It seems like everyone’s doing a full-size luxury SUV these days, but for the last two-plus decades two marques have been doing them the best—Cadillac and Lincoln. Even when they found themselves on the back foot, the big, brawny Escalade and Navigator were always the vehicles they stayed on top of, despite formidable and at times superior foreign competition. But now they’re back with a vengeance, and it’s time to determine whether the 2021 Cadillac Escalade or the 2021 Lincoln Navigator is leading the charge.
Although the Escalade has almost always overshadowed the Navigator, it was Lincoln that struck first this time around. The 2018 Navigator reset the bar for full-size luxury SUVs with its poise, performance, and interior that sent everyone else back to the drawing board. Three years later (and with the benefit of being able to examine Lincoln’s work in that time), Cadillac has finally answered with the best Escalade it’s ever built. The rivalry’s closer than it’s ever been.
A note before we get started: Due to scheduling issues, the only new Escalade we were able to procure for this test was an extended-wheelbase ESV model, which costs an additional $3,000. We’ll take this into account when evaluating the pricing, cargo space, and handling of each vehicle, and when necessary we’ll draw from our previous First Test experience with the standard-length 2021 Escalade for additional insight.
Inside: New School vs. Old School
More than anything, the interior defines a luxury vehicle. It’s what you touch and spend most of your time looking at and where you’re coddled and entertained. Long a weak point for both, Cadillac and Lincoln have finally put in the time, effort, and money to give these full-size SUVs world-class interiors. They’ve just gone about it in very different ways.
Lincoln looked to the past for inspiration; to its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, to classic American luxury and the days when mid-century modern was just modern. The Navigator’s interior looks like nothing else on the market, elegantly intertwining modern convenience and technology with a mid-century aesthetic. Most importantly, it shares nearly nothing with its Ford Expedition sibling, and the bits that are shared have at least been dressed up. The Navigator’s top-shelf Black Label interior is nothing short of a statement piece.
Critically, Lincoln hasn’t overlooked anything. Despite the dominance of the form, there’s still plenty of function, with ample storage space for everything we bring with us these days. The Eames-looking front seats aren’t just for looks, they adjust in every way imaginable so everyone can dial in their precise personal comfort (they also have massaging features). The second- and third-row seats fold flat but still offer more padding than the Escalade’s (with the same amount of space, it should be said). Refreshingly, Lincoln didn’t skimp on rear-seat luxury, either. The design, trim, and quality of materials extend all the way through to the third row.
There are misses, though. Shortly after this test, Cadillac finally started offering Super Cruise for the Escalade. Lincoln’s counterpart, Co-Pilot360, simply isn’t as advanced as Cadillac’s driver-assist tech. The Navigator’s infotainment setup isn’t a match for the Cadillac’s and remains largely a reskin of Ford’s system. The buttons and dials on the Navigator’s dash don’t have the same weight as those on the Escalade (not to mention the even more impressive weight of the European and Japanese competition). Disappointingly, we also heard a constant squeak coming from the center console lid while driving our test vehicle, something we haven’t noticed in other Navigators. We were also let down by the slightly higher wind and road noise in the “quiet luxury” Lincoln.
As much as Lincoln looked back, Cadillac looked forward. The Escalade leans into the future and does it with class-leading technology and world-class materials. Headlining is the aforementioned Super Cruise, Cadillac’s certain-highways-only hands-free driving aid that’s nearly as good as Tesla’s Autopilot. The Escalade’s massive, 38-inch-combined infotainment screen and instrument cluster is a game-stopper, featuring touchscreens on both sides of the gauges, the ability to put the map squarely in front of the driver, augmented reality-enhanced navigation, night vision, and more. No one is loading up more cutting-edge tech into a luxury SUV than Cadillac.
What’s more, Cadillac is finally cocooning those features in a world-class interior. The quality of materials and workmanship of the 2021 Escalade is head and shoulders above anything Cadillac’s done in decades. The design is forward-looking and the luxury touches extend beyond the first row, as they should.
They do have an end point, though, and that’s where the Escalade starts to run into trouble. The driver’s seat is the best in the house, but the consistency in materials and trim as you move toward the rear isn’t as strong as in the Navigator. (If you’re going to be chauffeured in either, the Lincoln is the way to go.) Back up front, the Cadillac’s seats don’t move in nearly as many ways and have the look and feel of what you’d find in a top-model GMC or Chevrolet, only with nicer leather. Some of the switchgear carries over undisguised from its Chevrolet kin, and there isn’t anywhere near as much storage space as in the Lincoln. At one point, the massive infotainment screen went dark on us and had to be completely rebooted by shutting down, leaving, and locking the car for 10 minutes. Also mildly annoying is that the stereo cuts out for a split-second when the automatic engine stop/start system restarts, a problem Lincoln and others solved long ago.
The biggest issue, though, is this Escalade didn’t have the world-beating interior. Despite costing more than the Lincoln as tested (even after subtracting the ESV model premium), this Cadillac didn’t come with the fancy wood marquetry or the fabric-wrapped panels we’ve seen on more expensive Escalade models. This interior is solid, but it’s not the match of the Lincoln’s and it’s not what Cadillac has proven capable of. The standard-wheelbase Escalade we tested with the more formidable interior cost $11,715 more than this Navigator.
There is one place the two interiors draw even, however: the over-the-top audio systems by Revel (Lincoln) and AKG (Cadillac). A recording engineer could probably tell you which is better, but everyone else will say both are equally phenomenal.
The Drive: Power vs. Precision
Settle behind the wheel of either the 2021 Escalade or Navigator, and, as is the case with the interior, you’ll find two different approaches to the driving experience.
Cadillac has been building world-class chassis and suspension systems for nearly two decades, but the Escalade always got the short end of the shock—until now. Thanks to its highly capable independent rear suspension, the Escalade is the best driving body-on-frame SUV out there and better than a few unibody models, too. It’s hard to believe a vehicle this large and heavy can shrink around you when you drive it, but the Cadillac does. The steering is just quick enough, and the body roll is beautifully controlled as you go around a corner. If you can find the drive mode button (it’s by your left knee), the Escalade is a peach to hustle. (Not that anyone besides testers like us ever will.) And while the Lincoln posted better limit handling numbers in our instrumented testing, its success is mostly due to a stability control system that’s slightly less restrictive than the Cadillac’s, not because the Lincoln objectively handles any better in real-world driving.
The rest of the Escalade experience needs a bit more work, though. GM’s magical magnetic dampers deliver excellent body control but not the isolation and comfort we expect from them—or from any luxury SUV, for that matter. Big hits are rightly handled, but all the small road chatter works its way up through the seats and steering wheel. Still, there’s no denying Cadillac has done better than Lincoln in this regard. The Navigator’s adaptive dampers are good, but they can’t match those of the Escalade. More rumble gets through, and bigger bumps aren’t handled quite as well.
Where Lincoln does do better is in the stopping and going departments. Although the Navigator’s pedal has a bit too much travel before the brakes engage, it can be precisely adjusted for gentle limo stops. The Cadillac’s is a tad wooden-feeling and takes a little leg muscle to generate real stopping power—then you get it all at once. It’s worth noting, though, that while we slightly prefer the overall response of the Lincoln’s brakes, both the standard and ESV Escalades stopped shorter from 60 mph in our instrumented testing.
As for the going, Lincoln’s got that covered. The F-150 Raptor-derived twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 under the hood of the 2021 Navigator lights up right off idle and pulls hard for as long as you’re likely to keep your foot in it. It does so quietly and smoothly, never giving you a reason to miss the Navigator’s old V-8. Although the Cadillac is right on the Lincoln’s tail all the way up the interstate on-ramp, there’s no getting around the fact the new Escalade is slower than the old one regardless of model. It’s also slower than the slightly heavier Lincoln. Although the big V-8 has all the torque, it feels overburdened at times, especially at the top end. Critically, when you hit the gas to make a pass on the highway, the Lincoln leaps while the Cadillac lumbers. The Escalade also tends to sound more like a Chevy truck than a luxury SUV.
As closely matched as the two are in instrumented test results, the numbers that are usually far more important to the average buyer expose a wide gulf. Let’s start with the big one: price. The 2021 Navigator starts a few thousand less than the 2021 Escalade, and more importantly, it tops out even cheaper. As tested, the Lincoln in its top-tier Black Label trim came in at just under $100,000. That’s roughly $3,000 less than the Cadillac, even after removing the ESV upcharge. When compared to a fully loaded Escalade, it’s more than $11,000 less.
Then there’s the matter of fuel economy. Not a high priority for someone buying a six-figure luxury SUV, but then again, the rich didn’t get rich by overspending. The Cadillac’s 14/19/16 mpg city/highway/combined EPA ratings are not only a step backward from the last Escalade, but well behind the Navigator’s 16/21/18 mpg. The EPA estimates that’ll cost you an extra $850 per year at the pump.
The Decision: Retro Elegant or Future Cool?
As we’ve seen, the new Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator are more closely matched than ever and trade wins and losses up and down the scoresheet. Both are the best versions of themselves ever made and are legitimate class leaders. Interestingly, they go about it in completely different and equally successful ways. Declaring a winner, then, was no easy task.
To do so, we turned to one of our key MotorTrend Of The Year award criteria: Performance of Intended Function. (Relatedly, both the Escalade and the Navigator were SUV of the Year finalists when they made their debuts.) We asked ourselves what matters most to the person buying a full-size, three-row, six-figure luxury SUV. While some customers will be seduced by the Escalade’s cutting-edge technology and fewer still will appreciate its handling advantage, the Cadillac came up slightly short in the luxury department. Lincoln’s commitment to design and comfort, and to applying it consistently to all three rows of passengers, rated higher in our book. Doing so while being considerably less expensive to purchase and operate, the Navigator not only does luxury the best, it makes the better case for itself. Hail to the king.
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