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2021 Cadillac Escalade Exterior Design Hot Take

What’s up with that underbite?

It's hard to believe the Cadillac Escalade is only a little more than 20 years old, even as it enters its fifth generation. Unveiled in Los Angeles this week before going on sale later this year as a 2021 model, the new Escalade leaves behind much of the full-size SUV's previous underpinnings in favor of a new independent rear suspension and an all-new design; among the most obvious differences is the new Escala-based design language.

With a softer, simpler aesthetic than Cadillac's previous "Art & Science" design language, the new themes play on the long, clean lines and subtly crafted surfaces born of the Escala concept. Of course, the "subtlety" of any Escalade is relative, as this is still a large, brash vehicle—which ought to suit its target market perfectly.

With creases as sharp as a new suit, the 2021 Escalade's exterior is sure to get noticed even by the automotively oblivious. And while it's hard to argue that there's any such thing as "bad" attention these days, it's certain the Escalade's look is polarizing. The large, bluff grille leads the Escalade's charge, the chevron-shaped badge looking small against its chromed expanse. Thin, low-profile headlights adhere to each upper corner, looking almost like handles in a straight head-on view. Beneath the headlights, framing the grille, Cadillac's signature vertical daytime running lights, extended along the bottom into an L-shape by a chrome flourish that fades into a point along the lower spoiler/air inlet.

The front end works well when viewed straight on, both in photos and in person. It gets a bit weird when viewed in profile, however. Instead of the flat, rectilinear forms that dominate the head-on angle, the front end viewed from the side looks like a massive underbite. Say what? Yes, an underbite. While pushing all of those front-end details out to the corners makes for an impressive rear-view mirror presence for the drivers ahead of it, it also means the headlight and daytime running light extend no farther rearward than the leading edge of the wheelwell. Due to the convergence of these shapes, and the negative space created by the air inlets and grille, the side view of the nose gives an impression of an upward sweep along its bottom edge, which, when combined with the weight of the lighting details and grille above, make the Escalade look like it has a protruding lower jaw—an effect that's at least as prominent in person as in photos.

Things improve markedly aft of the complicated nose, with a strong horizontal character line running the length (yes, the whole 211-inch inch length) of the big SUV just below the window line. Sculpted yet smooth side panels lend a surprising elegance and simplicity to a model better known for unrepentant bling, and even the long, thick-at-one-end chrome appliqué that spans the doors can't detract from the overall cleanness of this portion of the profile view. The wheel arches use an inset version of the shape the industry typically either extrudes or finishes in plastic; here it serves to accent the Escalade's off-road capability without detracting from the C-suite vibe.

Just above the Escalade's crisp equator, however, things get a bit weird again, at least to my eyes. I've never understood the impulse to break the belt line of an SUV (or wagon) just behind the second-row window. Presumably it's to keep the sides from looking slabby or to reduce some aspect of the overall visual length, but to my eye, it only serves to make the rear cargo area look like a droopily attached afterthought. Add to the transition the inexplicably large, sculpted chrome accent on the C-pillar area, and you have a recipe for distraction.

Swing around to the rear end and things go back to refreshingly simple and elegant. The huge yet slender vertical tail lights form visual buttresses to frame the liftgate, which features no undue convolutions, only sleek straight lines and the mirrored, folded diagonals around the license plate recess. Below the load area, the bumper is likewise plain, with reflectors and exhaust stacked tidily at the outside corners. The effect is one of clean simplicity that just misses being boring despite its plainness.

Cadillac has already shown the 2021 Escalade in trims that change the look of the grille and hide some of the brightwork under dark colors, so some of my gripes will only be trim-specific. Moreover, even if you're not a fan of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade's look, it's hard not to see that it's a big improvement over the previous model, and a strong indication Cadillac has a clear idea of what it wants to be.

As for the new Escalade's interior with all of its new tech and design, well that deserves its own article—and it will get one, soon.