Flying is out; road-tripping is in. Might as well plow that month-in-Ibiza vacation fund into upgrading your broodmobile and exploring America with your big toys or camper in tow. Your brood is just big enough to feel crowded in a fancy crew-cab pickup truck, so you’re shopping full-size SUVs. Now the question is, do you load up a nice 2021 GMC Yukon Denali ($69,695 with rear-drive to start), or stretch your budget for a stripper Cadillac Escalade ($77,490) or even a Lincoln Navigator ($77,480)? We just spent a couple of weeks in a pair of nicely optioned Yukon Denalis to find out.
2021 GMC Yukon Denali: Mountainous Performance
Short answer: effortlessly. Slightly longer answer: Our four-wheel-drive V-8 Denali was a smidge quicker than the last 2021 Cadillac Escalade we tested. (With the same powertrain, that Escalade Sport Platinum weighed just 56 pounds more than our Denali.) Both trucks zip to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, but the GMC squeaks through the quarter first, in 14.5 seconds at 97.3 mph to the ‘Slade’s 14.6 ticks and 95.6 mph. The Lincoln Navigator’s twin-turbo V-6 packs more muscle at 450 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque to the 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of GM’s big 6.2-liter V-8, but laden with Black Label finery, our last four-wheel-drive ‘Gator weighed 126 and 182 pounds more than our Cadillac and GMC, respectively. It squirted to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, but that sprinting advantage faded by the quarter mile, which it completed in 14.5 seconds at 94.9 mph.
2021 GMC Yukon Denali: Stopping and Turning
Here again, among the global automotive fleet, these are all relatively elephantine vehicles. Yukon Denali money buys Escalade tires—both test vehicles ran all-season Bridgestone Alenzas, sized 275/50R22, so it’s no surprise that each stops from 60 mph on the same (1-foot-diameter) dime: 123 feet for the Denali, 122 for the Escalade. By comparison, the porkier Navigator on wider, lower-profile 285/45R22 Hankook Dynapro HT all-seasons needed 132 feet. More impressive than the Denali’s stopping distance is its repeatability: The length of five consecutive stops measured within 18 inches of one another. That level of precision plus a firm pedal feel inspire confidence.
Quantifying other aspects of the GMC and Cadillac utes is complicated by an inability to completely defeat the SUVs’ stability control systems without pulling fuses (which we don’t do). Incessant torque interruptions resulted in largely meaningless figure-eight times and suspect lateral g numbers. Subjectively, the air/magnetic ride control shocks that come standard on all Denalis do a commendable job of limiting body roll without causing the head toss one might expect on single-wheel dips if a similar result had been obtained by stiffening the anti-roll bars. The steering feels light but precise, which along with the brakes helps shrink these massive trucks on an open road. (Believe me, they feel huge again when maneuvering them back into the garage at home.)
2021 GMC Yukon Denali: Luxury Ride
When combining those magnetic shocks with the optional air ride adaptive suspension, the Denali’s ride feels remarkably smooth—especially when laden with a family of five and luggage. And this might be the most compelling reason to opt for the Denali. You’ll pay at least $5,250 to add air ride in the Denali Deluxe package, at which point you’ve got the best possible Cadillac running gear for $74,945 ($77,945 with four-wheel-drive)—that’s $1,405 less than Chevy charges for a rear-drive Tahoe High Country with this suspension. Air Ride Adaptive Suspension with Magnetic Ride is still optional on midgrade Escalades, only becoming standard on the Sport and Platinum trim levels, meaning the cheapest Cadillac that performs as well would be a Sport model priced at $86,890 ($89,890 with four-wheel drive).
General Motors bundles its magnetic shocks and air springs with 22-inch wheels unless you get a Tahoe Z71, in which case you get 275/60R20 Goodyear Wrangler TrailRunners with sidewalls hardened for off-road duty. I’d love to experience it on a set of smaller-diameter wheels with taller, more compliant sidewalls because even in these last two Denalis, I can feel pothole impacts vibrating the steering wheel and reverberating through the chassis a bit. Of course, this might simply be an artifact of the natural frequency of the chassis frame being too similar to that of the unsprung corners.
And this same identical criticism has been leveled against the Lincoln Navigator, which also does without air suspension these days. “Cracked, broken pavement had a tendency to send shivers up the chassis, unbecoming of such a luxurious vehicle,” we said of our 2019 SUV of the Year finalist Navigator.
2021 GMC Yukon Denali: Caddy Beater
Both the Yukon and Escalade are plenty roomy and capable. For my money, the Denali’s genuine wood, available contrasting interior colors, and general material quality make me feel sufficiently pampered. I find the Denali Ultimate package utterly resistible. The truck’s not tall enough for me to need those running boards, and I lack the patience to wait for them to fully unfurl before climbing in or out. I also hate giant heavy sunroofs, and portable tablets make infinitely more sense to me than built-in screens for the rear passengers. The value proposition of getting as fancy a powertrain and chassis as Cadillac offers at an $11,945 discount is almost enough for me to forget Cadillac’s 38 inches of OLED dash screens, Mondrian seat-quilting patterns, and Linear Marquetry wood, not to mention Lincoln’s 30-way “Perfect Position” adjustable thrones. Then again, within months the Caddy will get Super Cruise—a party trick the GMC and Lincoln won’t top any time soon—so maybe borrow next year’s vacation budget too and stretch a bit farther?
|2021 GMC Yukon Denali (4WD)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$83,495|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, 4WD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||6.2L/420-hp/460-lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||5,980 lb (51/49%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||210.0 x 81.0 x 76.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.1 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||14.5 sec @ 97.3 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||123 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.69 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||14/19/16 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||241/177 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.22 lb/mile|