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2018 GMC Yukon Denali: First Drive Review

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Used 2017 GMC Yukon 4WD Denali
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author photo by Jason Fogelson December 2017

Those who predicted that the full-size SUV was on its way out didn't expect such a long run of low fuel prices. They also may have underestimated how much buyers love driving big, luxurious vehicles. GM has never lost faith in the big SUV, and has applied continuous upgrades to its body-on-frame models, including the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe, and GMC Yukon. The 2018 GMC Yukon Denali is the latest to get a refresh, and it is the top-of-the-line in the GMC portfolio.

Denali As a Brand

"Denali" is the top trim level for GMC. It was initially exclusively a Yukon trim level, but has been expanded to the entire GMC lineup. There's a Sierra Denali, a Canyon Denali, an Acadia Denali and even a Terrain Denali now, each loaded up with luxury features and benefits, as well as functional exclusives. Still, when a consumer boasts that they have a Denali, they are most likely referring to a Yukon Denali or a Yukon XL Denali. The full-size SUV is GMC's halo vehicle.

Changes to the Exterior

2018 represents a minor refresh for the Yukon, not a big change over the model that's been on the road since the 2015 model year. A new sculptural grille has replaced the old honeycomb grille, bringing the Yukon closer in appearance to the other more recent Denali models. There will also be a new available exterior color: Satin Steel Metallic.

New on the Interior

Inside, a new wood trim treatment features real Mastique Ash wood with a satin finish. The new finish replaces a gloss finish from past years, and allows the grain of the wood to show through. There's an effort to display authenticity in the cabin of the Denali. If something looks like metal, it probably is metal or aluminum, not coated plastic. If it looks like stitched leather, it is stitched leather. And leather surfaces have a new, more durable finish that will keep them looking good longer. For buyers who connote luxury with quality, that's a happy convergence.

Established Engine, Meet New Transmission

Yukon Denali continues to come with one of GM's best engines, a 6.2-liter V8 with variable valve timing, direct gasoline injection and Active Fuel Management. The big engine is tuned to produce 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque, a big step up from the Yukon SLE's 5.3-liter EcoTec V8 (355 hp/383 lb-ft of torque).

New for 2018, Denali gets a 10-speed automatic transmission, a variant of the quick-shifting unit that debuted in the latest Camaro ZL1. We're seeing a bit of an arms race when it comes to automatic transmissions, with more and more gears crowded into gearboxes. This transmission is a conventional automatic (as opposed to dual-clutch automatics in some other vehicles). It has a tow/haul mode and maintains Denali's maximum tow rating of 8,400 lbs. EPA fuel economy estimates are 14 miles per gallon in the city/23 mpg on the highway (2WD) and 14 mpg city/22 mpg hwy (short wheelbase 4WD)/21 mpg hwy (XL 4WD).

Suspension and Handling

Yukon is a body-on-frame SUV, a style of construction that is truck-based, as opposed to car-based crossover vehicles that are built as a unibody, without a frame. Luxury buyers don't seek out a trucklike ride, though, so GMC's engineers work hard to give Denali a smooth ride with independent coil-over front suspension and a solid rear axle with 5-link location and coil springs. Magnetic Ride Control, a technology that debuted on the Corvette, provides continuous damping adjustment through magic. Okay, maybe they use magnetic fluid that can be instantly thickened or thinned in response to road conditions. Seems like magic to me. The result is a smooth ride, reduced body roll and a very serene ride. A choice of rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive is offered for the Denali.

Technology and Convenience

The Denali comes with all of the expected premium infotainment and telematics options, including navigation, premium Bose surround sound, an 8-inch touchscreen interface, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot (with a free 3-month trial) for up to eight devices, four USB outlets, a 110-volt outlet in the cargo area and more. Wireless phone charging is standard, with a convenient slot in the top of the front center armrest. Active noise cancellation helps to isolate the cabin from traffic, road and engine noise. A hands-free programmable power liftgate is standard, as are power fold and lift third-row seats -- a great feature for cargo management. Second-row seats fold and flip manually, making easy access to the third row possible, even for limber adults. Power-retractable assist steps aid all passengers and drivers climbing up into the tall seats, supplemented by robust, well-placed grab handles. Attention has been paid to all three rows, so each seating position feels like a luxury perch.


Whether or not it's a fact, many buyers state that their reason for buying a big SUV is safety. They hold to the belief that their 3-ton vehicle will come out better in a crash with a smaller vehicle. Behind the wheel, it certainly feels that way, as the commanding view from the Denali driver's seat is empowering. GMC does its best to back up the impression with active and passive safety features. Available advanced cruise control helps to maintain speed and following distance with radar, and includes forward emergency braking with pedestrian detection. The Safety Alert Driver's Seat gives haptic feedback in the seat in conjunction with rear cross-traffic alert and side blind spot monitoring with lane-change alert. A standard rear-vision camera (a must in such a big vehicle) operates through the 8-in touchscreen at the top of the center stack.

Driving Experience

We test drove the Yukon Denali and the long-wheelbase Yukon Denali XL over three days in Colorado on a series of journeys that took us from mile-high Denver to Beaver Creek and passes above 10,000 feet. Despite the elevation, the big 6.2-liter engine had no problem motivating the 3-ton (nearly) Denali up and down hills and mountain roads, always with power in reserve. The 10-speed transmission sometimes felt a little busy on inclines, especially while using cruise control, but at all other times, it was smooth as silk and kept the engine in a good power band. Cruising around Vail and up to Leadville and back, it was easy to see why so many families choose a Denali for their big vacation vehicle. Not only is there plenty of space and great amenities for all, but the SUV also eats up the road in total serenity. Though it has no autonomous driving ability (yet), the Denali practically drives itself.

Trim Levels and Pricing

The Denali is at the top of the Yukon trim line. There are two rear-wheel-drive models, the Yukon Denali 2WD (starting at $67,460) and the long-wheelbase Yukon XL Denali 2WD (starting at $70,160), and two 4-wheel-drive models, the Yukon Denali 4WD (starting at $70,460) and the Yukon XL Denali 4WD (starting at $73,160). That's a healthy step up from the Yukon 2WD SLE's $49,375 starting price, but one could argue that the Denali is almost in a class above the base Yukon.

The Competitive Set and Final Thoughts

The rest of the full-size SUV competitive set isn't standing still, either. Buyers who are considering a body-on-frame SUV would be wise to drive the Lincoln Navigator, Infiniti QX80, Mercedes-Benz GLS, Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX, not to mention the Cadillac Escalade and Chevrolet Suburban. Also, if it's been a while, check out the GMC Acadia, Volkswagen Atlas and Volvo XC90 to see how far crossover vehicles have come.

The 2018 GMC Yukon Denali is tough to beat, with a great combination of luxury and capability.

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Used 2017 GMC Yukon 4WD Denali
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2018 GMC Yukon Denali: First Drive Review - Autotrader