Unique interior lifts GMC’s flagship into luxury territory.

Detroit Free Press

The new Cadillac Escalade better be good. That was my first thought after a day driving the 2021 GMC Yukon Denali large SUV, which takes GMC’s premium sub-brand to new levels of luxury. The ’21 Escalade, GM’s ultimate luxury flagship, will have to improve its interior design and materials significantly to top Yukon Denali.

General Motors executives hate it when auto writers think like that. They remind us Cadillac and GMC brands have very different images and customers. The brands rarely compete for the same buyer.

Well, I hate it that GM still makes blind spot alert an extra cost option on most of its vehicles. We all learn to live with our disappointments.

We’ll dissect the new Escalade when it’s available later this year. It better be mostly prime cuts, because the Yukon Denali’s interior design, materials and comfort are outstanding — and competitively priced.

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Don’t buy a three-row luxury SUV without sitting in one.

The Yukon Denali competes with three-row SUVs like the Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator, Infiniti QX80 and Lexus LX 570.

This column refers to the 2021 Yukon Denali, not the larger Yukon Denali XL, which also gets a new model for 2021.

Safety and driver assist features

  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Front pedestrian braking
  • Following distance indicator
  • Front collision alert
  • Front and rear parking assist
  • High-def surround vision
  • High-def rear vision camera
  • Automatic high beams
  • Lane change alert with blind spot alert
  • Rear cross traffic alert
  • Lane keeping warning and assist
  • Safety alert driver’s seat
  • Adaptive cruise control

Driving impressions

The entirely new 2021 model is the first time the Denali’s interior is markedly different from lower Yukon trim levels. The instrument panel is unique, with a 10.2-inch touch screen that’s set flush in the center stack, hand-finished exposed-grain wood, “fractal” pattern stitching and Bose 14-speaker Performance Audio sound system.

The Denali gets distinctive lights and a unique grille to visually distinguish it on the road.

The interior is spacious, more than 6 feet nose-to-nose for passengers in the front and third-row seats.

The interior of my test truck was wrapped in soft black aniline leather. The hand-stained wood trim in the doors and dashboard shaded from rich brown at the rear or outboard ends to nearly black.

The second-row captain’s chairs slide fore and aft for legroom and tip for third-row access. The power folding rear seats make it easy to expand cargo space.

The “fractal” accent stitching on the seats — black leather seats with gray diamond-pattern stitches in my car — is more attractive and distinctive than it sounds.

The controls continue GM’s industry-leading track record with a combination of buttons, voice recognition and the large, easy to reach, touch screen. The content of a 15-inch color heads-up display can be tailored to suit the driver’s taste.

Bigger inside and out

The Yukon grew 6.1 inches longer for the 2021 model year, thanks to a new platform that greatly increased the room and comfort of what was already one of the industry’s leading large SUVs.

The new platform also adopted an independent rear suspension, or IRS, a layout that allows for a lower rear floor, creating more room for comfortable seating for third-row passengers and more room for cargo behind them.

The IRS also delivers a smooth, comfortable ride with responsive handling and steering that makes the big SUV feel adept in traffic and manageable in parking lots.

My test vehicle had a 6.2L V8 that produces 420 hp and 460 pound-feet of torque, four-wheel drive and a 10-speed automatic transmission. It had plenty of power to maneuver in traffic, pass and cruise on the highway. Towing capacity was 8,200 pounds.

The EPA rates the 2021 6.2L 4WD Yukon at 14 mpg in the city, 19 on the highway and 16 in combined driving, using premium gasoline. That trails the 2020 Ford Expedition, which uses a turbocharged 3.5L V6 engine, but beats the smaller Infiniti QX80 and Lexus LX 570.

The 2021 Yukon’s fuel economy is down slightly from a 6.2L 4WD 2020 Yukon, but remember the new SUV is considerably bigger — but impressively, mine was only about 84 pounds heavier — than the truck it replaces.

How much?

Prices for the 2020 Yukon start at $50,700 for a base model with rear-wheel drive and a 355-hp 5.3L V8. Yukon Denali prices start at $68,400 with the same engine and RWD. GMC is one of GM’s great success stories, a brand with such a strong image that customers happily paid more for its vehicles even when they were little more than gussied up Chevrolets. For years, GM’s been upping GMC’s game to justify that premium. The 2021 Yukon Denali interior is the peak: the best materials teamed with most creative and user-friendly design.

GMC execs say a quarter of all GMCs sold are Denalis, a figure that rises to 56% for Yukons sold to retail customers. That’s serious money, y’all.

I tested a top-of-the-line 4WD Yukon with the optional 6.2L V8. It stickered at $83,425.

That bought just about every option in GMC’s order book:

  • Adaptive air suspension
  • 22-inch bright aluminum machined wheels
  • Dual 12.6-inch rear seat video monitors
  • Power running boards
  • Panoramic sunroof
  • Electronic limited slip differential
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Rear camera mirror
  • Power sliding center console
  • Smokey Quartz metallic paint

It’s a hefty price, but the Yukon Denali’s room, luxury and capability warrant it. Despite introducing an entirely new, considerably bigger, more accommodating and better equipped model for 2021, Yukon prices increased modestly across the line. The base price is up just $100 vs. 2020. Yukon Denali prices start only $700 above last year’s model.

The Yukon Denali is also loaded with standard equipment:

  • Magnetic ride control
  • Hill descent control
  • Two-speed transfer case
  • 14-speaker Bose Performance Audio
  • Multicolor 15-inch head up display
  • 10.2-inch touch screen
  • Bluetooth compatible
  • Wireless Apple CarPlay
  • Wireless Android Auto
  • Wireless charging
  • Three-zone automatic climate control
  • Heated and ventilated front seats
  • Memory for driver’s settings
  • Second row heated bucket seats
  • Heated steering wheel
  • LED Headlights, taillights and running lights
  • LED front fog lights
  • Hands-free power tailgate

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