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2021 GMC Yukon Denali First Drive Review: Starting To Break Out

motor1 logo motor1 9/21/2020 Brandon Turkus

a car parked on the side of a road: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali lead © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali lead

The flagship for GMC’s wildly popular luxury line finally feels a bit different.

Badge engineering has been around for decades, and yeah, it makes sense. Why build a few vehicles when you can take one and optimize it for a number of price points? The problem comes when automakers’ more expensive cars feel like their cheaper models. That’s GMC, a brand entirely reliant on, and mostly indistinguishable from, lesser Chevrolets. Don't believe me? Search “GMC Yukon” on Wikipedia – it takes you to the page for the Chevrolet Tahoe.

The Denali line is more offensive, though, doing to GMC what GMC does to Chevy – adding a bit of tinsel, retaining 99 percent of the lesser car, and jacking up the price. The 2021 GMC Yukon Denali is (mostly) not that. It finally shakes off its chromed Chevy persona with a distinctive cabin design and a level of detailing even the Cadillac brand hasn't been able to muster with any real seriousness. And the cherry on all this? There's barely a premium for GMC's range-topping reinvention of the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban.

a car parked on the side of a road: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali head on © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali head on a car parked on the side of a road: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali rear © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali rear a car parked on the side of a road: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali profile © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali profile

Be Different

GM has slowly but surely been separating the styling of its truck-based SUVs. Twenty years ago, the only real difference between the Yukon and Tahoe were their badges. Ten years ago, the cars featured different lights, grilles, and fascias. Today, the move from identical twins to fraternal is largely complete – you can tell these two vehicles have a lot in common in profile (aside from the GMC's side grille and a strip of silver down low) but from any other angle, they're distinct.

I respect the move by the Yukon's design team to give it a more in-your-face aesthetic. The huge grille and its ram-rod straight position is one of the most imposing designs this side of GM's HD pickups. Flanked up high by headlights that subtly reinforce the lighting signature of the GMC Terrain and down low by fog lights that benefit from the same upright shape along with a subtle touch of chrome, the Yukon isn't a pretty thing, but it does make an impact. And of course, the Denali trim wears its chromed-cheese-grater schnoz with pride.

I respect the move by the Yukon's design team to give it a more in-your-face aesthetic.

In back, the Terrain-inspired look carries over with C-shaped LED signatures around the vertical taillights. Quad-tipped dual exhausts, also featured on the Tahoe/Suburban, denote the standard 6.2-liter V8. There's some rejiggering of badges here, too, with the Yukon getting a meaty chrome strip above the license plate, which is where the GMC badge lives. The “Yukon” and “Denali” monikers are lower and, in my opinion, a bit too close to the vehicle's midline. It makes the busy tailgate of this hulking SUV look narrow.

Open the door and hoist yourself into the cabin, and there's little hiding the fact that you're using the same 10.2-inch touchscreen and looking at the same gauge cluster, complete with a separate 8.0-inch display, as on the Suburban. The gear selector, a vertical bank with two pull switches and two buttons, and climate controls also come from Chevy, and as with the Tahoe, they wear the same so-so plastic finishes. But parts sharing is forgivable, especially when there are good, smart design decisions that make the Yukon Denali feel a bit more special than a similarly priced Tahoe/Suburban High Country.

a close up of a car: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali driver's dash © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali driver's dash a passenger seat of a car window: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali dash detail © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali dash detail

Parts sharing is forgivable, though, especially when there are good, smart design decisions that make the Yukon Denali feel a bit more special than a similarly priced Tahoe/Suburban High Country.

Gallery: 2021 Kia K5: First Drive (motor1)

That thick strip of wood on the passenger's side dash is real, gorgeous, and according to GMC, hand-finished. My tester's Brownstone/Jet Black color scheme is the best of the four choices, with the walnut wood strip starting out black and then becoming browner as it approaches the passenger's front door. Beyond the real wood, Denalis feature hand-sewn “fractal” stitching throughout the interior – it's far from the nicest we've seen in a car at this price point, but GMC deserves credit for doing something other than the overdone French stitch.

But the highlight is the Denali-specific dash. Not just the dash trim, or some of the controls – the entire dash design is different. This is the most unique touch on a GMC product in the brand's history and I'm here for it. It's big, layered, and kind of over-the-top, like the Yukon's face, but the shapes fit the SUV's character to a tee.

a car parked on the side of a vehicle: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali dash © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali dash a car parked on the side of a vehicle: 2021 Chevrolet Suburban dash © 2021 Chevrolet Suburban dash

The cowl over the gauge cluster and the way it extends towards the dash's middle to ensconce the 10.2-inch touchscreen is more in-your-face design, while also giving the large display a more premium look – if you've ever wondered where hate for tablet-style displays comes from, look at the above graphic of the standard Yukon's dash compared to the Denali's. 

But if the switchgear is mostly identical, why not offer the Denali dash on the entire Yukon line, so that the SLT and SLE stood out a bit more from their Chevy siblings? After all, according to GMC's marketing manager for trucks and full-size SUVs, Stu Pierce, fully half of the Yukons sold wear the Denali trim. Having two distinct dash designs for Chevy and GMC has to be better than having two distinct setups for Chevy/GMC and Denali, right? But according to Pierce, the Denali customers asked for “something more, something special and were willing to pay a bit more for it.” This feels like a missed opportunity in my mind, though.

a close up of a car: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali headlight © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali headlight a close up of a car: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali taillights © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali taillights

But Not Too Different

Unsurprisingly and understandably, the Yukon Denali's mechanicals are identical to the Tahoe and Suburban, so the way the GMC drives is no different. This is a good thing.

The range-topping trim comes standard with a 6.2-liter V8, although a 3.0-liter turbodiesel straight-six will be available in the near future. Like its Chevy counterparts, the Denali's engine packs 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission, acceleration is pleasant and effortless, with a fat, linear character that seemingly ignores the Yukon's immense size and roughly 6,000-pound weight. It sounds the business, too.

That 10-speed auto is just as competent here as it was during our first drive of the Suburban last month, snapping off quick gear changes as needed and knowing just when to drop cogs, which happens with little in the way of hunting. The gearbox and 6.2-liter V8, with its smart cylinder management system, work well together to reduce fuel consumption. That said, huge vehicles like this are still thirsty – the Yukon returns just 19 miles per gallon on the highway and 16 combined. Avoid the city, where it nets a meager 14 mpg. As expected, these figures match the Tahoe.

The Yukon also benefits from the same independent rear suspension, four-corner air suspension, and the latest magnetic dampers as standard, just like the Suburban High Country we tested. Boasting an identical calibration, the Denali is as comfortable and quiet on the highway as its bowtie cousin – no more, no less. That might irk some customers who expect a more luxurious driving experience in an ostensibly more premium product. But there's little arguing that both vehicles are substantially more composed and pleasant at highway speeds than their predecessors.

a car parked on the side of a road: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali rear quarter © 2021 GMC Yukon Denali rear quarter

And Not Too Much More

The latest top-end Yukon may drive as well as the Tahoe/Suburban, but if you're walking into the GMC showroom expecting anything less, your head isn't on straight. Instead, what you're paying for is a near-premium badge with impressive cache, a more distinctive design, and a more interesting cabin that stands above all other truck-based GM SUVs, short of the upcoming Cadillac Escalade.

A Little Less Expensive:

And the cost of that privilege is modest. Starting at $68,400 (not including a $1,295 destination charge), the Yukon Denali actually costs $1,200 less than the top-of-the-line Tahoe, the High Country. The GMC will cost more when fully optioned – my test unit featured the $11,180 Denali Ultimate package and carried an MSRP of $83,720, or about $2,900 more than a loaded-up Tahoe High Country (despite there being no apparent difference in equipment).

So yes, you will pay more for a GMC and the ultra-popular Denali trim than the comparable Chevy, which has pretty much always been the case. But that's no longer annoying. The 2021 GMC Yukon Denali feels worth the difference, even though the mechanicals, the driving experience, and the equipment are all the same. What you're getting, for the first time ever, is a vehicle that feels just a little more special, a little more unique. If you were nodding your head when you read Motor1's take on the Suburban High Country, we think you'll appreciate what the new Yukon Denali brings to the table.

2021 GMC Yukon Denali
Engine6.2-liter V8
Output420 Horsepower / 460 Pound-Feet
Transmission10-Speed Automatic
Drive TypeFour-Wheel Drive
Efficiency14 City / 19 Highway / 16 Combined
Weight6,000 Pounds (est)
Seating Capacity7
Cargo Volume25.5 / 72.6 / 122.9 Cubic Feet
Base Price$68,400
As-Tested Price$83,720

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