GMC has for years now implied that Denali trim vehicles were supposed to be something special. They started off as a top trim level, and more recently have been billed as a separate luxury brand within the GMC parent brand. But it’s been a hard sell, frankly, as most of the Denali-branded vehicles we’ve sampled haven’t ever felt like anything special. The Canyon Denali and Sierra Denali aren’t any more luxurious or higher quality than lesser trim models of those pickups, and the Yukon Denali has always had plenty of nice exterior bling, but it was always a letdown when you opened a door and sat inside.
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With the updated 2021 GMC Yukon Denali — debuting at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show — that’s no longer the case. The big SUV has been redesigned along with the Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and Cadillac Escalade for the 2021 model year, but the differences that have been baked into the Yukon — and specifically the Denali trim — are significant.
The most obvious difference is the fact that the Yukon Denali gets a unique instrument panel, quite unlike the one in lesser-trim Yukons or the similar Chevrolet models. It’s beautifully designed with more than a little bit of Land Rover style in its clean lines and integrated screens. Truth be told, even the lesser Yukon models have a dramatically better interior than the trucks they’re replacing (and far, far better than the mechanically similar Sierra pickup with which they share a platform). The Yukon AT4, the off-road model, has a leather-wrapped dash that looks dynamite despite the tablet-style display screen that’s been plopped down in the middle of it. The leather quality seems to have gotten quite the upgrade as well, with the Denali’s cross-stitched seats looking and feeling far more premium than they ever have.
Of course, all of this interior quality boost has come with the addition of some massive improvements to GM’s full-size SUV packaging. The switch to an independent rear suspension instead of a solid axle and a significant stretch to the wheelbase has created a much more comfortable SUV in any of the three rows of seats. It’s also super easy to get in and out of the third row, thanks to simple folding second-row seats that both collapse and slide with the pull of a single lever. Legroom is improved in all rows, and there no longer is a bad seat in the house.
The exterior changes for 2021 are also a nice upgrade for the Yukon. Strangely, it’s got more bling than the new 2021 Cadillac Escalade does, and frankly has an interior that easily qualifies as that of a luxury vehicle, making the bump up to the Escalade something of a tough sell. You really have to want the new Escalade’s wild digital curved OLED (organic light-emitting diode) gauge screen, 36-speaker AKG stereo and a more adventurous interior design to splurge for what will surely be much more money. But the Yukon Denali is no longer a second-rate alternative to the Escalade. It’s easily as luxurious, but in a different, almost more European-flavored way instead of the unique boldness of the Escalade’s American-styled interior.
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