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A black 2021 GMC Yukon Denali is driving on a two way road past mountains.

The Yukon Denali: Power & Pleasure

For over 20 years, the Denali name has represented the best that GMC has to offer. “Denali” is a word from Athabaskan, a collection of languages from native peoples in what is now Alaska. It means “the high one,” and it is the name the natives gave to the tallest mountain in North America, Mt McKinley. GMC has taken that name to heart to elevate its full-size SUV, and the latest 2021 GMC Yukon Denali is the height of luxury. Denali was originally introduced as a Yukon trim, and the current version is even bigger and better than ever. The Yukon has a rich history, bolstered by the details and luxury of the Denali branding.

Denali Details

The Yukon Denali debuted as a concept car in 1997 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and the trim was officially introduced for the 1999 Yukon so that GMC could compete with luxury brands on a mass-market level. “At the time, sport utility vehicles primarily focused on providing versatility and utility above anything else… but we sensed an opportunity to create a premium-grade model that could resonate with customers on a whole new level,” said GMC Marketing Director Rich Latek.

The 1999 Denali Yukon shared an exterior with its fancier Cadillac Escalade sibling, with upgraded front and lower body panels from the rest of the Yukon line. The interior bells and whistles included Zebrano wood grain accents on the front door and center console. Additional enhancements to the first Yukon Denali interior included “Nuance” leather, heated seats all around, and a Bose audio system with a CD changer. The only engine available for the first Yukon Denali was a 5.7-liter V8 with 255 horsepower. It also came with Autotrac all-wheel drive replacing the previous part-time four-wheel drive.

The Denali trim was renovated for the 2001 model year, including an upgraded interior. To stand out from other Yukons, the Denali headlights were surrounded by chrome, and the side body panels were embossed. This was the first Denali to have the honeycomb-patterned grille, now a signature of all Denali vehicles across the GMC family. It was also the first Yukon to share the Escalade’s 6.0-liter V8 engine with 320 horsepower. Two years later, the engine was upgraded to 325 horsepower.

The Yukon Denali got a makeover for 2007, which introduced even more power with a 6.2-liter V8 good for 380 horsepower. Additional perks to the line included power-folding second-row seats and a rear backup camera. The signature honeycomb grille and chrome-wrapped headlights were softened a bit to appeal to more drivers. The very next year brought a few tweaks, the most noticeable of which were on the gauge cluster. 2009’s noticeable upgrades included 23 additional horsepower, a power tilt steering wheel, a Bluetooth connection for hands-free calling, and chrome inserts into the body. Options for the 2009 Yukon Denali included cooled and perforated leather seats, side zone blind-spot alert, and instant traffic updates and rerouting to the satellite navigation system.

Of course, the Yukon is not the only GM vehicle to carry the Denali name. The 2002 model year brought a Denali version of the heavy-duty Sierra pickup. In 2008, a Denali XT concept hybrid pickup was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show but never actually produced en masse. There was a midsize Envoy Denali SUV from 2005 to 2009. In 2011, as a replacement for the Envoy Denali, the Denali trim came to the midsize Acadia SUV. The Terrain crossover SUV got its own luxury Denali trim in 2013.

By 2016, the Denalis represented over a quarter of all GMCs sold, and this sub-brand sold more than luxury brands Jaguar, Porsche, and Land Rover. 2017 brought forth not just the one-millionth Denali was sold but also a Denali version of the Canyon pickup. 2017 was a big year for luxury GMC pickups; the Denali and the equally pumped up AT4 trims represented 70% of all Sierras sold at the end of the year. The Sierra and Canyon pickups and the Acadia and Terrain SUVs still have Denali variations.

While all modern Denalis have the signature grill with over 10,000 reflective surfaces and GMC LED headlights along with aluminum wheels, leather seating, advanced noise cancellation, and other enhanced cabin features, it’s important to remember they’re more than just a pretty face. Denalis aren’t just good-looking and comfortable; they feature driver-friendly tech to make the drive easier as well, like standard power rear liftgates, keyless entry, and infotainment systems, and available WiFi hotspots to connect your devices. The Denalis also lead the way in their respective markets when it comes to active safety tech like utilizing cameras and other sensors to alert drivers to oncoming obstacles like pedestrians and other cars.

The interior of a 2021 GMC Yukon Denali shows the front seats, steering wheel and infotainment screen.

2021 Yukon Denali Performance

For 2021, the Yukon Denali starts at $68,400. Its main engine is a 6.2-liter V8 with a 10-speed automatic transmission, producing 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque. You could also choose a 3.0-liter Duramax turbo-diesel engine for the same 460 lb-ft of torque and remarkable fuel economy. The 2021 Yukon Denali has seating for up to eight passengers. You can move the heated second-row captain’s chairs up and back, depending on where you need the legroom, and they tip down to allow third-row passengers to embark and disembark.

The 2021 Yukon Denali is noticeably larger than its predecessor, and legroom even in the third row is a plentiful 34.9 inches. The Yukon Denali XL is even larger than that, which translates to nearly two more inches of rear-seat legroom and an additional 16 feet of cubic storage feet behind the rear seat. Whatever you’re planning to haul: there is space in a Yukon. In addition, that third row of seats also folds to expand cargo space; there are 79 cubic feet of storage space in the regular Denali and over 144 cubic feet in the Yukon XL.

This cavernous cargo space is thanks to a new independent rear suspension for the 2021 model year, allowing for a lower rear floor. And, of course, you can access that space with a standard hands-free power tailgate. The 2021 Yukon can even tow up to 8,400 pounds when properly equipped, and you can add additional towing safety features. Grounded 120-volt plugs in the second row and cargo area ensure the 2021 Yukon Denali has everything you need for work and play, from the worksite to a road trip.

2021 Yukon Denali Design

As in years past, there is a Denali-exclusive interior for the 2021 Yukon. This year includes four color themes, and each has hand-finished exposed-grain wood accents and a new fractal pattern of stitching on the seats. Those quilted front seats are heated and ventilated, with memory settings for the driver’s seat. There is also a standard heated steering wheel, a unique instrument panel, and the 10.2-inch touchscreen is set flush into the center console. The touchscreen lets you connect your smartphone through Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, or Bluetooth. You can even connect with Amazon’s Alexa. There’s also wireless charging and a total of six USB ports distributed across the three rows of seats.

GM continues to lead the pack when it comes to an especially user-friendly combination of buttons, the touchscreen, and voice controls for adjusting everything from the three-zone automatic climate control to your music – which plays on a 14-speaker Bose audio system. It also leads the market with a 15-inch head-up display, allowing you to see information like the current speed limit and your speed without moving your eyes from the road. One available add-on is the class-leading sliding console, giving you storage and space in the front seats.

You can also choose to add the Denali Premium package, which upgrades to 22-inch wheels, power-retractable side steps, a panoramic power sunroof, and more. The Denali Ultimate package further adds a rear seat media system and a max trailering package that includes an integrated trailer brake controller, hitch guidance with hitch view, an in-vehicle trailering app, and a trailer side blind zone alert. Even without an additional package, the Denali exterior features a dual exhaust with dual tips.

2021 Yukon Denali Safety

There are an industry-leading nine camera feeds when it comes to looking around your 2021 Yukon Denali, allowing for a view with fewer obstructions from the driver’s seat. These extra views come with high definition surround vision and a rear camera mirror. A rear-seat reminder, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, front pedestrian braking, and front and rear parking sensors are also standard on the 2021 Yukon. Other safety features include standard LED headlights, front fog lights, taillights, and running lights in that distinctive c-shaped design.

In addition, the four-wheel drive 2021 Yukon Denali brings an all-new Active Response system, which combines an automatic two-speed transfer case, traction select, chassis select, and a new electronic limited-slip differential for even more control. Magnetic Ride Control may be a technology designed for sports cars, but in the Yukon Denali, it means more precise handling, reacting to changes on the road immediately, to ensure this full-size SUV has less bouncing and fewer uncomfortable vibrations along with better and safer connection to the road.

a black 2021 GMC Yukon Denali is shown from the rear as it drives down a two way road.

This Sub Brand Is Anything but Subpar

The Denali sub brand has been an extremely profitable addition to the GMC family. It’s estimated that 60% of all Yukons sold are Denalis. With the enhanced, luxurious interior, there’s no wonder why the Yukon Denali is so popular. You have all the cargo and towing capacity you could want while still enjoying a smooth ride and fun drive – at a lower cost than other luxury brands. In fact, multiple reviewers have stated that the new Cadillac Escalade needs to be quite impressive moving forward in order to justify its higher price tag when compared to the GMC Yukon Denali.

The 2021 Yukon Denali outsizes any Land Rover while having more capability than its Lexus and INFINITI counterparts. It’s even a worthy competitor for the luxurious Lincoln Navigator. GMC’s Executive Director of Design, Helen Emsley, says, “Yukon was the model in which Denali originated in 1999, and now more than 20 years later, we’re introducing the quintessential Denali.” If you’re looking for size and heft while not sacrificing any comfort: check out the 2021 Yukon Denali, the pinnacle of power and pleasure.

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