Mountain Wheels: GMC’s Yukon is bigger, better and even fuel efficient


The 2021 GMC Yukon Denali goes for a more vertical look, and in so doing, also gets almost a foot of extra legroom for third row passengers.
Photo from General Motors
As I sit watching it snow yet again like an Alaskan blizzard in the Front Range foothills, let me meander back into the big and rugged of automobile territory. And there is probably no clearer example of that than the entirely new 2021 GMC Yukon Denali, an oversized personality if there ever was one.

But to its credit, you can now equip the gigantic full-size SUV with a 3.0-liter Duramax diesel engine, a $1,500 upgrade that, at certain times, will get this massive beast more than 30 mpg.

Not eastbound up Vail Pass, of course. There, the low-revving 277-horsepower inline-six engine was dipping into the 12s and 13s. But on a flat, consistent drive, it was very easily able to considerably beat the 26 mpg EPA sticker rating.

And yes, that’s not quite the 420-horsepower off-the-line, FBI-car-chase performance experienced in its 6.2-liter V-8 option, but the 460 pound-feet of torque from the diesel makes it additionally suited for trailer-hauling duty, not to mention chugging uphill like a locomotive.

It also means that even the larger Yukon XL model can get 765 miles of highway range on a single tank of gas — just about the one-way distance between Breckenridge, Colorado, and Breckenridge, Texas. Now you know.

All of which helped make me feel marginally better about the stupefying hugeness of this new vehicle — the aggressive, freight-train-inspired grille and hood of which literally came up to my chin. I even felt a little more at ease about its $82,245 price, though that did include the very comprehensive and option-abundant Denali Ultimate Package.

While the previous generation of Yukon and Suburban had aged out, looking as boxy as, well, refrigerator boxes, the total overhaul here has given Yukon a more upright and even marginally rounded look. Not quite as extreme as an Infiniti QX80, but the new, more vertical appearance certainly makes it more distinctive — ultra-massive grille and 22-inch wheels notwithstanding.

If you’d spent much time with the older models, you realized that despite their mass, second- and third-row seating really didn’t deliver, and an elevated platform in the cargo area made all that outside space quite inefficient inside.

What is now a 120.9-inch-long wheelbase has resulted in more than 10 inches of additional third-row legroom plus 66% more cargo room behind that deployed third row. They’re not kidding about that; while the second-row seats flop forward and tilt for access, they spring forward in sort of an accordion-styled motion when they’re up, resulting in actual adult-sized legroom in the rear.

Overall length is now 210 inches. It’s 81 inches wide and 76.5 inches high – so tall it’s literally a challenge to wash or scrape snow from the windows. And if that height isn’t sufficient, the new four-corner, air-ride adaptive suspension can be lifted another 2 inches when you’re in low-4×4 range.

The electrically deploying running boards on mine had LED perimeter lighting that makes the vehicle look like an airport runway when you approach it at night. Even the lens boxes containing the Yukon’s ultra-bright LED headlamps look like they’re the same size as laptop screens. Nothing here is minuscule.

But it’s not unmanageable, minus your first attempts to park without mastering the nine-way video camera views or the up-front proximity rainbow warning. Yukon drives smoothly, confidently and is easy to handle, even in tight traffic or on those abysmal curves going through Idaho Springs.

And the 22s here resisted the urge to turn Interstate 70 ruts into wheel-sucking streetcar tracks. Though I did get actual air going over one of the bridge repaving zones in East Vail, the magnetic ride control for the most part otherwise levels out the mass.

Design and detail inside has certainly been vastly improved, and other than that slightly grotesque, Buick-styled shade of brown favored by GMC, the leather (or leather-look) found everywhere from the dash to the doors to the super-tall center console is all quite attractive with some woody finish to round things out.

Above the rearview mirror, you get a very, very busy bank of knobs and rocker switches controlling third-row seating, the full-cabin sunroof, the power liftgate and even power-sliding the center console back a bit to provide cup holder access in the second row.

There’s also a very large, full-color head-up display allowing you to concentrate on the road. Mine featured absolutely gigantic 12.6-inch flat-screen monitors on the back of the front-row headrests, plus wireless headphones and HDMI inputs aplenty.

Yukon gains its own version of the General Motors pull-tab gear selector system, here a somewhat oddly configured setup that requires judicious leaning-forward-and-poking to select lower gears for downhill speed control.
Andy Stonehouse

Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at
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