Now, its latest model has arrived. This fourth-generation Escalade is among the most important new Cadillacs since the division's renaissance kicked into high gear. It's the brand's de facto flagship, and the first vehicle many young people think of when hearing the name "Cadillac." In the past, the Escalade was the chosen vehicle of the rich, flashy and famous. It's suffered over the past few years, though, particularly as new and more luxurious competitors have come to the fore.
With this latest redesign, General Motors is aiming to retake the spotlight as purveyors of the market's premier luxury SUV. To find out if it's been successful, I ventured down to the South Carolina Lowcountry to test the all-new 2015 Escalade.
This new model is loaded to the gills with advanced tech. Actually, that's a lie, Cadillac has ditched the third-generation model's side gills, and the new Escalade is a cleaner design for it. Underhood, you won't find just a simple 6.2-liter Ecotec3 V8, you'll find a direct-injected engine, with variable valve timing and Active Fuel Management, the latter of which allows the Escalade to run on just four of its eight cylinders to improve fuel economy.
GM's new small block produces 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque, 17 more horses and 43 more lb-ft than its predecessor. 60 miles per hour now arrives in under six seconds – quite an accomplishment in a 5,900-pound SUV. Meanwhile, this is the most fuel-efficient Escalade since the Hybrid model was discontinued, thanks not only to the features mentioned above, but also active grille shutters and other aerodynamic tweaks. In my short-wheelbase, four-wheel-drive tester, EPA estimates sit at 14 miles per gallon in the city, 21 mpg on the highway and 16 mpg combined.
The suspension now boasts the always-excellent MagneRide magnetorheological active damping system as part of its coilover front and five-link rear setup. The Escalade's rear track has been widened by nearly two inches in a bid to offer a more stable ride – it works – and shear-style body mounts have been fitted to increase stiffness and reduce noise, vibration and harshness. 20-inch wheels come standard, with 22s optional, and thanks to the standard adaptive system, the ride quality doesn't suffer because of the big hoops.
There are a number of features that have been fitted to the cabin to improve the Escalade's sense of refinement, not least of which is Bose Active Noise Cancelling, a wondrous technology that basically erases engine noise while idling and at speed. Combined with additional sound-deadening material, the aforementioned stiffer body and some clever aerodynamic tricks, this new Escalade's cabin is supremely quiet.
As for actual equipment, Cadillac has left the options sheet rather light, opting to offer a lot of kit as standard on the Escalade's three trim levels. For example, heated and cooled seats are now fitted to every Escalade, as is a heated steering wheel. The same goes for power-folding third row seats. There's only one stereo, a 16-speaker Bose Centerpoint surround system, while LED headlights and taillights are standard across the range. Even Cadillac's excellent 12.3-inch TFT instrument cluster is standard.
Cadillac has left the options sheet rather light, opting to offer a lot of kit as standard on the Escalade's three trim levels.
That's not to say that the top two trims, Luxury and Premium, are without their own goodies. Moving up adds a head-up display, as well as a huge suite of driver-assistance features and a new security package, the latter of which which can allegedly block slim-jims. (Like GM's other previous fullsize SUVs, the Escalade has always been a top pick among thieves). Adaptive cruise control is included on the top-end Premium trim, as is automatic braking, automatic seatbelt tightening, and a rear-seat entertainment system with a nine-inch screen and a Blu-Ray player. The latter is also optional on the mid-range Luxury trim.
Long a weak point of the last-generation Escalade, the new model's interior is nothing short of a massive improvement. Real wood is paired with – and contrasted against – real metal, Alcantara and supple hand-stitched leather. This is an interior worthy of an $84,000 sticker, one I had no problem spending an extended amount of time in. Leather is the cabin's dominant material, with small streaks of wood and spans of faux suede. As it is on the rest of Cadillac's range, the CUE infotainment system is surrounded by piano black trim. Fit and finish is truly excellent, especially around the center console lids, which conceal change trays and cupholders. And these high-quality materials are all standard – what you see in these images is fitted to every Escalade.
What's most impressive about this cabin is that Cadillac has swathed such a large space in such fine trimmings. The new model's interior is significantly larger, with EPA passenger volume up from 108.9 cubic feet in this standard-wheelbase model to 120.8. As for how that actually feels, I had no complaints in either the first or second row buckets. My tester's third row was a bit cramped for this six-foot, one-inch occupant, so if you're planning on stowing adults in the third row on a regular basis, I'd recommend going with the extra 20 inches of wheelbase and nearly ten inches of third-row legroom provided by the Escalade ESV. The pickup-bodied Escalade EXT was discontinued in 2013, and shows no signs of making a reappearance in this new generation.
EPA passenger volume is up from 108.9 cubic feet in this standard-wheelbase model to 120.8.
Getting into and out of the first two rows is a breeze, with excellent ingress and egress. The 12-way power front seats offer a wide range of adjustability; finding one's ideal driving position is easy. I prefer to sit as low as is practical in most vehicles, and the Escalade's huge range of adjustments makes that possible. The seats themselves are thoroughly supportive and comfortable, a welcome improvement over the old Escalade's largely flat-cushioned furniture. The tilt-telescopic steering wheel, meanwhile, enjoys a similarly large range of motion. It's possible to drop the tiller right in the driver's lap, should they be so inclined. Outward visibility is quite good, befitting of such a large vehicle with a cavernous greenhouse.
Cadillac says its latest Art and Science design displays "evolution with an edge." To me, the difference between the 2014 model and and this new one is like comparing an off-the-rack Brooks Brothers suit to a made-to-measure item from Tom Ford. It's a sharp, crisp look at both ends, with the nose set off by a tall, imposing front fascia highlighted by a wide, eggcrate grille. The thin, LED-adorned headlights contribute quite nicely to the Escalade's visual width, tying this SUV more closely to its ATS, CTS and XTS brethren.
In back, the design is dominated by tall, thin LED taillights running from bumper to roof. This almost Volvo-like execution allows the big SUV to further stand out from the pack – especially at night – and jibes nicely as a new interpretation of Cadillac's historically slim and vertical taillamps. What's more, to my eyes, these taillights manage to present the Escalade as a slimmer, smaller vehicle than it really is. Taking a page from the playbook of the new Land Rover Range Rover, the Escalade's profile is highlighted, particularly on darker paint schemes, by a thin silver trim strip that runs along the doors between the front and rear wheel wells.
The difference between the 2014 model and and this new one is like comparing an off-the-rack Brooks Brothers suit to a tailored item from Tom Ford.
As I mentioned, the new Escalade is capable of hitting 60 mph in just a shade under six seconds. That's properly quick – particularly for a vehicle of this sort – but metrics only tell part of the story. This Caddy's weight doesn't feel like a hindrance thanks to the accessible torque of its 6.2-liter V8. Off the line, it surges forward with a royal bellow from its discreet exhaust outlets, while at freeways speeds, there's enough grunt to make passing maneuvers a cinch. Dip into its linear throttle, and the power arrives in smooth, predictable doses.
Normally with this sort of vehicle, this is where I'd start to talk about towing. Unfortunately, Cadillac didn't have anything for me to haul, although I can say that my standard-length, four-wheel-drive tester is rated to handle 8,100 pounds, just like the 2014 model.
The small-block's cylinder deactivation technology, meanwhile, is nearly imperceptible. Establish a steady cruising speed without much throttle input and the Escalade will happily deactivate half its cylinders, while all eight can be awakened with an extra toe on the accelerator. I had no issue maintaining four-cylinder mode for an extended period, and enjoyed watching the average fuel economy slowly improve.
The six-speed auto isn't bad, but there are better gearboxes in this end of the market.
Managing the power to the optional four-wheel-drive system is the same Hydra-Matic six-speed auto from last year's model. While I didn't have any qualms with this gearbox on my drive, it's a bit surprising not to see a more sophisticated transmission with a higher gear count. I had the same reaction when the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra fullsize pickups debuted with the same gearbox, trucks with which the Escalade shares quite a bit. Compared to something like ZF's ubiquitous eight-speed automatic, the Caddy's six-speed is slower to upshift and less willing to downshift, with more hunting for the appropriate gear. This isn't to say that the six-speed auto is bad – it's not – but there are better gearboxes in this end of the market.
We suspect that GM just couldn't get its supplier timetables worked out – witness today's announcement that the Corvette Stingray will get a new eight-speed automatic after first launching last year with a six-speed unit. It's probably only a matter of time before the Escalade gets the gearbox it deserves.
Thanks to its excellent MagneRide system, this is both the best handling and most comfortable Escalade that GM has ever put on the road. The system offers up two modes, Sport and Tour. Despite their names, both are very much oriented towards overall comfort, with Sport offering up a slightly stiffer, more aggressively damped driving experience.
It's a very well-behaved setup. While more than a few luxury SUVs offer soft rides to handle rough roads well, such smoothness often comes at the cost of controlled damping at higher speeds. This can mean excessive vertical motion and porpoising in dynamic situations, a development that hurts driver confidence. That's not an issue in this Escalade. The ride is pinned down and composed on both smooth surfaces and rougher roads. Excess vertical motion is nary an issue, as the dampers adapt nicely to the road conditions ironing out imperfections.
I've never been particularly impressed by Bose's Active Noise Cancelling systems in the past, but after driving the Escalade, I'm a believer.
Even though this is a very comfortable SUV, Cadillac hasn't sacrificed handling ability. Surprisingly, this new GMT K2XL chassis handles like a much smaller vehicle. In Tour mode, roll, squat and dive come on progressively, only becoming really noticeable when aggressively working the wheel in a way that most people would never attempt with a vehicle like this. Tackle a bend at speed, and this 5,900-pounder charges through flatter than you'd imagine possible, feeling composed throughout. Switch to Sport, and it just gets better, with less roll coming at the expense of a slightly firmer ride.
Besides being smooth, the Escalade's ride is remarkably quiet. I've never been particularly impressed by Bose's Active Noise Cancelling systems in the past, but after driving the Escalade, I'm a believer. At idle, the engine is silent. It's so quiet that I thought there was a stop/start system at work – there isn't. At cruising speed, the active noise cancellation works in tandem with triple door seals and acoustic-laminated glass to quash any unpleasant drivetrain and road noise, only letting the good stuff reach occupants' ears. There's a very, very minor buzz when traveling in four-cylinder mode, but it requires running without the stereo or climate control systems to hear it. It's a similar story when kicking into V8 mode.
Tire roar, even from the 285/45R22 Bridgestone Dueler H/L tires of my tester, is well controlled, while suspension noise only proved to be an issue when I happened to nail a particularly brutal imperfection at speed (the real test of the Escalade's ride comfort will come on the Polar Vortex-devastated roads of the Midwest). Cadillac's habit of fitting smaller side mirrors also pays off in the Escalade, as there's little to no wind noise, though they don't necessarily help rearward visibility.
EPAS is in its element in the big Escalade, helping it feel sharper when steering through turns.
Cadillac has opted for electric power-assisted steering in the 2015 Escalade, ditching the old model's hydraulic system. Believe it or not, EPAS is in its element in the big Escalade, helping it feel sharper when steering through the turns. Weight comes on naturally, although as is the case with most EPAS systems, there's very little feedback.
Bringing something this big and heavy to a halt is the task of 13-inch front and 13.6-inch rear vented disc brakes. The Escalade can be brought to a stop quite easily and repeatably, but the brake pedal itself isn't very linear, feeling stiff upon tip-in, only to soften and become easier to modulate as more effort is applied.
As I mentioned earlier, Cadillac has made improving fuel economy a priority for the latest Escalade. With technologies like cylinder deactivation, direct injection, electric power steering and active grille shutters at its disposal, I had no issue returning very near the Escalade's 21-mpg highway rating.
The Cadillac Escalade is once again a vehicle that cannot and will not be ignored.
Not surprisingly, all this goodness comes at a price. GM has effected a significant bump to the Escalade's base price, moving from the $67,970 (not counting $995 in destination charges) for a rear-drive, short-wheelbase 2014 Escalade to $71,695 for the 2015 model (you can view the complete breakdown on Escalade pricing here). My tester, meanwhile, was a top-flight Premium model. With the short-wheelbase body and four-wheel drive, its starting price was $83,790, including destination. The only option fitted to the vehicle I drove was $600-worth of 22-inch seven-spoke "ultra-bright finish" wheels. Putting this silver beast on the road as shown would cost $84,390.
The Escalade is back, in a way that it's never been before. This is a vehicle that can and will challenge the very best in the full-size luxury SUV segment, but unlike in the past where its badge and brash styling did the talking, it'll be driving dynamics, technology and a beautifully appointed cabin that will have customers signing on the dotted line. Quite simply, the Cadillac Escalade is once again a vehicle that cannot and will not be ignored.