my sister-in-law, elena, has a gmc yukon. specifically, a 2016 yukon xl slt, upon which she's accrued 65,000 miles. before that, she put 130,000 miles on a 2005 suburban. over the years, she's developed a finely honed sense of what she likes about gm's big suvs (the seats in the '05) and what she doesn't (the seats in the 2016). so i decided to have her drive the new 2021 yukon denali to see how it compares to her familiar yukon. did they address her gripes, or introduce new ones?
her first observation is something i never would have noticed, because it's been a while since i drove the prior yukon. "i like the console," she declared, flipping open the center bin between the seats. "this one's wider than mine is but not as deep, which is fine. with mine, i lose stuff in there all the time." the denali's console can also slide back (it's powered), revealing a drawer at the bottom. i guess that replaces the old hidey-hole behind the dash screen in elena's car, which powers up and down.
before we get going, she gestures to the dash and says, "i like this. it seems like the dash is higher than it is in mine, but i like it."
in fact, the dash is higher, more rectilinear, in the new yukon denali (photo at left). you see why when you look at the previous design. the old column shifter was replaced by push-pull buttons for the transmission. that panel is to the right of the steering wheel, where the old layout had an hvac vent. so the vent got moved above the 10.2-inch touchscreen (which is also upsized from the old 8.0-inch screen), resulting in a taller dash. a butterfly flaps its wings in a focus group, and the next thing you know, your yukon column shifter is gone and your forward view is dominated by mount dashmore. (interestingly, a 2021 slt like elena's has a totally different, lower-profile dash, with a tablet-style screen and the hvac vents below it. the 2020 models had the same dash layout, regardless of whether they were denali'ed.)
we head off down the road, and i try to refrain from poisoning the well with any of my own observations. i consider leading the witness with a question about the ride, but within 30 seconds elena declares, "the ride is so much better." as we glide over a rippled set of stutter bumps, she says, "mine would be tossing my coffee all over the place right there." it's worth pointing out that elena is the only person i know who habitually heads out on the road with coffee in a regular mug rather than a travel mug. so ride quality is important. or should be. the denali has magnetic ride control, and this one also has the optional air suspension, so combined with the new independent rear suspension, that's a huge upgrade over a solid-rear-axle, steel-sprung yukon.
some of elena's impressions are easy to interpret. "this car feels stronger than mine," she says, and she's right—the yukon's engines carried over, but the denali has the 420-hp 6.2-liter v-8, and her xl has the 355-hp 5.3 v-8. others are more of a challenge to decipher. "the steering just feels better," she says. "i can't say exactly why. is it the steering wheel itself? it might be softer." i make a note to ask gmc if the steering wheel is softer, or something.
when we reach a parking lot, she optimistically pulls into a space marked "compact cars" and has to back up and inch over to squeeze between the lines. that move brings up the view from the forward-looking camera, showing the scene immediately ahead of the s.s. yukon's towering prow. “i love this," elena says. "especially if you ever have teenagers driving your car.” which she does. the front end of her car is covered in scrapes.
we walk around the back, raise the hatch, and i show her the third row, which is both superior from a comfort standpoint (it's no longer piled on top of a log of an axle) and for cargo when it's folded—on the xl, cargo room is up 23 percent.
"if mine weren't still pretty new, i'd definitely get this," she says. "how much is it?" i tell her that this one is $83,320. she's aghast. "i would never," she says, without even finishing the thought. but a 4wd xl slt like hers is more like $65,000. and eventually—maybe another five years and 70,000 miles from now—she'll need a new car. she did like the seats.