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2021 GMC Yukon Denali First Test Drive: You Win Some, You Lose Some

GMC’s latest flagship full-size SUV will satisfy loyalists, but what about everyone else?

2021 GMC Yukon Denali

The first GMC Yukon Denali landed in 1998 with an explosive impact, causing a shockwave that propelled Denali to its status as the best-selling GMC trim level—and a brand unto itself with more name recognition among some buyers than Yukon. That Yukon Denali, along with Lincoln's Navigator and Cadillac's Escalade—the first of which was simply a Denali with crest-and-wreath badges—also helped convince American buyers that domestic full-size luxury SUVs were a great idea. Subsequent models grew even posher and more refined while still maintaining the rugged capability buyers desired, establishing the Yukon Denali as something of an icon. Now entering its fifth generation, the all-new 2021 Yukon Denali has arrived to defend that lineage.

Yukon't Ignore the Denali's Face

Approached from the front, the new Yukon Denali makes one hell of a first impression. Its face is bluffer than before, with a tall, broad hood; a massive and gleaming grille; and large, forward-facing multi-element headlamps bookended by squared-off daytime running lights. What seems like an acre of chrome filigree adorns the grille, and the shiny stuff also does work as the grille surround, trim for the lower air intake, and the blade-like, J-shaped frames for the vertical fog lamps. The Denali's imposing and ornamented front end is decidedly bold, a visual locomotive both brutal and genteel.

The brash mug gives way to an understated look around the sides and back. The GMC has relatively discreet fender badging and unique lighting elements to distinguish it from the more grotesque Chevy Tahoe, and the Denali is further dressed up with a few additional slashes of chrome. The GMC is a handsome rig, the only misstep—if one can even go that far—being the slightly odd placement of the rear "Yukon" and "Denali" badges, clustered around the liftgate handle.

Sweet Standard, Unique, and Optional Features

Some 56 percent of all Yukons sold are Denalis, and for the first time ever, their owners will enjoy a unique interior experience thanks to a dashboard not shared with the SLE, SLT, and off-road-oriented AT4 Yukons. It's most meaningfully different in the placement of the 10.2-inch infotainment touchscreen—embedded in the dash rather than perched atop—and the central vents, which live above the display rather than below. The top of the dashpad is higher, and conspires with the big, flat hood to somewhat compromise forward visibility. It's good GMC offers up to nine camera views on the Yukon Denali—otherwise, you'd see a lot of these with a corner parked on a Corolla.

Other Denali touches are cool "fractal" interior stitching; a gargantuan, 15.0-inch color head-up display; and the optional ($350) power-sliding center console that has a secret stash box drawer on its forward face that's inaccessible when the console is moved forward. (What is it with GM and hidey holes? Remember the center-stack screens that could motor up and down in the 2013 Chevrolet Impala, etc.?)

We came away impressed with the large collection of well-integrated digital displays in the Yukon Denali we tested, which include an 8.0-inch gauge cluster, the 15.0-inch HUD, a 10.2-inch main screen, and two absolutely huge 12.6-inch headrest screens as part of the optional rear-seat entertainment setup. Onboard Wi-Fi and dual HDMI inputs mean you can bring a streaming stick and have all your home options available in the car, and those rear monitors are big, bright, and gloriously high-definition; we watched GMC's marketing and PR materials on them while lounging in the sliding second row.

In all, the options for connecting and/or charging devices include five USB-C outlets (1/2/2 by row, from front to back), two older-style USB outlets (1/1/0), two HDMI ports (0/2/0), Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a wireless charging pad, and grounded 120-volt household plugs in the second row and cargo area. This is a road-trip, camping, tailgating machine. If you're looking for a strong, do-it-all rig that can handle a rough-and-tumble life of towing and hauling yet still has plenty of tech and cosseting features, the 2021 Yukon Denali is at or near the top of the heap. If you're looking for a polished luxury SUV, however, you might be best served elsewhere. We'll explain.

Disappointing Build Quality

Our test example was fitted with the attractive Jet Black and Brownstone interior theme, one of four on offer. It includes real aluminum and open-pore wood with a brown to black, almost charred, gradient, but the wood's surface coating had enough of a sheen to cheapen its look. More worryingly, at the outer edge of the dashboard on the driver's side (hidden when the door is closed), the leather was puckered where it tucked into the plastic, an issue we also noticed to a lesser degree near the dash-mounted push-button transmission controls. Finally, a piece of trim on the passenger side of the dash and, shockingly, the entire driver's door were both misaligned, the latter bad enough we thought it was only half closed a few times. When asked, GMC said our test vehicle was a salable unit, which rules out pre-production woes.

And despite its steep price—our unit rang in at $83,720—the 2021 Yukon Denali features the same chintzy, shiny hard plastics (largely below the hip point); the same headliner material; and many of the same commodity switchgear pieces we've seen in GM vehicles for years. The Denali's interior is quite pleasing to the eye, but it falls short of its domestic competition in quality feel and finish, to say nothing of luxury-brand three-row SUVs like the Mercedes-Benz GLS.

At least the GMC's three rows are packaged better than ever before. The Yukon's switch to an independent rear suspension and six more inches of overall length translate to 10.1 inches of additional third-row legroom, 66 percent more cargo space behind the rear seat, and a vastly more usable cargo area. The load-in height is still tall, but whether the power-folding third row is raised or laid flat, there is noticeably more space for stuff, and the seats in the way-back are indeed more comfortable.

2021 GMC Yukon Driving Impressions

Every Denali gets a 6.2-liter V-8, pumping out 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque through a Yukon-standard 10-speed automatic. (Lesser trims start with a 355-hp 5.3-liter V-8, and the SLE, SLT, and Denali will soon offer a 3.0-liter inline-six diesel engine, but we were unable to sample either.) The 6.2-liter is beefy and strong with a suitably muscular sound, and the transmission is absolutely transparent in operation.

The steering has tight on-center feel and predictable responses that make this big beast relatively easy to place when parking or turning a corner, and it requires few corrections when tracking straight ahead—which should be a boon when towing up to the Denali's 8,200-pound max. Similarly, the brakes feel confident and strong, with an easy-to-modulate pedal.

The weak point is the ride, in this case handled by air springs and GM's MagneRide magnetorheological dampers. These do an admirable job of corralling side to side motions and body roll—no mean feat in a vehicle this size—but they struggle to gain control over the big 22-inch wheels and tires of the Denali. Even slightly rippled asphalt induces a nervous patter, as well as judders through the chassis and steering column that cause the unoccupied captain's chairs in the rear to audibly shake. It's a rare MagneRide tuning misstep from GM, the company that not only introduced the technology but has very nearly perfected its road-ironing abilities in cars such as the C8 Corvette.

The Verdict

When viewed against its predecessor, the 2021 GMC Yukon Denali is a strong redesign, especially in terms of usable space, onboard technologies, and convenience features. What it lacks is the final polish to effectively battle luxury SUVs such as the Lincoln Navigator and the Mercedes GLS450. It's possible our vehicle's fit and finish issues are isolated examples, but even if so, the new Denali's explosive impact is more likely to remain localized among devotees looking to trade in the old one than to blow away the competition.

2021 GMC Yukon Denali Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $69,695/$83,720 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 6.2L OHV 16-valve V-8/420 hp, 460 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-8-passenger, front-engine, 2WD or 4WD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 14-15/19-20 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 210.0 x 81.0 x 76.5 in
WHEELBASE 120.9 in
WEIGHT 5,631-5,827 lb
0-60 MPH 6.8 sec (est)