The GMC Yukon full-sized SUV is all-new for 2021, with plenty of big changes across the board. It’s bigger, it has a new independent rear suspension, and depending on the trim level you choose, it has modern technology to rival any car. You want a big people-mover? There aren’t many out there more spacious.
But it’s the Denali, the brand’s premium trim, that sees the most impressive new look, both inside and out, and for good reason. While most brands sell more of their mid-level trims than anything else, GMC expects the Denali to account for more than 60 per cent of total Yukon sales, with another 20 or so per cent for the new AT4, another premium trim level that’s more oriented to off-road driving. According to GMC, the Denali is aimed squarely at those who have found success on the job site, rather than in the boardroom – a luxury vehicle for the contractor’s family.
Given the Denaliʼs importance on the sell sheet, GMC wanted to make their buyers feel special, starting with the interior. Not only does the Denali get four distinctive colour schemes inside, but the whole dashboard is also unique to the lineup; the 10.2-inch infotainment screen is centred lower in the stack, rather than mounted iPad-style on the top of the dash as in the other Yukon trim levels.
And instead of the Yukon’s base 5.3-litre V8 engine, the Denali comes standard with the larger 6.2-litre V8, though you can also opt for the 3.0-litre diesel. Also standard on the Denali is GMC Pro Safety Plus, a suite of safety features that includes a class-leading nine-camera, 360-degree view, automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist and rear-pedestrian alert, among many others. And, of course, the option sheet is lengthy.
All of this is on top of a clean-sheet new chassis with, as mentioned, that independent rear suspension. That achieves two things – the first being that there’s greater space in the cargo area as there is no live axle any more. And it also, remarkably, improves the ride.
Lower-trim Yukons get standard shocks and coil springs, but the Denali, of course, offers something more. Standard for this model are springs with magnetic ride suspension, which reads the road every millisecond and can make damping adjustments in five milliseconds. But you can also opt for adaptive air suspension, which can raise the Denali by up to 10 centimetres for off-roading or lower it to make it easier to climb in and out of the vehicle. At highway speeds, the new system automatically lowers the SUV for better fuel economy. The upgraded suspension system is worlds ahead of the previous setup and offers world-class ride and handling.
Overall, there’s not much to want for with the 2021 Yukon Denali. Sure, it doesn’t come cheap (the test version was priced at $93,278), but it’s obvious that GMC has targeted a specific audience here, one that wants a big, brash, American SUV, loaded with luxury but still not out of place on the work site. And with that, GMC has set the benchmark high indeed.
2021 GMC Yukon Denali
- Base price/as tested: $79,798/$93,278
- Engine: 6.2-litre V8
- Transmission/drive: 10-speed automatic, AWD
- Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): 16.8 city/12.4 highway
- Alternatives: Lincoln Navigator, Mercedes-Benz GLS, BMW X7, Nissan Armada, Infiniti QX80, Toyota Sequoia
The Denali has an aggressively American-truck look, but its boxy shape and imposing grille combine for a sophisticated overall appearance. The Dark Sky Metallic blue of this tester is especially beautiful in a subtle way, with dramatic highlights and shadows under the sun.
Porous wood, soft leather and a multitude of other materials surround passengers in tasteful opulence. The front seats are wide and cushy, the second-row captain’s chairs are slightly firm but still spacious, and even the third row can comfortably fit three adults. Interior road noise, however, is louder than you’d expect from a premium vehicle.
The 6.2-litre V8, with 402 horsepower and 460 lb.-ft. of torque, pulls like a freight train, with acceleration that’s less jarring and more of a “whoosh.” Shifts from the 10-speed automatic are almost imperceptible, while the ride and handling are more European than you’d expect from a huge, truck-like SUV. Fuel economy, however, is abysmal, with the test vehicle averaging around 15 litres per 100 kilometres in combined city and highway driving.
Just about any modern piece of safety and comfort technology can be had here, including wireless phone-charging, a 14-speaker Bose stereo system and even optional 12.6-inch screens for second-row passengers to play video games or watch movies. There’s no reason to even leave the vehicle any more.
With the wheelbase stretched by 153 millimetres over the last version, and with the new rear suspension also carving out room, cargo capacity increases by a whopping 66 per cent over the previous generation, with 722 litres of space behind the third row alone. That also increases leg room in the back by 40 per cent, incidentally.
Itʼs hard to imagine calling a vehicle over $90,000 a bargain, but considering the size, performance and level of luxury, the Yukon Denali offers a premium vehicle while still coming in at tens of thousands of dollars less than luxury SUVs from Germany.
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