VAIL, Colo. — General Motors unveiled redesigned versions of its GMC Yukon and GMC Yukon XL SUVs Tuesday night in the snowy mountains of Colorado.
The full-size SUVs are larger and more technologically advanced than the outgoing versions and are expected to be part of an important and profitable year for GM's GMC truck and SUV brand.
"This is a big year for them," said Paul Waatti, industry analyst at auto research firm Autopacific. "It's one of the freshest lineups out there, which in today's market is a huge advantage."
In addition to the redesigned Yukon SUVs, this year will mark the first full sales year for its redesigned heavy-duty GMC Sierra pickups. GMC also recently refreshed the Acadia crossover and Canyon midsize pickup and plans a "major" refresh of the compact Terrain crossover later this year.
GM, according to people familiar with the plans, also will announce the revival of the Hummer name as an all-electric pickup under the GMC brand during a Super Bowl commercial featuring NBA star Lebron James on Feb. 2.
Here are five things to know about the 2021 Yukon models, which are expected to begin arriving in U.S. dealerships this summer.
The Yukon models are part of a highly profitable full-size SUV franchise for GM that includes the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban as well as the Cadillac Escalade and Escalade ESV.
The SUVs are part of GM's $65 billion truck franchise, which includes the automaker's full-size Chevrolet and GMC pickups. The SUVs share the vehicle architecture, or platform, of the pickups.
A growing importance for the Detroit automaker's truck franchise has become GMC's high-end Denali sub-brand, which debuted on the Yukon in 1999 and has since been expanded across the brand's vehicle lineup.
GMC's Denali pickups and SUVs commanded an average price of about $56,000 per vehicle last year — higher than luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and BMW.
For the first time since Denali launched more than 20 years ago, the upscale trim has its own custom interior for the 2021 Yukon models.
The Denali-exclusive interior includes its own instrument panel, 10-inch infotainment screen, seats and a choice of four unique color themes in addition to more premium materials. Many optional safety and convenience technologies on other models are standard on Denali.
Denali is particularly important for Yukon, as it represents roughly 60% of sales of the SUVs — the highest among any vehicle in GMC's lineup. By increasing the uniqueness of the vehicle, GMC aims to increase those highly profitable sales even further.
The Denali "prints money for them," Waatti said. "The biggest differentiator here is the Denali-exclusive interior. It's going to play huge for them."
Three Yukon models, including Denali, also will offer a new power sliding center console for flexible storage.
The Detroit automaker plans to expand an off-road sub-brand called AT4 across its vehicle lineup in 2020, including the 2021 Yukon and Yukon XL. The sub-brand launched on its redesigned GMC Sierra pickups beginning in late 2018.
GM is hoping its expanded AT4 line, along with Denali, will become a double-pronged profit center for the automaker's GMC truck and SUV division.
The Sierra AT4 pickups are selling at average transaction prices that are thousands of dollars higher than its segment and roughly $2,000 to $3,000 below the Denali. Sales of AT4 models for the Sierra have exceeded internal expectations by 50% without taking away from Denali's sales, according to Duncan Aldred, global head of GMC.
Pricing for the new Yukon models was not announced. Starting prices of current Yukon models range from about $50,000 to $70,000. Prices for the Yukon XL, a larger version of the standard model, start between roughly $53,000 and $72,000. Both vehicles can sell for more than $80,000.
Given the number of additional features, particularly on Denali, the top-end pricing is expected to increase for the new models.
GM's full-size SUVs share the same platform as its trucks, but the ride of the SUVs has traditionally been much smoother than the pickups.
GM improved the ride even more for the 2021 Yukon SUVs. In addition to increased ride and handling on the pickups, the Chevy and GMC SUVS now offer four-corner air suspension systems that greatly improve the smoothness of the ride and a fourth-generation magnetic ride control.
The GMC models also will offer a new four-wheel-drive system with an electronic "Limited Slip Differential" to continuously monitor road conditions and react to improve traction, handling and overall control.
An "all-new digital vehicle platform" for the SUVs has data-processing power five times greater than that of the current models. GM officials previously told CNBC that the platform of the new SUVs is capable of handling GM's Super Cruise highway driver-assist system; however, the technology will not initially be offered on the SUVs.
In 2018, GM announced plans to begin expanding Super Cruise, which operates similar to Tesla's Autopilot system on highways, outside of Cadillac beginning in 2020.