The 2021 GMC Yukon Denali Review

The king of the highway

This week I drove the 2021 GMC Yukon Denali. This is the flagship of the GMC lineup and was the first vehicle ever to wear the Denali badge — a badge that has now become a brand into itself. Many a Yukon buyer tells their friends they bought “the new Denali”, not the new GMC Yukon. That’s why the word Denali adorns the seats and the steering wheel, not the GMC logo. Denali might be the tallest mountain in North America (née Mount McKinley), but this Denali is king of the North American highway. The 2021 GMC Yukon Denali is available in dealerships now.

SAN DIEGO — A few years ago, I went to a special forces training facility in North Carolina to learn about why SpecOps folks like to use Chevy Tahoes. It summed up to: they're reliable, they're available, and they're cheap... or at least cheap compared to a giant armored Humvee or something. 

But most importantly, so said the top-secret operator boys, they blend in. In a "permissive environment" like Baghdad or Kuwait City or Washington DC, a black Chevy Tahoe is one in a thousand. Driving it means you don't stand out and call attention to yourself, except, perhaps, to signify that some important diplomat or whoever is being chauffeured somewhere and you should probably get out of the way.

This was on my mind when driving a brand new, all black 2021 GMC Yukon Denali in the far left lane of I-5 between Orange County and San Diego. The front grille of the new Yukon is an imposing mass of chrome and black metal. It brings new meaning to the phrase "full size SUV."

I don't know how tall the front grille is, but the closest I can approximate is Very Tall. The entire vehicle has grown, up 4.9 inches in wheelbase and 6.1 inches in overall length. This is particularly good news for third-row passengers because legroom back there is up an impressive 10.1 inches in the base Yukon that I tried. The Yukon XL, roughly equivalent to the larger Chevy Suburban, remains far roomier.

But as I whipped along the Southern California freeway, I noticed a funny thing: people kept moving out of my way. I wasn't being particularly aggressive at tailgating and I wasn't flashing my high beams at them — but nonetheless they generally changed lanes with a haste I wasn't used to from SoCal drivers.

Perhaps that's the biggest feature of all for the new Yukon: impressing upon other motorists the urgent need to get the hell out of the way. Indeed, a friend of mine who recently bought the new Suburban said the best part of owning a giant black government-esque SUV is that people think it must be the governor or something coming through.

This impression of importance is something GM leans hard into and exactly what they were trying to show us at the training facility. It was the company's subtle way of saying "see, the President rides around in a Suburban and you should too." It works, though.

I loved the new Yukon Denali, even with its eye-watering $83,495 price tag. It's pretty well-equipped for that sum, as one would expect. The $11,255 Denali package includes Denali badging absolutely everywhere, power-retracting side steps, an air-ride suspension, adaptive cruise, all manner of cameras and towing technology, and, for another $350, the fantastic power sliding floor console.

That console is great, and has to be seen to be really understood. Basically, the entire armrest center console slides back at the push of a button. In its place is the perfect place to put a woman's handbag (or even a small backpack, really) or, as I did on several occasions, your drive-thru order from Chick-Fil-A. As an added bonus, there's a hidden compartment at the bottom that's the perfect size for a small handgun, though GMC would never admit to it being designed for such things!

There's also the rear 12.6-inch touchscreens with matching HDMI inputs and USB-C charging ports on the back of the console. I took a Roku Stick and plugged it in to the HDMI port, then connected it to the in-car Wi-Fi network with AT&T 4G LTE connectivity, and was able to watch the NFC Championship Game from the comfort of the second-row captain's chairs. It's easy to see how this connection (which would also be good for everything from Netflix to Disney+) would be incredibly useful on a long road-trip.

Because there are two HDMI ports, both rear passengers can watch something different and parents up front don't have to listen, because there are two sets of wireless headphones included.

My main complaint here is that I wish the HDMI ports were located somewhere else. On the back of the sliding center console is an awful precarious place for those Roku Sticks to plug in, and they'll probably get kicked (or worse) by accident at some point. GMC, let us hide those things somewhere and it'll be perfection.

As is though, the new GMC Yukon Denali is a worthy successor to one of the all-time great full-size SUVs and, with that enormous chrome grille, the folks in front of you on the highway will know it too.