still comes up short of the extended-length Navigator L's 42.6 cubic feet and 128.2 cubic feet of maximum cargo room.
If you really need more cargo room than the Escalade can provide inside, hook up a trailer and haul it. This is where big, truck-based SUVs like the Escalade truly shine over competitors that aren't quite as ruggedly built — towing things like boats, campers, ATVs or even other cars is something the Escalade excels at, with a tow rating of 8,100 pounds. The Navigator bests that with an 8,600-pound rating, and the Benz and Lexus come close with 7,500- and 7,000-pound ratings themselves, but try pulling as much with one of the more soft-road luxury trucks on the market, like the Audi Q7.
The 2015 Escalade received a five-star crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in side crash tests, but just three stars for rollover protection. (Three-star rollover ratings are rare, most often appearing among full-size, truck-based SUVs and off-road SUVs.) The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not yet tested the Escalade. See the results of all crash tests here.
Major safety upgrades include front and rear automatic braking that relies on short-range radar to detect objects and halt the vehicle autonomously, part of an optional Driver Assist Package that also includes full-speed adaptive cruise control. A new, model-exclusive front-center airbag deploys between the front seats in the event of a side-impact crash, while blind spot alert, cross traffic alert and lane change alert are standard on Luxury and Premium trim levels. An optional Driver Awareness Package adds forward collision alert, lane departure warning and the safety alert seat that vibrates to warn drivers of dangerous situations. While not technically a safety system, if you were planning to steal a new Escalade, know that new anti-theft measures have been added, too, such as glass-breakage sensors, motion detectors and a level orientation indicator to prevent wheel theft. See all the Escalade's standard safety equipment here.
Value in Its Class
Along with the bump in refinement, luxury, safety equipment and technology has come a bump in price. The new Escalade starts at $72,690 (including destination charge) for a base 4x2 model; my Premium 4x4 began at $83,790. It was pretty well loaded at that point, so added options were few: retractable power side steps for $1,695, 22-inch wheels for $500 and Majestic Plum Metallic paint for $495, bringing the total to $86,480. That's an eye-popping sum of money for a GM SUV, but at least the latest Escalade brings significant technology and content to justify some of that lofty price tag. Option one up your way here.
The Escalade's main competitor is the newly revised Lincoln Navigator, but it seems the Escalade has the upper hand with its latest redesign. Aside from an active suspension, additional safety systems and an entirely new powertrain, the Navigator hasn't been visually updated much, inside or out. It has the advantage on interior space, however, especially in terms of cargo room. The Navigator's pricing is well-matched to the Escalade, starting at $62,475 and stretching up past $78,000 for a loaded long-wheelbase version — still considerably more affordable than the Escalade (for now). The Lexus LX 570 is a sizable SUV, as well, with a powerful V-8 engine and room for seven (or eight, in cramped conditions), but its onboard electronics pale in comparison to the sophisticated Cadillac multimedia suite. A 4x4 version starts at $83,855, making it considerably more expensive than most competitors — except the Mercedes-Benz GL550, that is. The V-8-powered Benz SUV starts at $90,875 but is also available in much less expensive V-6 and diesel versions. Compare all four competitors here.