The 2015 GMC Yukon XL Denali is a powerful full-size SUV with seating for up to eight, but the cabin isn't distinct enough from its Chevrolet siblings to warrant its luxury-class price tag.
GM redesigned its family of full-size SUVs for the 2015 model year, giving them a stronger frame, new V-8 engines, boxier exterior styling and richer interiors (to see the 2015 and 2014 Yukon XL compared, click here). The regular Yukon and extended-length Yukon XL are positioned between the mass-market Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, and the luxury-oriented Cadillac Escalade in GM's lineup. Outside the GM family, the Yukon XL competes with the Ford Expedition EL (see their specs compared here).
We tested a four-wheel-drive Yukon XL Denali, which is an upscale version of the Yukon XL that gets a more powerful 6.2-liter V-8 engine and different styling cues, like a unique chrome grille. It starts at $71,415, including a $1,195 destination charge, but optional features brought our as-tested price to $78,725.
Exterior & Styling
Despite the Yukon XL's boxier appearance, GMC says the SUV is more aerodynamic than its predecessor. The chiseled look suits this big SUV well, though, and the upright grille styling is a big improvement over the prior model's cartoonish shape.
Denali models get a mesh-style chrome grille that looks quite a bit different from the regular Yukon XL's horizontal-bar design. Other changes include high-intensity-discharge headlights and standard 20-inch aluminum wheels. The overall look, though, is more bold than elegant.
How It Drives
Refinement has been happening in all corners of the automotive world, including the full-size truck and SUV segments. The Yukon XL is a prime example of this, reflecting how small the driving-experience gap has become with full-size car-based crossovers.
This refinement comes across in a few ways. The Yukon XL is composed on the highway and easy to steer. It's quiet, too, with just a hint of wind noise at highway speeds. Overall, it has an easy-driving way about it that seems ideal for long family road trips.
Denali models have GM's Magnetic Ride Control adaptive suspension. The system is very good at limiting body motions — both body roll when cornering and also bobbing movements on rolling pavement. Compared with the non-adaptive suspension other trims have, however, ride quality over smaller bumps and pavement breaks is harsh; you feel every irregularity, and on rougher pavement it makes for a bumpy ride.
According to a GM representative, the Magnetic Ride Control shocks were scheduled to be improved in late 2014 to make them less sensitive to small road irregularities. Our test model was built in June 2014, however, so we weren't able to experience the updated calibration that should now be in Denali models on dealer lots.
A 355-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8 engine is standard in the Yukon XL, but the Denali version gets a 6.2-liter V-8 rated at 420 hp. The extra power is welcome; the 6.2-liter V-8 gets the Yukon XL up to highway speeds quickly and provides strong around-town acceleration. The Denali model weighs about three tons, but the 6.2-liter V-8 doesn't feel burdened.
Our test model had a six-speed automatic transmission. While you may be able to buy a new Yukon XL Denali with this transmission, it's more likely that ones on dealer lots now will have a new eight-speed automatic transmission that became available in November 2014 as a late change for the 2015 model year.
EPA-estimated gas mileage for the four-wheel-drive Yukon XL Denali remains 14/20/16 mpg city/highway/combined with the new transmission, but rear-wheel-drive versions gain 1 mpg on the highway for a 15/22/17 mpg estimate. GM says the eight-speed automatic's shifts are quicker, and a new torque converter provides smoother low-speed performance.
As for the six-speed automatic, I like how it works with the 6.2-liter V-8. It's very responsive, kicking down quickly when you need more power. We've been impressed with the eight-speed's pairing with the 6.2-liter engine in GM's full-size pickup trucks, so the change bodes well for the Yukon Denali.
The Yukon XL Denali has the same cabin layout as non-Denali models, but it gets nicer standard materials, like real wood trim and premium leather upholstery. There are many soft-touch materials, the controls are nicely arranged and the styling is eye-pleasing, but the overall look is too similar to the Chevrolet Tahoe's interior.
The front bucket seats have soft seat cushions, but backrest cushioning is quite firm. Many people like the elevated driving position SUVs provide, and the Yukon XL delivers; you sit up high and can look over cars in front of you. Optional power-retracting running boards make it easier to climb inside.
There's enough legroom in the second row to stretch your legs a bit, and the seating position is comfortable. The optional second-row captain's chairs don't slide forward or backward, but their backrests recline. Like the front seats, the second-row chairs have soft seat cushions and firm backrests. They tumble forward to make a wide walk-through to the third row, but you can also walk between them.
The Yukon XL's extra length — about 20 inches longer than a regular Yukon — goes a long way toward improving passenger comfort in the third row. Unlike the Ford Expedition, which offers exceptional third-row seat comfort, the regular Yukon's third row is unusable for adults because legroom is extremely limited. The Yukon XL remedies that with an extra 9.7 inches of third-row legroom for a total of 34.5 inches. It's considerably more comfortable despite the hard seat cushioning.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Controls are sensibly arranged and easy to use. GMC is wise to steer clear of the capacitive touch-sensitive button fad, which appears to be in its last days, but some of the Yukon XL's physical buttons, like the ones for the heated seats, could be larger so they're easier to use. Unlike many other full-size SUVs that have console shifters, the Yukon XL has its shifter on the steering column. This lets the base trim level seat up to nine people with an available first-row bench seat, and the design also frees up space for additional console storage.
Denali trim levels get a unique instrument panel with an 8-inch color display between the tachometer and speedometer. The screen has a few themes and can show different kinds of vehicle information, like what song is playing on the radio, trip info or a redundant navigation map. The secondary map is a nice feature, but GM doesn't utilize the screen to its full potential; the map takes up just a portion of the screen even though there's room for a much larger image.
The standard IntelliLink multimedia system has an 8-inch touch-screen that recognizes smartphone-style gestures like swiping to view different information. Physical buttons located below the display supplement the on-screen menus. At the tap of a button, the screen motors up to reveal a hidden compartment and one of five standard USB ports. An MP3 jack and an SD card slot are also included.
The system paired easily with my iPhone using Bluetooth and quickly loaded all my contacts. The Bluetooth feature includes streaming audio for playing music stored on your phone; song names appear on the touch-screen and you can skip through your music using screen controls.
The Yukon XL gained 4G LTE internet connectivity in late 2014, making the SUV a rolling Wi-Fi hotspot for tablets and other mobile devices. GMC includes a three-month/3-gigabyte data trial through OnStar.
Cargo & Storage
Another benefit of the Yukon XL's extra length is considerably more cargo room behind the third row. The regular Yukon has just 15.3 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row, while the Yukon XL has 38.9 cubic feet. Maximum cargo room with the second and third rows folded is 121.1 cubic feet — a little less than the Expedition EL's 130.8 cubic feet. You have to clear the Yukon XL's high bumper when loading cargo.
The Yukon XL has lots of space for smaller items thanks to tiered door pockets, small cubbies along the center console, the hidden compartment behind the touch-screen and a big center console storage bin that's large enough to hold a laptop computer. The glove box, however, is small.
Crash-test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety weren't available as of publication, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the 2015 Yukon and Yukon XL an overall rating of four out of five stars. Regular- and long-wheelbase versions of the Expedition received five stars overall.
Besides traditional front-seat side-impact airbags, there's a side-impact airbag on the inboard side of the driver's bucket seat that's designed to prevent front passengers from hitting each other in a crash. A backup camera and front and rear parking sensors are standard.
Optional advanced safety features include a blind spot warning system; lane departure warning; forward collision warning; rear cross-traffic alert; adaptive cruise control with automatic braking; and GM's Safety Alert Seat, which issues driver warnings through seat-cushion pulses.
Value in Its Class
Big SUVs like the Yukon XL come with big price tags to match; the SUV starts at more than $50,000, and in Denali form it can cost as much as full-size luxury SUVs like the Lincoln Navigator, Infiniti QX80 and Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. While nicely appointed, the Yukon XL Denali doesn't ooze luxury like some of those models do.
It is less ostentatious, though, and that's resonated with SUV shoppers; GMC says more than 60 percent of all Yukon sales are Denali models. That's impressive, and it will be interesting to see how GMC evolves the Denali formula in the years ahead.
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