Most folks will recall that line uttered by Matthew McConaughey from the climax of True Detective, but it was 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who first wrote those words, with the implication that, “Everything we have done, or will do, we will do over and over and over again—forever.”
Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence rang through my head as I admired the four hulking, luxury three-row SUVs from BMW, Cadillac, Lincoln, and Mercedes-Benz as they sat in the cool morning marine layer of Los Angeles’ ritzy Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Time has stood still for the Lexus, Range Rover, and Infiniti. However, Cadillac, Lincoln, and Mercedes have all moved forward into the 2020s with new three-row luxury SUVs. Meanwhile, BMW has joined this existentialist circle of life with its own entry into the segment.
Are we doomed to repeat these comparison tests ad infinitum? Well, not entirely. Nietzche’s predecessor Arthur Schopenhauer wrote pessimistically of the individual’s inability to satiate unquenchable desires. But in this case, these four automakers are gallantly endeavoring to overturn centuries of dismal dialectic.
Rather than deny our desires as Schopenhauer would have us do, let us meet the 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV 4WD, 2020 Lincoln Navigator 4×4 Black Label, 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 4Matic, and 2020 BMW X7 xDrive40i.
The Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class is the third generation of the S-Class of SUVs. Updated in 2019, the big Benz can be had in a dizzying array of specs, from a hybridized six-cylinder GLS450, to the high-performance AMG GLS63 and über-luxe Maybach GLS600. We opted to split the difference with the hybridized V-8-powered 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 4Matic.
A pop culture icon in its own right, the Cadillac Escalade is largely responsible for the success of this segment today. Like the flagship it is, the new Escalade features GM’s latest and greatest technologies. Inside there are massive OLED driver displays, and under the skin the Escalade now features a unique MagneRide/air suspension combination designed to make it ride and drive better than ever. Our 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV 4WD tester came to us from L.A. ‘s Black & White Car Rental service, as Cadillac was unable to provide an Escalade from its press fleet.
The BMW X7 didn’t even exist the last time MotorTrend did this comparison test. Sick of watching from the sidelines, the X7 was introduced in late 2019 for the 2020 model year to complement the company’s 7 Series flagship sedan. Our 2020 BMW X7 xDrive40i (which just so happens to be a member of the MotorTrend Garage) sports all the necessities to compete in this segment: three rows of seats, a beautifully furnished cabin, and BMW’s latest in-car technologies.
For those of you who read the headline and have doubts as to the manufacturing provenance of our two German-branded entrants, know that the Mercedes GLS is manufactured in Vance, Alabama, and the BMW X7 is assembled in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And even though the Detroit Three have offshored production of some models, the Lincoln Navigator is made in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Cadillac Escalade hails from Arlington, Texas. So, yes, for American tastes comes American assembly.
There’s a paradox of sorts with large luxury three-row SUVs. Vehicles of this size and class are compromised in some fashion—whether that be in efficiency, value, quality, drive experience, or price. Yet the whole premise of luxury is that there are no compromises. And with an average as-tested price of $102,081, there’d damn sure better be as few as possible. (Schopenhauer would have a field day with that equation. ).
The winner of this test, then, would be the luxury SUV that makes the fewest compromises. We’re looking for a vehicle that’s comfortable, with effortless acceleration and a plush yet responsive ride. We want a beautifully finished interior that makes an even bigger impression than its blingy sheetmetal. But given that these are also family SUVs (not my family, but someone’s), we’re also looking at interior space in each row and ensuring that the luxury themes are carried through to all three rows, not just the first one or two.
Here’s how our rankings shook out.
4th Place: 2020 BMW X7 xDrive 40i
It’s never easy doing something new for the first time. It took 11 Apollo missions to land on the moon, and although the BMW X7 clearly isn’t a moonshot, it is fairly obvious that this is the first time BMW has ever built something so big.
Out of the gate the X7 ticks all the right boxes to be considered a serious player in the three-row luxury SUV segment. Riding on BMW’s modular CLAR platform, which is shared with everything from the Toyota Supra to the BMW 8 Series, the X7 is about 8.5 inches longer but slightly narrower than BMW’s smaller (three-row optional) midsize X5.
Considering that we’re focusing on luxury and not performance, we opted for the standard 335-hp 3.0-liter turbocharged I-6 rather than the optional 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 that makes 523 horses. This smooth-revving six-cylinder is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive.
Right off the bat, the X7 doesn’t live up to the promises on the tin. Although we really enjoy BMW’s 3.0-liter turbo I-6 in other models, we’re not sure it’s the right choice for a three-row people-hauler. Quick around town with a throaty, sporty exhaust note, the six-cylinder starts to run out of steam on the highway with just a driver on board. A full load of passengers might overburden this BMW.
Its ride quality is even worse. “The body control is just disappointing, especially for a BMW,” features editor Scott Evans said. “The body is always moving around, side to side, diagonally, front, and back.” The X7’s poor body control is one of the reasons it wouldn’t be fun spend much time in the second or third row.
The other reason is because of the BMW’s small, cramped insides compared to the rest of the field. The X7 has the least legroom, least second- and third-row shoulder room, least third-row headroom, and the least amount of cargo space behind the third row, with a paltry 12.8 cubic feet of cargo volume—less than BMW’s compact 3 Series sedan. “Not something you’d want to load a bunch of people into for a long trip,” executive editor Mac Morrison said. And that’s assuming you could conveniently get in the third row, as the motors that slide the first row seats and second-row bench forward for third row access are painfully slow. Worse, when the first two rows motor back they don’t return to the starting position.
BMW does at least thrill the cramped occupants of its $96,895 X7 with a beautifully finished cabin. Each and every row of the X7 features the same waveform quilted brown leather and walnut and satin metallic trim. Materials are all generally of high quality, too, save for some orange peel on the wood trim. We especially liked the second row’s power window and sunroof buttons on the door panels, as well as its heated seats and ample USB ports.
Despite some positives, the BMW X7 just doesn’t outride, outdrive, or out-luxe the established players in this segment. It’s a good first effort but unfortunately not a great one.
3rd Place: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 4Matic
If this story were purely about which SUV we most like driving, the Mercedes-Benz GLS580 likely would’ve fared better than its respectable third-place finish. “The GLS feels the most car-like, and it’s easily the sportiest drive of the four. Easily the driver’s choice,” Morrison said.
That’s not exactly surprising considering the GLS’ platform supports both hot-rodded AMG and super-luxe Maybach models and comes with a standard air suspension. The Benz’s optional 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 doesn’t hurt, either. Although a hybridized 362-hp 3.0-liter turbocharged I-6 is standard, Mercedes opted to send us a lightly optioned GLS580 instead. Found in everything from the G-Wagen to the AMG GT, in the GLS580 the V-8 it makes a test-best 483 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque and is paired with a nine-speed automatic and all-wheel drive.
Despite its lack of the premium leathers, woods, and headliners of the rest of the field, the GLS’ as-tested price was a group-high $108,135. One can only imagine the decontenting that would have to occur to hit the BMW’s $11,000-lower price tag.
Opened up on a good road, the GLS580 is almost entertaining enough to make you forget the AMG model exists. Steering is quick, responsive, and accurate, the powertrain delivers wave after wave of torque, and the firmly tuned suspension keeps the Mercedes feeling planted as you surprise slower drivers on a good canyon road. That’s good fun, but it’s also kind of beside the point—most owners aren’t searching for their three-row SUV’s limits on a two-track. They’re motoring down the highway or shuffling through traffic.
At that, the GLS580 is a bit less successful. At city speeds the engine and transmission could use more polish; the former is somewhat lazy at low rpm, whereas the latter was slower to downshift than the other entrants, and clunky at times.
Compared to the BMW, Cadillac, and Lincoln, the Mercedes had the least impressive interior of the lot. Ignoring the aging design—an issue the BMW suffers from, as well—materials on our supposedly luxurious GLS580 left us wanting for more. Yes, the leather feels like it originates from real dead cows, the wood from some piece of felled oak, and the metal from wherever automakers mine silvery metal trim, but it’s the only SUV of the four that makes you feel like you should have spent more money on nicer leathers, woods, and other feel-good luxe options.
Like the X7, space is also a problem for the GLS. It’s not quite as cramped as the Bimmer, but the Mercedes also isn’t anywhere near as spacious as the Cadillac or Lincoln, with a narrow cabin that leads to pinched shoulder room in the rear seats. “I appreciate that the second-row seats are powered,” Evans said, “but I wish that it didn’t feel like I was sitting in a bucket. My hips are very low and knees rather high. I also miss the flat floor of the Americans, which makes it easier to move around and into the third row.”
And once back there, associate editor Eleonor Segura reports that adults, teens, and tweens may not feel welcome. “The third row is not a comfortable place to sit, given the limited legroom. It may be more suitable for small children,” she said.
Overall there’s a lot we like about the Mercedes GLS, but unfortunately at this price point two others do it better.
2nd Place: 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV 4WD Premium Luxury
Let’s address the elephant in the room right off the bat. Yes, Cadillac makes a shorter Tahoe-based version of the 2021 Escalade instead of the Suburban-based one we have. Yes, we asked and looked for one. No, the extra 15 inches of sheetmetal (or inch-and-a-half of third-row legroom and extra cargo capacity) didn’t help or hurt the Escalade. And no, having the standard-length Escalade wouldn’t have changed a thing—the Escalade’s few flaws are endemic to the whole lineup.
But before we delve too deeply into the why, a quick overview of the what. The new fifth-generation Escalade is easily the most impressive in the model’s 22-year history. Although it still shares its platform with the Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and GMC Yukon, this Escalade marks the first time that GM has opened its pocketbook sufficiently wide to allow Cadillac to meaningfully differentiate the Escalade from its corporate cousins.
And spend Cadillac did, on new features like three impressive, curved OLED screens, upgraded materials, and cool tech like augmented reality. But the powertrains are still shared with Chevy and GMC. Power comes courtesy of a revised 6.2-liter V-8 that makes 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque mated to a 10-speed automatic. A 3.0-liter turbodiesel I-6 is also available. Our Escalade was equipped with optional all-wheel drive (4WD with low-range is an additional option).
Like the old Escalade, the new one’s ride trends on the sportier side of the spectrum. It’s frankly hard to tell if that’s a deliberate tuning choice or if it’s due to the 22-inch wheels and rubber-band tires the Cadillac comes standard with. We’re guessing the latter. “The suspension really grates on you; these little bounces, bumps, and hops,” Morrison said. “It feels like a constant low-frequency vibration that goes through the chassis and into the cabin. It goes against the idea of hauling people in luxury.”
The firmer ride pays dividends on winding roads, though, as body control is fantastic for a vehicle in this segment, and the well-weighted and accurate steering makes the Cadillac drive like a smaller vehicle than it actually is.
The Cadillac’s powertrain—the sole naturally aspirated mill of the bunch—left us wishing for some turbochargers. A luxury vehicle should be able to waft you away effortlessly, but despite Cadillac’s exceptionally smooth 10-speed automatic, the largely carryover V-8 lets you see it sweat. After the initial surge of off-the-line torque, there’s really not much left in reserve for passing or long uphill grades. The Escalade isn’t slow in the grand scheme of things, but in this crowd it brings up the back of the pack in every single instrumented test save for braking. For what it’s worth, the same is also true for the last standard-length Escalade we tested.
The Escalade begins to claw some points back once you climb aboard. Segura said, “When you step inside, it’s apparent that the driver has the best seat in the house. The curving and leather-wrapped 38-inch (combined) OLED display is the cabin’s best feature.” Evans agreed. “This is Star Trek stuff in a car. The small touchscreen to the left of the instrument cluster is clutch, and putting not just the map, but the augmented reality navigation in the instrument cluster is a step ahead of what Mercedes is doing, and way ahead of the rest,” he said.
The Escalade’s cabin is also unquestionably roomy, with adult-friendly second and third rows. Thanks to the added length of our ESV model, it has more luggage space behind the third row than the Mercedes has behind its second row. (A standard-length Escalade would still lead in front- and middle-row legroom, front-row head- and shoulder room, and cargo volume.)
Although it’s clear that GM invested a lot in its new tech toys, Cadillac bought beer when it should’ve been buying bread. For example, there’s a notable drop-off in material quality that isn’t seen in the other competitors when you look below your beltline and start making your way to the third row. “The luxury tends to extend to the front of the cabin, not the rear,” Morrison said. “In back it feels a little more industrial and like a work truck.”
There are some questionable design decisions for those sitting up front to ponder, as well. The seven identical-feeling buttons for drive mode, drivetrain, and air suspension settings located by the driver’s left knee feel like an afterthought—requiring the driver to look away from the road to confirm they are changing from Tour to Sport instead of engaging Tow/Haul mode. And try as it might to differentiate its luxury lineage, the Escalade shares far too many pieces of switchgear and trim with its lesser stablemates.
It’s fair to ask how many Escalade buyers will notice (or even care) that their $104,810 (as-tested) Cadillac shares so many interior parts with a $55,000 Tahoe, but luxury is about the details both big and small. Cadillac hit many big ones but missed a few small ones, bringing it oh so close to first place.
1st Place: 2020 Lincoln Navigator 4×4 Black Label
“It makes me so happy to see Ford loosen the reins and give Lincoln the money it needs to excel,” Evans said. “The Navigator is such an important step forward for the brand.” Morrison said, “In terms of thoughtfulness front to back, it’s easily the most luxurious of the four vehicles we have here.” Segura called it “a shoutout to vintage American cars.”
Looking at the specs, one could be forgiven for thinking that (like the old Navigator) the new one is just a gussied-up Ford. Riding on a platform shared with the Expedition, the aluminum-bodied Lincoln is powered by Ford’s ubiquitous 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6, which produces 450 hp and 510 lb-ft of twist. It’s paired with a 10-speed automatic related to the one in the Escalade (GM and Ford codeveloped the transmission) and a true four-wheel-drive system.
Whereas there’s an unmistakable sporty pretense to the way the BMW, Cadillac, and Mercedes drive, the Navigator harkens back to an almost forgotten era where sporty cars were sporty and luxury cars were truly luxurious. “It has an old-school kind of flavor to it, in a fun way,” Morrison said. “The steering is the lightest of the lot, and in relative terms, probably the most old-school luxury feeling of all.”
Seemingly tuned for boulevard cruising, the Navigator still manages to shrink around the driver during cornering, like the Escalade, inspiring confidence on narrow twisty roads.
A capable handler, the Navigator is unquestionably more at home eating up miles around town and on the interstate. Its twin-turbo V-6 is potent, smooth, and quiet, and it’s torquey when driven sedately. But bury your foot in the throttle, and a muted yet dignified roar emanates from the exhaust pipes. Although the transmission has a tendency to upshift early regardless of the drive mode, downshifts are quick and smooth.
Prone to some secondary motions after harsh impacts, the biggest tell of the Navigator’s Ford underpinnings is its ride. “The Lincoln suffers the same fine ride quality issue as the Cadillac,” Evans said. “Both cars suffer the same big-wheels/skinny-sidewalls syndrome, but you feel it more in the Lincoln.”
Our Navigator Black Label’s cabin more than makes up for any ride quality flaws. The Navigator is one of those luxury vehicles where you open the door and immediately feel like you’ve stepped into a private luxury chalet. Its interior design, which carries through all three incredibly spacious and comfortable rows, harkens back to a bygone era of automobile design, with a lovely long, concave strip of wood on the dash, beautifully finished leather, and piano black and satin silver accents. This generation of Navigator is the first, well, ever, to feel worth its price tag—$98,850 as tested, in this case.
Everywhere we looked in the Navigator, we found a feature we loved—from the supremely comfortable 30-way front seats, to the high-quality Revel Ultima audio system and thick, cushy carpeted floor mats. Morison and Segura were particularly fond of the floating center console (despite some disappointing squeaking). “The center console is innovative, resourceful, and provides a ton of storage,” Segura said. Morrison added, “Just being in this car is a joy; just the feeling it gives you from a styling standpoint. It’s my favorite interior of the lot.”
The Lincoln Navigator Black Label truly feels a cut above and beyond the others. It’s the best balance of actual honest-to-goodness luxury, comfort, value, and driving experience. More important, the Lincoln Navigator is currently the most cohesive and convincing three-row SUV on the market.
To think: Philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer might’ve had to write new chapters about fulfillment of desires if they were part of our comparison test panel. And as time comes full circle with the conclusion of this test, let us remember that McConaughey loves his Lincolns and likely would depart from his character’s rabbit hole of existentialist thought to pronounce these results to be very much alright, alright, alright.
Looks good! More details?
|POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS||2020 BMW X7 xDrive40i||2021 Cadillac Escalade (ESV 4WD)||2020 Lincoln Navigator Black Label (4×4)||2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 4Matic|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, 4WD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-6, alum block/head||90-deg V-8, alum block/heads||Twin-turbo 60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-8, alum block/heads, plus electric motor|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||OHV, 2 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||182.6 cu in/2,998 cc||376.0 cu in/6,162 cc||212.9 cu in/3,489 cc||243.0 cu in/3,982 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||335 hp @ 5,500 rpm||420 hp @ 5,600 rpm||450 hp @ 5,500 rpm*||483 hp @ 5,500 rpm (gas), 21 hp (elec); 483 hp (comb)|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||330 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm||460 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm||510 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm*||516 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm (gas), 184 lb-ft (elec); 516 lb-ft (comb)|
|REDLINE||7,000 rpm||6,500 rpm||6,000 rpm||6,250 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||16.5 lb/hp||14.7 lb/hp||13.5 lb/hp||11.7 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||10-speed automatic||10-speed automatic||9-speed automatic|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE/LOW RATIO||3.64:1/2.33:1/ —||3.23:1/2.05:1/ —||3.73:1/2.39:1/2.64:1||3.27:1/1.96:1/ —|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||15.6-in vented disc; 14.6-in vented disc, ABS||13.5-in vented disc; 13.6-in vented disc, ABS||13.8-in vented disc; 13.8-in vented disc, ABS||14.8-in vented, drilled disc; 13.6-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||9.5 x 22-in; 10.5 x 22-in, cast aluminum||9.0 x 22-in cast aluminum||9.0 x 22-in cast aluminum||9.5 x 23-in; 11.5 x 23-in, forged aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||275/40R22 107Y; 315/35R22 111Y Pirelli P Zero (star)||275/50R22 111H Bridgestone Alenza A/S 02 (M+S)||285/45R22 114H Hankook DynaPro HT (M+S)||285/40R23 107Y; 325/35R23 111Y Pirelli P Zero M0|
|WHEELBASE||122.2 in||134.1 in||122.5 in||123.4 in|
|TRACK, F/R||66.3/67.1 in||68.5/68.3 in||67.6/67.2 in||65.7/66.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||203.3 x 78.7 x 71.1 in||226.9 x 81.1 x 76.4 in||210.0 x 78.8 x 76.3 in||205.0 x 77.0 x 71.8 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||8.7 in||8.0-10.0 in||9.6 in||7.9-8.5 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||23.1/20.5 deg||22.0-25.0/20.5-22.5 deg||22.2/21.9 deg||NA-27.0/NA-24.0 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE, CURB-TO-CURB||42.8 ft||43.3 ft||40.8 ft||39.4 ft (wall-to-wall)|
|CURB WEIGHT||5,530 lb||6,173 lb||6,073 lb||5,662 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||47/53%||51/49%||50/50%||53/47%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||7,500 lb||7,900 lb||8,300 lb||7,700 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/M/R||41.9/39.9/36.6 in||42.3/38.9/38.2 in||41.8/40.0/37.3 in||39.4/40.2/38.9 in|
|LEGROOM, F/M/R||39.8/37.6/33.3 in||44.5/41.7/36.6 in||43.9/41.1/42.3 in||40.3/41.9/34.6 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/M/R||60.0/58.1/47.9 in||65.5/64.6/62.8 in||65.2/65.1/64.2 in||59.3/58.5/50.3 in|
|CARGO VOLUME, BEH F/M/R||90.4/48.6/10.3 (est) cu ft||126.6/81.5/42.9 cu ft||103.3/57.5/19.3 cu ft||84.7/42.7/17.4 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.9 sec||2.1 sec||2.0 sec||1.8 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.0||3.2||3.1||2.3|
|QUARTER MILE||14.2 sec @ 96.8 mph||14.7 sec @ 95.2 mph||14.5 sec @ 95.8 mph||13.2 sec @ 105.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||110 ft||117 ft||125 ft||116 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.86 g (avg)||0.67 g (avg)||0.77 g (avg)||0.83 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.3 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)||29.0 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)||27.8 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)||27.2 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,500 rpm||1,250 rpm||1,600 rpm||1,400 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$96,895||$104,810||$98,850||$108,135|
|AIRBAGS||10: Dual front, f/m side, f/m/r curtain, front knee||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front center||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, rear outboard belts||9: Dual front, f/m side, f/m/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/Unlimited miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles||Unlimited||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||21.9 gal||24.0 gal||23.0 gal||23.8 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||20/25/22 mpg||14/19/16 mpg||16/21/18 mpg||16/21/18 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||169/135 kWh/100 miles||241/177 kWh/100 miles||211/160 kWh/100 miles||211/160 kWh/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.88 lb/mile||1.22 lb/mile||1.08 lb/mile||1.08 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded regular||Unleaded premium|