At a Cadillac event not too long ago, I mentioned our Buy This, Not That feature that pit the Cadillac Escalade against the GMC Yukon Denali to a company rep. “You know, there’s actually very little cross-shopping between those two,” he said. I have to admit I was surprised.
After all, the Denali, Escalade, and Suburban are nearly identical cousins. In New York City, one could easily be mistaken for the other, especially done up in livery black. And with the long-running narrative that GMC builds “the Cadillac of trucks,” I always felt there was plenty of overlap.
Well, there is, and there isn’t.
I recently spent a week with a Yukon Denali in onyx black, a truck that rang up at a lofty $77,850 after options (base price is $68,325). That’s well into Escalade territory. And the generous leather appointments and tech options certainly make it a bona fide luxury truck, befitting the price tag.
But here’s the difference between the Escalade and the Yukon. The Escalade is a 5,800-pound, body-on-frame truck that seems to be uncomfortable with the “T” word. In grand Cadillac tradition, it’s a big, unapologetic luxury vehicle that happens to share its platform with pickup trucks, including the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra. The Yukon, however, is a truck first and a luxury vehicle second.
The Yukon bears more than a passing resemblance to the Sierra, both inside and out. If you’ve spent any time in a 1500 Denali, you — and six of your friends — will feel comfortably at home here. The Yukon Denali feels like a truck, albeit one of the nicest trucks money can buy. It just happens to have a few more hides worth of leather inside and a longer roof than the pickup.
So let the people in the cities buy Escalades, and leave the Suburbans to the suburbanites. The Yukon is the rancher’s SUV. It’s for anyone who needs to get virtually anywhere or tow up to 8,400 pounds in comfort.
The Yukon does everything a Sierra can do, short of carrying an industrial lawnmower in its nonexistent bed. But if you’ve got $80,000 burning a hole in your pocket and need something luxurious that isn’t afraid of hard work, the Yukon Denali is the SUV for you.
GM’s full-size SUVs saw a redesign for 2015 that hit dealerships in February, 2014, so what we have here is a truck that’s really going on 4 model years old. That’s fine. Thanks to the boxy sheet metal and unique taillights, the Yukon is still handsome and contemporary.
The Denali’s wide chrome grille and optional 22-inch chrome wheels (a $2,495 option) add to the truck’s imposing looks. There’s more than a little Sierra in both the front and back, but GMC’s design team refrained from copying and pasting the pickup’s boxy looks directly onto the SUV.
The subtle teardrop headlights and simple taillights give the big truck a nice understated look. Altogether, it’s a refreshing appearance compared to the tall taillights and chrome overload on the Escalade, as well as the polarizing front end of the Suburban. Of the three brands, GMC does it just right.
Exterior pros and cons
+ In onyx black with heavily tinted windows, the Yukon has an all-business, slightly menacing vibe. That’s probably thanks to law enforcement’s fondness for GM’s big body-on-frame SUVs on TV and in real life.
+ I loved the power retractable running boards, even though they add $1,745 to the bottom line.
+ The design has aged well.
– A black Yukon might get you mistaken for a police officer, Secret Service agent, or limo driver. Results could vary depending on what part of the country you’re in.
– There’s a lot of exposed sheet metal here that’s dangerously vulnerable to dings and dents.
There’s only one powertrain option in the Yukon Denali: GM’s venerable 6.2-liter V8 mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. This sends 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque predominantly to the rear wheels, though it has a selection for four-wheel drive when the going gets tough.
When it’s time to get to work, the Yukon has a locking rear differential and automatic rear load leveling. That’s for when you need to tow a boat, horse trailer, several Chevy Chevettes in various states of disrepair, or whatever else you need to haul.
With all that power, the Yukon is surprisingly quick when it’s unladen. It goes zero to 60 in about 5.5 seconds, and it can hit speeds well into the three-digit range. The Denali’s standard Magnetic Ride Control (the same system found in the Corvette and Camaro) keeps things civilized through the corners. Just don’t take them too fast.
If you’re really looking to have fun and impress your friends, stomp the gas and watch the real-time fuel economy ratings drop into the single digits. We saw 1.9 miles per gallon accelerating uphill once, and we averaged about 16 overall.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ If there were a picture in the dictionary for the word “durable,” it would be of GM’s 6.2-liter V8.
+ It’s surprisingly quick and feels pretty planted for its size.
– Fuel economy? What’s that?
– Despite its impressive zero to 60 time and sure-footed feel, the Yukon can be a handful at speed.
– Lower-spec Yukons get GM’s 355-horse, 5.3-liter V8. Although that’s a capable engine, we wouldn’t want anything less than the 6.2 under the hood. Three tons is a lot of weight to move. The bigger the engine, the better.
The Yukon Denali might be a contemporary, near-six figure luxury truck. But inside, it feels familiar and unmistakably like any GM product of the past 40 years.
Maybe it was the two-tone brown interior. Or maybe it was the big column shifter and wood trim. The Yukon feels like a continuation of GMC’s trucks going back decades. That said, it still feels like the latest and best.
Everywhere you touch is covered in leather or soft-touch material, the switchgear feels nice and substantial, and the heated/ventilated front seats are both plush and supportive (second row seats are heated, too). The driver gets a power tilt and telescoping steering column, heated steering wheel, adjustable pedals, and seat memory settings. There’s also a three-zone climate control system, rear passenger entertainment system, and power folding third-row seats.
Interior pros and cons
+ It feels both familiar and contemporary, with good fit-and-finish and power everything.
+ There is plenty of room in all three rows for adults, with ample space for luggage. When you need to haul more, the power-folding third row makes the interior feel cavernous.
– I liked the Cocoa/Dark Atmosphere interior, but any way you look at it, that’s a lot of brown.
– The wood trim on the doors, center console, and dash looks nice and brightens up the interior, but its placement made it feel like an afterthought.
– As nice as the interior is, it still feels closer to the Chevy Suburban than the more upscale Escalade. And that’s saying nothing about similarly priced competitors from Mercedes, Range Rover, and Infiniti.
Tech and safety
Being at the top of the GMC lineup, you aren’t left wanting for much inside the Yukon Denali. On top of the power everything you’d expect from a near-$80,000 truck, buyers get nearly all the bells and whistles the GM portfolio has to offer.
The digital/analog instrument panel with its italicized digits will be familiar to anyone who has driven a bigger Chevy, Cadillac, Buick, or GMC in the past few years. And aside from a different start screen, GMC’s Intellilink infotainment system will feel very familiar. For those unfamiliar, it’s fast and easy to use, thanks to a bright, 8-inch touchscreen. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility are standard.
Underneath all that sheet metal, there’s the Magnetic Ride Control suspension and upgraded four-wheel anti-lock brakes (a no-charge option). The Yukon Denali also comes standard with forward collision alert, lane change alert, lane keep assist, and rear cross traffic alert, making all that truck feel much more manageable.
Overall, the Yukon has earned a four-star overall rating from the NHTSA, earning five stars in every test but rollover, where it managed three stars.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ It offers virtually every feature you’d want in a luxury vehicle, from a head-up display to intuitive Intellilink infotainment system.
+ Most safety features come standard.
– The good news: There aren’t too many option packages available for the Denali. A lot comes standard. The bad news: The packages offered are pricey. My test truck had $8,830 worth of them.
– In the end, even the latest safety aids can’t hide the Yukon’s high center of gravity.
My test truck was the little one. Making your Yukon an XL adds a cool 20.5 inches to the length and turns a 17-foot-long truck into a near 19-footer. But regardless of how long your Yukon is, you’re maneuvering a truck that’s nearly 7 feet wide, and 6 feet tall.
Yes, the Yukon’s Vortec is related to the 6.2 found in the Camaro and Corvette, and its suspension has more than a little in common with those performance cars, too. But at the end of the day, there’s no hiding this is a 3-ton truck.
The Yukon is smooth, comfortable, and quiet at highway speeds. But in city and rural driving — where the roads are at their worst, especially in late December — its heavy, body-on-frame construction comes through. That’s when you start to feel those bumps, squeaks, and rattles.
This isn’t enough to disqualify the Yukon as a luxury vehicle, but in the $80,000 territory, it stands out for its lack of refinement. Still, with the ability to do dirty work that many SUVs in its segment can’t, I’m inclined to give the Yukon a pass.
Wrap up and review
Priced as my test truck was, it would be easy to compare it to the finest luxury SUVs that Europe and Japan have to offer. But that would be foolish. In 2016, GMC sold over 90,000 Yukons in the U.S. That’s no small feat for a big, expensive, body-on-frame SUV. And we’d be willing to wager not many of those were cross-shopped with Range Rovers or Mercedes.
Despite being closely related to the Suburban and Escalade, the Yukon feels like its own animal. And in Denali trim, it’s one of the most luxurious trucks money can buy. As the General’s truck division, GMC isn’t willing to make its range-topping SUV any less truck-like, even if it’s at the expense of luxury. And after spending a week with one, I liked it for that. It might not be as slick as some of its competitors, but it doesn’t leave you wanting for anything either.
The Yukon doesn’t let you forget it’s a tough body-on-frame truck, that it could haul bricks in the back as handily as if you had a Sierra (just watch the rear glass), or that you could tow a sizable boat out back. It’s a throwback to the original, long-roof SUVs of yore. It just happens to be loaded to the gills with the latest tech.
The Yukon might not be the smooth SUV that every well-heeled suburbanite wants, but that’s OK. It does tough luxo-truck better than just about anything else on the market. And as long as GMC builds them like this, the Yukon will be in demand.