The Cadillac Escalade has come a long way from its origins as a low-effort rebadge of GM’s GMT400 SUVs (it was basically just a GMC Yukon with a wreath emblem) and carved out a brand of its own. It’s now sort of the crown jewel of all body-on-frame large GM SUVs. The latest one is supposed to be aces, with refinement and style that tops its few competitors. I hate it though.
It seems like Cadillac has been going through a lot of “renaissances” lately. First, the wreath came off the logo. Then the CTS/ATS style naming system we’d all just gotten used to was abandoned. Sigh. Still, the Escalade SUV has remained constant, for better or worse. I think the latest crop of GM SUV’s are very bad looking, with the Escalade probably being the worst.
I’m not a car designer, although I did want to be one. But I have a fine arts background and do have some experience critiquing aesthetics. So while I might not know all the whats-and-whys of the Escalade design team’s methods and motivations, I do have some ammo for a semi-educated screed as to why I think they screwed up.
Whatever Cadillac’s new design language is, is clearly an evolution of the Art & Science theme that first debuted on the “styled-with-a-straight-razor” 2003 Cadillac CTS. The language has been softened and developed a bit, and most notably we have a new era of Cadillac design that was previewed with the Escala concept.
The Escalade takes a lot of its design ethos, from the Escala. Except, the delicate (if not a bit indistinctive) lines of the Escala are thrown on a, huge box with no discernible proportions. The biggest beef I have with the Escalade, are its proportions. Not just the distance between the A, B, C, and D pillars, not just the weirdo dash to axle ratio; it’s got a very tall and blocky stance, too.
Let’s set the bar low – I’m not going to compare the Escalade to any European SUV, because they seem like very different cars. Instead, let’s use one of my favorite large American SUV designs, the Lincoln Aviator. The Aviator is a class down from the Escalade, but I think it has thoroughly solid proportions for what it is.
Look at that glamorous rear three-quarter view. The dash-to-axle ratio is perfect for a rear-wheel-drive SUV. The car has its front axle pushed all the way to the front; inspiring a near-athletic, ready-to-pounce stance.
The car is definriely boxy; but the slight fender flaring, and proportionally low hood line and roof line makes the car look lower and wider than it actually is.
Let’s look at the dead-on profile. Look at those proportions! The hood looks long and low, although realistically the Aviator is not a very small car and those wheels have to be over 20 inches. By comparison, look at the Escalade. Despite it being a much bigger car than the Aviator, the crap proportions make it look super tall and narrow. It’s not a narrow car.
The side profile isn’t great either; the hood appears to be very short (once again, it isn’t – this is a very big car). The hoodline is also super high for no good reason. In fact, that hood line is so high, that more than a few advocacy groups and auto journalists have suggested that this might be dangerous (and I’m inclined to agree).
The detailing on the lower valance seems to be OK, but the upper half of the front fascia is out of scale. The grille is huge, yet barren, filled with a Cadillac badge that’s likely the same size as my head. And yet, the way the fascia is resolved makes the car look unwieldy and narrow. This is a wider car than the Escalades before it, yet this car looks visually narrower.
The very high stance, huge wheel gap, and light-looking spokey wheels serve to bring attention to the Escalade’s lack of width on the X-axis too. Where the Aviator looks wide, but still athletic and imposing, the Escalade looks like a caricature of what a large SUV should look like, almost like the body is too big for its wheelbase and track.
Don’t even get me started on that blacked out C-pillar, coupled with that nonsensical brightwork. It only draws attention to the fact the Escalade’s body sides are likely only minimally changed from its Suburban and Yukon platform mates.
Interestingly, Kim Kardashian’s custom Escalade ESV hide a lot of the issues with the Escalade. It’s still got bad proportions, but the satin paint reimagined black gloss brightwork, and very heavy looking almost old-school Cadillac vibes custom wheels. The lowering kit helps, too.
I get that the design and engineering teams likely did the best they could given the project constraints. There’s only so much you can do to vary a platform twin like the Escalade. And it seems like people don’t care, as the Escalade seems to be a good truck if this is the type of thing you’re looking for.
I just wish GM had given the designers and engineers the liberty to bend some more sheet metal. What would a modern Escalade look like if it truly channeled what the Elmiraj or Escala were serving? The world may never know.