Driving the 2021 Cadillac Escalade was one of the most stressful experiences of my life

Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

When Cadillac reached out recently with an offer to test out the new 2021 Escalade for a day, I eagerly responded in the affirmative. I wanted to try out the latest version of the automaker’s partially autonomous driver assist system, Super Cruise, as well as all the other high-tech bells and whistles (augmented reality? 38 inches of OLED screen?) that Cadillac was stuffing into its flagship SUV.

Instead, I got one of the most stressful driving experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t consider myself a timid driver, but being behind the wheel of this 6,000-lb behemoth gave me high-grade, flop-sweat-inducing anxiety. I’ve never ridden on the back of an elephant before, but driving the 2021 Escalade may be as close as I’ll get.

Words cannot describe how gargantuan the new Escalade is, so numbers will have to suffice. The 2021 Escalade is nearly 18 feet long bumper to bumper, and almost six-and-a-half feet tall. This represents a growth spurt from the previous model year, including an additional four inches to the wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels), 2.6 inches to the overall length, and 2.4 inches taller in terms of overall height. Or, as Cadillac’s own marketing materials boast, “the largest and longest Escalade ever.”

Sitting in the driver’s seat, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the outside world — mostly because you can’t see a lot of it. The grille was like a sheer cliffside, obstructing my view several feet out in front of the wheels. An entire kindergarten class could be lined up in front of this vehicle and I wouldn’t see them.

This is not hyperbole. Last year, a local television station measured the front blind zones of many popular vehicles, from family sedans and minivans to large SUVs and full-size pickup trucks. The Escalade had the largest front blind spot of 10 feet, two inches, with the driver sitting in a natural, relaxed position. It took 13 children seated in a line in front of the Escalade before the driver could see the tops of their heads.

I tweeted out a picture of my three-year-old son standing next to the Escalade to illustrate how dangerous this blind spot could be. Reactions ranged from flabbergasted (“That ratio of grill height to windshield height is insane,” one tweet read. “Made to kill.”) to people sharing their own dangerous close encounters with oblivious Escalade drivers.

My initial interest in test driving the new Escalade was to try out the latest version of Super Cruise, the partially autonomous, “hands free” driver assist system. Cadillac has recently rolled out an enhanced version of Super Cruise that includes automatic lane changing, and I was eager to see how it has improved and how it measured up against Tesla’s Autopilot and other advanced driver assist systems.

But the Enhanced Super Cruise won’t be showing up in the Escalade until 2021. And my colleague Sean O’Kane has already gone over the Escalade’s 38-inch OLED display with a fine-toothed comb. So that leaves me to write about the driving experience — and that is tied inextricably to the bloated size of this vehicle.

I don’t mean to pick on Cadillac here, because this is a problem that is endemic to the entire auto industry. This trend in colossal vehicle sizes — particularly the very tall, square front end found on most large SUVs and trucks — is testing the limitations of our infrastructure. While driving the Escalade, I felt as if I could barely stay in my own lane. The massive width (6.75 feet, not including the mirrors) had me in a cold sweat while driving on narrow, two-lane suburban roads. The Escalade also could barely fit in my driveway, which wasn’t a total shock. As USA Today recently reported, SUVs and pickups are getting so large that they’re struggling to fit into some home and parking garages and public parking spaces.

There is a clear correlation between vehicle design and the recent spike in pedestrian deaths. While the people driving SUVs are slightly safer (1.6 percent decrease in SUV occupant deaths in 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), the number of pedestrians killed by those drivers has skyrocketed by 81 percent in the last decade, according to a report released last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

That’s mostly because of the way SUVs are designed: larger bodies and higher carriages mean pedestrians are more likely to suffer deadly blows to the head and torso. Higher clearances mean victims are more likely to get trapped underneath a speeding SUV instead of pushed onto the hood or off to the side. Speed is also a factor because SUVs have more horsepower than a typical sedan. A recent investigation by USA Today and the Detroit Free Press found that the growing popularity of SUVs accounts for the alarming rise in pedestrian deaths.

To Cadillac’s credit, the Escalade is stuffed with the latest in safety technology. Multiple cameras embedded around the vehicle are used to create a digital overhead image of the Escalade when either in drive or reverse at low speeds. This view is projected onto the screen in the center console, giving the driver a more complete picture of their surroundings than what is actually available from the front seat. Haptic sensors in the driver’s seat will vibrate when there is a pedestrian crossing in front or behind the vehicle, or if there is a car behind you when you’re pulling out of a parking spot.

These are important features to have in a vehicle this large, but they’re also just workarounds. When you need a suite of high-definition cameras and other expensive sensors to safely drive to the grocery store, there might be something inherently wrong with your design. Manufacturers know that these types of vehicles are more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists, but they keep making them because people keep buying them. Cadillac says it is responding to customer demands for more interior space and cargo room. Super-sizing its vehicles helps it sell more SUVs to more people.

“Our customers really enjoy and demand that space for their passengers and for themselves,” said Rob Hunwick, Cadillac’s exterior designer, in a recent call with reporters. “So growing the vehicle felt very appropriate to accommodate our particular customers and to hopefully gain more.”

I asked David Schiavone, Cadillac Escalade product manager, why the Escalade’s front blind spot in particular was so egregious. “For me, this is new,” he responded. “Your comment catches me a little off guard. Is it because they’re so tall in the front?” After I defined what I meant by front blind spot, Schiavone replied by ticking through a list of all the alert systems and safety cameras, including front pedestrian braking, 360-degree cameras, and night vision. Again, these are all commendable features, but they wouldn’t be necessary in a vehicle with a safer overall design.

Recently, General Motors (Cadillac’s parent company) announced it would phase out US car production, focusing on SUVs and pickups. And who could blame them? That’s where their profit margins are highest, and that’s what Americans are buying.

But GM has also said it is pushing for a future with “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.” How does the Escalade stack up against that ethos? Big SUVs are two to three times more likely to kill someone during a crash. When it comes to climate change, SUVs are the second largest cause of the global rise in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade. And traffic congestion is essentially a geometry problem: the wider the body of the vehicle, the greater percentage of road they occupy.

The 2021 Cadillac Escalade is likely to win accolades for its “luxury” and “swagger.” It will be praised for its “world-class interior” and commitment to providing its customers with the most cargo space in its class. But beneath all that, the Escalade is still an oversized, gas-guzzling SUV in a country with far too many of those on the road already.

Comments

Depending on the weight this might need to be classified as commercial vehicle in NY. That could be a huge deal. Makes sense that the website doesn’t list its curb weight. NY commercial vehicle requirement weight is 6001 pounds.

I don’t even think you have to do anything special for even a large SUV. The only thing I could find was special "commercial" requirements if it was solely used for work, but if you use it privately, I don’t think there’s anything stopping one from owning it even there.

Interesting fact concerning weight, Escalade is 5,635 to 5,823 lbs, Model X is 5,421 to 5,531 lbs. Model X is only ~200-300 lbs less.

First off, this article doesn’t claim to be a review. Secondly, what is the point of a review that is hermetically sealed from the political and physical climate that a vehicle will inhabit? If you buy one of these I’d hope you have some consideration for how it impacts pedestrian safety and climate issues. You won’t be driving this thing on a closed track so it makes sense to discuss it in the context of the wider world.

I recently got my first EV and I haven’t looked back, used EVs are hardly that expensive these days.

Honestly, every review of any crossover/SUV should include this discussion.

Let’s be real – the majority of Americans do not need a Cadillac Escalade, Ford Explorer, Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V, Jeep Cherokee, or any crossover/lifted station wagon/SUV.

Americans want tall cars, even though they’re worse for pedestrian safety (look at NCAP pedestrian safety ratings) and worse for the environment.

Unless their daily commute consists of towing a trailer over 3500 lbs, Americans really need to stop acting so selfish and just buy regular cars instead of clogging the roads (and the air!) with their oversized crossovers.

Americans want tall cars, even though they’re worse for pedestrian safety (look at NCAP pedestrian safety ratings) and worse for the environment.

That isn’t necessarily true across the board.

While a Corolla does indeed do slightly better in the NCAP ratings than a Rav-4 they both do a lot better than say a Tesla Model 3

Let’s be real – the majority of Americans do not need a Cadillac Escalade, Ford Explorer, Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V, Jeep Cherokee, or any crossover/lifted station wagon/SUV.

Lets be REALLLY freaking clear here: there is a BIG, literally huge, difference between an Escalade/Jeep Cherokee and a honda CRV/Rav 4. They arent even remotely the same class of car.

Crv’s/Rav’s are essentially tall hatchbacks. not near 6000lb behemoths. They also arent that much higher off the ground than something like a tesla model y and are kinda essential for folks who have more than one kid, due to cargo capacity.

Granted, a station wagon would also address that need, but very few wagons are sold in america that aren’t lifted off the ground somewhat. The only true wagon that comes to mind is the mercedes e class, which is out of reach for most folks.

Crvs and Rav4s realistically have similar usable cargo capacity as a comparable AWD Toyota Camry/Subaru Outback/Nissan Altima AWD etc.

Unless Americans are routinely packing their cargo areas to the ceiling and blocking rear visibility, their is no need for these SUVs, just a want.

I don’t agree with this because the shape of the cargo area matters. I have a Honda Accord. The height of the opening of the trunk means there are many things that will not fit into the trunk. I bought a Ryobi lawnmower and even though the box should fit inside in terms of volume, the box was a few inches too tall and I could not slide the box into the trunk. If you put in a standard stroller, it takes up the whole trunk space since you have to lay it flat and diagonally. But in a RAV4, you can stand the same stroller upright on its side which means it takes up less floor space. Basically, the numbers of cargo space don’t show the discrepancy between sedans and hatchbacks so the real world takeaway is that SUVs have more flexiblity when you are using them as a family car.

If there was a such thing as a Honda Accord Wagon or Toyota Camry wagon, your argument stands.

That wasn’t ever sold here (in that body style). They did have the CrossTour for the last body style, but it didn’t sell well. My parents have one, though, and it’s actually pretty nice and addresses some of the issues mentioned about trunks.

Crvs and Rav4s realistically have similar usable cargo capacity as a comparable AWD Toyota Camry/Subaru Outback/Nissan Altima AWD etc.

I would put the CRV, Rav-4 and Outback in squarely the same category

We pack the back of our SUV pretty full frequently. Heading camping tomorrow and it will be slam packed full of stuff all the way up to the ceiling. Plus the box that fits in the trailer hitch and stuff on top of the roof. Just because you don’t need it doesn’t mean nobody needs it.

Crvs and Rav4s realistically have similar usable cargo capacity as a comparable AWD Toyota Camry/Subaru Outback/Nissan Altima AWD etc.

awd camry’s and altimas (i dont even think we get an awd camry in the usa) are still sedans.

the outback and crv/rav 4 are in the same category and alllll of those vehicles have substantially far more cubic feet of cargo room.the best sedans do is the accord, which has like 16 cubic feet. Compare that to the worst in class mazda cx5 cuv, which has at least 30.

The CRV has a whopping like 39 cubic feet. plus a more usable cargo area.

There is nothing similar about a camry or altima to those vehicles when it comes to capacity.

NOW….do i think we should just have wagon versions of the accord/camry instead?

yes.100%. I don’t care to be high up off the ground and the lower you are, the better your handling. But until toyota and honda make that a reality, the fact of the matter is that a rav4 and crv are hold substantially more in their cargo holds than their closest sedan counterparts.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Volvo V60 and V90… uh, do the Audi allroads come with an optional lowered suspension these days? Every other auto maker is "abandoning" station wagons, when they really mean that they’re no longer keeping up the charade of dumping one or two on a few dealer lots, failing to train salespeople about them, burying them on the website, giving them zero ad budget, and claiming that you need a crossover/SUV to carry things that would fit in a compact hatchback (LOOKING AT YOU JAGUAR). Oh, and compact hatchbacks are slowly getting the same boil-the-frog treatment. I want to lock every auto industry exec in a room and play "Red Barchetta" on loop until they crack.

So the reason I got my CR-V is because the few times my area got a big snowstorm my old sedan would need to be careful driving in the snow while my friend in his CR-V just sort of drove over slightly bigger piles of snow like when leaving our building’s driveway. Its slightly higher ride also helps with not scraping the bottom of the car on the poor roads that my old sedan would scrape.

I wish I could just get a nice electric car, but living in an apartment means I don’t have anywhere to charge it without going out of my way to find a charging station.

Outrager: your experience mirrors that of most folks in the united states…and usually a far cry from the reality that many in the verge comment sections seem to ignore lol.

Hold up, you said it just a few comments earlier, there

Lets be REALLLY freaking clear here: there is a BIG, literally huge, difference between an Escalade/Jeep Cherokee and a honda CRV/Rav 4. They arent even remotely the same class of car.

I dunno. I cant think of one, nor was i ever advocating for an escalade. a small cuv or wagon? yes. all day.

I’m not pro escalde. I’m pro not looping several different classes of vehicle together because thats silly.

A brand new set of Bridgestone Blizzaks is much cheaper than buying a whole new car, and significantly improves snow performance over adding a measly 1-2 inches of ground clearance.

The issue with this article (I won’t call it a review either since it’s nothing remotely like a review, though I clicked on it thinking it would be) is that I don’t get any information that’s not obvious from simply looking at the vehicle. While the Escalade is big, it’s not any bigger than a new Tahoe or Denali (or an Expedition Max or lots of other vehicles like trucks, frankly). And plenty of people have valid reasons for owning those, like me.

First, pedestrian safety is an interesting issue. I don’t have any doubt getting hit by one of these is worse than a Camry, but for many people, it’s pretty rare to have any pedestrian in the street at all. That’s certainly the case where I live. It’s like, shockingly rare. So taking into account pedestrian safety where I live means I have no qualms about owning a large vehicle.

As for climate issues, I do wish our Expedition did better on fuel. On the highway we get about 24 mpg, which isn’t bad compared to the 17 or so we got with our Odyssey. We need one vehicle large enough for our family of 5 plus a dog, and there simply aren’t any vehicles besides three-row SUVs or minivans with enough room for the whole family (I guess we could buy a Model S with the seats in the trunk but, well, that’s not practical for other reasons). Even the rare station model sold in the US these days doesn’t have a third row.

So we bought what we needed, which is a large SUV, and we’re happy with it. In the context of the wider world, it is a great vehicle for us.

unless it’s ego stroking or compensating for something ….a bit too small, i really don’t see the point of this monstrosity ?

That’s why it will be so popular with guys who rock NRA stickers.

Super glad that bigotry and profiling are acceptable as long as it’s you doing it …

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