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2021 GMC Yukon First Drive: Anachronism on Wheels

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The 2020s will go down as the decade of electrification in the automotive industry, but driving the new 2021 GMC Yukon feels like you’re living in an alternate universe. The Yukon doesn’t even shy away from presenting itself as a rolling anachronism. It’s big, it’s heavy and it’s thirsty for gas. Yet the truth is that it still has a place in the market.

We recently had occasion to drive this blast from the past (totally redesigned for the new year, mind) for an honest-to-goodness in-the-flesh road test.

A modernized approach
While the truck structure traditionally found in the full-size SUVs of the General Motors (GM) family remains, it must be said the latter has been greatly modernized with this new generation. The big change is the introduction of an independent rear suspension. This change has two main effects: it softens the vehicle's handling and frees up interior space, specifically for cargo space.

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2021 GMC Yukon, front
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 GMC Yukon, front

And GM didn't stop there. For the first time, it offers optional four-wheel air suspension. The latter offers up to 100 mm of height adjustment for driving, as well as an automatic levelling function. Behind the steering wheel, when the off-road mode is activated, the body can be raised by up to 50 mm to increase ground clearance. In short, bring on the obstacles!

Add in the adaptive shock absorbers of the Magnetic Ride suspension and you have a vehicle delivering a truly smooth ride. The increased wheelbase (4.9 inches with the regular version, 4.1 inches with the XL variant) also contributes to this.

All in all, compared to what the outgoing model did to your insides, the improvement is striking.

2020 GMC Yukon, profile
Photo: D.Rufiange
2020 GMC Yukon, profile

A bus
Due to the pandemic, we didn't have to go far out of our way to test drive Chevrolet's and GMC’s full-size SUVs, they came to us, and we were offered a 24-hour session at the wheel of a version that in our case was a Denali XL variant. A bus, it is; there's no other word for it.

But whether you're in sitting in the front row of the small (!) Yukon or the extended version makes no difference: either way, space dominates. In the former, 3,480 litres of volume is available when you put the seats in rows two and three down. In the second, 4097 litres. If this vehicle doesn't meet your needs for moving stuff, you need a cube truck or to hire a mover.

And with the extended wheelbase, available across the range, there's more room than ever for your guests assigned to the third row. It's no exaggeration to say that the seats back there are the friendliest in the industry. In the second row, it’s even more regal as comfort is king with captain-style buckets and plenty of room to spare. A total of eight people can climb (and I do mean climb) aboard the Yukon.

2021 GMC Yukon 2021, nameplate
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 GMC Yukon 2021, nameplate

A wide range of products
The Denali version we drove sits at the top of the range, as it does case in every GMC product range. It also accounts for two-thirds of the model's sales, which is quite extraordinary considering that it’s by far the most expensive. It's all the more surprising considering that to date, this level of finish has been more a source of disappointment than satisfaction.

In other words, a Denali version wasn't worth the pound of flesh being demanded for it. On-board quality has always left something to be desired.

For this new generation, GMC has finally made corrections by adding what was missing on board. We're talking about the materials used, of course, but also the level of equipment and presentation. WhaT’S more, that of the Denali version is different from the other variants. So the buyer finally gets the feeling that he's getting value for money, at least compared to the other versions.

2021 GMC Yukon , Denali badging
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 GMC Yukon , Denali badging

This matters because, as I’ve mentioned, the Yukon is not cheap. The offer starts at $57,998 for the two-wheel-drive model, a product that doesn't even represent 2 percent of sales. In fact, between the basic SLE and SLT offerings and high-end AT4 and Denali, the latter two account for 85 percent of sales.

As for the split between regular and extended models, the proportion is two-thirds/one-third in favor of the former.

Three engines
The 2021 Yukon can accommodate three separate mechanical configurations. With the first three versions, a 5.3L V8 comes standard under the hood; its good for 355 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque, and it’s also the most fuel-efficient large V8 in this segment. Standard on the Denali version is the GM Group’s 6.2L V8. With 420 hp and 460 lb-ft-feet of torque, it’s a chest-beating gorilla. And you get a taste for it, because the sound it makes is music to the ears.

There’s one downside, however. Two, in fact. That V8 is thirsty and it’s picky about what it drinks, meaning you have to feed it often and feed it Super gasoline.

This may not bother the buyer ready to fork over the large sums of money, of course, but the planet might not be as thrilled.

2021 GMC Yukon, interior
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 GMC Yukon, interior

To provide a more efficient (though no less-polluting) alternative, a diesel engine (Duramax) is on the way. It's actually the one that already serves the brand's 1500 pickup trucks, a 3L 6-cylinder engine offering 277 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. It will be available in SLE, SLT and Denali models.

A 10-speed automatic transmission is present everywhere, and since its debut a few years ago, this unit has done yeoman work.

Performance
At the wheel, frankly, the model is hard to fault - provided you accept it for what it is. When it comes to transporting people and equipment, it doesn't get any better than this. To haul Moby Dick, it's also the perfect candidate. But the Yukon is fat, obese even and it doesn't exactly stop on a dime, as they say. Every manoeuvre serves as a constant reminder that the laws of physics apply whether you like it or not.

2021 GMC Yukon, three-quarters front
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 GMC Yukon, three-quarters front

And all this brings us to the buyer. As mentioned, a product like the Yukon has its raison d'être. If the vast majority of us don't need as much capacity and space as it offers, some really do. And those folks are apt to be happy with a Yukon. And that's without taking account all the companies that need vehicles like this to transport people, say from the hotel to the airport, or from the ritzy resto to the embassy.

Conclusion
GMC takes a big step forward with this generation, and that should allow it to continue its market dominance. The Yukon already accounts for 38 percent of sales in its segment in the country; that could grow.

And you can understand GM's strategy with its full-size SUVs, which is to encourage what is basically traditional growth with these money-printing machines.

Only, it would have been interesting to hear someone talk about electrification, especially since they're preparing something to that effect for the Silverado pickup truck.

Let's hope it comes.

2021 GMC Yukon, humongous trunk
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 GMC Yukon, humongous trunk

In bulk

- A camera system offering nine different angles is there to facilitate towing operations.
- The available Active Response off-road system combines various technologies, including an electronic limited-slip differential that continuously monitors road conditions to react and optimize grip, handling and stability.
- Notice the difference with the grilles and some styling elements. GMC wants each Yukon to project its own image.
- The AT4 version is the GMC version of the Chevrolet Z71 trim.
- In the opinion of many, including myself, the style of the Yukon is much more successful than that of its cousins at Chevrolet. Expect the gap to widen between the two on the sales front.
- Finally, for towing capacities, it varies between 7,400 and 7,900 lb, depending on the engine (gasoline), version and drive train.
- The equipment is comprehensive in all versions, as are the safety features; there was simply no room to go into detail here on those.

Pricing

Yukon SLE 2WD: $57,998
Yukon SLE 4WD: $61,298
Yukon SLT 2 WD: $66,098
Yukon SLT 4WD: $69,398
Yukon AT4 4WD: $74,698
Yukon Denali 4WD: $79,798


Yukon XL SLE 2WD: $60,998
Yukon XL SLE 4WD: $64,298
Yukon XL SLT 2WD: $69,098
Yukon XL SLT 4WD: $72,398
Yukon XL AT4 4WD: $77,698
Yukon XL Denali 4WD: $82,798

2021 GMC Yukon, three-quarters rear
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 GMC Yukon, three-quarters rear

We like

Increased comfort
Capacities (volume, towing)
The trio of engine configurations

We like less

Fuel consumption (gulp!)
Parking manoeuvres
Pricing

The competition

Chevrolet Suburban
Chevrolet Tahoe
Ford Expedition
Hyundai Palisade
Kia Telluride
Nissan Armada
Toyota Sequoia

2021 GMC Yukon, front grille
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 GMC Yukon, front grille

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Photos:D.Rufiange
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