Until recently, the Cadillac Escalade's greatest strength- and biggest weakness - was its unabashed lack of subtlety.
As a brash icon of conspicuous consumption, the Escalade has always had a swagger that makes the big SUV tough to ignore. Some love it, some hate it, but there's hardly a soul who isn't aware of the Escalade - and that's the kind of priceless name recognition that drives sales and makes rival brands green with envy.
On the other hand, in years past it's often been too easy to look beneath the Escalade's luxury veneer and recognize just how much it shares with the more modestly-priced Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and GMC Yukon.
That's no longer the case, however, as a complete redesign for 2015 has brought enough sophistication, craftsmanship and refinement to properly distinguish the Escalade from its corporate siblings, and also let it match up with the best that the full-size luxury SUV segment has to offer.
Style and Substance
Now in its fourth generation, the Escalade continues to be offered in standard and ESV long-wheelbase forms, but the recently discontinued EXT pickup will not be making a comeback.
Outside, Cadillac's stylists have chosen evolution over revolution, though the design is crisper and more nuanced in its details than before. All-LED exterior lighting is standard - up front, vertical LED accent strips in the head- and foglight clusters provide a visual link to the rest of Cadillac's lineup, while artfully-detailed taillights make a statement at the rear, stretching Volvo-like from the top of the bumper all the way to the roof.
Last year's questionable side vents have been deleted, and the flanks possess a tauter and more purposeful - if slightly slab-sided - appearance. Twenty-inch rims are standard, and 22-inchers are available on uplevel models.
The most substantive changes are found in the cabin, where supple leather upholstery comes together with genuine wood, metal and alcantara to create a truly upscale environment that shares virtually nothing with GM's other big 'utes. Fit and finish is excellent throughout, and trim elements like available open-pore wood imbue a striking quality that the old model lacked.
Expansive in its acreage as well as expensive in its feel, the interior has ample space for passengers in the first two rows, although only the ESV, with its 14 additional inches of wheelbase, has a genuinely comfortable, adult-sized third row. When priorities shift from people hauling to cargo carrying, new fold-flat seating in both rear rows makes maximizing space a snap, especially compared with the heavy third row seat that had to be carried out of the old model. However, as the cargo floor had to be raised several inches to accommodate the fold-flat feature, stowage space has taken a small hit.
Cadillac's CUE infotainment system, complete with eight-inch touchscreen, capacitive-touch controls and piano black surround, dominates the Escalade's center stack, providing a modern look but finicky operation. The high-tech theme continues with a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster that can be reconfigured to provide a wide array of vehicle, audio, navigation and Bluetooth phone info, and a color heads-up display can also spec'd.
Overall, nearly everything inside looks and feels worthy of the Escalade's pricetag, which starts at $72,960 and can run over $90,000 with all the boxes ticked. Moreover, the standard features list is comprehensive, including highlights like navigation, heated and ventilated front seats, heated second row seats and Bose audio.
Even more kit can be had by stepping up to the Luxury Collection trim level. It adds an upgraded anti-theft system - the Escalade is a fixture on "most frequently stolen cars" lists - as well as a plethora of advanced safety systems, including lane departure warning, forward collision alert, side blind zone assist and rear cross traffic alert. The high-end Premium Collection brings automatic front and rear braking, adaptive cruise control and a rear-seat entertainment system with a Blue-Ray player and nine-inch screen.
On the Road
With body-on-frame construction and a live rear axle, the Escalade's underpinnings remain decidedly old-school and truck-like. But Cadillac has gone to great lengths to deliver a contemporary driving experience that matches up to the unibody competition, fitting stiffer shear-style body mounts, widening the rear track for enhanced stability, and adding its MagneRide magnetorheological active damping system to the standard equipment list.
The changes result in a confident-handling SUV that's generally much wieldier than its ample dimensions would suggest. Accurate, well-weighted electric assist steering imparts confidence, and the trick dampers provide an excellent balance of Germanic body control and Cadillac-appropriate ride comfort. Trying to find a parking space does drive home the reality of the elephantine bulk - the standard parking sensors are a lifesaver - as does bringing the Escalade to a halt from freeway speeds, which is a slightly lengthier process than we'd like.
Stronger brakes are at the top of our wish list, then, especially because there's such an abundance of underhood muscle. With 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque, the Escalade's new 6.2-liter V8 boasts 17 ponies and 43 lb-ft more than last year's motor, enough for a zero-to-60 mph dash in just under six seconds. The big eight's broad power band means that its dancing partner, a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic, never feels behind the times despite being down a cog or two to more modern gearboxes.
We didn't get the opportunity to test out the Escalade's towing capabilities, but Cadillac says the SUV can lug up to 8,100 lbs. Based on the power on tap, we have no reason to doubt that claim.
Thanks to efficiency-enhancing measures like direct injection, variable valve timing and cylinder-deactivation, the Escalade is rated 1 mpg higher in the city and 2-3 mpg better on the highway than before. The mileage champ of the range, the short-wheelbase 2WD model, is good for 15/21 mpg.
Though a glorious small-block roar is audible during hard acceleration, the Escalade's cabin is library quiet in most other situations due to touches like inlaid doors and a Bose noise cancellation system.
Leftlane's bottom line
Fresh from a stint at finishing school, the Escalade retains its audacious charisma but now earns higher marks for poise and polish.
With its impressive blend of style, technology and quality interior furnishings, the Escalade truly demands serious consideration from full-size luxury SUV shoppers.
2015 Cadillac Escalade base price, $71,965.
2015 Cadillac Escalade ESV base price, $74,695
Destination fee, $995.
Photos by Nat Shirley. Some photos courtesy Cadillac.