May 21, 2022

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SUV Comparison: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali vs 2022 Jeep Grand Wagoneer

Two premium-priced, family-oriented, full-size SUVs offer an embarrassment of content to go with their capability

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Brian Harper: Well, Peter, I have no doubt we will have pundits demanding our heads on pikes for the audacity to compare these two full-size sport-utes, the redesigned-for-2021 GMC Yukon Denali and the even newer 2022 Jeep Grand Wagoneer. Admittedly, this rabid mob might have a point; there is a vast as-tested price difference between these big rigs, and there are other models out there that might seem a fairer match. But, stripped to the essentials, what we have are a pair of premium family-oriented, three-row, three-ton SUVs, each lavishly outfitted with luxury and infotainment features.

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Furthermore, we have diverse methods of propulsion, the Grand Wagoneer relying on dependable Hemi V8 power, while the Denali runs with a turbodiesel inline-six. The $36K price difference between the two might seem insurmountable. Are you up for the challenge?

Peter Bleakney: I sure am. And we must take into account our Grand Wagoneer is the top Series III spec, hence its rather eye-watering $120,995 MSRP. The less ritzy Jeep Wagoneer with a starting price of $79,995 lines up better with the GMC Yukon Denali’s $80,348 sticker. But we ain’t got one of those. With all the goodies ladled on, our Yukon’s bottom line swells to $91,333 and the Grand Wagoneer sits at $127,775. Brian, there’s a lot of money tied up in these body-on-frame leather-lined leviathans.

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The Grand Wagoneer comes in one wheelbase that splits the difference between the regular Yukon Denali (tested here) and the longer XL version. And wow, this Jeep feels massive on the road. Visually, it’s big, boxy and imposing, and its upscale pretensions are underscored by liberal application of chrome and bold Grand Wagoneer lettering stretching across the hood and hatch. The chrome framing the side windows is… er, interesting, and you won’t find the word Jeep anywhere on its exterior. It’s rolling on massive 22-inch alloys. Brian, I’m getting a lot of looks driving this Velvet Red Pearl behemoth, and I’m pretty sure it’s not because I desperately need a haircut. I bet you’re going pretty much unnoticed in your black Yukon.

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BH: Yep, though it does have a bit of an intimidation factor working for it and not just because of the Denali’s size, which is just 120 mm shorter than the Grand and about 230 kilograms on the lighter side. Face it, any American cop show with FBI, Secret Service or CIA suits in it invariably has them chasing baddies in either a black Yukon or its Chevrolet sib, the Tahoe, though I don’t think the procurement department is ponying up for the topline Denali trim and all its goodies. Other than its massive, chrome-laden grille, the bling is kept well in check — on both the outside and inside.

But before we parse the inner workings of these rolling excesses, how do you like the way the Grand Wagoneer sucks back the dino juice? That 471-horsepower, 6.4L V8 automatically gains you premium status with the Friends of OPEC. The Denali’s 277-hp, 3.0L turbodiesel six might have more rumble when on the throttle, but it’s a lot easier on the wallet when it comes to fill-up time.

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Also, when I drive the Grand Wagoneer, I come away with the impression that its big Hemi handles the beast’s 2,912-kg avoirdupois, but certainly doesn’t overpower it. You get the same feeling, Peter?

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PB: Roger that. The big Hemi gives the Jeep a good jump off the line and sufficient highway passing power, yet no more. But, boy, it sure makes the right noises. When this thing barks to life and settles into that fabulous baritone Detroit rumble, one can almost justify that Friends of OPEC platinum membership. Hop into the Denali, and its Duramax diesel delivers equally shocking fuel consumption numbers — but in the opposite direction. While the Grand Wagoneer is showing close to 20 L/100 km on regular outings, the Denali is about half that, and on one extended highway and B-road excursion it returned a jaw-dropping 8.3 L/100 km.

And it’s not like the Yukon Denali is a slug. Its 460 lb-ft of torque does the talking here, and this Duramax diesel is a peach — smooth, linear and with just the right amount of growl. Hooked to a smooth shifting Hydra-Matic 10-speed auto, I wouldn’t hesitate to spec this engine in either the Denali or sister-ship Cadillac Escalade.

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On the road, the Grand Wagoneer delivers wonderful isolation and a decently luxurious ride. It’s the full-blown posh experience, although as noted earlier this thing drives big. I really get the feeling I’m piloting my living room — actually a nicer version of my living room. Jump in the Denali after this Jeep, and (call me crazy, Brian) the dang thing almost feels like a sports car. The GMC’s chassis with those clever magnetic dampers is more buttoned down, steering more communicative — it drives smaller than it looks. Of course, that’s probably what the captain of the Queen Mary felt when he did a stint in the Queen Elizabeth.

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Ah, but folks spending this kind of coin expect the best in sybaritic appointments. Brian, take us into the cabins of these upscale pachyderms.

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BH: Gimme a minute, Peter. First, I agree that the Duramax is a smart move on the part of GMC; I think Jeep might be doing the Grand Wagoneer a disservice by not offering the Ram 2500’s big Cummins diesel as an option. Second, both vehicles have cosseting rides thanks to their respective air suspensions. Yet I didn’t get the same sports car feeling you did when driving the Denali. Yes, it is slightly nimbler around town, but I felt I had to use a lot more brake than in the Jeep to get it stopped.

Now, as to the interior accoutrement of these fine family haulers, well, there is no comparison — Jeep’s interior designers went to town on the Grand Wagoneer, with an opulent cabin full of real wood, expensive leather (definitely not Corinthian) and shiny trim bits. Then there’s the adjustable pedals, heated steering wheel and 24-way power front seats, including memory settings for both the driver and front passenger, and massage, power lumbar support and four-way powered headrests. Both the first and second row have heat and ventilation seats. Screens? You want screens? How about 75 inches of total digital touchscreen area, for what Jeep peeps like to call “a personalized and immersive experience.” And excepting some of the infotainment features, most of this stuff is standard on the less expensive Series I and Series II models.

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It’s not as though the Denali’s cabin is the automotive equivalent of a Motel 6. It comes loaded to the gunnels with the leather and wood and all the bells and whistles one should expect for a $90K sport-ute, but no delightful surprises. The cabin, swathed in black, is very sombre. And the grouping of major and secondary controls seems haphazard — some in the centre stack, some to the left of the steering wheel and down low, and some in the roof liner. That said, there was one feature I found interesting — a readout in the head-up display that lets you know how far you are behind the vehicle ahead in seconds, given your current speed. It’s a subtle but appreciated reminder to keep a safe distance.

So, here’s the thing, Peter. I think we both agree the Grand Wagoneer is the better upscale family hauler, not to mention a better towing vehicle. But, between our two test subjects, is it $36,442 better? Is all the bling worth the extra outlay? Or, in this climate of global warming, electrification and all the other fun and games affecting the auto industry, is the Grand’s profligate gas usage the wrong message? (Conversely, is the Denali’s available — and far more fuel efficient — diesel motor enough to snatch victory?) Weigh in while I ponder.

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PB: I’m guessing those laying out this kind of cash on full-size luxury SUVs aren’t too concerned about fuel mileage, especially in the case of our $130k Jeep. Kinda comes with the territory. But the Denali’s sanctimonious sippage of diesel fuel surely is a pleasant surprise. The big problem I see here is the Denali’s interior quality and design. Sure, it might get a pass in a $50K pickup, but not in a $90k premium vehicle. Conversely, the Grand Wagoneer’s interior with its rich quilted leather, lovely satin wood veneer, fine detailing and modern screenage looks worth every penny of its elevated price point. If your friends are cruising around in Range Rovers, Mercedes GLs or Escalades, you won’t have to make any excuses for this Jeep’s cabin.

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Oops. I had to say Escalade again, didn’t I? The elephant in the room. Yes, we know. The new Cadillac Escalade would have been the ideal foil for the Jeep Grand Wagoneer. Similar mission and similar price point. But GMC and Jeep are all-American tough-guy brands, and the Yukon Denali and Grand Wagoneer represent the pinnacle of opulence for each. The Denali wades into the shallow end of the luxury pool while the Grand Wagoneer does a flying cannonball off the high diving board. The Jeep wins.

BH: I agree with you, Peter. This is a level of luxe previously unseen by Jeep and resurrecting the storied Wagoneer name is a master stroke, especially for those of us with fond memories of the original. Yes, its price is steep, considering it’s a newcomer playing in a far more exclusive sandbox. Still, it has flair and substance and, while the Yukon Denali is good, it comes up short against the Grand.

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