Inside the 2021 Cadillac Escalade

Design that reflects the fact that customers now buy cars from the inside out

The 2021 Cadillac Escalade has arrived and the evolutions in both its exterior and interior design are likely to please fans. Elements of the brand’s Escala concept car from 2017 have taken root—the large curved OLED display and interior touches like fabric, for example. When we published a series on that concept, it seemed the brand was poised to deploy what it was learning in that effort in a new sedan, but because they rightly read the direction of the marketplace, a lot of what was created for the Escala is seeing fruition first on the 2021 Escalade.

At the vehicle’s unveiling in LA, we spoke with spoke with Crystal Windham (director of interior design), Michelle Killen (color and trim manager), and Michael Simcoe (General Motors’ VP of global design) about what’s different for this sixth-generation Escalade, what they learned from Escala, and what’s shifted in emphasis. They revealed two important factors: that women are leading buying decisions, and that customers buy cars from the inside out—not the other way around.

One of the most noticeable things about the new Escalade is the interior. How has it evolved? 

Michelle Killen: What we heard was that there weren’t enough color choices, so now we’ll offer 11 interior options and the color families are very unique, with contrasting combinations. Black is still the base, but we’re doing a lot more expressive colors, like browns and burgundies. We’re also using engineered woods…real wood that’s pressed together into a block; when we slice it that yields a pattern, and that lets us control the patterns—the stripes and colors and frequency of the pattern’s appearance. It also means we can have these beautiful curved pieces that are totally seamless to emphasize the width and the drama they bring to the interior. This is very much like what you’d want with furniture.

Can you explain more about what you’ve found that women are interested by in an Escalade? What did you want to emphasize?

Crystal Windham: I’m a smaller woman, but I’ve always been attracted to larger vehicles. One of the things you notice first is that we have this large, and first-ever curved screen, and we curved the whole cabin around the driver. But we also move all the controls closer, curved toward the driver. Just being able to reach everything more easily to accommodate female customers is a basic starting philosophy.

MK: Part of this is thinking about decisions that women make in a household or when shopping. An example: if you went to Milan Design Week and found a marvelous sofa, you’d build the rest of the furnishings around that, so we created entire packages for the interior around that centerpiece thinking.

As you’ve mentioned, the biggest tech breakthrough is the new curved OLED screen—the first time we’ve seen this in any car. It’s got twice the pixel density of a 4k display. What about that added brightness matters, and what does curving a screen do for the interior that advances car design overall?

Michael Simcoe: First, we started thinking about curved screens in the Escala concept. And one thing that’s really important to stress is this is now no longer a little tablet stuck on. We had to get past that.

CW: Once you can curve the screen, you can change the proportions. Now this wide, 38-inch display becomes a centerpiece we could build around.

MK: And to pick up on that, now we stretch the vent accent line across the entire IP [instrument panel], so it all works together.

CW: There’s something else, too—the OLED now moves the whole instrument panel lower, and when you talk about a female buyer, just getting the cluster lower provides more visibility for the customer. We also addressed glare during development, so these screens have a specially applied film to block all reflective light on the screen, which means we don’t have to have a hood shading it.

MS: The fact that the screen is brighter also made us think about all of the aspects of brand experience, so the look and feel is uniquely Cadillac. And as for curving them, this is the first you’ll see, but this will start to tumble down across Cadillac models. I also think as we move into the future curving an LCD means they become design elements of their own. Suddenly, you can design the screens to fit the interior, rather than just have a tablet, and that means you don’t just put a box in a beautiful interior.

There’s a fine line behind what’s real and what becomes all screens, right? Where is it important to have physical knobs, dials and controls? These tend to speak to the kind of design execution you showed off with Escala.

CW: One example is the vents. They actually have a physical and audible click when they’re aligned in the center position. There are also toggle switches for the climate control. We listened to customers who said they wanted something mechanical to quickly change the temperature or the fan speed rather than to have to dive into menus on the screen. This is also why the multifunction controller [which works like a mouse] has detents, so you get haptic feedback when you’ve changed menus so you can keep your eyes on the road.

Design-wise, what’s the Escalade signaling for Cadillac going forward—and for General Motors over all?

MS: For Escalade, from the outside, you can identify it as an Escalade—even though a side-by-side comparison of the new and the old are dramatically different. The goal was to maintain a course that people can understand. But we think they’ll be shocked by the interior. We could have gone the way of the industry and put more bling and more visual content, but what we’re really doing is balancing it with a level of detail and visible quality that’s a very big leap forward in execution.

Images courtesy of Cadillac