Expert Reviews

2021 GMC Yukon and Yukon XL First Drive Review

VAIL, Colorado – Following in the footsteps of the recently redone GMC Sierra pickup, the 2021 GMC Yukon full-size SUV is largely all-new from stem to stern. Notably, this is the first time in the perennial pachyderm’s time on earth (28 years) that it sports an independent rear suspension – all part of the fresh platform that, with a 4.9-inch wheelbase stretch for the Yukon and 4.1-inches for the Yukon XL, makes second- and especially third-row accommodation that much more palatable.

Not only does the rear independent suspension pay dividends when it comes to ride and handling, it also occupies less space than the antediluvian live-axle/leaf-spring setup, translating to a lower load floor and thirty percent more total cargo space. Perhaps more importantly, there is 66 percent more load space behind the second row.

New off-road-focussed Yukon AT4

The faithful can take heart – these full-sizers are still body-on-frame and will tow whatever you got. When it arrives this spring, the 2021 Yukon will come in four flavours – regular wheelbase Yukon, Yukon XL, the ritzy Denali, and new-for-2021 AT4, the latter a new GMC sub-brand that stresses off-road capability and rugged looks.

The Denali now gets its own interior with unique instrument panel, seats, and four available colour themes bragging hand-stitched leather and real wood trim. The AT4 ups the off-road theme with a two-speed transfer case, 20-inch Goodyear all-terrain tires, Traction Select with off road mode, hill-descent control, skid plates, unique front fascia, and red tow hooks.

Active Response 4WD

All 2021 GMC Yukons run with all-wheel drive that now features a standard mechanical limited-slip rear differential replacing the old-tech fully locking unit. The Denali gets standard magnetic dampers and an electronic limited-slip rear differential that can apportion torque side-to-side as conditions dictate. Also available on Denali and AT4 trims is Four-Corner Air Suspension that allows for ride-height adjustments up to 100 mm, self-levelling, and the ability to raise the truck by 2 inches (50 mm) for addition off-road ground clearance. When cruising the brute drops ¾ inch for better aerodynamics and fuel economy.

Denali available with 3.0L inline-six turbo diesel

The Yukon’s 5.3L V8 carries forward making 355 hp and 383 lb-ft, as does the 6.2L V8 that makes 420 hp and 460 lb-ft, although the latter, which was formerly reserved only for the Denali, is now available with Yukon and Yukon XL. The AT4 only gets the 5.3L. GMC says both engines are heavily revised with new cylinder heads and a cylinder management system that has them running on two to eight cylinders, depending on demand. Auto-stop/start is also part of the package. Optional for Denali will be a 3.0L inline-six turbo diesel churning out 277 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque. All engines are paired with a ten-speed auto that replaces the outgoing eight-speed unit.

We got to drive the 2021 Yukon, sort of, at this reveal event in Colorado. Against a backdrop of spectacular snowy peaks, GMC had a few camouflaged and fully loaded Denalis available for the herd of assembled journalist to sample over a short, closed low-speed course designed to showcase its traction on mixed surfaces and the behemoth’s ability to attack steep grades. I have no idea how the new Denali feels on the road, but it’s safe to assume that with rear multi-link independent suspension and a structure that is a claimed 15–30 percent stiffer, depending on the parameter, refinement should be kicked up a few notches.

Shift buttons replace traditional stalk

The interiors were also masked, preventing any of us pesky journos from spilling the beans before the truck was officially unveiled at 5 pm later that day. I did get to check out the 15-inch full colour head-up display and the multitude of views afforded by the class-leading nine cameras. A row of vertical dash-mounted buttons/toggles for shift selection (some push, some pull) replace the traditional column-mounted shift lever. Not nearly as user friendly, but engineers cite less mechanical weight and complication, plus improved NVH as the upticks. Tell that to the guy wearing big work gloves.

Segment-first power sliding centre console

At the reveal we got to clamour over a Denali, Denali XL, and AT4. No regular Yukons were there, so I can’t comment on their cabins, but the Denali certainly benefits from its new higher-class digs, especially in the lighter hues. Fit and finish are pretty good, but no one at Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz will be losing any sleep. The segment-first power sliding console is pretty slick, able to slide back 10 inches (254 mm) offering an expanse between the front seats for extra storage. There’s also a secret sliding drawer for valuables that is inaccessible when the console is slid forward. Very 007.

Having spent 2.5 hours crammed in the third row of a 2020 Yukon on a drive from Denver airport to Vail, I can fully attest that the 41 percent additional third-row legroom in the 2021 will be greatly appreciated. Additionally for 2021, the second-row seat can slide 140 mm (5.5 inches), a first for Yukon passengers.

The Yukon’s new body shell retains the handsome, squared-off look of its predecessor, but sports fresh details like new headlights, taillights and a bolder grille. In the case of the Denali, its blingly maw brags 10,000 reflection points, whatever that means.

The fact that there were no regular Yukons at this grand launch event is somewhat telling. In Canada, as in the US, the high-zoot Denali accounts for 60 percent of Yukon sales, and GMC predicts the new rugged AT4 will gobble up another 20 percent of the pie. Look for pricing of the 2021 Yukon closer to its launch date this spring.