The 2021 GMC Yukon AT4 is an all-new model and it receives significant upgrades such as air ride suspension and independent rear suspension. But are these upgrades enough to place the Yukon ahead of its longtime rival; the Ford Expedition?
Engine – The last generation GMC Yukon was only available with two V8 engines. Those engines carry over to the new 5th generation Yukon albeit with the added upgrade of Dynamic Fuel Management (DFM). A new engine that will be joining the V8s is the 3.0L Duramax turbo-diesel inline-6 that is found in the GMC Sierra 1500. This demo vehicle came equipped with the 5.3L V8.
The 5.3L V8 produces 355 hp (265 kW) and 383 lb-ft (519 Nm) of torque. The engine has its work cut out for it because it has to move a full-size SUV that tips the scales at 2,500 kg (5,500 lbs). But thanks to the new 10-speed automatic, the 2021 GMC Yukon AT4 feels a bit more spritely off the line than the last generation. However in reality, this new Yukon is heavier than the outgoing model by a few hundred pounds. The towing capability has not changed with maximum towing at 8,400 lbs while this AT4 trim is rated at 8,200 lbs of towing.
Fuel economy has improved a bit in a city environment but has gotten worse on a highway. This 2021 GMC Yukon AT4 4WD is rated at 14.8 L/100km (15.9 MPG) in a city and 11.8 L/100km (19.9 MPG) on a highway. During my time with this big SUV, I averaged closer to 17 L/100 km (13.8 MPG) but that’s more my fault rather than the Yukon’s fault. I used the remote start feature every morning and just let it sit idle for 3 to 5 minutes to let it warm up & defrost the windshield.
Transmission – All engines are paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission. During normal driving commutes, the transmission is “forgetful”. It does its job of changing gears without any harsh shifts or mishifts. It’s only when you stomp on the throttle pedal that it feels a tad on the slow side to downshift but when I say “slow”, I mean half a second so not too long.
Braking – The Yukon AT4 receives 4-piston fixed calipers on the front axle just like it’s pickup truck cousin. It doesn’t take much effort to bring the big SUV to a stop and the brake pedal is easy to modulate. However, under harder braking, the pedal doesn’t feel quite as firm as it does on the Sierra AT4. Automatic emergency braking is standard across all trim levels of the 2021 GMC Yukon.
Handling – One of the biggest changes to the 5th generation GMC Yukon is the swap to independent rear suspension. This provides a better ride quality, more interior cargo space, and better handling dynamics. On paved roads, the new Yukon feels more planted and a little bit more agile than its predecessor. By no means is it a competitor for something like a BMW X5M but it drives better than the 4th generation Yukon with its solid rear axle. It still feels like a big truck but with 7 seats when driving it. Also, it’s size can make it quite difficult to maneuver around smaller parking lots.
Off the beaten path, this AT4 trim receives a different front bumper than all other Yukon models. The benefit is an approach angle of 32 degrees. It also comes equipped with steel skid plates, Autotrac 4×4, an automatic locking rear differential, red recovery hooks, and four-corner air suspension. The air suspension can offer 4-inches of total articulation from it’s maximum off-road setting to an easy entry/exit height. With the air suspension and off-road drive mode, the Yukon AT4 is one of the easiest full-size SUVs to drive off-road. I always felt in control whether it was gravel or snow covered roads.
Ride Comfort – The ride quality has taken a huge leap forward thanks to the independent suspension and air ride. On city streets, the big SUV feels plush and doesn’t transfer any pothole shunts into the cabin. On rougher roads, the ride is obviously going to be a bit rougher but it’s a lot better than if it were a solid rear axle. The AT4 also comes equipped with Magnetic ride dampers which aid in reducing big shunts and jounces.
Interior Space – The new Yukon grew in size with most of that space going to the rear passengers. Front occupants have plenty of space regardless if you’re tall like myself at 6’4” or if you’re shorter. The front seats can be raised to a ridiculous height so that even the shortest of drivers can look down on other motorists. Getting in and out of the front or rear seats is easy thanks to the power deployable side steps.
But if you’re relegated to the 2nd row or the 3rd row, you’ll have plenty of space. The second row seats can recline and slide forward or backwards. At the pull of a lever, they can fold flat or lift up to allow easy access into the third row. The 3rd row sees the biggest increase in passenger space. Ten inches of total legroom has been added compared to the 2020 Yukon in the 3rd row. However, that all depends on where the 2nd row seat is positioned. In its most forward position, a tall adult like myself has legroom to spare but in its most rearward position, my knees are rubbing against the seatback. However, regardless of who is sitting in the 2nd row, the 3rd row is much more spacious when compared to the last generation Yukon. If you need more space, there’s always the Yukon XL.
Finally, way in the back, the new 2021 Yukon also receives more cargo volume. It has 722 L (25.5 cu-ft) of cargo volume behind the 3rd row, 2,056 L (72.6 cu-ft) to the 2nd row, and 3,480 L (122.9 cu-ft) with the 3rd and 2nd row seats folded. Folding the 2nd and 3rd row seats is a breeze thanks to buttons in the trunk area for lowering and raising the 3rd row and just lowering the 2nd row. There are also buttons in the front next to the sunroof controls for lowering or raising the 3rd row seats. The 2021 GMC Yukon has significantly more cargo volume than the Ford Expedition but in terms of passenger leg and head room, it’s almost on par.
Noise, Vibration, & Harshness – In addition to the major changes of the new suspension and size increase, the GMC Yukon’s cabin is a quieter place. There is more sound insulation along with acoustic laminated glass. Push a bit harder than normal on the throttle pedal and you hear the low rumble of the pushrod 5.3L V8 engine. Even on highways, the cabin is well insulated from wind and the tire noise coming from the 20-inch Goodyear all-terrain tires.
Odds and Ends
Gadgets – The 2021 GMC Yukon AT4 is equipped as one would expect from a $75,000 CAD ($64,800 USD) full-size SUV. Heated front & second row seats, ventilated front seats, panoramic sunroof, head-up display, navigation, leather upholstery, wireless phone charging, multi zone climate control, LED headlights, hands free power liftgate with the inner window portion as a separate opening, and the list goes on. One odd thing is the absence of adaptive cruise control. It’s not available at all on the AT4. It’s only available on the top Denali trim as part of a package. I’m still scratching my head as to the reasoning of only having it available on the top spec Yukon trim.
There are a couple of gadgets that I want to highlight though. Firstly is wireless Apple CarPlay & Android Auto. No more cables!! As soon as you pair your smartphone via Bluetooth, the infotainment system & your phone will prompt you to allow access to either CarPlay or Android Auto. From then on, the system automatically connects once your phone is detected. One drawback of wireless Apple CarPlay & Android Auto is that it uses up more of your phone’s battery.
The second new feature of the GMC Yukon that I want to highlight is the rear entertainment system. It is a $3,090 CAD ($2,490 USD) option and it is worth every nickel (pennies don’t exist in Canada anymore) if you take your kids on a lot of road trips. The 12.6-inch touchscreens are mounted on the rear of the front seats and can be tilted. They have very good resolution and responsiveness and can display the navigation system. What’s really cool though is that they can be used to mirror an Android phone, play movies or TV shows off of a hard-drive, or play video games. That’s right, you can connect your Xbox or Playstation or any other console with an HDMI output to the rear entertainment system. There’s a 120-volt power outlet between the front seats and the Yukon can provide a WiFi hotspot. On long family road trips, you’ll never have to hear those dreaded words again… “Are we there yet?”.
Interior Design – The design of the interior is a huge improvement over the outgoing model. A 10.2-inch touchscreen is the main focal point of the dashboard along with the new electronic Precision Shift drive selector. There’s no more column mounted gear selector which may annoy some. But the new push & pull buttons look more elegant. The driver instrument cluster is still a blend of analog gauges & digital information display. The overall aesthetics of the dashboard is a much needed improvement for the Yukon and it is also a preview of what the interior of upcoming GMC Sierra pickup trucks will look like.
Exterior Design – From the side and back, the 2021 Yukon looks almost the same as the previous generation. The taillights are styled differently and feature a “C-shape” design while the Denali trim receives quad exhaust pipes. In the front though is where the majority of the styling changes are. The LED headlights are a copy of the current generation Sierra 1500’s headlights along with the LED fog lights. As mentioned earlier, the front bumper is different on this AT4 trim than all other trims in order to increase the approach angle. Overall, the GMC Yukon AT4 has a presence on the road with almost everyone that I drove past turning their heads.
The 2021 GMC Yukon AT4 starts at $75,000 CAD ($64,800 USD) and this demo vehicle came fully loaded at just under $86,500 CAD ($75,500 USD). It is an expensive SUV but you’re getting a lot of vehicle for your buck. Compared to the Ford Expedition – its closest competitor – the Yukon is down on power but it makes up for it by offering more cargo capacity and new tech like wireless CarPlay & Android Auto and the rear seat entertainment. Plus, the Expedition is not available with air suspension nor an off-road ready trim. So if you like to overland and have kids or just want to watch movies in the back, this is definitely the full-size SUV to buy.