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The Cadillac Escalade: History, Generations, Specifications

All things Cadillac Escalade on Automobile.

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Cadillac Escalade Essential History 

Alright, so maybe it's a bit of a stretch to believe even the most ardent of Cadillac ultra-fans is looking to fill an elephant-sized hole in their garage with an older, long outdated Escalade, but hey—if there's a fanbase for the Isuzu VehiCROSS (there is), then who are we to doubt the Escalade?

Born from Rebadging

If you are one of the very few looking for an earlier Escalade—for whatever reason—the first generation probably isn't the best place to start. Launched for the 1999 model year and subsequently discontinued after 2000, the first SUV to wear both the Cadillac crest and the Escalade name was little more than a badge-swapped GMC Yukon Denali of the same vintage. No, really—aside from bespoke Caddy badging on the grille, front doors, steering wheels, hubcaps, and embroidery, everything else was a mimeograph of the Yukon. It wouldn't even make that great of a tow rig, for those of you looking for a toy-hauler on a budget, as the 5.7-liter Vortec V-8 was the sole engine offered, putting down a so-so 255 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque through a four-speed automatic transmission.

The second-gen Escalade that arrived for the 2002 model year is where things get more in line with the Escalade we know today. With an angular appearance straight from Cadillac's Art and Science design playbook, this is very likely what pops in your mind when you think of an "old Escalade." Power, luxury, style, and differentiation from the rest of the GMT820 platform went way, way up; a healthy 345 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque from the standard 6.0-liter Vortec V-8, managed by the same four-speed automatic transmission. Americans bought the new luxe-UV in droves, spurred by features like cooled seats, a standard Bulgari clock, and acres of leather trim complemented by a mighty 8,000-pound tow rating.

Bling Bling, Baby—The Third-Generation Escalade Goes Big

The third-generation of Escalade arrived in 2007 and stuck around until 2014. This is where Caddy leaned heavily into the Escalade's burgeoning perception of a big-baller mega-land-yacht that appealed strongly to both rap stars and Baby Boomers alike. Chrome, leather, metallic paint, a rumbly exhaust, and nearly every bit of tech in GM's playbook was lavished on the third-gen Escalade, including a 6.2-liter Vortec V-8 that generated 403 horsepower and 417 lb-ft of torque, a six-speed automatic transmission handling the shifting duties.

For the truly conflicted, a short-lived Escalade Hybrid was offered between the 2009 and 2013 model years. A pair of 60-kW electric motors augmented a 6.0-liter V-8, with power storage in a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery. Behind the scenes, this eco behemoth used a complex transmission design that incorporated both electric motors, three additional planetary gear sets, and four additional clutches. The end result? Combined power output of 379 horsepower and fuel economy ratings of 20 mpg city and 23 mpg highway—a substantial improvement over the 12 mpg city and 19 mpg highway of the non-hybrid two-wheel-drive Escalade of the time. The 20 mpg combined fuel economy rating of the Escalade Hybrid represented a 33 percent improvement over the non-hybrid according to the EPA.

Intermission: The Wonderfully Weird Escalade EXT

Before we get into the fourth-gen, we'd be remiss if we didn't highlight the weird and strangely alluring Escalade EXT truck that launched with the second gen, endured for the third-gen, and was cut for the fourth-gen after an eleven-model-year production run between 2002 and 2013. Essentially little more than an Escalade-styled Chevrolet Avalanche, the EXT was aimed at the even more unsuccessful Lincoln Blackwood and later Mark LT trucks. The EXT sold better than Ford's luxe-truck attempts, but not enough to spin the EXT off into its own platform following the discontinuation of the Avalanche.

The fourth iteration of the Cadillac Escalade arrived for the 2015 model year and distilled the bling-bling attitude of the third-gen into a more refined, tech-laden cruise ship that still had every ounce of clout previous Escalades had possessed—and maybe even more. This is arguably where the Escalade deviated the most from its Suburban/Yukon roots, with the inclusion of Cadillac's proprietary CUE infotainment and interior materials beyond those offered on even the priciest of Yukon Denalis. Even with all the glitz and luxury, the Escalade nearly could tow a planet out of orbit, with the standard 6.2-liter V-8 producing 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque through a six-, then eight-, and finally ten-speed automatic transmission.

The Modern Cadillac Escalade

The fifth (and current) generation of Cadillac Escalade launched for the 2021 model year, and is arguably the most significant paradigm shift of the Escalade ethos we've seen thus far. Stylistically and mechanically, the 2021 Escalade moves the needle even farther from chrome-tinsel-and-trim Boomermobile and closer to legitimate high-tech luxury ultra-hauler. A handsome, clean-cut exterior design does away with the (perceived) strip-club aesthetic and brings it in line with the softened angular edges of the current Cadillac family. Inside, it's arguably the most opulent and well-finished cockpit we've seen from General Motors since the Cadillac Brougham of the early 1990s.

Moving the Escalade further away from its Chevy and GMC brethren is the sizeable 38-inch OLED infotainment display, which, according to our coverage on the debut, "consists of three OLEDs: a 7.2-inch touch display to the driver's left; a 16.9-inch touchscreen with navigation, audio and app controls on the right; and a 14.2-inch instrument cluster in front of the driver." This is also the Escalade's debut of Cadillac's trick Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving system, combining lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and lane change assist into one cutting-edge package.

Mechanically, it's all new as well. An independent rear suspension is offered for the first time, allowing for the installation of a folding third row.  (Previous Escalades had a solid rear axle running beneath the cargo floor, leaving no room for the seats to fold away, meaning they were only available with removable third-row seats). Three suspension variants are available on the new Escalade: the standard non-adaptive setup, a mid-level version with magnetic ride control, and finally an adaptive air suspension with integrated magnetic ride control.

There's also a pair of powertrains to choose from, as well. The familiar 6.2-liter V-8 remains with the same 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque, but is now joined by—of all things—a 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel inline six-cylinder rated at 277 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque. Regardless of engine choice, the ten-speed automatic transmission we enjoyed in the fourth-gen Escalade soldiers on.

Cadillac Escalade Highlights

As much as enthusiasts like to dog on the lumbering mass of chrome and leather, the Escalade has always made a worrying amount of sense. For those who haul a full load of family and luggage across state lines with any sort of regularity, the Escalade can't be beat, especially since you can fill every seat, load a roof-rack to the brim, fill every crevice with luggage, snacks, and gear, all while towing a sizeable boat through a snowy mountain pass—and the Escalade would hardly break a sweat. Love it or hate it, you simply can't replace it.

Cadillac Escalade Buying Tips

If you're looking for the Escalade to become a collectors item, forget it. We can't foresee any future timeline where even the cleanest Escalades garner much more than curiosity bids far, far beneath their original purchase prices. Escalades of any generation were designed as semi-disposable luxury sleds aimed at frequent-leasers and top-spec cash purchases.

However, if you're looking for a trans-continental road trip superstar that can take the whole barn with you, an Escalade is hard to beat, especially the third, fourth, and fifth-gen SUVs. If you're getting a first-, second-, or third-gen Escalade, practice common sense as applied to used car purchases. High mileage might not necessarily be a deal breaker, as all Escalade iterations are mechanically robust, but lack of a complete service history or evidence of deferred maintenance should be. Avoid Escalades languishing on "buy here, pay here" lots, and stick to private sellers. Get one with fewer than 150,000 miles under its wheels, with minimal interior wear, and drive it until the wheels fall off—or your gas bill bankrupts you.

If you're after the fourth-gen, there should still be a few floating around dealer lots, as the switchover to the fifth-gen hasn't completed as of yet. When that happens in the near future, keep your eyes peeled and your search alerts set for fresh-off-lease fourth-gen Escalades when owners trade-up to the new model. In search of a fifth-gen? That one is easy—just put your name and deposit down at your local Cadillac dealer. We suggest one with the air-ride and diesel-six under the front hood.

Cadillac Escalade Quick Facts

  • First year of production: 1999
  • Last year of production: Ongoing
  • Base Price: $77,490 (2020)
  • Cadillac's first SUV
  • Many challenge the Escalade, few can match it
  • Haul your family and tow your boat across the world
  • It's excessive, but irreplaceable

Cadillac Escalade articles on Automobile

If you didn't get enough history above, check out our deep dive into the Escalade's generation-by-generation history and changes.

We haven't driven the new fifth-gen Escalade yet, but here's our first drive of the fourth-gen back in 2014

What if Cadillac had designed the Escalade in the 1950s? We take a trip down an imaginary memory lane.

Cadillac Escalade FAQ

You have questions about the Cadillac Escalade. Automobile has answers. Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked Cadillac Escalade queries

How much is the 2021 Cadillac Escalade?

When the new Escalade hits dealer lots, the 2021 Cadillac Escalade's starting price will be $77,490

Is the Cadillac Escalade a good car?

Depends on the Escalade's age and what you intend to do with your new Caddy. Cross-country hauler? Absolutely. Carry the kids and the in-laws anywhere they need to go? Sure thing. Serve as a fuel-efficient inner-city commuter car? Resounding no.

Which year of Cadillac Escalade is best?

That's a matter of taste and task, but we're going to go with the latest-and-greatest 2021 Cadillac Escalade; Cadillac's flagship has never been better.

When can I buy a 2021 Cadillac Escalade?

You can pay a deposit to hold a spot in line (or even special-order your Escalade) now, but deliveries won't begin until sometime in fall 2020.

2021 Cadillac Escalade/Escalade ESV Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2020
BASE PRICE RANGE $77,490-$101,290
ENGINES 6.2L OHV 16-valve V-8/420 hp@5,600 rpm; 460 lb-ft. @ 4,100 rpm; 3.0L turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6 diesel/277 hp @ 3,750 rpm, 460 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 6- or 7-passenger, front-engine, RWD or AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE TBD
L x W x H 211-226.9 x 81.0-81.1 x 76.6-76.4 in (Escalade/ESV)
WHEELBASE 120.9-134.1 in (Escalade/ESV)
WEIGHT TBD