In recent years, the folks at GMC have managed to transform the Denali sub-brand into one of the more successful premium nameplates — and kept the GMC brand relevant in the process. These days, roughly one in four vehicles boasting the red block print logo sold are Denalis, with an average transaction price of more than $57,000 — higher than the average price of BMW, Jaguar or Audi.
But before it was on small crossovers and midsize pickup trucks and massive heavy-duty rigs, the Denali name debuted on the Yukon. Indeed, the Yukon Denali has served as the Cadillac Escalade's more reserved twin for more than two decades, ever since the days when a giant, luxurious SUV seemed rather ridiculous rather than a profit engine. While regular Yukons have grown fancier and Chevrolet has begun offering extra-fancy versions of the Tahoe and Suburban, the Escalade has continued to move upmarket, leaving room for the Yukon Denali to slide into a niche between them.
Among the surprises the latest generation of these giants brought to market, however, transcends any particular model. While most of the world is leaving diesel behind —thanks mostly to a flood of bad publicity dropped on it over the years — GM has brought a turbodiesel engine to its big SUVs. The 3.0-liter Duramax — also found in GM's full-size pickups — seems ideal for a giant sport-utility vehicle, in theory, with abundant torque down low and better gas mileage (so to speak) than the traditional V8.
But there's good on paper, and then there's good in practice. To find out how the new Yukon Denali handles the real world, I took a Duramax-powered version out for a long weekend to Vermont, to better put it through its paces. It impressed...for the most part.
As SUVs have grown bigger and their front ends blockier, it's become a struggle to find ways to fill all that real estate, often leading carmakers to add all sorts of design elements meant to distract from the wall of vehicle looming in rearview mirrors.
GMC's treatment, though, is by far the more aesthetically pleasing among the latest crop of full-size General Motors sport-utes; while the Escalade's LED running lights give it a sabertooth face and the Tahoe/Suburban look a tad puffy-faced and squinty, the Yukon simply looks staid and square-jawed. The Denali improves on that even further by swapping out the regular grille, which looks a bit like a bottle opener, for one that looks like a Norelco shaver.
The Yukon Denali benefits from an interior that's not quite like any other of its siblings. It's not nearly as futuristic or high-tech as the Escalade's wall of OLED screens stretching from door to passenger, but it does integrate its infotainment screen much more organically than the regular Yukon (or Tahoe or Suburban, for that matter), and brings with it a swatch of elegant wood trim that's much nicer to look at than the dark leather-and-such that covers the dash of lesser Yukons.
Also unlike the Escalade — and more in tune with GMC's target customer, who's probably a little more likely to have worked with their hands in their life than the stereotypical Cadillac buyer — the Denali retains the regular Yukon's sturdy, easy-to-use knobs and physical buttons for the radio, climate control and secondary drive systems. All told, it's one of the better user interface systems in modern cars — packing technology that seems designed around the idea of being unobtrusive and helpful, rather than to show off. Expansive OLED gauges and haptic touchscreens are cool and look incredible, but when you're piloting several tons of metal filled with your loved ones at more than 100 feet per second while surrounded by obstacles that would hit you in seconds if you don't pay constant attention...sometimes simple is better.
As previously discussed, GM's newest full-size SUVs have moved to an independent rear suspension, which pays dividends in terms of both ride and interior space. Much as we automotive journalists might harp on the former, it's the latter that most buyers will appreciate more. Even with the third row raised, there's nearly 26 cubic feet of cargo space back there; drop that row, and the remaining occupants will have 72.6 cubes to share. Or in other words, if you take a trip with three friends, each of you will have more than a Toyota Avalon trunk's worth of cargo space to yourself.
(If that's still not enough space for you, or if you honestly drive around with five or more passengers on a regular basis, there's also the Yukon XL Denali for $2,700 more...but seriously, test-park it before you buy, because it's almost too long for regular life.)
Fine as that is, though, the best seats are up front. The front row is expansive, even if you're in the top one percent of height, and there's ample room for the long-legged in row two, as well. Between the comfortable seats and the NBA-star eyeline height, it's easy to feel like the king of the road from behind the wheel — which is largely the point of these sorts of vehicles.
It may not be GMC's ultimate off-roader — you'll want the Yukon AT4 or the upcoming Hummer EV for that — but the Denali is more than able to make like Schwarzenegger and kick some ice when called for. 20-inch wheels are standard, but most Denalis will likely come with the optional 22s; either way, clad in winter tires and being fed ample torque by a 10-speed gearbox and a four-wheel-drive system, the Yukon can plow through thick snow, accumulated ice or pretty much any obstacle lower (or softer) than its undercarriage.
Of course, a Subaru Outback can do much the same thing. What sets the Yukon apart from most of the crossover pack is the fact that, when the going gets truly rough, you can throw the four-wheel-drive system into low range and multiply the torque headed to the wheels. It's not something most buyers will likely use often —indeed, I'm betting the average Denali owner doesn't even realize the 4WD system has any settings besides "Auto" — but it's a reassuring feature to have when the threat of being stuck in deep snow (or having to yank another vehicle out of it) is all around.
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As with the Escalade, Yukon Denali buyers have a choice between two engines: a 6.2-liter V8 and a 3.0-liter turbodiesel inline-six. (Oddly enough, while the Duramax is a $995 option in regular Yukons, the diesel is actually $1,500 cheaper in the Denali — thus, arguably, making it the standard engine.)
Both motors make the same amount of torque — 460 lb-ft — but the diesel engine's 277 horsepower lags well behind the gas engine's 420. And while diesel engines often make a case for themselves on towing, the oil-burning version actually tows less than the gas-powered rig, albeit only by a hair.
The most potent weapon in the Duramax's arsenal, then, is fuel economy, and to hear the EPA tell the tale, it's a strong case: 6.2-liter Yukons are rated at 14 mpg city / 19 mpg highway, versus 20 city / 26 highway for the Duramax. My testing, however, didn't bear that out; according to the trip computer, I averaged around 23 mpg in roughly 700 miles of mostly highway driving. Add in the fact that diesel is harder to find than gasoline (my usual gas stations didn't have it, for example) and that it tends to emit more CO2 on a per-mile basis than gas, and the demerits seem to counteract the benefits.
The biggest problem with the diesel Denali, however, is when you take it to exactly the sort of place seen in the GMC stock images: cold, snowy climates. Diesels and cold temperatures do not play well together, as I can tell you from one very unpleasant instance in Vermont several years back when I came outside one sub-zero morning to find my Sierra HD test truck utterly immobile. GMC, of course, knows this, which is why the Duramax versions come with an integral engine block heater powered via a hidden electrical port tucked behind a cover on the front fascia.
Actually using said plug, however, requires popping the cover off by hand — which, in turn, requires removing your gloves and trying to use your fingertip to pry it loose, which is hardly ideal in the cold conditions you'll be using it. Sticking it back on when you're done is little easier; it takes a firm whack of the palm to snap it back into place, which, again, isn't exactly what you're looking to do when it's in the single-digits.
More importantly, the need for the block heater means your parking choices are limited to spots within spitting distance of an electrical outlet. Which, as it turned out, the friend's apartment my girlfriend and I were staying at during our voyage to my Vermont hometown did not have — as, presumably, many a hotel, motel or
Holiday Inn AirBnB would also lack. We were able to get around this by leaving the Yukon in my mom's garage both nights and taking her car, but I assume most owners won't be so lucky — or so compassionate about having to jump through hoops for their $80,000 SUV on the ski weekends they had specifically in mind when they bought it.
Luckily, there's a workaround: 6.2 liters of all-American smallblock. Choose the gas engine, and you'll be happy as a clam.
Base Price / Price as Tested: $72,695 / $82,245
Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbodiesel inline-six; 10-speed automatic; four-wheel-drive
Torque: 460 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city / 26 mpg highway
Seats: 6 to 8, depending on configuration and how many butts you want to squeeze in the third row
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