With gas prices the way they are, a road test on a really large SUV may seem a bit out of place. Small cars are in, big SUVs are out; don't you know? For most folks, driving one of these makes about as much sense as using a sledgehammer to pound thumbtacks into a bulletin board. But for those who have a large family and whose passions include horses, lugging a 30-foot Airstream or towing a large boat, the 2008 GMC Yukon XL Denali may make perfect sense. Massive pulling power and an abundance of room for passengers and cargo are two things this rig has in spades.
Those fluent in GMC's model jargon will know that "XL" unofficially signifies the Extra Large version of the Yukon (similar to its fraternal triplet siblings, the Chevy Suburban and Cadillac Escalade ESV) and that "Denali" is not only an Alaskan mountain range but the top-of-the-line trim level in the Yukon family. As such, luxuries like leather upholstery, heated seats in the first two rows, power-adjustable pedals, a premium Bose audio system, rain-sensing wipers and rear park assist are all standard. Gilding the lily, our test truck had additional optional equipment in the form of a sunroof, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, a navigation system and a rearview camera.
You may also note that we tested a rear-wheel-drive version of the Denali. Previously, the Denali only came in all-wheel-drive (AWD) form, but GMC made a running change this year and added a two-wheel-drive variant.
In this niche market of the supersized SUV, the 2008 GMC Yukon XL Denali is essentially one horse in a three-horse race. Other than its GM stablemates mentioned earlier, there's the Ford Expedition EL. Though it doesn't offer as much performance from its smaller (5.4-liter) V8, the Ford does have an independent rear suspension that provides a roomier third seat that also folds into the floor.
We're talking about something that's about as convenient to park as a stretch limousine and whose thirst for gasoline rivals a college freshman's for beer at a frat party.
Fitted with a beefy 6.2-liter V8 that produces 380 horsepower and 417 pound-feet of torque, the nearly 6,000-pound Yukon Denali is surprisingly quick. Step into it from a stop or when you need a burst of power to merge and it responds like a vehicle that weighs half as much. At the track, this beast ran zero to 60 in just 7.2 seconds and barreled through the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds. To put that into perspective, if you lined this massive ute up against a Honda Civic Si, it'd be really close. We know a Yukon XL Denali is not meant for drag racing high-strung compact sport coupes, but this effectively illustrates how much surplus power there is on tap for moving eight passengers or towing up to 7,800 pounds of recreational toys. Of course, that capability is gonna cost you — we averaged just 13 mpg with our test vehicle. And that was without filling the seats or towing anything.
As we've noticed in its relatives, the Yukon's steering, although precise, is too light for such a large vehicle. We'd rather feel a bit more in touch with the road while piloting a 3-ton truck. Furthermore, the sheer bulk of the Yukon makes you feel as if you're taking up the whole lane on narrow secondary roads, though this supersized girth is something you'll acclimate to after some time at the wheel. Thanks to the Denali's "Autoride" automatically adjusting suspension damping, ride quality over L.A.'s pockmarked pavement was impressive, as was the lack of wallowing through the turns on a section of twisty two-lane.
Parking, however, will always be a hassle if you live where the parking spaces are both shorter and narrower than what you'll find in less populous areas of the country. And although parallel-parking is actually pretty easy, thanks to the rear park assist and the optional rearview camera, you first must find a spot long enough.
Cruising at 75 mph on the open highway, the 2008 GMC Yukon XL Denali makes a more favorable impression. The quietness of the cabin at speed is eerie for something that looks as aerodynamic as a brick. One staffer even commented that he was cruising along with light, fast-moving traffic on the freeway and was surprised when he glanced at the speedo and saw 82 mph. Reeling in all that inertia is another story; stopping performance from 60 mph measured 134 feet during testing.
At the command bridge, a 12-way power-adjustable driver seat, along with the power pedals, allowed short (5-foot-5) and tall (6-foot-2) staffers alike to get comfortable behind the wheel. The plush seats in the first two rows provide plenty of back and under-thigh support. The third row offers 34.9 inches of legroom, nearly 10 inches more than that of a standard Yukon, meaning a trio of adults could theoretically ride back there, albeit cheek by jowl.
A tall, well-padded console top and large, cushioned armrests all around keep forearms happy. The second row features captain's chairs (a three-person split bench is optional) and those riders will also enjoy first-class amenities such as heated seats and their own climate controls.
As we've noted in its GM cousins, the Yukon XL Denali has a well-sorted cabin. Even though it's chock-full of luxury and high-tech features, the Yukon remains user-friendly. The nav system in particular is one of the best out there, with its intuitive design and large, brightly lit display. The multipurpose screen also offers an uncluttered layout for the audio system, with the preset "buttons" easily accessed along the bottom.
In addition to more third-row legroom, another advantage that the XL has over the standard Yukon is cargo space behind that row — there are 45.8 cubic feet available versus 16.9 cubes in the regular Yukon. If that's not enough capacity, you'll have to remove those rearmost seats, as they don't fold into the floor. And you'd best be in shape when heaving them out of the truck or you might hurt your back, since they weigh about 60 pounds each. Once those seats are out and the second row is folded, there is a cavernous 137.4 cubic feet of space at hand.
Design/Fit and Finish
Outside, the Yukon differentiates itself from its Chevy cousin with a mesh-style grille (actually small holes when viewed up close), vertical headlights and different taillights. Dressed in black, the Yukon's clean, slab-sided body gives the impression that it's something the Secret Service would use, which is actually true. Build quality is tight, with even panel gaps throughout. Our Denali's optional 20-inch chrome wheels added enough flash to be tasteful, not ostentatious.
The cabin certainly looks luxurious, with its wood-tone and metallic accents and padded door inserts. As with the exterior, build quality is solid. The only misstep here is the use of hard plastic for the dash top instead of soft-touch material, though you may only notice that if you tap it, since the graining neatly matches the other surfaces surrounding it.
Who should consider this vehicle
If you need to seat eight adults, carry lots of stuff, tow a boat or do some combination of all three, then the capable and luxurious 2008 GMC Yukon XL Denali may just be the ticket. The combination of plush ride comfort along with serious hauling and towing abilities is impressive, though the 13 mpg we got in combined driving is decidedly not.
If, however, you're in the much greater group for whom the above scenario isn't very likely, then we'd recommend the Yukon's full-size crossover SUV brother, the Acadia. Like its GM platform mates, the Saturn Outlook and Buick Enclave, the Acadia boasts superior driving dynamics and fuel-efficiency compared to its truck-based brethren. The Acadia also has true eight-passenger capacity, thanks to an independent rear suspension that allows a deep footwell for those in back.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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