2021 GMC Yukon

By December 2, 2020

The GMC Yukon doesn’t need to be in Denali trimmings to convey luxury (though it certainly helps). This big bruiser of a full-size SUV has always embodied a sort of modest elegance, and more than a few buyers prefer the GMC over the related but far more ostentatious Cadillac Escalade. That should only prove to be more true than ever with the new 2021 model.

The redesigned Yukon represents the most significant redesign yet for the venerable nameplate. Among its upgrades are a new independent rear suspension, available diesel power, and a greatly improved interior.

The Denali will still be the star of the lineup, but a new off-road oriented AT4 trim joins the ranks as well. It trades off the Yukon’s traditional chrome and big wheels for black trim and all-terrain tires. Rounding out the lineup are the SLE and SLT.

As expected, the 2021 Yukon is available in two sizes. Standard-length models stretch 210 inches long and ride a 120-inch wheelbase. Long-wheelbase models, known as XLs, measure 225 inches long and employ a 134-inch wheelbase.

Most Yukons will be powered by a 5.3-liter V-8 that makes 355 horsepower. New for this year is an improved cylinder-deactivation system that can shut out numerous combinations of cylinders depending on driving conditions. If it improves fuel economy, you wouldn’t know it; the EPA rates this engine at 16 mpg city, 20 highway, and 18 combined. That’s just 1 mpg better in the city and actually 2 mpg less in the highway cycle than last year’s model.

The available 6.2-liter V-8 making 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque has also seen its EPA rating slip. Its estimated fuel economy went from last year’s 14/23/17 mpg to 15/17/20 mpg.

Why did the highway mileage drop? GM blames the increased size of the new Yukon, which is larger in every dimension than its predecessor.

The 3.0-liter inline-6 turbodiesel should bring no concerns about efficiency. It produces 277 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque, but there’s no word yet on what it can tow or what fuel economy it might return. Like both V-8s, the diesel pairs up to a 10-speed automatic transmission.

GMC equips every Yukon with active-safety features such as automatic emergency braking, automatic high beams, and rear parking sensors. Optional equipment includes adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors, a surround-view camera system, and a 15-inch color head-up display.

Neither the NHTSA nor IIHS has had a chance to crash-test a new 2021 Yukon, so safety scores remain forthcoming.

Model Lineup

All prices include any applicable destination charges. Pricing reflects standard-length Yukon models.

The base Yukon is the SLE, which starts at $51,995. Its list of standard equipment includes a 10.2-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, remote keyless entry, six-speaker audio, cloth upholstery, a 10-way power driver’s seat, and remote start.

The SLT begins at $59,095 and adds an auto-dimming rearview mirror, leather upholstery, 12-way power heated and cooled front seats, Bose 9-speaker audio, and a universal garage door opener.

At $66,095, the AT4 brings some off-road cred to the Yukon lineup. Its standard equipment includes four-wheel drive, all-terrain tires, magnetic shocks, a two-speed transfer case, skid plates, hill-descent control, and 20-inch wheels. Amenities include a heated steering wheel, heated second-row seats, a power tilt and telescope steering wheel, and a power-folding second row.

The $69,695 Denali sits atop the hierarchy. It gets the 6.2-liter V-8, a surround-view camera system, 15-inch head-up display, navigation, second-row bucket seats, and 14-speaker audio.

Exterior

The GMC Yukon is square and proud of it. Outside the wheels, hardly a curved line exists anywhere on its massive bulk. The front fascia drives this point home, with its hard-edged C-shaped headlights and a grille that’s the size and shape of North Dakota. The rear end is just as bold and angular.

The Denali remains the bling-tastic model. It gets a cheese-grater of a grille and is slathered in chrome from front to back. Oddly, it doesn’t come standard with the 22-inch wheels as we would’ve expected, but not to worry: GMC didn’t forget to put them on the option list.

The AT4 is a new offering, one that is reflective of a broader, brand-wide push intending to tap into the off-road trend showing up in vehicles ranging from Toyota RAV4s to, well, the Yukon. Besides getting some notable technical equipment, the AT4 wears trail-ready looks to go with it. Slim odds it outsells the Denali, but we imagine the stylish AT4 will win over more than a few enamored buyers.

Interior

The Yukon was always luxurious inside, but the 2021 model has ramped things up a full notch or two. Material quality is better across the board, from the SLE to the Denali, and the design is both modern and fetching. The Yukon’s shape might be familiar, but the cabin is anything but. We’re particularly smitten with the Denali and its real wood trim, buttery leather, and exclusive interior color options.

Nestled into the center stack is a rectangular 10.2-inch touchscreen running GMC’s latest infotainment software. Oriented horizontally, the screen comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. On Denali, the setup is buoyed by a massive 15-inch head-up display. It’s the largest such display on the market, period.

As for seating comfort? Few vehicles are more comfortable for long travel days. Front seats find just the right balance between firm and supple, and lateral support is excellent. Most models get 12-way power seats that are heated and cooled as well.

The back seat is no less sumptuous. Legroom is a full 42 inches, and buyers get a choice between rear captain’s chairs or a traditional bench seat. About that bench: Due to the Yukon’s prodigious dimensions, this is one of the few vehicles where sitting three abreast for long stints never becomes an issue. Still, we prefer the captain’s chairs for their individual attention to comfort.

The latest Yukon makes its biggest interior gains in the third row, where legroom is up nearly 10 inches from last year’s model; the resulting 35 inches of leg room (37 inches in XL models) is as much as can be found in the back seat of many mid-size sedans. Credit the new independent rear suspension and its superior packaging benefits for the much-improved third row.

Cargo space is unsurprisingly ginormous. Regular Yukons offer between 25 and 125 cubic feet depending on which rows are stowed; the Yukon XL ups that to between 41 and 145 cubic feet.

Driving Impressions

Don’t expect the Yukon to dance, because that’s not its forte. But this big SUV can eat up the miles on the interstate without pause. And the new independent rear suspension does wonders for the ride. GMC had taken the prior model’s old-school solid axle as far as it could go, but the adoption of this new design has finally brought things into the modern era. Buttoned-down, composed, and unflappable, the Yukon finally rides like the bona-fide luxury SUV it has always aspired to be.

We haven’t had a chance to sample the all-new turbodiesel, but the two gas powertrains are familiar faces, having powered Yukons for years. Yet despite their age we can’t help but love the 5.3-liter and 6.2-liter V-8s, both of which are refined and rich with torque. With the bigger engine, 0-60 mph happens in about 6.0 seconds; that’s about on par with the twin-turbo V-6-powered Expedition. But the big Ford lacks the Yukon’s oh-so-satisfying V-8 burble.

Towing still remains a major selling point on these SUVs, and in its strongest form the Yukon can pull up to 8,400 pounds. That falls short of the Expedition’s max rating of 9,300 pounds but outdoes the Lexus GX460 and LX570 as well as the Toyota Sequoia and Land Cruiser.

Final Word

GM knows what it does best, and that’s trucks and SUVs. The Yukon—along with its platform twins, the Chevrolet Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade—rides with aplomb, tows plenty, and makes road trips as effortless as a trip across town. Comfort, luxury, and style don’t come in much better packages than this. The rational choice would be to get the SLT, but the Denali and AT4 may prove too tempting to resist.

 

—by Anthony Sophinos, with driving impressions from The Car Connection

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