Denali Dilemma: Is the 2021 GMC Yukon’s Highfalutin Trim Finally Worth It?

The GMC Yukon wasn’t the only full-size GM SUV to get a redesign for the 2021 model year. Its platform siblings, the Chevrolet Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade, were also overhauled (GM’s U.S. brands are Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC.) Is the Yukon — and more specifically the Yukon Denali, which slots between the mass-market Tahoe and the luxurious Escalade — the Goldilocks of GM’s full-size SUV lineup? Does it provide a mix of utility and luxury that feels just right?

In recent weeks, I drove all three standard-length SUVs to find out.

Related: Good Golly, Denali: 5 Pros and 3 Cons for 2021 GMC Yukon

The Good

Let’s get some obvious pluses out of the way. The Yukon’s redesign allowed for the switch to an independent rear suspension from the previous solid axle, which in turn gave the SUV a ton of additional room in the third row and cargo area compared to its predecessor. That’s great, but it’s not a unique benefit, as both the Tahoe and Escalade share such spoils. The power tumble-and-fold second row and power-folding third-row seats aren’t necessarily unique to the Yukon Denali, either, but they add utility while improving third-row passenger access.

Another highlight of the Yukon Denali, however, is unique: the interior design. GMC has finally given the Denali, its luxury sub-brand, a truly different interior from non-Denali models, with a differentiated look and improved materials versus what was largely just a variation in color schemes before. The result is a premium look and feel, particularly with the large 10.2-inch touchscreen integrated into the dashboard instead of sitting on top of it tablet-style (as the screen does in other Yukon models and the Tahoe). It’s not as impressive as the Escalade’s acres of screen space, but it’s a good-looking, intuitive display.

Ride quality was also a highlight of the Yukon Denali, even with our test car’s massive 22-inch wheels that are part of the Denali Ultimate Package. With air springs and GM’s Magnetic Ride Control shocks, road imperfections are apparent but not bothersome, and the big SUV corners much flatter than something this large ought to do. That said, I still found myself preferring the ride in a 2021 Tahoe we recently had with the Z71 package, which also had an air suspension and MRC, but smaller wheels and higher-profile tires to give an even smoother ride.

The Denali’s 6.2-liter V-8 (a turbo-diesel 3.0-liter is also available) is a delight. The powerful engine, providing 420 horsepower and 460 pounds-feet of torque, is more than happy to hustle the big SUV around city streets and on long stretches of highway with a pleasant exhaust growl to go with it. That’s less of a differentiator, as higher trim levels of the Tahoe also offer the engine.

The Not-So-Good

The chief debate among our staff regarding the Yukon Denali is how much more luxurious its interior feels versus a Chevy Tahoe. Some find it a significant step above the Tahoe, while others think the Yukon Denali is hardly different — and not as plush as an $80,000-plus SUV should feel. I tend to fall into the latter camp, at least partially, though I think it feels upscale enough.

Despite the nice (and nicer) materials and unique Denali layout, I just don’t find enough differentiation between the Yukon Denali and Tahoe. I don’t mind a tablet-style touchscreen if it works well, and since the Tahoe’s example is nearly identical in size and functionality, it’s hard to lavish too much praise on GMC for simply putting the Denali’s within the dashboard.

Fuel economy is also a concern, though perhaps not front of mind for someone shopping a three-row full-size SUV. It’s still worth noting that for all of its improvements, the 2021 Yukon Denali 4WD has slightly worse EPA mileage ratings than its predecessor: 14/19/16 mpg city/highway/combined, compared to the 2020 Yukon Denali’s 14/22/17 mpg. That’s probably a fair tradeoff for most shoppers looking at all the ways the 2021 model is better, but it would be nice to avoid it in the first place.

My remaining quibbles are relatively minor. I’m not a big fan of the Yukon Denali’s push-button gear selector, which the Tahoe also has. Some of its operation feels counterintuitive, particularly when pulling to engage Drive or Reverse (“push-button” is a bit of a misnomer), and it doesn’t feel like it saves any space over the old column-mounted shift lever. The view out the rearview mirror is also much too small for an SUV this big.

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Pricing

Here’s where things get a bit wacky. The 2021 Yukon Denali is not cheap; we tested a four-wheel-drive example with a sticker price of $83,795 with destination (and that includes a $1,000 discount on the Denali Ultimate Package). Additional options and accessories or a pricier paint color could push that even higher.

But it’s possible to build a 2021 Tahoe’s top trim, the High Country, to similar or even higher heights. That matters if you perceive the Chevrolet as a less premium model, and perception may be a consideration for some shoppers. 

So, Is the Yukon Denali Worth It?

Again, it depends — but probably. I think a buyer could be happy with either a Yukon Denali or a nearly identical Chevrolet Tahoe, but anyone focused on the GMC seems unlikely to come away disappointed. The Yukon Denali may not be the most luxurious SUV on the market, or even among its own family, but it brings measures of utility and luxury that certain shoppers may find just right.

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