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2021 GMC Yukon Test Drive Review
The redesigned 2021 GMC Yukon improves in critically important ways but still falls short when it comes to towing, fuel economy, and overall value.
With the redesigned 2021 GMC Yukon, several good things happen. First, GMC improves passenger space and cargo space by stretching the wheelbase and switching to an independent rear suspension design. Second, those same changes, coupled with a new adaptive air suspension option, enhance the full-size SUV’s ride and handling. Third, payload ratings rise by as much as 100 pounds. Fourth, the Yukon gets a significant technology upgrade. But at the same time, the new Yukon takes a couple of steps backward. Tow ratings can’t match the outgoing Yukon, and in some cases, fuel economy numbers worsen rather than improve. Still, all things considered, the new 2021 Yukon represents advancement.
Look and Feel
Though GMC pitches itself as “professional grade,” it also positions itself as “premium grade,” landing between Chevrolet and Cadillac on the General Motors spectrum. True, that’s also the same space where Buick plays. But Buick is a softer and plusher representation of premium, whereas GMC is rugged yet still refined.
Plus, GMC sells trucks.
Enter the redesigned 2021 GMC Yukon, the company’s truck-based full-size SUV. Available in standard- and extended-length body styles and in SLE, SLT, AT4, and Denali trim levels, the 2021 Yukon is on sale now and priced from as low as $50,700.
The Yukon AT4 is new for 2021, and it is designed for off-road adventures thanks to its improved approach angle, skid plates, and all-terrain tires. But if history is any guide, half of new Yukons will be dressed in upscale Denali trim. As Stu Pierce, GMC’s senior marketing manager for trucks and full-size SUVs, explains, Yukon buyers prefer to pay for substance over an image, wanting the best SUV they can buy without forking over extra money for a fancy badge.
Having spent nearly 200 miles driving the redesigned 2021 GMC Yukon Denali, we can see the logic in that, though, at an as-tested price of $83,720 (including a $1,295 destination charge) with the Denali Ultimate option package, this SUV isn’t exactly cheap.
But it sure looks good, especially if you like big grilles and you cannot lie. Draped in Midnight Blue paint and rolling on shiny 22-inch wheels, the Yukon Denali Ultimate is more upscale than an equivalent Chevrolet Tahoe High Country thanks to its intricate grillework, vent-style fender badges, chrome lower body trim, and more appealing rear styling. But at Chevy, you can get the paint and some upgraded 22s for just $1,995, while GMC charges $3,490 for the exact same thing. Where is the substance in that?
To set the Denali apart from not only the Tahoe but also the Yukon SLE, SLT, and AT4, it gets its own, exclusive dashboard design. It is a substantial improvement with a more sophisticated appearance over what comes in the Chevy and other Yukons. Add the Denali’s real wood trim, leather-wrapped panels, unique interior stitching and piping, and the Ultimate Package’s panoramic sunroof, and you’ve got an upscale cabin that you won’t find in any SUV but a Yukon Denali.
Three engines are available for the 2021 Yukon. All but the Denali have a standard 355-horsepower 5.3-liter V8 engine. A 420-horsepower 6.2-liter V8 engine is standard in and exclusive to the Yukon Denali. Coming soon, a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel inline six-cylinder engine will be optional for every Yukon except the AT4, due to packaging constraints related to its revised front end that supplies a more generous approach angle.
Our Denali had the 6.2-liter V8, supplying 420 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 460 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm. Matched with an excellent ten-speed automatic transmission, this engine provided robust acceleration regardless of the driving situation. Plus, at idle, it has that V8 burble that Americans adore. But fuel economy is not this engine’s strong suit.
On the testing loop, with a passenger up front and two youngsters in the back, and the Autotrac four-wheel-drive (4WD) system in Auto mode, we averaged 14.4 mpg. A shorter second loop produced 16.2 mpg with just a driver aboard and Autotrac in two-wheel-drive (2WD) mode.
For what it’s worth, a 2021 Yukon with 4WD and the 6.2-liter V8 is EPA-rated to get 14 mpg in the city, 19 highway, and 16 combined. That’s less than the previous-generation Yukon with the same drivetrain, which earned EPA ratings of 14 city, 22 highway, and 17 combined.
The old Yukon, however, did not have an independent rear suspension design or an available Four-Corner Air Ride suspension with next-generation Magnetic Ride Control adaptive damping. Needless to say, GMC Improves the ride quality and the handling of this new Yukon.
However, if you want a truly smooth, unfettered ride quality, you will want to skip the 22-inch wheels and 275/50 tires. They make you well aware of pavement irregularities, despite the electro-wizardry charged with filtering the bumps, cracks, and holes.
Nevertheless, this big guy can hustle when necessary. The oversized wheels and tires provide impressive grip, and the steering is reasonably quick and accurate even if weighting is on the light side, and the wheel rim is too thin. At first, the brake pedal feels a little stiff and difficult to modulate, but the driver acclimates quickly. So, while the new Yukon Denali is not fun to drive, it is capable when you need it to be.
In part, this capability is due to the Yukon’s new Active Response 4WD system. Equipped with an Autotrac two-speed transfer case, Traction Select driving modes, and a new-for-2021 electronic limited-slip differential, Active Response 4WD aims to improve cornering performance in the dry and traction in the wet.
We did not take the Yukon Denali off-roading, though, with its two-speed transfer case and Autotrac’s 2WD, Auto, 4WD Hi, and 4WD Lo settings, it certainly is capable of it. If previous experience driving the new 2021 Tahoe Z71 in the dirt is any indicator, you’ll want the Yukon AT4 if you think serious off-roading is in your future.
We didn’t tow anything with the Yukon Denali, either. GMC says it will tow 8,400 pounds with 2WD and 8,300 pounds with 4WD. For the Denali XL, subtract 100 pounds from each rating. These new numbers are not only less than what the previous Yukon Denali could tow, but they’re about 1,000 pounds less than a more fuel-efficient Ford Expedition Platinum can pull.
On a positive note, payload ratings rise. The new maximums are 1,792 pounds for the standard Yukon and 1,698 pounds for the Yukon XL. Previously, the SUV topped out at 1,690 pounds and 1,660 pounds, respectively.
Form and Function
Thanks to the new independent rear suspension, the 2021 Yukon provides significant gains in terms of passenger and cargo space. This engineering change resolves two of the primary complaints levied against the previous version of the SUV.
Front-seat room is about the same as before, and Denalis include leather upholstery with perforated inserts and special stitching. Both of the 12-way power-adjustable front seats are heated and ventilated, the steering wheel is heated, and with the Ultimate Package, a new power sliding console adds unique convenience and storage solutions.
During a multi-hour drive, the front seats began to feel hard instead of supportive, and there is no massage function available with this SUV. Additionally, the upper door panel edges, though flat, are not wide. Elbows will get sore due to the seam and hard material just under the ledge.
Second-row seating now slides and collapses to fold flat, improving comfort and cargo room, and in the Denali, they’re heated as standard equipment. To assist with access to the third-row seat, a power release function folds and tumbles the second-row seats out of the way.
Passengers relegated to the third-row seat will be much happier in the new Yukon. The bench seat provides actual thigh support, and adults can fit behind the second-row seats without resorting to contortions. This change brings third-row comfort up to par with models like the Ford Expedition and Toyota Sequoia.
Cargo volume improves, too. Behind the power-folding third-row seat, the Yukon Denali holds 25.5 cubic feet of cargo (41.5 in the Denali XL). Fold the third row down, which is a two-step process if the second-row seats are all the way back in their tracks, and you’ll have 72.6 cubic feet of volume (93.8 for Denali XL). The maximum cargo room measures 122.9 cubic feet (144.7 Denali XL).
Those are minivan numbers, right there.
If you’re looking for a full-size, near-luxury SUV providing plenty of infotainment, the new Yukon Denali with the Ultimate Package will provide a satisfactory solution.
Standard equipment for all 2021 Yukons, the 10.2-inch touchscreen infotainment system supplies wireless Apple CarPlay, wireless Android Auto, Amazon Alexa integration, access to an extra-cost 4G LTE WiFi hotspot, and GMC Connected Services, which requires a subscription. Over-the-air updates keep the technology current over time.
Upgrades include wireless device charging, a navigation system, a 14-speaker Bose Performance Series premium audio system, and a Rear Seat Media system with dual 12.6-inch touchscreen displays. Note that this rear-seat entertainment system does not play DVDs. So modern!
Our kid passengers, aged 9 and 12, are technology pros but had trouble figuring out how to stream content through an iPhone and the Yukon’s WiFi. Eventually, with some trial and error, and an Apple-brand Lighting to Digital AV adapter, they found success.
Her review? “It was pretty good, but sometimes it would glitch out. I don’t know if it was the connection, or if it was just being weird. Also, the USB would only work for music. I had to use the HDMI port to mirror the content on my phone.”
All we can tell you is there was a whole ‘lotta laughter coming from the back seat as we road-tripped to Santa Barbara. We even got a destination recommendation from the kids for McConnell’s ice cream, which we rejected. This time.
No doubt, the Yukon’s Rear Seat Media system is cutting-edge stuff. Now, if GMC could just install a decent sound system in this SUV, the tech package would be complete. The Denali includes a new 14-speaker Bose Performance Series audio system, but it simply is not up to snuff for an SUV at this price. It sounds flat despite engaging the Centerpoint function.
Other technology offered in the Yukon includes an impressive 15-inch color head-up display that provides a wealth of detailed information, a rear camera mirror, and multiple surround-view camera vantage points that help make the Yukon more maneuverable. They complement the standard front and rear parking assist sensors and high-definition reversing camera.
Continuing the theme of improved technology, GMC equips the 2021 Yukon with numerous advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS).
Standard features include forward collision warning, daytime pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking (below 50 mph), and automatic high-beam headlights. The Yukon also has Teen Driver parental report card technology, a rear-seat reminder system, and, through an active OnStar subscription, automatic crash response and crisis assistance.
Starting with SLT trim, the SUV includes blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, lane-departure warning, and lane-keeping assistance. A rear pedestrian alert is available for the SLT and AT4 and comes standard with Denali trim. You’ll need to buy the Yukon Denali for adaptive cruise control and enhanced automatic emergency braking that works at speeds higher than 50 mph.
Driving home to the L.A. suburbs from Santa Barbara, the Yukon Denali’s adaptive cruise and lane assistance technologies operated in a remarkably smooth and sophisticated fashion. When cars cut into the lane ahead, or traffic slows, the Yukon responds without sudden braking. When traffic ahead accelerates or clears, or when the driver changes lanes to pass, the big V8 gets the SUV moving faster without hesitation. And while you can feel subtle lane assistance, it never fights against the driver’s inputs.
In short, the ADAS works in subtle enough fashion that you want to leave it turned on rather than shut it off.
Crash-test ratings were unavailable as this review was written. Given the SUV’s near three-ton curb weight, you’ll likely need to worry only about other full-size SUVs, large pickups, and commercial trucks.
With this redesign, the 2021 GMC Yukon is more cost-effective than it used to be. That’s because it now provides significantly more passenger comfort and cargo room than the larger crossovers do. Previously, that wasn’t true.
However, towing remains the main reason to buy a GMC Yukon, or any other full-size SUV. And when it comes to towing, the new Yukon falls short in comparison to competitors.
GMC isn’t doing itself any favors by charging extra for metallic paint, adding a surcharge over the Chevy Tahoe for 22-inch wheel upgrades, and offering extremely short free trial periods to WiFi and connected services before asking its premium customers to pay up.
It sure is a good looking SUV, though. And in Denali specification, it gives Yukon buyers precisely what they’re looking for: a luxurious SUV without the luxury badge.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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