Were I to star in a Super Bowl television commercial for the 2021 GMC Yukon Denali, I would first load my smiling, all-American children into the all-new three-row SUV, plus my dog with its glossy coat and playful paws, before turning to the camera. Seriously, and perhaps after folding my arms to lend gravitas and telegraph just how sincere I was feeling, I would tell you that, just like a modern truck, families grow up and so too do their needs.
Now, I do not have a cohort of burly sons, or a dog for that matter, but I do have a pointless attraction to large luxury SUVs my lifestyle really doesn’t require. Nonetheless, my attention has skipped over the Yukon in the past, sandwiched as it is between Chevrolet’s earnest Tahoe and Cadillac’s glitzy Escalade.
My justifications have been straightforward. The previous truck trio were based on a fairly old-school body-on-frame construction, and my feeling was that with that you either go cheap and prioritize maximum amount of vehicle per dollar, or you load it up on tech and leather. For the fifth-generation Yukon and its ilk, however, General Motors switched to a new hybrid unibody-on-frame platform with independent rear suspension.
GMC, moreover, effectively turned the Denali into a sub-brand version of the Yukon. Yes, you get a higher level of standard kit inside, but there are sheet-metal changes outside and a different dashboard inside from its SLE, SLT, and AT4 siblings.
The result is a more distinctive, more memorable SUV, and a bigger one. Over 6-inches longer than the outgoing Yukon, almost 5-inches of that increase goes into the wheelbase and, in particular, the space for third-row passengers and the trunk. Both my large sons and their beloved pup would be pleased, particularly with the uptick in legroom for that last row.
It’s easy to snipe at the Yukon over its cheaper Tahoe sibling, but in Denali form it’s the Cadillac Escalade which makes the more intriguing comparison. Like Caddy’s new truck, the 2021 Yukon Denali gets a 6.2-liter V8 and a 10-speed automatic, paired with optional 4WD and a 2-speed transfer case, plus standard Magnetic Ride Control. The $11,255 Denali Ultimate Package throws in air suspension and huge 22-inch wheels, among a host of other niceties, narrowing the gap even further with the Escalade.
Bringing 420 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 460 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm to the potluck, the V8 has some punch. It’ll tow up to 8,000 pounds with the right options, too; the Denali Ultimate Package also includes the Prograde Trailing System, hitch-guidance, an in-vehicle trailering app, trailer brake controller and extends the standard blind spot warnings to accommodate whatever you’re pulling. That’s on top of the standard lane-keep assistance, auto emergency braking with front pedestrian braking and collision alerts, rear cross traffic and pedestrian alerts, and front & rear parking assistance.
As drivetrains go, this V8 and 10-speed combo is a syrupy one in all the best ways. Power is just there when you ask for it, with barely a grumble from the well-tamed dual exhausts; the transmission may have weird little toggles to switch between its modes, but it slurs imperceivably through its ratios. Truly shoddy asphalt can pass some judder through to the cabin, but the new platform avoids that turning into that familiar old body-on-frame shimmy, while MagneRide helps prevent the Yukon rocking like a boat.
In short, it rides like an Escalade, only the 2021 Yukon Denali starts at $71,400 (plus $1,295 destination) in 4WD form, and even my “Ultimate” version still landed at $83,495 all-in. That doesn’t even get you into a 2021 Escalade Premium Luxury 4WD, meaning you’re left making do with the base-spec Luxury trim and its oddly spartan feature list. I refuse to have my brash-but-lovable offspring embarrassed at the school gates like that.
GM’s 3.0-liter Duramax Turbo Diesel with its identical but earlier-arriving torque is not only an option but a little cheaper, too. Having driven it in the 2021 Escalade I can say it’s a nice alternative to the V8, even if the improvements in economy are tempered by the fact that neither engine is going to win any awards among environmentalists.
The EPA says you could get 14 mpg in the city from the V8, 19 mpg on the highway, or 16 mpg combined. They’re both unimpressive but achievable.
There are a lot of buttons and screens in the Yukon Denali’s cabin. A 10.2-inch touchscreen for the infotainment in the center console; a 15-inch color head-up display; another 8-inch screen embedded in the driver’s instrumentation; and the Ultimate package throws in dual 12.6-inch entertainment touchscreens too. They lack the wow-factor of the Escalade’s curved OLED, though. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and there’s a wireless charging pad for your phone.
GMC’s newest infotainment system – shared with other GM vehicles – has been improving nicely, and this latest iteration is clearly laid out, easy to navigate, and speedy in use. Still, you’ll be hitting physical switches and turning actual knobs for a lot of things. The HVAC system isn’t short on buttons, though GMC gets credit for making it super-easy to flip to adjusting settings for the rear, while the panel to the left of the steering wheel is positively intimidating with what feels like an overflow of controls.
Denali trim surrounds it with nice-feeling leather and real open-pore wood, though the Jet Black interior of my test car felt dark. GMC offers much lighter options that – though perhaps requiring a little extra care from my sports-scholarship-winning kiddos when they drag in their muddy boots and uniforms – are a lot more welcoming. It’s a shame you get the same buttons on the steering wheel as you would in a Tahoe, though it’s not like the Escalade really does any better there either.
For all I like the Yukon Denali, there are still some odd decisions. Unlike in the new Escalade, you can’t have the superb Enhanced Super Cruise with its hands-free lane-keeping and auto-lane change feature. In fact, even just regular adaptive cruise control is optional on the GMC, which seems bizarre given the price tag. Optional, too, is GM’s camera-based rear mirror.
2021 GMC Yukon Denali Verdict
Overall though, just like when I try to get mad at my mischievous nonexistent children, I can’t be too angry at the Yukon Denali. The ability to go from transporting seven adults in smooth and pleasant luxury, to dropping the seats down and expanding the 25.5 cu-ft of space to a hefty 122.9 cu-ft max for load-toting, highlights just what makes GMC’s fanciest SUV so appealing.
Like an Escalade, it’s swish enough to not look too out of place among the big German luxe SUVs. However you also get Tahoe-esque practicality, without too much worry about scuffs and dirt. Where the old Yukon felt adrift in its middle-ground, this 2021 Yukon Denali promises the best of both worlds instead, and feels much more confident in delivering it. You can trust me on that, even if I’m not a TV dad.