First Drive: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali

Moving the full-size SUV segment forward with a blend of luxury, technology, design and good engineering.
Moving the full-size SUV segment forward with a blend of luxury, technology, design and good engineering.

by | October 1, 2020


TORONTO, ONTARIO – Launched in 1999, GMC’s Denali sub-brand has always been a more subtle luxury full-size SUV than an Escalade, Navigator or Mercedes GLS. For 2021, General Motors is rolling out this fifth-generation 2021 GMC Yukon Denali with more gadgets, leather and bespoke touches than ever before. GMC tossed us the keys for a day so we could see how it stacks up against main rivals and we came away thinking that it might just be the new king of the big SUVs.

Up front, the 2021 Yukon Denali strikes a more upright stance than its Chevrolet siblings. The Yukon grille is more traditional, bereft of overly-fussy details, and the headlights are large and well-proportioned to a vehicle with more sheet metal than the space shuttle. More rounded wheel wells than the previous model are easily filled by the Denali’s 22-inch wheels, while the chrome door window trim helps to enhance visual height. Out back, the rear window still opens separately from the hatch for easy loading of small items while four real exhaust tips are pleasingly set into the rear fascia. This is a good looking rig that packs both the presence and restraint expected from a Denali.

For the first time ever, the Yukon Denali gets a different dashboard from the regular Yukon. The previous argument for the Escalade was the presence of a posh French-stitched dashboard but now the Denali gets its own slab of loveliness. It’s more artful and less utilitarian, with a more upright face, a higher cowl and covered storage. Also lovely is the Denali-specific steering wheel, wrapped in soft leather and just the right thickness. As for the front seats, comfort levels are very good but they could use a little more upper back support. As expected, heated and ventilated leather is standard up front, as is a heated steering wheel. What many may not expect is the intensity of said heating and cooling. GMC knew that the ventilated seats would be working non-stop in Texas heat and that the heated steering wheel’s warmth would have to penetrate through winter gloves in Edmonton and tuned those features accordingly.

Moving on back, space in the second and third rows is plentiful for actual adults and seat comfort is quite good. The second-row captain’s chairs have separate armrests and good thigh support while the walk-through space to the third row is roughly as wide as the aisle on a Dash-8 regional jet, which really helps access. There’s enough space behind the third row in this standard-length model for several carry-ons, and those seeking extra space will want to upgrade to the extended length model. A boon to passengers is the Denali’s panoramic moonroof which lets heaps of light into the cabin and really brightens up the space.

Press a button on the ceiling and the centre console motors back to reveal a hidden storage tray designed to hold a purse. We tested it and found that it’s just slightly too small for the average purse as well and that it intrudes significantly on second-row passenger space. Perhaps more useful is the hidden storage tray that also appears when the console is motored back. It’s not an especially deep tray, but it will hold small trinkets nicely. Speaking of storage compartments, kudos to GM for packaging the infotainment USB-A port, USB-C port and wireless phone charger into one covered tray. The lovely open-pore veneered lid really cleans up the look of the cabin when a phone is connected.

Speaking of in-cabin electronics, infotainment comes courtesy of a 10.2-inch touchscreen with excellent response and black levels. Wireless Apple CarPlay is supported, as is Android Auto. Fitted to our tester was the optional rear-seat entertainment system with two 12.6-inch displays, dual HDMI inputs and individual headphones. With the standard 4G LTE in-car Wi-Fi system and the household-spec power inverter it would be entirely possible to hook up a gaming console for rounds of road trip Call of Duty: Warzone from the second row, a killer capability if ever we’ve seen one. As for the stereo, all Denalis come fitted with a Bose unit that features a warm sound signature, reasonably low harmonic distortion, good staging and plenty of wattage. It’s all the sound system most people will need and it’s quite well-matched to the Denali’s price point.

Power comes courtesy of a 6.2-litre all-American V8 with something called Dynamic Fuel Management. It’s significantly more advanced than it’s Active Fuel Management predecessor and we’re excited to see what real-world fuel economy production models will be able to produce. Economy aside, the Denali’s engine produces a nice 420 horsepower and a stout 460 lb.-ft. of torque and it comes hitched to GM’s buttery-smooth ten-speed automatic transmission. The result is a powertrain that moves this full-size SUV with authority while offering up a NASCAR soundtrack.

This new T1XX generation is the first Yukon ever to come with independent rear suspension, and this Denali trim adds to that advancement with air springs and magnetorheological dampers. With General Motors having so much experience in live axle suspension tuning, we had some trepidation on if this new Denali’s independent rear suspension would improve on the previous model’s solid rear axle. The result isn’t just an improvement over the previous model, it’s a masterclass in suspension tuning full stop. Never before has something this large, this heavy and this tall been so confident in corners while also maintaining a composed and luxurious ride. The only vibrations transmitted to the cabin are the slight ripples and shimmies inherent to body-on-frame construction.

Perhaps more amazing than the ride is how easy the Yukon Denali is to drive. It may have an outrageously high cowl, be roughly the size of The Danforth and weigh more than the average archipelago but it’s as maneuverable as a minivan. Placing it on the road, even in residential neighbourhoods, is less challenging than making a cup of tea and because it has more cameras than the average bank branch it’s easy to park as well. Seriously, this Denali is equipped with nine exterior cameras that are all incredibly crisp. Also helping ease of operation is light yet accurate power steering that’s easy to point down the road. There likely isn’t a ton of caster angle as the steering wheel exhibits a slight reluctance to return to centre but that was likely a tactical decision to reduce the effort needed to alter the angle of the Denali’s massive 22-inch wheels.

In conclusion, the 2021 GMC Yukon Denali moves the full-size SUV segment forward with its blend of luxury, technology, design and good engineering. Pricing in Canada starts at $79.798 which is right in line with the Yukon Denali’s main competitor, the Ford Expedition Limited. If the ostentatiousness of a Navigator or Escalade is a bit much, this new GMC Yukon Denali should be just about perfect.


See Also:

First Drive – 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe

2019 GMC Yukon XL Denali

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 4MATIC

The Podcast

About Thomas Hundal

A passionate car enthusiast through and through, Thomas started an internship with Magazine while pursuing journalism at Niagara College. He can rattle off little-known facts about some of the most obscure vehicles on the road and enjoys putting his thoughts into words.

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