2021 GMC Yukon Denali first drive review: From luxury pretender to legitimate contender


From the blue-collar Chevy Tahoe to the stately Cadillac Escalade to the GMC Yukon in between, General Motors’ family of large, truck-based SUVs has been a huge seller over the years. Despite their popularity, these vehicles have not necessarily been the most premium, versatile or passenger friendly, though these shortcomings — and others — have been addressed for 2021. Thanks to a much-needed redesign, the GMC Yukon Denali has been transformed from a luxury pretender into a legitimate contender. 

Independence day 

Arguably, the single most important change made to these full-size family-haulers is the addition of an independent rear suspension, something rivals like the Ford Expedition have had for decades. Ditching the old live axle allowed engineers to add significant amounts of passenger and cargo space, but that’s not the only reason why it’s more capacious. For 2021, the Yukon has grown. Its wheelbase is up by nearly five inches and the body has been extended by more than six.   

Altogether, these changes get you a whopping 66% more room behind the third-row seat. Indeed, it is usefully spacious back there, roomy enough to house a couple pieces of rollaboard luggage or a whole mess of grocery bags. With everything folded flat, there’s now just shy of 123 cubic feet of junk-hauling capacity, a cavernous amount of room that actually makes the standard Yukon more capacious and an Expedition Max, the extended-length model that competes with the even bigger Yukon XL. 

Augmenting that independent rear, this GMC offers several different suspension setups. Coil springs with passive dampers support lower-tier models, but magnetic-ride shocks are also offered with coil springs. The top-shelf arrangement, however, features four-corner air bladders and those fancy magnetic dampers, which is what my Denali tester has. 

Unfortunately, ride quality isn’t as good as you might expect. Even with fancy shocks and air bags this vehicle feels unnecessarily stiff and plodding, likely due to the massive 22-inch wheels. Going over bumps, you still get some body-on-frame jiggles, but live-axle shimmies have been exorcised. The Yukon’s ass-end remains as planted as a fully grown oak tree, even when driven over nasty washboard surfaces. Body roll in corners is minimal and the steering is serviceable. 

There is an absolute ton of space back here.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

As they should be, this vehicle’s front chairs are hospitable for hours at a stretch, plus they’re heated and ventilated. But at long last, the Yukon’s rear seats offer plenty of comfort, too. 

With their lower cushions roughly chair-height above the floor, the second-row buckets are backside friendly and plenty adjustable. But thanks to that independent rear suspension, even the third-row is downright coddling, something you could never say about the outgoing Yukon’s rear-most bench, which was a no-grown-man’s land. Adults relegated to steerage in the 2021 model will have little to complain about as there’s plenty of support and loads of headroom and legroom. 

Interior improvements   

Setting the Denali apart from lesser Yukons and the Chevrolet Tahoe is a special interior and I’m not just talking about color and trim. The dashboard design is actually different, with unique air vents and a neatly integrated 10.2-inch multimedia display instead of a more freestanding screen of the same size. 

Not bad, GMC, not bad at all.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

GM infotainment systems have been killing it lately and this one is superb. It boots up almost instantly when you start the engine and it responds with immediacy. There’s no lag or stutters while swiping through menus or zooming in or out on the map. Aside from outstanding performance, this multimedia array is clearly laid out and exceptionally easy to use. 

Integrated navigation is standard in Denali models but optional on lower-end Yukons. Across the range, support for wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is included, though SLT, AT4 and Denali models also come with a wireless charging pad at no extra charge (no pun intended).

Justifying its premium pricing, this GMC’s cabin is attractive and loaded with quality materials. Two kinds of leather are used, one with a fine grain and another that’s much rougher looking. At first, I thought the coarse cow hide seemed a bit crude, like elephant skin or something, but I’ve grown to like it because it’s used sparingly and provides a nice bit of contrast. 

Matching that leather, this Yukon’s various switches and dials look nice and feel high in quality. Even the dashboard-mounted electronic shifter is an unexpected winner. Comprised of buttons and toggles, it looks fiddly, but it’s easy to reach and intuitive. About the only thing that’s cheap feeling in the new Yukon is the windshield-wiper/turn-signal stalk, which, in typical GM fashion, is as rubbery as overcooked chicken.   

Life-sized adults will now comfortably fit in the Yukon’s third-row seat.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

A pair of 12.6-inch second-row entertainment displays are included in the pricey $11,180 Yukon Denali Ultimate Package, which also bundles features like those 22-inch wheels, power-retractable running boards, four-corner air suspension and adaptive cruise control. Crisp and responsive, these touchscreens make it easy for passengers to consume their favorite media, plus they even have access to the vehicle’s navigation system so they can put a destination in for the driver.   

In case you needed yet another screen in your life, Yukon Denalis also feature a 15-inch multicolor head-up display. It’s super legible, even in sunlight, and it’s easy to adjust the positioning and brightness via a few dedicated buttons on the dashboard.

A mostly pleasant drive 

Three engines will be available in the new Yukon. A 355-horsepower, 5.3-liter V8 serves base duty while a 6.2-liter unit is optional, though standard on Denalis. Smooth running and quiet, that big-ish-block V8 packs a punch, 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque to be exact. 

Both gasoline engines are available right now, but before the end of the year, GM’s excellent 3.0-liter Duramax inline-six diesel found in the Silverado and Sierra half-ton trucks will also be offered in the Yukon, which could be a gamechanger. No matter the engine, a 10-speed automatic transmission is standard equipment. 

Eight-cylinder engines are just lovely, and the Yukon’s 6.2-liter unit is a delight, both smooth and powerful.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Underway, this new Yukon’s performance is excellent. My tester’s 6.2-liter V8 is silken and plenty potent, though I do wish it had a bit of exhaust rumble, because it sounds like, well, pretty much nothing. As for the transmission, it’s just as delightful, shifting smartly and seamlessly. But it’s kind of funny, with so many gears it sometimes feels like a continuously variable transmission because the RPM drop following each upshift is miniscule. 

According to the EPA, this Yukon Denali should deliver 14 miles per gallon in city driving and 19 on the highway. Combined, it’s rated at a scowl-inducing 16 mpg. Fortunately, in real-world, mixed driving I’ve managed to beat that figure, averaging around 18, which isn’t quite as frightening. 

Being the size of a Navy destroyer and weighing more than 5,800 pounds in four-wheel-drive Denali trim, you can’t expect this SUV to have cat-like reflexes. It’s undeniably big and heavy, but it doesn’t feel quite as enormous as it actually is. Making my tester a touch easier to manage is a host of adjustable camera angles, which give you a 360-degree view of the vehicle, plus parking sensors and a rear-view camera mirror.   

As you might expect, the new Yukon offers plenty of driver aids. Things like automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection and automatic high beams are all standard. Denali models are also graced with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert, but curiously, things like that camera mirror and adaptive cruise control are optional. Really, they should be standard at the price GMC is charging. 

Your land yacht awaits.

Craig Cole/Roadshow
A luxury price tag 

So, how much do they want for a 2021 Yukon? Well, a base, rear-wheel-drive SLE model starts around $52,000, which is a totally reasonable figure. In fact, depending on trim, prices have either remained the same as last year or crept up slightly, by not more than $700. But in comparison, my tester rolled off the assembly line in Arlington, Texas with a window sticker of $83,420, including $1,295 in destination charges. That’s a lot of scratch, very similar to a lower-end Mercedes-Benz GLS or Lincoln Navigator, vehicles this GMC actually has some chance of competing with now. 

With additional interior room, greater refinement and more tech, the new Yukon Denali is better than ever. If you’ve got deep pockets and like what you see, check your local GMC dealership, because they’re available right now.


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