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2021 GMC Yukon and Yukon XL First Look: Breaking Away from Chevy?

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 1/15/2020 Motor Trend Staff

Chevrolet is happy to collect 80 grand or more from fiercely brand-loyal buyers looking for a top-shelf Tahoe or Suburban, but fancy folks looking to spend that kind of money are usually snobbier about their brands. They're the folks who will end up at the GMC store, where range-topping Denali-spec products account for 30 percent of overall retail sales and a staggering 60 percent of Yukon SUV sales. So GMC understandably is emphasizing the differences between the all-new 2021 Yukon and Yukon XL and their equally new Chevy Tahoe and Suburban siblings in order to justify the extra dough it charges for them.

Research the GMC Yukon on MSN Autos | Find a GMC Yukon near you

GMC has its work cut out. The Yukons share their architectural upgrades with their recently introduced Chevy twins, the most important of which include a switch (at long last) to an independent rear suspension, the delayed availability of a 3.0-liter inline-six turbodiesel engine (some months after launch), and a top-shelf suspension option featuring air springs and magnetic-ride shocks. The Yukon's standard 5.3-liter V-8 is similarly shared with the Chevy's, as is its optional 420-hp 6.2-liter V-8 and the aforementioned diesel. A 10-speed automatic transmission is standard across the line.

Dimensional increases are also mostly shared, meaning the shorter Yukon gains 4.9 inches in wheelbase, 6.1 inches in length, 10.1 inches in third-row legroom, and huge gains in cargo space (up 67 percent behind the third row and 30 percent overall). The even bigger Yukon XL gains 4.1 inches in the wheelbase but only 0.9 inch in overall length, plus more modest boosts in its already vanlike cargo ratings.

a car parked in front of a mountain: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali 010 © Motor Trend Staff 2021 GMC Yukon Denali 010

It would seem as if General Motors' designers have calmed down their pens somewhat since turning out the latest Chevy Silverado, the first of the spate of new-generation trucks that includes the new Tahoe, Suburban, and these GMCs. The Yukon's face is relatively simple and clean compared to the more contrived Tahoeburban's mug and lightyears better-looking than the somewhat Transformers-like Silverado's. The Yukon's styling alone, then, might be worth whatever premium GMC charges over an equivalent Chevy.

Research the GMC Yukon XL on MSN Autos | Find a GMC Yukon XL near you

The new-for-this-year, off-road-focused AT4 trim drives another wedge between the Yukon and the Tahoe and Suburban. It splits somewhat with its Chevrolet Z71-package equivalent, blending the same 4x4 capability and rugged appearance upgrades with much of the tech and some of the luxury of the high-zoot Yukon Denali. GMC even carves up the AT4's unique front fascia so that when the truck is equipped with the air suspension and raised to its off-road height (2 inches up from nominal), there is clearance for nearly 32 degrees of approach angle. (This bumper design is not compatible with the diesel engine, however, so the Yukon AT4 is gas-only.) Another key GMC-only feature? The electronic limited-slip rear differential, which collaborates with the GMC's Active Response 4WD system to better apportion torque side to side as well as front-to-rear and benefits from GMC-specific electronic integration of these systems with the vehicle drive modes.

a car covered in snow © Motor Trend Staff

With or without the air suspension, the AT4 comes standard with the fancy Magnetic Ride Control electronically adaptive dampers, as well as AT4-exclusive leather-appointed seats and stitching with a unique Jet Black interior color and Brandy accents; and a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, and heated second-row outboard seats. Less distinguished (at least compared to the Tahoe Z71) AT4 equipment includes a two-speed transfer case, 20-inch Goodyear all-terrain tires, Traction Select System with off-road mode, hill descent control, and skidplates.

Perhaps the biggest Yukon-versus-Tahoeburban differentiator is the Denali interior, which includes a meaningfully different dashboard architecture with a unique center screen location not shared with any other GMC trim variants. (Nor does it have an equal in the Chevrolets' High Country dashboards, which architecturally are shared with lesser Tahoe and Suburban trims). The designers were going for a classy mid-century modern motif with the Denali's innards, which are also offered in four color schemes (Jet Black, Jet Black and Brownstone, Very Dark Ash Gray and Walnut, Light Shale and Teak) and trimmed with genuine wood.

a car parked on the side of a snow covered road © Motor Trend Staff

The Denali interior also gets a 15-inch color head-up display and a power-sliding front center console that can motor rearward into the space where the middle second-row passenger's legs are supposed to go, bringing its rear cupholders closer to the captain's chair passengers. (It's not offered on models with a middle bench seat.) This opens up space for front-seat occupants to store a purse or parcel. Powering that console back also permits access to a drawer in the bottom of the center console (making that something of a secret safe space, at least when closed). Chevrolet will eventually get this feature, too, but GMC is announcing it because more GMC Yukons will be equipped with it, given the whole Denalis-are-popular thing.

GMC dresses up the Denali's exterior with a "Galvano Chrome" grille, now allegedly configured to include "over 10,000 individual reflective surfaces." (We didn't count them, but, uh, the effect is gem-like.) Other Denali standard equipment includes High Definition Surround Vision camera, rear pedestrian alert, and GM's fourth-generation Magnetic Ride Control electronic dampers. Premium-ier Denali options include 22-inch wheels, a panoramic sunroof, an Air Ride adaptive air-spring suspension, and a full-time Active Response 4WD system that retains a two-speed transfer case.

Final judgment on what GMC hath wrought with its newest full-size SUVs will have to wait until we get behind their wheels and stuff their three rows of seats with people and stuff when they go on sale this summer. We expect pricing to more or less preserve the Chevy/GMC differential, with base trucks starting at about $1,600 more and top Denalis demanding $2,000 to $3,000 more than their High Country counterparts. Based on our first glimpse of the trucks, however, we can say General Motors is trying harder than ever before to differentiate similar products from its GMC and Chevrolet brands, and that's a good thing.

Research the GMC Yukon on MSN Autos | Research the GMC Yukon XL on MSN Autos

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