Is the 2021 GMC Yukon Denali interior enough nicer than a Chevy Tahoe’s or base GMC Yukon’s to be worth the extra bucks? Or should you really save up and spring for a Cadillac Escalade? These are legit questions nowadays, unlike back in 1999 when the Denali and Escalade were hastily conceived to battle Lincoln’s Navigator—itself a surprisingly successful gussying-up of the Ford Expedition. They were all Tahoes back then.
But what started out looking like a crass money grab has matured into an incredibly successful subfranchise, and the entire GMT T1 SUV lineup represents a zenith in brand differentiation for General Motors. Not only does the 2021 GMC Yukon Denali interior differ substantially from its Chevrolet and Cadillac cousins, but it’s also distinct from the lesser Yukons. Now let’s assess the relative merits of the Denali’s personalized interior design.
Color makes such a difference. It’s becoming a real luxury differentiator in vehicle interiors. Dull, cheap vehicles come in black, gray, or beige. Cool, upscale vehicles augment—or at least accent—the above choices with contrasting hues that occasionally tiptoe out onto the rainbow. Chevy offers six color schemes on the Tahoe; the Yukon and Escalade get seven, with Cadillac further differentiating its variants with choices of wood and other accent materials, upholstery stitching and perforation patterns, etc.
I first sampled an entirely black Yukon Denali—Jet Black upholstery with ebony wood accents. Admittedly apropos of these dark times, I loathe this depressing yet inexplicably popular “color” combination, so GMC was kind enough to send around a Denali featuring the Light Shale and Teak interior. The two other Denali choices are Very Dark Ash Gray with Walnut, and Jet Black with Brownstone.
The lightest combination brightened my mood immeasurably, though I understand some buyers fret about keeping it clean. There are two unemotional negatives to all black: The Denali’s intricate X-pattern stitching and contrast leather graining utterly disappear, and the inevitable acres of plastic trim employed on the lower door panels, kickplates, and throughout the cargo area in any of these jumbotrons look vastly cheaper in black than in another color. In black, the trim somehow takes on a sheen that the café-au-lait plastic in my second Denali lacked.
Materials and Craftsmanship
Up front, the surfaces that fall readily to hand are generally swathed in upscale soft-touch materials. The leather on the seats features coarse grain on the outer bolsters, perforation on the center panels, and a smooth-grain panel connecting the outer side bolsters and center sections. Except in the Darth Vader version, these panels are joined by piping and stitching in a pleasant contrast color, accented by warm wood tones. Note that the second- and third-row seats echo the front row’s stitching, piping, and even the grain pattern differentiation of the front seats while employing vinyl in place of leather. (The third row misses out on the center panel perforations, too, with embossed dots in their place.) It’s worth noting that base Escalades get leatherette in all three rows, though top Platinum models offer leather for all.
The interior is otherwise fitted to a reasonably high standard with a few exceptions. A new power-sliding front center console featured irregular plastic panel gaps on both models we tested, one being serious enough to make me wonder if something had cracked. Berber-style loop floormats are a nice touch, but why not provide one in the third row? A nice idea down by the floor: Wide doorsill threshold plates connect with panels below each seat, so you’ll never find yourself trying to fish a lost pen or straw out of the outboard seat tracks.
Adults can make themselves comfortable in all three amply roomy rows, though the level of comfort steps down moving aft. And you’ll need to pony up for the Caddy to get massaging seats. Second-row captain’s chairs are standard on the Denali, but a 60/40 bench is a no-cost option (which also takes you off the hook for bundling the $350 power sliding center console with the Ultimate package).
A word about that console: It features a “safe” drawer that can’t be accessed when the console is motored closed and the ignition is locked. And by motoring it back 10 inches, the HVAC and HDMI controls, the USB-C ports, the cupholders, and the 110-volt AC plug are much easier for rear passengers to reach. The downside: This deprives front passengers of an inboard armrest, and it must be motored forward out of the way (via a switch on the overhead console in the front seat) in order to access the third row. That’s because it blocks people walking between the seats and prevents the second-row seats from folding forward to let people pass behind them. I’m not sold on the sliding console.
Folding those seats can be done either by pulling up twice on the aftmost side handle (once folds the backrest, twice dumps it forward) or by pressing a switch on the C-pillar to fold the backrest and then lifting up on either the handle or the strap on the rear (switches in the cargo area also fold the middle row seatbacks for loading long items). When you put the captain’s chairs back up, they stay in their forward-most position on the 5.5-inch sliding tracks. Note that little kids might be able to fold the seats down, but they’ll likely lack the muscle to put them back up again. Power folding for the third row is standard on the Denali, accessible from the front overhead console or switches in the cargo area. Way-back occupants get a pair of A/C vents, USB-C ports, cupholders, and cubbies. Also a lot of plastic trim.
Nobody in the industry can yet compete with the Escalade’s 38 inches of OLED high-def, high-contrast cockpit screens. Instead you get an 8.0-inch reconfigurable instrument cluster and a 10.2-inch central infotainment screen on the Denali. The latter looks and functions pretty much like everybody else’s, with one notable exception relative to the lesser Yukons and Tahoes: It’s mounted lower in the dash, beneath the central A/C vents, drawing your gaze farther down off the road. There’s also a head-up display with good color that remains visible in polarized glasses but doesn’t display as much info as the bigger ones in BMW and Genesis products.
Measuring 12.6 inches, the headrest-mounted rear infotainment screens are among the industry’s biggest and include a pair of HDMI ports and two sets of two-channel infrared headphones; the system also supports Bluetooth headphone use. This option costs $1,995 by itself and is included in the Denali Deluxe ($5,750) and Denali Ultimate packages ($10,460 or $11,255 with 4WD).
So Is Denali Worth It?
Honestly, the interior doesn’t look or feel that much nicer than that of a Tahoe High Country, but then that Chevy costs $1,200 more, makes do with just 10 Bose speakers to the Denali’s 14, and lacks the brand cachet that GMC has been building with Denali for two decades. And although spending the extra $7,795 for the base Escalade multiplies the cachet factor and buys that awesome front screen and a pretty sweet 19-speaker AKG Studio audio system, the occupants all must sit on black leatherette upholstery. As noted in our Yukon Denali First Test, we reckon the smartest money buys a Denali optioned up only enough to get the magnetic-damper/air-spring suspension. You’ll feel sufficiently swaddled in leather and wood, you’ll be nicely serenaded, and you’ll spend $2,545 less than the base Caddy costs. Just please don’t settle for a black interior.
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