GMC's Yukon Denali XL is the brand's biggest and most well-appointed SUV. Though it shares a platform with the more modest Chevy Suburban and more luxurious Cadillac Escalade ESV, the Yukon Denali is nonetheless an upscale SUV. This year it offers revised styling, more power and improved handling.
What Is It?
The 2015 GMC Yukon Denali is a seven-passenger full-size SUV. Fully redesigned for 2015, its wheelbase remains identical to the outgoing model at 130 inches. The standard Yukon offers a 14-inch-shorter wheelbase. Overall length and width on the XL see modest increases, while height is reduced about 2.5 inches relative to the 2014 model. As one of the largest SUVs sold today, the Yukon XL provides large volumes of cargo space and a flat load floor.
Though the higher trim Denali comes only with the large 6.2-liter V8, a 5.3-liter V8 is available in base models. The larger engine produces 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque, while the smaller engine is rated at 355 hp and 416 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are currently paired with a six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift capability. Beginning this November, however, all Denali trims will come with GM's new eight-speed automatic as standard equipment.
Our tester, a near fully loaded Denali XL 4WD, came with a $77,965 sticker price. Base rear-wheel-drive models with the 5.3-liter engine start at $50,030
How Does It Drive?
Ample development work and plenty of new technologies combine to make this large SUV remarkably easy to drive: pleasant, even. Inside, the Yukon is safe-room quiet and all its controls offer both appropriate effort and striking response. It's big, but it's easy.
Though docile as a pussycat, the big V8 will move the Yukon with authority if asked — and it even sounds good doing it. This truck is fast, requiring only 6.4 seconds to hit 60 in our testing. The six-speed transmission performs well by buttering the transition between gears with oily smoothness. Manual shifting is easy, if somewhat counterintuitive, using the toggle on the shift lever, and downshifts are rev-matched.
We didn't find ourselves yearning for more gears until we refueled. There we discovered a worst fill of 12.8 mpg. More on that in a minute.
Despite this, the Yukon represents a remarkable step forward in many areas where large SUVs have traditionally struggled, like parking. Standard front and rear parking sensors and a rearview camera make it simple to know where the Yukon ends and the sedan behind you begins.
Behind the wheel there's a level of control available that's rare among American SUVs. Steering and braking inputs are met with intuitive and manageable reactions. Body roll, pitch and dive are all better controlled than in previous-generation Yukons. The large SUV's usual nemeses (a solid rear axle and large, heavy wheels) are managed well by the Yukon's active dampers.
Remarkably, the performance snobs on our staff — those who drive cars at our test track — were dazzled by the Yukon's handling, saying it "drives smaller than it is." The closest thing we've heard to a compliment from the cone-dodging bunch.
Ride quality is impressive, especially given the solid axle suspension design in back. There's no float, yet we were also never troubled by the stiffness that attends some European SUVs. But the Yukon makes no claims to be sporting. It is big. And it does big fairly well.
How Safe Is It?
Standard safety features on the Yukon Denali include forward collision alert, blind-spot alert with lane-change alert, lane departure warning and cross-traffic alert, as well as the above-mentioned rearview camera and parking aids. All of the above are paired with the safety alert seat, which vibrates to warn drivers of a potential collision. GM's decision to display individual tire pressures in the instrument cluster is also a genuine safety benefit, too.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives the Yukon four out of five stars in its overall crash test rating. Its lowest score was in the rollover rating, where it received three stars for rollover risk.
Braking distance, the Achilles' heel of any vehicle this heavy, is predictably long. At 134 feet, the Yukon's stopping distance from 60 mph is considerably longer than some of its competitors.
What Kind of Fuel Economy Does It Deliver?
Four-wheel-drive Yukon Denali XLs, like our tester, are EPA rated at 16 mpg combined (14 city/20 highway). Two-wheel-drive versions earn 1 mpg better across the board.
It's no secret that the forthcoming eight-speed transmission will improve fuel economy, though neither GM nor the EPA will say by how much just yet. Don't expect more than 1 or 2 mpg, however.
We measured 15 mpg in mixed driving over more than 1,000 miles in the Yukon. It produced 15.9 mpg on our 116-mile test loop, which includes both highway and mountain roads. This is marginally less than the Infiniti QX80 we recently tested, which produced 15.2 mpg overall and 16.9 mpg on our loop.
What's It Like Inside?
Top-trim Denali models benefit from the best materials and most standard features GMC offers. Heated and cooled front seats covered in perforated leather are standard, as are a heated steering wheel, keyless entry and start and power-operated front seats with memory. Power-adjustable pedals are standard.
Materials and design, particularly the stitched leather trim in the Denali model, verge on luxury quality, and at this price they should. The center stack's simple buttons and knobs offer precise operation and logical layout. There's an 8-inch infotainment screen that raises to reveal hidden storage in the dash.
Our tester was fitted with the optional Touring package, which includes a Blu-ray DVD player with 9-inch screens for both the second and third rows. Connectivity and charge ports are abundant. The front row alone includes four USB ports, two 12-volt outlets, one compact flash port and an aux jack. The second row offers RCA jacks for the two rear screens, one 12-volt outlet, one 120-volt outlet, one USB jack and one aux jack. There are 12-volt outlets in the third row and the cargo area.
What About Cargo and Towing?
Certainly the Yukon XL's biggest strength is its roominess. Front- and second-row occupants are treated to generous head- and legroom. Second-row seats don't slide fore and aft but tumble forward to allow relatively easy access to the third row. They're also heated.
In the third row, there's enough room for average-size adults to sit comfortably. Legroom is better than in the shorter wheelbase 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe we recently tested.
Both the second- and third-row seats can be folded flat via buttons inside the hatch. Cargo space behind the third row is large and there's generous underfloor storage for relatively flat items. However, the same complaint we leveled against the Chevy Tahoe is valid here, too: By eliminating the removable third-row seats and leveling the load floor, liftover height is considerably higher than last year's model. Cargo volume suffers, too: down 16.3 cubic feet relative to last year's Yukon XL.
A 3.42 axle ratio is standard on Denali models, and when optioned with 4WD it's rated to tow 7,900 pounds.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
Certainly Toyota's Sequoia should be a consideration if you're shopping for a large SUV with towing ability. It offers nearly the same cargo volume as the Yukon XL. At 7,000 pounds its tow rating in marginally lower, but unlike the Yukon it meets that number with an SAE certification, which adds credibility to the claim. It offers independent rear suspension, which improves handling and ride quality as well.
Given the Denali's luxury intentions, the Infiniti QX80 is another solid contender. Though smaller than the Yukon, it offers optional seating for eight and its materials and design are more luxury oriented. It, too, offers a more advanced independent suspension with load leveling and optional body-lean control. Its maximum tow rating is 8,500 pounds: a number that's not SAE certified.
Ford's Expedition EL is the obvious direct competitor to the Yukon XL. It has an even longer wheelbase, more cargo capacity and a 9,100-pound towing capacity (No SAE certification here, either). It, too, has independent rear suspension. For 2015, it's available only with Ford's 3.5-liter turbocharged Ecoboost V6.
Why Should You Consider This SUV?
If you're in the market for a large SUV that's nice but not as costly as top-dollar Europeans, then the 2015 Yukon Denali XL is a good choice. It utilizes a proven combination for hauling cargo and towing: a big V8 and a solid rear axle. And we can report that, as large SUVs go, this one is both high quality and refreshingly graceful to drive.
Why Should You Think Twice About This SUV?
The Yukon's lack of an independent rear suspension hurts its ride quality and drivability. Though GM has done a phenomenal job of tuning around this fundamental setback in ride quality, sensitive drivers will still notice. There's no avoiding the packaging compromise it creates inside, however.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.