2021 GMC Yukon Denali: An Escalade in Sheep’s Clothing?

The indelible presumption that “the reason people buy Cadillacs is just because of the badge” is more true now than ever before. With few central differences between a fully-loaded 2021 Yukon Denali and its Cadillac equivalent, a near $15,000 price gap exists for no apparent reason other than different interiors and a bit of Caddy-exclusive tech. That is a number that is hard to defend in today’s competition-frenzied car market. Nevertheless, before even getting behind the wheel, the all-new Denali already has a huge advantage for itself: value.

Value seems a crazy concept when talking about an SUV that, as tested, sells for more than $83,000. But GMC really didn’t slack off with their ground-up redesign of their best-selling Yukon variant. The Denali does share its powertrain with the Escalade—a mostly unchanged 6.2-liter V8 paired to a 10-speed automatic used in the previous generation of GM full-size SUVs.  Power remains the same: 420 horses and 460 lb-ft of torque. 

However for 2021, the 6.2-liter V8 is now exclusive to the Yukon Denali. So, if you want the best in-class power setup without spending Cadillac money, the Denali is the only way to go. Then again, if you’re willing to skip the Cadillac badge and trade it for value, having the most power in-class might be just as superficial. Thanks to the taller gearing of the 10-speed transmission, the beefy 6.2L is actually noticeably more sluggish than the 5.3L V8 available on lower trims at low speeds despite being more powerful and faster overall. So if you don’t intend on towing with your Denali, then you may be better off swallowing your pride and getting the smaller V8.

Besides, if you’re splurging on a Denali anyways, what you really want is the purring, high-tech Duramax 3.0L turbodiesel. Don’t want a diesel Yukon? GMC wants to change your mind. Buyers who opt for the diesel rather than the 6.2L will see a $1,500 drop in their starting price.

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We’ll continue the gas versus diesel debacle later, but for now let’s look at the goodies available in the new Yukon Denali. Optional and equipped on my tester is arguably the biggest news for 2021: GM’s new Air Ride adaptive suspension system.  Though more fancy tech from GM may be a source of eye-rolling for some thanks to GM’s track record, I think GM deserves some praise for this new system as it is rather clever.  With a combination of electromagnetic dampers and air springs, the new tech blends the ability of the system’s preexisting MagneRide dampers to ‘rapidly adapt to various road and drive conditions with the air suspension’s variable ride height and load-leveling capability’. All of this is part of a larger effort to further improve the utility of what’s already an unusually versatile SUV. 

It sounds complicated.  Frankly it is a little bit complicated.  But the results yield smiles like none other.  Daily driving the Yukon Denali is a smooth and forgiving experience at cruising speeds, and even when moseying around town you don’t feel like you’re driving a massive, honking bus all the time.  The body roll is kept in check to an unholy degree for such a historically cumbersome vehicle. Corners are friendly to the Denali at judicious speeds, but basic physics can only be kept at bay for so long. Push the Denali too hard, and it will absolutely start to seesaw. Parking is no walk in the… park… either, but the Denali’s high-resolution 360° parking camera makes navigating tight spaces easy enough.

The hydraulic steering is clearly assisted but does not feel floaty or disconnected. The brake and throttle pedals are mapped perfectly for smooth acceleration and deceleration.  On hills, the parking brake will automatically activate to deliver just enough braking pressure to keep the car still until it’s ready to move.

To the uninspired, the 2021 Denali is definitely a bit trickier to drive than the average full-size SUV, but to the enthusiast… the truck feels like a proper refinement. The Yukon Denali’s big 6.2-liter V8, which I discussed before, is no slouch but at the same time, it doesn’t feel quite as peppy as the 5.3 available on previous Yukons and on the other trims does.  I would say that some part of that has to do with the couple hundred extra pounds the Denali is carrying thanks to its beefed up powertrain.

As far as looks go, the Yukon Denali dots every “i” and crosses every “t”.  The satin silver trim and finishings are a wonderful break from the usual high gloss chrome stuff, and it really makes the Denali stand out without looking overdone.  The interior is bathed in leather with fractal stitching similar to that which you would find on a baseball glove. There’s plenty of real ashwood trim too, and it’s as nice to touch as it is to look at (no smudges thanks to its stain finish, a common motif with the Denali’s trim pieces). The 10.2-inch infotainment display is crisp, high-definition, and very responsive. 

Because the Denali makes up the bulk of Yukon sales, GMC decided to make its dash design exclusive, leaving the rest of the Yukon line to share most of its cabin with the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban lineup.  The differences are not noticeable enough to make or break a sale, but it’s a nice thought from GMC. Something else to note is that the interior button layout takes a little bit of time to get used to.

Perhaps even worse, GMC has also ditched the column shifter with the 2021 Yukon—something you either love endlessly or despise to Earth’s end. The replacement is an odd switch layout, with P-R-N-D-L mounted on the dash from top to bottom. It doesn’t take long to get used to and admittedly it saves space, but…. why? All in the name of “luxury” and “ease-of-use”, or so GMC would have you think.

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Back to the diesel versus gas argument from before: It really is really a matter of personal preference. That being said, let’s be frank…

Unless you are like this absolute madman, how often do you seriously plan on burning rubber around town with the pedal to the metal, occipital bone glued to the headrest, hands gripping the steering wheel with the force of God, and all your kid’s snacks and toys in the back pinned against the tailgate? The 2021 Yukon Denali is at its best when it is driven sensibly, and that is exactly what diesels are great at. What the 3.0L lacks in power it makes up for in comfort, and if you’re going to ball out on GM’s new air suspension in the name of said comfort, it’s not hard to deduce which powertrain may be the best option for you.

All that being said, I’d still take the 6.2L. Likely better resale value, tons of fun, and of course… 420 buff horses.

Photo © Road’s Edge Media

Historically, the Denali suffers middle-child syndrome between the Suburban and Escalade, but for 2021… it may just be catching up to the Caddy. With a price differential of nearly $40k between a fully loaded Denali and Escalade, the question that used to be “what is the Denali missing” now becomes “what does the Denali not have?”.

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