The GMC Yukon XL offers a first-class drivetrain on expensive higher trim levels, but seating space and other drivability aspects fall short.
Versus the competiton:
The next generation of GM's big three-row SUVs is likely just around the corner. Until then, the aging current crop — which includes the Yukon XL — trails competitors in several key areas.
I’ll devote this review to the Yukon XL, an SUV we drove in top-level Denali trim. To the benefit of third-row legroom and cargo space, the Yukon XL adds a substantial 20.5 inches of length versus the regular Yukon, which we cover separately on Cars.com. It’s closely related to the Chevrolet Suburban, which is itself an extended-length version of the Chevy Tahoe (Chevrolet and GMC are sibling brands under GM). Compare all four SUVs here, or go here to stack up the 2019 and 2018 Yukon XL.
GM’s excellent 6.2-liter V-8 has powered higher trim levels of the Yukon and Yukon XL for a number of years. It’s potent, with instantaneous accelerator response. Press the gas pedal and the drivetrain launches nearly 6,000 pounds of SUV with gratifying alacrity. And with 420 horsepower and 460 pounds-feet of torque, the motor backs up that initial response with strong, continuous power at any rpm.
The transmission — a new 10-speed automatic that arrived just one model year ago — helps a great deal. In an era where transmissions have ever-increasing gear counts but stumble on basic tasks (like downshifting without gear hunting), GM’s 10-speed answers the call without delay. It upshifts smoothly and downshifts — finding the right gear — as soon as you call for passing power. Squeeze the pedal a little or push it to the floor and the 10-speed downshifts in half the time it takes some automatics we’ve evaluated. Bravo.
Lesser trim levels (the base SLE and two SLT grades) have a six-speed automatic and 5.3-liter V-8 with 355 hp and 383 pounds-feet of torque. We’ve tested that drivetrain in the Yukon XL’s twin, the Chevy Suburban, and it offers decent low-rpm power but just adequate mid-range punch. Passing maneuvers require most of the engine’s reserves. That’s in stark contrast with the redesigned Ford Expedition, a rival whose standard turbocharged V-6 packs performance akin to GM’s 6.2-liter. Whatever the formula, the Yukon XL charges extra for the best results. The Expedition does not.
The Yukon XL’s combined EPA-estimated mileage is in the high teens with either drivetrain, but GM recommends premium fuel with the 6.2-liter V-8. That costs some 24 percent more per gallon as of this writing. The 5.3-liter V-8 runs fine on the cheap stuff. With either engine, towing capacity maxes out at just more than 8,000 pounds for most variants. That’s competitive with other full-size SUVs, but those with serious towing needs should seek out the Expedition’s 9,000-plus pounds of capacity.
Ride & Handling
Like the Chevy Tahoe RST we recently tested in Cars.com’s Full-Size SUV Challenge, our Yukon XL Denali came with optional 22-inch wheels. Both SUVs drive home the impact of supersized wheels on ride quality. With the associated low-profile P285/45R22 tires, the Yukon XL exhibits poor isolation at higher speeds, even with the optional adaptive shock absorbers on Denali trims. Noise levels are low, but highway driving results in jittery turbulence on anything short of smooth pavement. GM offers rims measuring as small as 18 inches; even the Denali can wear more sensible 20s.
Wheels won’t alter the SUV’s body-on-frame roots; broken pavement leads to noticeable chassis shudder. That’s to be expected in a full-size SUV, but it’s high time GM improves the Yukon XL’s other reflexes. Steering requires annoyingly high effort at low speeds and exhibits numb, lifeless feedback as you maneuver through corners. It doesn’t have to be this way: As the Expedition proves, big SUVs can have lively steering. Our test Yukon’s tires exhibited good grip, but excessive body roll will keep you from testing their limits. The standard brakes, meanwhile, are as spongy as they come. High-performance Brembo brakes are optional, but we didn’t test them.
Big Outside, Modest Inside
Total seating capacity is eight with a second-row bench or seven with captain’s chairs, but despite all its exterior bulk, seating space is curiously modest. The front seats are wide but lack much sliding range; tall drivers will wish they had another inch or two. The second row has room to spare but lacks any sliding adjustments, so those in the third row can’t negotiate more legroom from their seatmates. As such — and despite an extra 9.7 inches’ legroom versus the regular Yukon — third-row space is merely adequate in the Yukon XL. Cargo space behind it, however, is 39.3 cubic feet, GM says. That’s well over double what’s in the regular-length Yukon.
The current generation of GM’s full-size SUVs enter their fifth model year for 2019, and that age is apparent in certain outdated-looking controls. The cabin’s risk-averse design, however, has held up well overall. Materials are good where it counts, with lavish padding where your elbows and knees end up. Denali shoppers might take issue with the trim level’s $70,000-plus asking price not getting you more consistency below arm level, where GM still stashes plenty of cheaper plastics.
Features & Pricing
Power front seats, tri-zone automatic climate control and a Bose stereo with an 8-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and HD radio are standard. Standard power points include five USB ports and a household-style outlet; an optional rear entertainment system with Blu-ray compatibility adds two more USB ports.
The Yukon XL starts around $51,000; four-wheel drive adds $3,000 to any trim level. At the other end, a loaded Denali — with power-extending running boards, 22-inch rims and an entertainment system with screens for the second and third rows — can top out around $85,000 with factory options. Disappointingly, automatic emergency braking, an important safety feature, is optional instead of standard.
Redesign ‘Round the Corner?
GM’s large SUVs share underpinnings with the automaker’s half-ton pickup trucks and typically follow their redesign by a model year or two. Given that the automaker just overhauled its Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500 pickups for 2019, the next generation of SUVs is likely close behind.
In the meantime, the Yukon XL sits in the shadow of the Expedition, an SUV that’s better in most ways. The Denali gets top-level equipment and a few styling differences, but similar money could get you a bona fide luxury rig like the Lincoln Navigator, a hands-down better choice. Shop the GMC if discounts are high in the current generation’s twilight years, but give the Expedition — and the Nissan Armada, for that matter — a hard look, too.
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