After years and billions spent on developing a new generation of full-size pickups and SUVs, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade is the icing on the cake for General Motors. Finally unveiled, the fifth-generation Escalade is the last vehicle spawned from the T1 platform, which has birthed full-size pickups and SUVs for the Chevrolet, GMC, and Cadillac brands.
GM’s T1 program started with the Silverado and Sierra light-duty pickups in the summer of 2018, followed by the heavy-duty pickups a year later. Then came the SUVs. First we saw the new 2021 Suburban and Tahoe, which are headed to dealers this spring. Then we saw the ’21 GMC Yukon. Rounding out the effort is the Escalade, which goes on sale this summer.
But don’t let chronology fool you. The Escalade was front of mind from day one, says Tim Herrick, vice president of GM global product programs. Herrick has been working on trucks for his entire career: He was chief engineer for the third generation of GM’s full-size beasts, executive chief for the fourth, and kept moving up the ladder as work continued on the fifth.
All of these vehicles are important to their respective brands. But Cadillac is the only luxury brand in GM’s current portfolio, and the Escalade is its flagship. It also had to follow strong competition from the 2018 Lincoln Navigator, which came out fists a-flyin’. By the time the Navigator launched, the new Escalade was already locked and loaded. But Herrick says his team wasn’t surprised by any aspect of the Navigator, nor were they concerned. The engineer doesn’t have a wish list of things he would have done differently. “Everything I asked for, it delivered,” he says. “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Herrick is confident the Escalade is the better vehicle. “They’re in our rearview mirror—and could go back further.”
Despite critical acclaim for the Navigator, in terms of sales the Escalade remains the vehicle to beat. The Escalade has led the full-size luxury-SUV segment for 16 of the past 21 years. It’s Cadillac’s longest-running nameplate, and the Escalade attracts the brand’s youngest and wealthiest buyers, dream demographics for an automaker.
The Escalade is a personal favorite of GM CEO Mary Barra. “It’s kind of in a class all to itself, and that’s why I’m so excited for people to see how we’ve taken Escalade to the next level,” she told MotorTrend in an interview conducted some weeks ahead of the unveil. “When you see the technology on that vehicle and the styling, I can’t wait. I’m a big fan of Escalade personally.”
Barra is confident Escalade will remain the one to beat. Asked if it would blow Navigator out of the water, she replied: “I’m very confident about the next generation of Escalade. Let me just put it that way. I think the Escalade is an individual. It’s a vehicle somewhat unique unto itself. Yes, there’s many competitors coming into the segment, but again, I think Escalade has a special place in that and will again exceed people’s expectations with the next model. It’s iconic.”
Even with that kind of expectations from the top, Herrick says he did not feel undue pressure working on the Escalade. He embraced it: “You don’t get a chance to work on something like this in a 36-year career often.”
Pressure was on the design team, as well. Marching orders were to create an SUV using the Cadillac Escala sedan concept shown in Pebble Beach in 2016 as a template. The Escala had the unique curved OLED interior screen that has become reality as a focal point in the new Escalade. The decision was also made to reduce the bling factor a bit. “You can always add more,” Andrew Smith, Cadillac’s executive director for global design, says.
Smith says designers representing the Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC brands worked together initially. Each came up with a design theme and direction in their separate studios, and designers from each brand worked together to ensure their products were complementary but distinct.
Riding on the same platform, the various vehicles share a windshield, roof panels, and doors, but the body-side aperture stampings, including the exposed rear quarter panels, are unique. Cadillac designers knew the face had to evolve, and the overall look needed to become more sophisticated. Adding a Sport-trim model for the first time was an opportunity to do something from scratch.
But that was the exterior only. The interiors for each brand were designed completely separately in dedicated studios. In the end, they share only one color of headliner and carpet. The cargo area side panels used to be shared, but no more.
The SUVs do utilize the same frame and basic suspension, as well as some of the same engines—the 6.2-liter V-8 that’s standard on the Cadillac and optional on the other two, and the 3.0-liter turbodiesel I-6 optional on all three—but key unique features for the 2021 Escalade include the curved screen, its instrument panel treatment, seat designs, and choice of materials. The latest tech will be rolled out at Cadillac first.
With the XT4, XT5, XT6, and Escalade, Cadillac now has a full lineup of luxury SUVs for the first time. Barra is confident Cadillac is on the upswing, especially in China, which is the largest market in the world and is embracing American luxury. In North America, the new Escalade is crucial. Global Cadillac sales were up 8.8 percent in 2019, including a jump of almost 11 percent in China.
“I think you’ll see us executing at a higher level that really sets a standard, which is what Cadillac is intended to do,” Barra said.
More 2021 Cadillac Escalade
- 2021 Escalade First Look: Specs, Trims, and More
- 2021 Cadillac Escalade vs. 2021 GMC Yukon Denali, Chevy Tahoe High Country
- 2021 Escalade vs. Lincoln Navigator: Compared and Contrasted
- 2021 Escalade’s Giant, Curved OLED Screen: Fast Facts
- Why the ’21 Escalade Says “600” on the Back
- New Escalade vs. Mercedes GLS: Standard of the World?
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