Review: 2018 GMC Yukon Denali Is a Balance of Power and Practicality

December 29, 2017 by Carly Schaffner, @carlyschaffner

General Motors wants consumers to know that its 2018 GMC Yukon Denali is just as luxe as a slope-side ski resort nestled in the Rocky Mountains.

Because it is.

Initially, I balked at the thought of driving 137 miles into the snowy mountains following an early-morning flight. But a few miles behind the wheel of the decked-out SUV eased my mind. The Denali sub-brand GMC has created — which has now hit 1 million total sales across its lineup — screams luxury. It’s a five-star resort on wheels.

New for the 2018 GMC Yukon Denali — and partially what the mountain drive was meant to showcase — is a 10-speed automatic transmission. It’s the same transmission as the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, but tuned for a smoother ride rather than sport performance.

The engine in this SUV — based on the same truck platform that houses the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado — is huge. It’s not fuel efficient. The 6.2L V8 is a carryover from the 2017 model. The older 4WD model got 15 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway. Efficiency dipped for surface roads — the 2018 4WD version gets 14 — but improved to 22 mpg on open roads.

Most buyers of the Yukon with the top-trim Denali version are not crunching mpg numbers. They are looking for comfort and performance. And they are willing to pay for it. The version I tested priced out at more than $80,000. That’s a lot for a truck, even one that’s trickedout with all the bells and whistles. But the SUV delivers.

My first impression of the handsome SUV, however, was not about engine power, shifting gears or fuel efficiency. It was about the SUV’s interior livability.

The vehicle I tested was outfitted with the Denali Ultimate package, a new option for 2018. Highlights of the package include power running boards, which automatically lower when the doors are opened. The steps give the user more accessibility to the roof racks, a major plus when on a ski or snowboard excursion. They also help with loading and unloading people, and provide extra stability for feet in icy conditions.

The Ultimate also gets 22-inch aluminum wheels, which are 2 inches bigger than the standard. The chrome wheels popped against the iridium metallic exterior paint color, basically a sparkly dark grey. Other embellished hardware includes a totally revamped grille that hints at future Denali styling first seen on the 2018 GMC Terrain. The new design is more rectangular, less contiguous and has a floating quality.

GMC also put some thought into the interior. The aluminum accents and ash wood trim — new for 2018 — give a classic feel to the aesthetic. In some previous GMC models with the Denali trim, the automaker cut corners and used plastic faux wood. The leather seats are cushy. Not once during the long drive did I shift in discomfort. The seats also are heated and ventilated.

GMC Yukon Denali interior. (Photo: GMC)

The second-row captain’s chairs are heated and offer decent leg room for back-row passengers. There is a good-sized gap behind the center console and between the seats that is easily reachable by the driver for stowing oversized bags when the shotgun position is occupied.

Tote storage is always a paramount concern for me as I typically lug supplies for myself and two toddlers. Top of my mind for kiddos is also the availability of car-seat attachments. The second row has lower anchors and top tethers. However, the third-row only has top tethers, making it difficult or impossible (depending on brand) to attach a booster. This is a bit of a disappointment (but not a deal breaker) because the third row is the ideal road-trip seating position for a whiny 5-year-old.

An adult could make it crammed in the back for a short commute, but not on a cross-country trek. I am taller than average and was hugging my knees a bit (especially in heeled boots) in the back seat. There is ample elbow room, but a grade change in the floor from the second to third row — a result of the vehicle’s powertrain configuration — makes it feel cramped. The higher floor position also demands extra elbow grease when hoisting heavier cargo into the trunk space.

But the lift is a consequential compromise for buyers looking for a third row with meaningful cargo space.

The SUV is loaded with tech. Connectivity features include a built-in WiFi hotspot, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility on an 8-inch infotainment screen. There is also wireless phone charging.

The gauge cluster is a bit daunting at first glance. The speedometer and tachometer are the largest, but a handful of other gauges for fuel, oil and electricity measurements, sit close. There is a compass for navigation as well as other safety notifications.

A head’s-up display, or HUD, proves useful as the driver can select a smaller combination of metrics to focus on without taking eyes off the road.

The 2018 Yukon Denali comes standard with all the advanced safety features drivers have come to expect, including cruise control, forward collision alerts, blind-spot monitoring and lane-change alert.

  • 2018 GMC Yukon Denali. (All Photos: GMC)
  • The 2018 GMC Yukon Denali stood up against icy conditions in Vail, Colorado. (Photo: GMC)
  • The GMC Yukon Denali is a full-sized luxury SUV that tows up to 8,400 pounds. (Photo: GMC)

Most useful to me was the available adaptive cruise control that allowed the vehicle to follow the pace of traffic. Cruise control and desired following distance was easily set and controlled from the steering wheel. The lane-departure warnings were different from flashing lights and beeps. The Yukon employed a vibration in the sides of the seat cushion to alert the driver. It’s a nice feature that keeps any wandering outside of the dotted lines a secret between the car and the driver.

The Yukon Denali tows up to 8,400 pounds when equipped properly. I navigated the SUV as it trailered six ATVs and I flinched more than it. The add-on weight was well within the vehicle’s capability — about 3,600 pounds — but it felt light as a feather. More nuanced than setting the SUV in tow mode was remembering to check the mirrors so I could monitor the trailer.

The Yukon competes in a class of extremely capable vehicles, but sales have been less than stellar especially in a market that favors larger vehicles. Through November, sales of the Yukon barely topped 40,000 units, dropping nearly 14 percent compared with the same period last year. The extended Yukon XL only sold about 29,000 units, a dip of 8 percent.

GM’s other marquee SUV, the Chevrolet Tahoe, led the pack with sales of nearly 90,000 units, but was still down 3 percent compared with 2016. Ford’s Expedition suffered the largest decrease of 15 percent, with sales of 46,000 units. Nissan’s refreshed Armada has kept the segment from falling too far into the red. Sales of the SUV hit 32,6000 units through November, surging 183 percent and helping total segment sales remain flat year-over-year.

However, 2018 will draw some much-needed attention to the category. In addition to the new Yukon Denali, Chevrolet added a street performance option to the Tahoe – the Rally Sport Truck trim – for the new model year that is both fast and refined. The new 2018 Ford Expedition offers splashy styling and can tow a segment best 9,300 pounds. And all three vehicles share the same 10-speed transmission jointly developed by GM and Ford.

Overall, the 2018 Yukon Denali is a champion SUV. Not surprisingly it doesn’t come cheap. The starting MSRP for the full-sized SUV is just under $70,000. The Ultimate package costs an additional $8,325.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but like the Four Seasons, one must pay top dollar for supreme service.

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