On the Road: GMC Yukon XL Denali

While waiting at the rendezvous point for this week’s vehicle delivery, my cousin Bob and I are engaged in a discussion about the merits of buying a new Jeep to replace his little-used pickup truck. Leasing or buying, two-door or four-door, he cannot make up his mind in what appears to be one of those male moments when emotion overrides practical common sense.

In some corners, the same could be true of the current craze with crossovers — of all sizes — as sales continue to defy predictions. With the majority of these new “wagons” going to female buyers, how did the driving population suddenly eschew sedans and compact cars (sales numbers for cars are sliding as truck sales now account for 54 percent of the new car market) for taller, more functional five-door vehicles?

After a high-mileage week in the largest SUV/crossover of them all, it is easy to see why the appeal is so strong, and why both female and male drivers are gravitating to these versatile trucks. Some is emotion, but there is a lot of practicality too.

General Motors has moved its full-size SUV vehicles, Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, Cadillac Escalade, plus this week’s GMC Yukon XL Denali, onto the same fundamental platforms as its full-size pickup trucks. This means more power from the engine room, increased fuel economy, as well as improved steering and braking feel. Styling is enhanced externally, with sharper lines and more expressive fascias on all of the new SUVs, plus the revamped interiors are more content-laden if slightly down on overall cargo space.

That last statement has pros and cons. In our Midnight Amethyst Denali, the top-of-the-line Yukon, both the second and third row split-seatbacks power fold from switches at the rear. These folded seats now create a long, flat load-deck under the adjustable power liftgate yet the change cost about 10 percent of overall cargo capacity. Second row seating remains spacious, and third row seating is still best suited to smaller occupants, however access is still convenient.

From the first few moments piloting the GMC Denali until the end of the week together, impressions did not change. My first notes in the logbook were WOW. Wow, at how smoothly and adroitly the big GMC drives (224 inches long, three tons), wow at how responsive the 6.2-liter 420-hp V-8 is, and wow at the features content of this big truck.

Buyers are apparently wowed too. GM outsells Ford in this segment — full-size SUVs — almost 5-to-1. Is it the styling, the power, the visual stance? The Ford (and Lincoln) SUVs now come with turbocharged V-6 engines — down 55 hp and 40 pound/feet of torque to the 6.2-liter V-8’s output, while the GM V-8s deliver the same or better fuel economy than the smaller Ford engine. The Fords do have an independent rear suspension, which aids interior packaging and ride compliance, but sacrifices some towing capacity. Apparently, buyers want to tow — up to 8,300 pounds with the Denali — and want performance muscle, fuel economy and amenities. And boy does the Denali have amenities.

From the power-folding running boards to the dual-screen DVD entertainment system, the Denali has a features list that requires two pages on the window sticker. Some of the highlights include; remote starting and keyless start, keyless access, tri-zone auto climate system, heated power tilt and telescoping steering wheel with memory, heated and cooled front bucket seats, heated second row seats, power pedals, Wi-Fi, power liftgate and rain-sensing wipers. The dash has configurable screens in front of the driver along with a central info/navigation/entertainment screen that doubles as your back-up camera panel.

In the electronics department, the Denali is just as well stocked with the Safety Alert seat, which vibrates warnings to the driver when you stray from your lane or approach other traffic too quickly. Blind zone alert, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alerts and forward collision alert are standard along with Stabilitrak, GM’s stability system. A new center airbag up front is now included, while the excellent HID-heads-up display, the power folding running boards and adaptive cruise control are part of the Premium package, $3,165.

The GMC’s chassis consists of a ladder style frame supported by Magnetic Ride Control and auto-leveling electronic assists. An auto-locking rear differential helps with 2WD traction, while the electric auto-mode 4WD setup, with high and low range available in the two-speed transfer case, improve off-road and foul weather traction capabilities. A trailering package, with trailer brake controller and trailer sway control, is standard, as are 20-inch wheels. Our loaded Denali carried the optional 22-inch wheels — which are quite heavy; these larger wheels did not translate into greater ride comfort on less than perfect pavement.

The Ecotec3 V-8 features direct injection and cylinder deactivation for enhanced fuel economy. The systems work; throttle response is prompt and robust with the truck storming to elevated speeds quickly and gracefully while marching down the road at a relaxed tempo far above the pace that your occupants detect. Slower speeds result in the engine shutting four of the eight cylinders off. These changes have also improved highway EPA ratings markedly — from 17 mpg to 20 mpg, while city EPA ratings climb by one mile per gallon. In real world use, traveling all over Maine, loaded with passengers and not, the GMC Denali returned a low of 17.8 mpg and a high of 20.7 mpg, beating both the EPA highway and combined fuel economy estimates — 14/20/16 mpg.

Regular Yukon XL models get by with a 355-hp 5.3-liter V-8 that gets one more mile per gallon. Base price for these trucks is $51,635.

Our Cocoa/Dark interior Denali starts at $69,375. Order all the goodies, twin-screen rear DVD, power sunroof, the 22-inch DUBS, and the security system and Premium Package and the sticker inflates to over $77,000. The Denali is built in Arlington, Texas.

The negatives are few; the seat heaters could be stronger (an anomaly?), the third row is tight for adult males, and while the 22-inch wheels are handsome, they did not improve the rural road ride. Otherwise, the truck handled and rode superbly — for three tons of rolling steel.

Pluses for the GMC Denali: convenient access, comfortable cabin with efficient controls, powerful, refined powertrain, great styling for a box on wheels, and impressive economy for such a large box. Maybe a diesel powertrain would further improve the mileage numbers, yet it’s pretty hard to contest the decision to use the current engine and gearbox combination.

GM’s full-size SUVs outsell the whole Buick lineup, all of Cadillac and Infiniti combined, as well as Porsche and Audi combined. With fat margins for these big trucks, it is clear to see why they are important to GM as well as how profitable these trucks are to the automaker.

These trucks are not cheap and they are not perfect, but they do dominate their respective class. Better in almost every way, the new Denali is an emotional and practical success.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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