2021 GMC Yukon XL Denali Review: The Recipe Works

  • Huge quantities of passenger and cargo space
  • Diesel is more economical and cheaper than the gas engine
  • Denali has ample levels of equipment
  • Magnetic ride control and air suspension make for a serene ride
  • No Super Cruise option is frustrating
  • Denali spec makes this an expensive SUV

GMC is on a roll right now, and Denali is a big reason for that. The luxury sub-brand – success elevating it from being anything so pedestrian as a mere trim – has helped make SUVs like the 2021 GMC Yukon XL Denali so popular, dealers can't even get them in through the door before they're already sold.

The Yukon, in fact, has the lowest levels of dealer inventory for any GM product, and while it may not quite be GMC's best-seller – that's the Sierra pickup – it's hard not to see the full-sized SUV as a glowing success. 64-percent of Yukon sales, and 66-percent of Yukon XL sales, are of the more luxurious Denali trim, helping clear showroom floors as well as nudging average transaction prices skyward.

Knowing all that helps put the $84,645 (including destination) sticker price of this particular Yukon XL into context. The average selling price of a Yukon is around $77k, and the XL version – 15 inches longer, with more cargo space and more third-row legroom – is a little pricier still. GMC may be positioning itself as the premium SUV and truck-maker slotting in-between mainstream and luxury, but you could get a fair amount of vehicle from your local Mercedes or Audi dealership with the near-$85k this big three-row monster demands.

Question is, is it worth it? The standard GMC Yukon Denali turned out to be a surprising gem in the midst of GM's SUV line-up: more luxurious and memorable than its cheaper Chevrolet Tahoe sibling, but more attainable than Cadillac's Escalade. My primary complaint, in fact, was that its 6.2-liter V8 was a thirsty beast, and that it lacked GM's Super Cruise.

Half of those issues have been addressed. The Yukon XL Denali may be bigger, but this time around it was a 3.0-liter Duramax turbo-diesel under the hood. I liked it in the 2021 Escalade Diesel and I liked it here, too, not least because it's a little more frugal. Where I saw around 16 mpg from the V8 Yukon, I managed over 23 mpg in the diesel Yukon XL. More than a point higher, in fact, than the EPA says to expect for the truck's combined figure.

Sure, in the grand scheme of things, that's still hardly something worth praising in ecological terms. Nonetheless with its 277 horsepower, and the fact that the 460 lb-ft of torque arrives from a low 1,500 rpm, you could at least make a reasonable argument that those who demand maximum space should opt for this particular Yukon configuration. At least, until GMC's electrification plans go beyond the trophy truck Hummer EV and just-confirmed and still-yet-to-be-named pickup EV.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of space in here. I hardly felt like the regular Yukon's 34.9 inches of third-row legroom were tight, but the XL adds almost 2-inches more. It's cargo space, though, where you see the biggest improvements. That expands from 25.5 cu-ft to 41.5 cu-ft behind the third row, more than worth the added mild headache of parking a longer SUV. GMC does, at least, throw in a 360-degree camera and parking sensors.

Adults and their luggage are welcome inside, then, and the second row captain's chairs drop down easily for about as comfortable a clamber into the rearmost seats as you could hope for. The Denali Ultimate Package includes, for its $11,205, a dual touchscreen entertainment system fro the second row, though those in the very back are left to their own devices. Still, USB ports and cupholders are plentiful, and the dual-pane sunroof keeps things feeling light regardless of where you're sitting.

Behind the wheel, the turbo-diesel butts heads with the realties of physics. Nobody is going to go drag racing in the Yukon XL Denali, though while it can take a moment to build momentum from a standing start, once you're in the torquey power-band there's no shortage of grunt for overtaking and straight-line surges.

Magnetic ride control is standard on the Yukon XL, and Denali models get air suspension too. The result is a ride that's pliant and cosseting, though clearly not intended to be sporty. The same goes for cornering, where body roll is unavoidable. There's an electronic limited slip differential, but that's better thought of as a trick for improving traction when you're on mud and wet grass, rather than pushing the big SUV for more enthusiastic driving.

Denali models get big 22-inch wheels, power steps on the sides, GMC's fancy trailering features like extended blind zone alerts and up to 15 different camera views, along with adaptive cruise control. Still no GM Super Cruise, however, and the absence of the hands-free driver assistance tech is a lingering annoyance.

I prefer the Denali dashboard aesthetic to that of the regular Yukon, though either way it's a button-fest. Cadillac's Escalade does a much better job of condensing all its features into a more pared-back interface. GMC's infotainment is straightforward, with a 10.2-inch touchscreen – with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – that somehow manages to still look fairly small in the big dash. There's wireless phone charging and plenty of storage cubbies, and the cabin in general feels a lot lighter and less gloomy in this Teak/Light Shale finish compared to the Jet Black of the last Yukon I tried.

The practicality here can't be questioned. Drop the third row of seats down and you have 94.8 cu-ft to play with; drop the second and there's a whopping 144.7 cu-ft. If you want to maximize people, meanwhile, there's a three row bench option for the second row, taking total capacity to eight. Oh, and it'll tow up to 8,100 pounds as well.

2021 GMC Yukon XL Denali Verdict

Spend some time with the Yukon, and you can begin to see why it has carved out a niche within GM's full-sized SUV options. In Denali form in particular, it's undeniably a nicer place to be than any Tahoe; it also feels more aligned with everyday life than an Escalade, more open to muddy kids and dogs and sports equipment.

I feel like the Yukon XL is the version to have – if you're going to embrace space, then embrace maximum space – and the turbo-diesel is the engine to pair it with. Not only is it a little more frugal, it's also $1,500 cheaper than the V8 gas engine. And, though Denali trim may not be inexpensive, clearly GMC is not short on buyers. Indeed the automaker says it now sees space for even more lavish versions down the line.

My lingering reservations are simple. No Super Cruise is a blot on the Yukon XL's score sheet, and the dashboard makes no bones of its shared switchgear from the Big General Motors Parts Bucket. Nonetheless, there's a reason the Yukon is doing so well right now, and the 2021 Yukon XL Denali illustrates just what that is quite nicely.