Corvette power, Suburban size, & Cadillac posh for $10k less than the Escalade

The Yukon XL name has only been around for a relatively short time, having been introduced in 2000, but the long-wheelbase GMC is tied to one of the longest running nameplates in automotive history – the Suburban. Introduced in 1935, the Chevrolet Suburban has generated generations of fans and loyal customers. Now in the modern era, the Suburban has moved from a workaholic carryall to an upper-class status symbol. The GMC Yukon XL takes this to the next level with a more luxurious appearance and nicer interior trimmings. Then there’s the Denali trim.

The Denali lineup within the GMC brand has exploded in popularity with the rebounding economy. These leather-lined, chrome-clad versions of GMC’s vehicles offer Cadillac-like luxury with less shocking price tags. And that’s exactly how to describe the 2016 GMC Yukon XL Denali. It’s a Cadillac Escalade without the distinctive grille, higher price tag, and social clout that comes with owning a ‘Slade.

Nevertheless, the Yukon XL Denali provides all the right equipment and luxury for those seeking Cadillac comfort without the rock star vibe that follows the Escalade. Recently, I spent a week getting to know the Yukon XL Denali – all 18.6 feet of it. Make no mistake, it’s big; but it’s also powerful thanks to a 6.2-liter V-8 borrowed from the Corvette. Yep, this bad boy rocks the LT1 small block. Curious yet? You should be. Keep on reading to see what life is like with the Yukon XL Denali.

Continue reading for the full driven review.

  • Year:
    2016
  • Engine:
    V8
  • Transmission:
    eight-speed automatic
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    420 @ 5600
  • MPG(Cty):
    14
  • MPG(Hwy):
    20
  • Torque @ RPM:
    460 @ 4100
  • Energy:
    Direct Injection
  • Displacement:
    6.2 L
  • 0-60 time:
    6.0 sec. (Est.)
  • Top Speed:
    112 mph
  • Layout:
    Front Engine, 4WD w/ Low Range
  • Price:
  • size:
  • body style:
  • Overall:
    8/10

Video Review


Exterior

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The GMC Yukon underwent its most recent change for the 2015 model year, getting an all-new body style to match its all-new interior and underpinnings. The Denali version keeps the Yukon’s basic shape and design styling, but pushes the envelope with flashy chrome, a trim-specific grille, large wheels, and Denali badging to match.

Up front, that cheese grater grille is the most distinctive difference between the standard Yukon and the Denali trim. It sets the SUV apart, giving it just enough flash without being “blingy.” The HID projector beam headlights and LED accents further add to the bright chrome look. More chrome accents reside down low around the fog lights, around the side windows, along the door trim, the roof rails, on the wheels, and on the rear tailgate. Regardless of body color, the Yukon Denali is always looking bright.

"It has just the right amount of flash without being overly ostentatious."

My tester came coated in Iridium Metallic paint, a sort of brownish color with plenty of metal flakes shimmering within. Also on my tester are these optional 22-inch, seven-spoke wheels wrapped in all-season Bridgestone rubber. The wheels are aluminum and feature painted inserts that look rather sharp. Upgrading isn’t cheap though, as the wheels alone cost $1,995. Oh, and the Iridium paint color is part of the premium collection, meaning it costs $395 for the upgrade.

No doubt, the Yukon XL Denali is a great-looking SUV. It has just the right amount of flash without being overly ostentatious. All that stuff aide, the Denali still provides all the utilitarian items Yukon buyers expect. It comes standard with a 2-inch receiver hitch for towing, front tow hooks are optional on 4WD models, and modern safety equipment like a rearview camera and blind spot monitoring make driving the Yukon XL a breeze. The large side mirrors also greatly help.

Interior

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The Yukon XL Denali shares the same design as the non-Denali Yukons, but materials are richer, the screens are larger, and the center console features soft-actuating doors for the cup holders and cell phone bin.

Behind the wheel, the Denali features two large analog gauges for speed and engine revs, separated by a sizable TFT display. This display shows vehicle information like a digital speedometer, powertrain vitals, tire pressure info, and even turn-by-turn navigation directions. The display is configurable by the driver, with four layout styles. My favorite, the standard view, offers a row of digital gauges across the top for fuel, engine coolant temperature, voltage, and oil pressure. Tap the transmission in to Tow/Haul mode, and a transmission fluid temperature gauge replaces the battery voltage meter. Smart and seamless.

"The storage area can even be locked by a numbered keypad under the Valet menu option."

The center stack makes the most of the available space. The IntelliLink infotainment system offers intuitive controls for nearly every imaginable task. Radio presets reside along the bottom of the screen, menu buttons are smartly placed, and quick-link buttons stay along the top of the screen. Save for Chrysler’s Uconnect system, the IntelliLink is probably the best infotainment system on the market. What’s more, the 8-inch screen is power operated and will slide upwards, revealing a cubby hole for concealed storage. The storage area can even be locked by a numbered keypad under the Valet menu option.

The HVAC controls are ridiculously simple to operate. Triple-zone climate controls give the driver, front passenger, and rear passenger area the ability to adjust temperature independently. For parents with small kids, the front occupants can control the rear air via a handy control pad below the main HVAC controls. This turned out to be one of my favorite features. My wife, on the other hand, loved the heated and cooled front seats.

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In back is room for five passengers. My tester came with second-row captain’s chairs with reclining backs, which are not only immensely comfortable, but also make access to the third row super easy. Legroom in the second row is fantastic, while the third row is only slightly compromised for full-size adults. As with most modern SUVs, the second and third row seats fold, making room for large cargo. The Denali offers power-operation for both rows, however, the second row can only power fold. The third row works both ways. Even with all the seats in place, the Yukon XL offers a crazy amount of room for cargo. It’s when hauling seven people and a weekend’s worth of luggage that the Yukon XL makes its strongest case. When you need room for people and things, the Yukon XL is hard to beat.

Drivetrain

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Hauling stuff requires power, and the Yukon XL Denali comes standard with plenty of it. Though the standard Yukon and Yukon XL come with a 5.3-liter V-8, the Denali trim comes with GM’s 6.2-liter EcoTec3 V-8. This engine shares much of its architecture with the Chevrolet Corvette, including the aluminum block, pistons, crank and other various bits. Changes center mostly on air and fuel flow, so the truck version of the LT1, the L86, gets different intake and exhaust manifolds, more conservative fuel injectors, and a different ECU tune.

"The 6.2-liter kicks out 420 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and a mighty 460 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm"

Still, the 6.2-liter kicks out 420 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and a mighty 460 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm. That’s only down 45 horsepower and five pound-feet from the ’Vette. Also similar to the Corvette is the eight-speed automatic transmission. Of course, the Yukon’s version uses several different parts and programs, but the basic guts are the same.

Sending power to the rear wheels is a solid axle fitted with an Eaton G80 automatic locking differential. This traction aid locks the two sides of the axle together should one wheel begin spinning roughly 100 rpm more than the other. This makes both rear wheels turn together, eliminating the one-wheel-wonder on loose surfaces. Best of all, it requires no driver activation.

My tester also boasts 4WD. The two-speed, electronically controlled transfer case has five settings: 2WD, neutral, 4WD AUTO, 4WD high-range, and 4WD low-range. For those who just want to drive through any condition, simply place the 4WD knob in 4WD AUTO and forget about it.

Thanks to all that horsepower and torque, my specific tester is rated to tow 7,800 pounds. While that’s more than many three-row SUVs on the market today, its actually the lowest tow rating of GM’s full-size SUVs. The extra weight of the XL option and 4WD cut into the Yukon’s ability to tow. Opt for the 2WD Yukon with the HD Trailer Package, and towing is rated at 8,500 pounds – and that’s with the 5.3-liter V-8.

Of course, all this power and capability comes at a price. The EPA rates the 2016 Yukon XL Denali 4WD at 14 mpg city, 20 mpg highway, and 16 mpg combined. The LT1 V-8 also requires premium fuel. Then again, when you’re paying this much for an SUV, fuel prices probably aren’t a concern.

Safety

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The Yukon XL Denali isn’t short on safety features either – both active and passive. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Yukon XL four stars out of five in a frontal crash for both the driver and front seat passenger. Side impact scores are even better at five stars. However, the Yukon XL’s high center of gravity means it earns only three stars for risk of rollover. Overall, the NHTSA gives the Yukon four stars.

While a rollover has a slightly higher chance of occurring with large SUVs, the Yukon offers side curtain airbags for all three rows. The front passengers have frontal airbags, and the first and second rows both have side impact airbags in the seatbacks.

Thankfully, the Yukon XL Denali is pretty good at avoiding crashes in the first place, thanks to Forward Collision Alert, Blind Spot Alert with Lane Change Alert, Lane Keep Assist, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and GM’s exclusive Safety Alert Seat, which vibrates to alert the driver of nearby dangers.

Price

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Now, all this doesn’t come cheap – the Yukon XL Denali 4WD carries a starting price of $70,745. My tester came with an additional $7,000 worth of options. They include the Head-up Display ($425); Open Road Package, which includes the sunroof, 9 extra months of SiriusXM radio, and the rear seat DVD package ($2,860); 22-inch wheels ($1,995); Adaptive Cruise Control ($995); Theft-Deterrent System ($410); and the Iridium Metallic paint ($395).

Add in the $1,195 destination charge, and the total price comes to $78,520. Of course, that’s before taxes and dealer fees.

Driving Impressions

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The Yukon XL is a big vehicle, there’s no two ways around it. But behind the wheel, it somehow feels smaller than it really is. The large windows and side mirrors provide plenty of visibility around the outside, while the backup camera gives a great view behind the tailgate. That’s especially handy when hooking up a trailer.

The steering is pretty impressive as well. It has little play and offers a fairly connected feel to the road. It weights up nicely when turning, and only needs a few turns from lock-to-lock. The throttle provides a nice, long throw to control the big V-8’s power, and never feels twitchy. The brakes, on the other hand, are somewhat spongy, but are far better than the GM brakes of 10 years ago.

"The sprint to 60 mph happens in just six seconds, and highway passing is never a problem"

When moving in a hurry, the 420-horse V-8 lives up quickly and provides a thunderous soundtrack. The engine and transmission tuning is definitely conservative, as the transmission shifts at the earliest opportunity and keeps the V-8 loping along at low revs. It might sound crazy, but the Yukon could greatly benefit from a Sport mode. Hey, Ford gave the F-150 a Sport mode…

Regardless, with the skinny pedal buried, the Yukon XL moves. The sprint to 60 mph happens in just six seconds, and highway passing is never a problem. In these modern times, when SUVs are giving way to crossovers with CVTs and transversely mounted four-cylinders, it’s great to drive an all-American SUV with guts and brawn.

Competition

Lincoln Navigator L

2015 Lincoln Navigator - image 539486

The Lincoln Navigator has long been the Yukon’s biggest American rival. Like the Yukon, the Navigator is based off its respective brand’s half-ton pickup truck, so it offers plenty of towing and hauling capacities. Being a Lincoln, the Navigator also offers plenty of luxury within its seven-person cabin.

The Lincoln’s power comes via Ford’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6, which puts out 360 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission sends power to the rear wheels, or all four wheels if 4WD is ordered.

Prices for the Navigator L start at $65,560, and go north with options. A Navigator L comparably equipped to my tester is priced at $77,085, including destination.

Read our full review here.

Infiniti QX80

2015 Infiniti QX80 - image 549649

The QX80 might have an Infiniti badge on the front, but underneath is the rough-and-tumble Nissan Patrol, an SUV sold around the world except in the U.S. As you can imagine, the Infiniti version is far better equipped, with luxury goodies and all the modern electronics, including Nissan’s 360-degree camera system – a Godsend when parking.

The QX80 is powered by a high-tech version of the familiar 5.6-liter V-8 mated to a seven-speed automatic. The engine makes a respectable 400 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque. Power is sent to the rear-wheels or all four wheels with AWD. Like the Navigator and Yukon, the QX80 is a traditional body-on-frame SUV. Unlike the others, however, the QX80 only comes in one size. Nevertheless, the Infiniti offers plenty of room for seven (or eight) passengers and their cargo.

Prices for the QX80 start at $63,250. Opting for AWD pushes the price to $66,350. Configured in the range-topping Limited trim, the QX80 starts at $88,850 before options.

Read our full review here.

Conclusion

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The GMC Yukon XL Denali is undoubtedly a large, powerful SUV in a world full of soft crossovers with milk-toast demeanors and abilities. For that, the GMC stands out as a dominating, old-school American SUV. John Wayne would approve. What’s more, the Denali upgrade coddles all seven passengers in the utmost comfort and parades them around in style. Modern conveniences like heated and cooled seats, DVD entertainment packages, and power-folding rear seats are fantastic. Only the Cadillac Escalade offers (slightly) more luxury and amenities.

However, there’s no getting around the Yukon XL Denali’s price – $78,500 is a wad of cash. Granted, the Denali offers tons of features, but if you’re looking for something less costly, the standard Yukon XL starts at $51,400 – a full $27,100 less. That’s still not cheap, but the Yukon XL offers most of the same functionality found in the Denali.

If money isn’t an issue, the Yukon XL Denali is the perfect family hauler with a big V-8 and class. It isn’t overly flashy like the Escalade, but still provides a grand experience. All told, the Yukon XL Denali is a fantastic machine with attitude to spare.

  • Leave it
    • Expensive to buy
    • Expensive to refuel
    • Can be hard to park

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