Does The 2021 Cadillac Escalade Rise Above The Already Excellent GMC Yukon Denali SUV?
For much of its existence the Cadillac Escalade has been dogged by one inescapable truth: once you peeled back the prestige associated with the badge, its GMC Yukon Denali platform-mate offered an almost identical SUV package in terms of power, comfort, and capability, and all at a substantial discount.
With its most thorough redesign debuting for 2021, Cadillac has made a conscious effort to distance the Escalade from its also-new Denali counterpart. As in the past a significant portion of the luxury sport-utility's step-up comes in the styling department, but the current model year also introduces a high-tech sheen to the Escalade that GMC simply can't match.
How does the 2021 Cadillac Escalade stack up against its in-house Yukon Denali competition? Here are the 5 key differences between these two GM SUV stalwarts.
Big Screen Real Estate
The position from which the 2021 Cadillac Escalade impresses the most is the driver's seat.
Specifically, all models now come standard with 38 inches of curved OLED display screens baked directly into the dashboard.
Separated into three distinct 'units,' there's a small touchscreen to the left of the steering wheel that includes the trip computer and controls for the head-up display and the gauge cluster (more on that later), and a massive infotainment display at the top of the center stack.
Cadillac frames each of the individual screens, but the overall effect is of a single display that's been organized into individual sections. Aesthetically it's gorgeous to look at, but more to the point, the Yukon Denali's 10-inch infotainment screen doesn't approach the Escalade in terms of wow factor or functionality.
All that digital real estate is used by the Cadillac Escalade to offer a mix of useful features and straight-up eye candy. The gauge cluster display offers two alternate functions that make use of the elaborate system of cameras outfitted to the SUV, toggled by the left-most touchscreen. Neither of these are available with the Denali.
The first is something Cadillac calls 'augmented reality' navigation. When using the vehicle's nav feature, you can either follow directions on the infotainment screen or instead rely on a video feed from a pair of windshield-mounted cameras that is overlaid with route information and presented directly in front of the driver. Think of arcade racing games with massive stacked turn-arrows and circular direction indicators, only this time integrated into a high-def replica of the road ahead. It's hard to say whether it's more useful than a traditional in-car navigation system (and yes, the windshield wipers do introduce some flicker with each pass), but it's definitely novel.
A smaller slice of that same screen can also be used to show off the Escalade's night vision system. Intended to provide advance early warning of animals crossing the road, or joggers lacking any kind of reflective outerwear, it's really only useful in very specific situations. On a highway or around town the auto-detection system was more likely to latch on to a warm tire or exhaust pipe, but in pitch black surroundings there's not nearly as much noise. If only one didn’t have to direct their gaze away from the road to get the full night vision experience.
Materials Where It Matters
It makes sense that the radically revamped Escalade dashboard would be accompanied by a similarly upscale cabin design.
While its general shape and size are similar to that found in the GMC, its styling is more interesting to the eye. Even more importantly, most of the materials you'll touch inside the Cadillac (such as the seat and panel leather, the wood inlays, and the metals), are a cut above Denali grade and come in a much wider variety of colors.
Keep in mind that it's still possible to order an Escalade with 'genuine imitation leather' seats if you're a fleet buyer sticking with the base trim. Retail customers, on the other hand, are in for a more premium experience.
Standard Air Ride
The 2021 Cadillac Escalade is absolutely enormous even if you stick with its standard wheelbase model in place of the extended ESV.
That sense of bulk is accentuated by its standard air springs, which feature a decent range of height control (most useful when dropping the SUV to its knees for easier loading) as well as the ability to adapt to higher cornering loads. Overall it's a floaty experience, even in the presence of GM's excellent magnetic ride control shock absorbers.
The Yukon Denali also offers air ride, but it's an option. The truck comes out of the box with steel springs, which provide a bit of an extra bump even with the new independent rear suspension.
The last area where the Cadillac Escalade stands apart from the Yukon Denali has to do with its overall presentation.
Yes, the GMC is a formidable full-size SUV player with enough mass to disrupt local gravity fields while sitting at a stop light, but the extra detail that has been etched into the slab-fronted Escalade in terms of lighting truly grant it extra road presence.
The vehicle also wears its massive grille far more prominently than the Denali, and at the rear it's easy to see that the GMC's plastic blackout panels on either side of its tailgate glass were intended to house the Escalade's elegant tail lights.
More From Driving Line
Looking for a deep dive on the dramatically redesigns 2021 GMC Yukon Denali? Check out our full review here.