2021 GMC Yukon Denali Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Sep 21, 2020

Introduction - Find the best GMC deals!

GMC has no trouble selling Yukon Denalis. According to the company, they comprise 56% of all Yukon sales, appealing to people who want a luxury SUV but don’t want a luxury badge or a luxury price tag. Based on J.D. Power data, Yukon owners also want a more passenger- and cargo-friendly interior. With the redesigned 2021 GMC Yukon, they’re getting exactly that.

Thanks to a new independent rear suspension design and three additional inches of wheelbase, GMC lowers and lengthens the Yukon’s interior floor, adding desperately needed room for second- and third-row passengers. Plus, the changes dramatically grow cargo capacity. The result is a more appealing GMC Yukon – and it already impressed its owners in that department.

In addition to the familiar SLE, SLT, and Denali trim levels, the 2021 GMC Yukon lineup adds a new AT4 trim level. It’s the equivalent of a Chevrolet Tahoe Z71, but GMC-style. That means it is made for off-roading, with a revised front end that provides a more generous approach angle, all-terrain tires, purposeful red tow hooks, and skid plates.

2021 GMC Yukon Denali Midnight Blue Front View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Yukon Denali equipped with metallic paint, a power sliding center console, and the Ultimate Package. The price came to $83,720, including the $1,295 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best GMC deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2021 Yukon, it is helpful to understand who buys this large SUV, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 61% of GMC Yukon owners are male (vs. 59% for the segment), and the median age of a Yukon owner is 56 years (vs. 55).

Owners say their favorite things about the previous-generation Yukon were (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving feel, powertrain, feeling of safety, and interior design. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank highest in comparison to the large SUV segment:

  • Fuel economy/driving range
  • Smoothness of engine/motor
  • Power of engine/motor
  • Exterior styling
  • Audio system sound quality

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the outgoing Yukon were (in descending order) the driving comfort, setting up and starting, infotainment, getting in and out, and fuel economy. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank lowest in comparison to the large SUV segment:

  • Getting in and out of the third row
  • Ability to hold personal items
  • Ability to carry everything
  • Rear seat comfort
  • Getting in and out of the second row

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Yukon ranked 2nd out of six large SUVs.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best GMC deals!

In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides his perceptions about how the 2021 GMC Yukon measures up in each of the ten categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

Led by its bold, detailed, and shiny grille, the new 2021 GMC Yukon adopts a more chiseled appearance that suits it well. A set of 22-inch aluminum wheels comes with the Denali’s Ultimate Package, and they add significant presence to a design that already commands your attention. They also make the Denali look smaller, taller, and narrower than it is, a visual trick aided by inset “Yukon” and “Denali” badges on the tailgate, quad exhaust outlets, and a thick trim plinth above the license plate.

2021 GMC Yukon Denali Midnight Blue Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Interior

GMC gives the Yukon Denali an exclusive dashboard design that you won’t find in other versions of the SUV. Appropriately, it looks more upscale and sophisticated, and features a two-tone color treatment trimmed and accented with real wood and genuine aluminum. Perforated leather with unique stitching completes the luxurious appearance.

2021 GMC Yukon Denali Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Analog gauges are a little surprising, but a digital driver information center separates them. A 10.2-inch infotainment display is set neatly into the dashboard, with unusual electronic transmission controls to its left. Traditional knobs and buttons control the primary stereo, infotainment shortcut, and climate system functions. Ambient lighting is conspicuous by its absence. 

An optional upgrade, GMC’s new power sliding console expands the Yukon’s already generous storage to reveal a center tray and a locking storage area. GMC offers plenty of places for your things, including bins and shelves carved into the front and rear door panels.

Getting In and Out

Despite its power deploying and illuminated running boards, you still stair-step up into and down out of this vehicle. But that’s just part of the full-size SUV ownership experience. If you’re not interested in doing so, shop elsewhere.

Loading and unloading people is easier than before. The Yukon’s stretched wheelbase and lower cabin floor, coupled with wider rear doors, sliding second-row seats, optional power fold-and-tumble second-row seats, and a roomy third-row seat resolve primary complaints among Yukon owners.

The new Yukon also offers more cargo space than it did previously. Cargo volume measurements are 25.5 cubic feet behind the third-row seat, 72.6 cubic feet behind the second-row seats, and 122.9 cubic feet with both rear rows folded down. Naturally, the longer and larger Yukon XL offers even more room inside, its cubic-foot cargo measurements amounting to 41.5, 93.8, and 144.7, respectively. 

Setting Up and Starting

You’ll spend a good 15 minutes, if not longer, setting up personal preferences using the Yukon’s driver information center and infotainment system. The optional head-up display is also programmable, and you’ll want to review all of the buttons on the roof console and to the left side of the steering wheel.

With that said, the user interface is intuitive and straightforward, and you won’t need to crack open the owner’s manual to figure out what you’re doing.

Start the Yukon up, and the engine fires with a subtle roar that dials down to that V-8 burble people adore. Sitting up high and viewing the squared-off hood through the windshield, the Yukon makes you feel like you can go anywhere and tackle anything.

Infotainment System

GMC installs a comprehensive infotainment system in the new Yukon Denali. In addition to using over-the-air software updates to keep it fresh over time, the system uses a 10.2-inch touchscreen display with high-resolution graphics and reasonably quick response to inputs.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone projection, Amazon Alexa integration, and satellite radio are standard equipment. The system is ready for Wi-Fi and other connected services as long as you pay a subscription. It is easy to pair a phone to the Bluetooth, and the SUV includes up to eight USB ports. The voice recognition system works well, accurately and quickly responding to all prompts except a request to change the cabin temperature.

Denali trim also includes a navigation system, a full-color 15-inch head-up display showing a wealth of information, and a 14-speaker Bose Performance Series premium sound system, which sounds weak, flat, and unimpressive. At this price point, the audio components need to be better.

As part of the Ultimate Package, the test vehicle included GMC’s new Rear Seat Media system. It installs dual 10.6-inch touchscreen displays, and it does not play DVDs. Instead, you connect a gaming system, computer, tablet, or smartphone via HDMI and USB inputs. Using your data plan or the Yukon’s Wi-Fi, you stream various content and listen using the wireless headphones. Rear seat occupants can share information between screens, view individual programming of their choice, and even send destination suggestions to the navigation system.

It took a little while, but ultimately my 12-year-old figured everything out. During an impromptu afternoon road trip, she and her sister had a lovely time watching “Hamilton,” listening to music, and laughing their heads off at YouTube Kids videos. However, we rejected their request for a stop at a favorite ice cream shop of ours.

Keeping You Safe

All 2021 Yukon Denalis have a package of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) called GMC Pro Safety Plus. This collection of technologies includes forward collision warning, front pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking at lower speeds, automatic high-beam headlights, and a vibrating Safety Alert Seat that lets you know it’s time to pay closer attention. Lane departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, blind-spot warning, and rear cross-traffic warning are also a part of GMC Pro Safety Plus.

As an upgrade, you can option the Yukon Denali with adaptive cruise control and a more sophisticated automatic emergency braking system that works at higher speeds. The test vehicle had these, helping me decide that GMC has done an excellent job with the Yukon’s ADAS. From the subtleness of the Safety Alert Seat to the smoothness of the adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance, nothing about the safety tech’s behavior encouraged me to shut any of it off.

Additionally, GMC includes a rear-seat reminder system and Teen Driver monitoring technology that produces a report card showing how a young driver used the vehicle while it was in their possession. Automatic collision notification and emergency calling are also standard, part of an OnStar connected services plan that requires a paid subscription.

Because the Yukon is a redesign that just went on sale as this review was published, it had not been crash-tested. Given its size, though, it will likely fare well in collisions with smaller and lighter vehicles.

Powertrain

A 6.2-liter V-8 engine is standard in the Yukon Denali, making 420 horsepower and 460 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s exclusive to this version of the SUV, replacing the 355-horsepower 5.3-liter V-8 engine that’s standard in other Yukons. Soon, GMC will offer a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel inline 6-cylinder for most versions of this SUV, and it cranks out 277 horsepower and 460 lb.-ft. of torque.

A 10-speed automatic transmission delivers the 6.2-liter V-8’s power to the rear wheels unless you order the new Active Response four-wheel-drive system. It pairs a 2-speed Autotrac transfer case with Traction Select driving modes and a new electronic limited-slip differential to improve overall traction and handling regardless of road surface conditions.

Power is not a problem. The Yukon Denali sounds great when started, when idling, and when accelerating. You can quickly get up to speed to merge with fast-flowing traffic, and gutsy response down low means you can exit your subdivision and onto a busy boulevard without trouble. 

If you’re planning to tow with a Yukon, the maximum rating is 8,400 pounds, depending on trim level, engine, and equipment. This amount is slightly less than last year’s Yukon, and it is significantly less than some competitors. However, GMC hasn’t said what the Duramax diesel is going to do on this front. The maximum payload measures 1,792 pounds, an improvement over the previous Yukon.

Fuel Economy

During testing, I kept the Yukon Denali’s Autotrac 4WD system in the Auto mode most of the time, meaning it would automatically send power to the front wheels as necessary depending on traction levels. The resulting fuel economy number was 15.3 mpg in combined driving, coming in a little under the official EPA rating of 16 mpg.

Based on the 24-gallon fuel tank and my test result, this translates into a driving range of about 365 miles. Since you’ll want to leave yourself a little wiggle room, plan to stop at the gas station every 325 miles.

Driving Comfort

GMC equips the Yukon Denali with heated and ventilated front seats, heated second-row seats, and a heated steering wheel. The leather upholstery is perforated and features contrast stitching, but it is not a premium grade of hide. 

Despite the level of plush, after a couple of hours of driving, the seats felt hard rather than supportive, and I found myself wishing for a massage feature that doesn’t exist. Also, the shape and detailing of the upper door panel trim hurt my elbow after a while. And while GMC pads the sides of the center console, the shape of this panel irritated my right leg.

One of the most significant advancements with the redesigned 2021 Yukon is the improved second- and third-row seat comfort. The second-row seats slide forward and back, and the third-row seat supplies comparatively generous legroom and a seat cushion with genuine thigh support. However, if you’re looking for second-row or third-row sunshades, you are out of luck.

Late summer heat forced the Yukon’s climate control system to work overtime, and the airflow seems a little loud for a luxury SUV. Despite its 22-inch wheels and tires, the Denali was reasonably quiet on the road, and I didn’t note excessive wind noise. However, I did have my family with me, so moments of silence were few and far between.

Driving Feel

GMC’s switch to a new independent rear suspension does more than just increase the Yukon’s passenger and cargo room. It improves the SUV’s ride and handling, too, helped along by the Denali’s standard next-generation Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) adaptive dampers. A new 4-Corner Air Ride suspension is available, and the test vehicle had it.

Given this hardware, you’d think the Yukon Denali would supply a magic carpet ride quality. The Denali’s available 22-inch wheels have other ideas, ensuring that you’ll always know what’s happening at the road surface. Wrapped in 275/50R22 tires, they broadcast sharply enough to get past the MRC and air suspension, negatively impacting ride comfort and smoothness.

Nevertheless, the improvement over the previous Yukon is noticeable. Body motions are largely controlled, eliminating most of the SUV’s roll, squat, and dive. In turn, occupants suffer less head toss, and that’s nothing but a good thing. The fancy underpinnings also nearly erased the effect of speed humps on the ride. 

Steering effort levels are a little light, and the brakes are a bit firm, but overall this SUV is mighty pleasing to pilot. And since you won’t require the level of grip supplied by the 22-inch tires, it likely rides better on the Denali’s standard 20s.

Final Impressions - Find the best GMC deals!

GMC has improved the 2021 Yukon in most of the ways that count. Maximum towing capacity isn’t competitive, but a new 3.0-liter turbo-diesel 6-cylinder engine is coming that could rectify both that issue and the V-8 engine’s thirst for gas. Otherwise, the new Yukon should continue to impress its owners in terms of overall appeal.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience in test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2020 J.D. Power

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