All-New 2021 GMC Yukon Review: Is Smoother Better For GM's Biggest SUV?
The GMC Yukon has long reigned supreme alongside its Chevrolet Tahoe sibling as one of the most popular full-size SUVs on the market. Although sales of ladder-frame haulers have fallen off in comparison to the proliferation of car-based crossovers, the Yukon's role as a do-everything ride that can tow, transport, and ferry up to eight passengers regardless of what terrain might present itself has kept it a favorite among a dedicated cadre of customers.
Still, all was not well in the land of the Yukon heading leading up to the current model year, as Ford's redesigned Expedition began to carve out a significant slice of what had once been GMC's pie. It was time for a re-think, and now it's here: the 2021 Yukon, which offers the most advanced sport-utility package in the history of the brand.
It's The Suspension, Sir
There are a number of key changes to the GMC Yukon's formula for 2021, but two stand above the rest.
The first is the decision to abandon the live-axle suspension shared with the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups (with whom the Yukon shares its platform). In its place is an all-new independent rear suspension, a move that significantly smoothes out the SUV's ride. Driven back to back with the similarly-sized Silverado, the Yukon is much more controlled over bumps and potholes, particularly if encountered mid-corner.
While the lack of bounce at the back of the GMC can in part be attributed to better weight distribution versus a pickup, a lot of the credit needs to be given to the increased control offered by the independent design. Also along for the ride is an available air suspension system (standard in the Denali model tested here), which has a measurable impact versus the Silverado's stiffer coils.
The Ford Expedition has offered an independent suspension from the very beginning, and it's unusual that it's taken General Motors so long to make the same switch. There were cost savings to be sure in sticking with Silverado components, but the previous-generation Yukon's implementation of fold-flat seats in its third row (versus the lift-outs used in older models) revealed the practical limitations of the design. Specifically, the old load floor's height was much higher than that found in the competition in order to account for the up-and-down motion of the axle and its larger differential, all while still housing the back bench when tilted forward.
For those who had been frustrated by the lift-over hassle of the 2019 Yukon's cargo area, the 2021 model will be a revelation. Not only is the floor behind the third row 5 inches lower, but GMC has also stretched the wheelbase of the standard Yukon by 4.9 inches.
This translates into a whopping 10 inches of extra leg room for those banished to the back-back, for the first time making it a livable choice on longer trips. Cargo space is up, too, with 66 percent more room with the vehicle transporting a full complement of passengers, and up to 122.9 cubic feet of total space, a number which is almost 30 cubes better than before and finally competitive with the Expedition.
That other significant change to the 2021 GMC Yukon's feature set? The availability of a 3.0L Duramax turbodiesel V6, which is rated at 277hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. It's the first time in nearly 20 years that the Yukon has been offered with diesel power, and for the hardcore towing set it will go a long way towards softening any perception that the IRS is weaker for trailering (a fact that isn't borne out by the SUV's 8,400 lbs of max towing, which is a match for last year).
Although available across most of the Yukon's trim range, our top-spec Denali tester packed a 6.2L, 420hp V8 instead of the diesel unit. Matching the turbodiesel for torque, it's largely a carry-over from the previous model and there's nothing we'd change about it, especially not its impressive ability to surge the extremely heavy Yukon forward with the pedal down. A 5.3L V8 is also offered (355hp, 383 lb-ft of torque), and a 10-speed automatic transmission is standard with every unit.
New Duds, New Boots
The GMC Yukon Denali has always rivaled its pricier Cadillac Escalade sibling in terms of interior accoutrements, and the 2021 model is no exception. A quiet cabin impresses, and materials feel a notch above where they were in the older model. GMC offers an integrated, and larger touchscreen infotainment system in the Denali that looks and feels better than the stuck-on style in other Yukon models, and the truck also comes with an enormous heads-up display that projects a wide range of information, including the SUV's orientation from the horizontal and vertical planes which is useful when heading off-road.
To further reinforce the Yukon's all-terrain cred, GMC is for the first time delivering it in AT4 trim for those who choose to punish the trail into submission.
Available with the same mix of adjustable ride height air suspension and magnetic ride control shocks as the Denali (with steel coil springs also an option), the AT4 can add 2 inches of clearance over standard when four-wheel drive is set to its lowest gear range. An electronic limited-slip differential, tow hooks, hill descent control, and a skid plate are also part of the AT4 package.
Best Foot Forward For GMC
The 2021 GMC Yukon occupies an interesting middle-ground when it comes to plus-size SUVs. Although costs have climbed steadily upward over the past 10 years (the base Yukon starts at $50,000, the AT4 is $66,000, and the Denali costs $69,695), the Yukon is still situated just below the traditional luxury segment while delivering a healthy dose of comfort gear and safety features.
The vehicle's enormous size automatically rules out a chunk of the buying public who either don't have the garage space to house a monster like this, or who aren't interested in navigating an urban environment in what is an admittedly bulky choice for a daily driver. The mass becomes an asset for everyone else, however, who needs a commanding tow rig that can swallow the entire family—and all their junk—for weekend excursions. Full-size, truck-based SUVs might have become increasingly niche in terms of their customers, but at the same their sheer versatility continues to expand at an equally rapid pace.
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