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A Kinder, Gentler Cadillac Escalade? Exterior and Interior Upgrades Abound

Au revoir, Art & Science; bonjour Escala-style.

The all-new 2021 Cadillac Escalade slithers out from the dark backstage inside General Motors' mid-century Design Dome in Warren, Michigan, its two thin vertical LED daytime running lights visible before the audience can make out the Escala-inspired grille above it. These vertical DRLs are at the outer edges of the lower fascia. The 2015-20 Escalade's garish grille, worthy of a Rolls-Royce and accompanied by chunky vertical headlamps, is gone.

On the 2021 Cadillac Escalade, the standard LED headlamps are thin, horizontal lights flanking the edges at the top of the grille. There's a bit of-dare we say-Chevrolet in this headlamp design. Disconcerting at first, but upon further reflection, this seems appropriate, as Chevrolet has played up its image as a poor man's Caddy since as far back as 1955, offering a bit of upper-class style for working class money.

Not that the new Chevy Tahoe and Suburban sharing their architecture with the new Escalade are inexpensive, by any measure. Being the most premium brand in this three-division platform-share, with likely GM's highest profit margins thanks to base prices nearly twice that of the Chevys, the Cadillac Escalade has to have some impressive kit, inside and out. After all, there's not much to do to make the Caddy ride or handle differently than the Chevy or GMC. Large truck product chief Tim Herrick says the Escalade is a bit quieter inside compared with the Tahoe/Suburban and Yukon/XL/Denali. Underneath, they're all the same chassis with the same engine and suspension options and the same independent rear suspension.

Cadillac Escalade Exterior: Less Art, more Escala

The '21 Escalade becomes the last Cadillac to abandon the brutalist Art & Science design language established by the '03 Cadillac Sixteen concept for the more sculpted, more elegant look of the Escala concept that premiered at the 2016 Pebble Beach Concours. For 2021, Escalade joins the rest of Cadillac with its "Y"-shape trim-level strategy. "Luxury" in this context means "base" trim, now with standard leatherette (yes, vinyl) seats and 22-inch wheels, the only wheel size available from the factory, for now. The Escalade Luxury is the Manhattan livery fleet model.

The Sport branch matriculates through Sport and Platinum Sport, and the luxury branch has Premium Luxury and Platinum Luxury.

"We wanted to add Sport here," gushes Therese Pinazzo, Cadillac program manager. "We wanted to add the fierceness of what this Sport level would be."

All Luxury branch Escalades come with a Galvano satin chrome trim. On Sport, it's all high-gloss black, from the mesh grille to the daylight opening trim to the roof rack. There's an optional black 22-inch wheel and blacked-out exterior badges, including nomenclature, available.

The Luxury models' grille is a traditional horizontal bar affair, though with "subtle changes and nuances in section," Pinazzo says. On both Sport and Luxury models, the horizontal headlamps and vertical daytime running lights are "almost like parentheses around the grille. Escalade is all about corners. Cadillac is all about corners. But it's more sophisticated than we've ever done."

Past the front quarter-panels, the Escalade shares door panels with the Tahoe/Suburban and Yukon/XL, though the lower-door chrome trim is unique to the Cadillac and is stamped twice for the trim-attachment holes. The rear quarter-panels are unique to the Caddy, but with a similar bone line in the sheetmetal. There's a new, more subtle design variation of the outgoing Escalade's thin vertical tailgate-to-top taillamps. The hatch lid is released by pressing the Cadillac crest on the rear panel. Neat.

Cadillac Escalade interior: Lots of options

Inside, there's a dizzying array of seat cover designs and fabrics, real wood veneers, and other color and trim choices available.

"Customer feedback is really big for us," says Michelle Killen, Cadillac color & trim manager. "One of the things that came back is that they didn't think they had enough options."

Cadillac will offer 11 interior options, plus the "basic" Luxury trim model's interior, across both the Luxury and Sport lines. Killen says customers told Cadillac clinics of the Sport models, "don't give me a boy-racer red interior."

At the top, the Premium Luxury Platinum and Sport Platinum trim models upgrade to synthetic suede on the headliner and pillar interiors, and Opus leather seats in all three rows. All other trim levels get a vinyl third-row seat standard, although an extra-charge interior on the Premium Luxury and Premium Sport come with Mulan leather for all three rows.

The Platinums, whether Premium Luxury or Sport, are available in Jet Black with Mondrian leather quilting and natural figured ash wood trim, Jet Black and Bittersweet (a dark maroon color) with Mondrian leather quilting and bitter lace wood, or Gideon/Whisper Beige, with a mini Chevron perforation and linear marquetry wood. Mondrian quilting is named for Piet Mondrian, the modernist Dutch painter and theoretician whose "Composition C" inspired the latest iteration of Cadillac's crest-badge. For the Gideon/Whisper Beige interior, tiny pins in the shape of a chevron make the seat perforations.

The Premium Luxury trim model's interior comes in Jet Black/Parchment, with the mini Chevron perforation and engineered zebra wood, or Jet Black with the mini chevron perforation and engineered zebra wood. The Sport comes in Jet Black/Whisper Beige with a precision perforation and parchment tamo ash wood, or Jet Black with precision perforation and linear tiger wood. An extra price interior to be available on Premium Luxury and Sport is colored Atmosphere/Brandy, with faceted quilting and fine line brandy wood. The base Luxury model comes in a Jet Black interior with linear tiger wood.

"We were designing the new benchmark for color and trim for the Cadillac brand," Killen says. Her color and trim team made life difficult for GM's accountants, though given ridiculously high profit margins on the Cadillac Escalade, it could have been much harder. Let's hope the bean counters ease up and let this level of fit and finish permeate through the rest of the Cadillac lineup.