2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD Review

2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD

GMC is on a bit of a roll lately. OK, that’s an understatement. Last year’s sales were the best in more than a decade at 558,697 units.

The full-size Sierra pickup truck line was by far the most popular with 224,139 deliveries, followed by the Terrain with 112,030, Acadia with 96,393, Canyon with 30,077, and this Yukon finding 42,732 regular wheelbase buyers plus 31,334 long-wheelbase XL customers (GMC’s mostly commercial Savana van pulled up the rear with 21,992 deliveries). At a glance the Yukon’s sales don’t look all that significant compared to some of the others in GMC’s lineup, but we first need to factor in the model’s combined short- and long-wheelbase totals that resulted in 74,066 units last year, and then account for a base price of $48,315 plus freight and dealer fees, that when fully equipped in Yukon XL Denali trim reaches upwards of $85k, at which point we can more clearly understand that it’s a profitable part of the brand’s overall business.

My week’s tester was a Yukon Denali, albeit not the longer XL. That was just fine by me because its overall spaciousness was more than enough for my needs and arguably more ideally suited to my suburban lifestyle; excuse the reference to the long-wheelbase Chevy Tahoe that shares much with this Yukon’s underpinnings. On that note the bowtie branded model might sell in higher numbers than this GMC, with combined Tahoe and Suburban deliveries resulting in 139,208 units, but the Yukon gets my vote when it comes to style.

2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD rear view

This is an SUV you can feel proud to drive. Whether in base SLE, mid-grade SLT or top-line Denali trim the Yukon looks fabulous, although most will agree the extra chrome, larger wheels and other refinements found on the Denali make it stand out in an even more positive way. In fact, put it up against most premium SUVs and it shows them up with a clean, crisp design that looks good without trying too hard. OK, there’s a load of chrome up front plus plenty down each side and at back, but the headlights aren’t as bejeweled as most top-tier SUVs, its fogs are classy yet straightforward rectangles, there are no turn signals integrated into the side mirror housings, and the taillights are simple, straight, vertical lenses, albeit with some nice detailing inside. Overall, the Yukon wins fans by applying good pure design ethics, unlike some others in this class that are overdressed versions of otherwise unbecoming behemoths.

2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD interior

GMC continues its good taste inside, the Yukon Denali outfitted to a higher grade than its lesser model mates, not to mention the Tahoe in any of its trims. Of course, Cadillac takes the premium cake with its Escalade, as it should be with a price that ranges from $74k to $100k, that being the full-size GM SUV you should ante up to if you find the Denali lacking in aforementioned automotive jewelry, but this GMC is easily the equal of Lincoln’s Navigator when it comes to style, the quality of materials used as well as features, while it comes very close to meeting the same criteria when compared to Infiniti’s QX80, Lexus’ LX 570, and Land Rover’s full-size Range Ro… ok, that’s pushing it a bit too far. It certainly makes for a good comparo to Land Rover’s LR4, while most would agree it’s a lot more refined overall than Mercedes’ throwback G-Class. What I’m trying to say is the 2016 Yukon Denali is a true premium SUV in most respects.

Respect is a key word this SUV deserves, or at least I experienced a helluvalotta respect while driving past countless fans that stared longingly, were very willing to share unsolicited thumbs’ up, and just generally fawned all over it. And most of those hadn’t even been inside. GMC is obviously targeting a more sophisticated business-like client than it used to, although while more refined than ever before the Yukon makes no bones about being the truck-like luxury alternative to the over-the-top Escalade. To that end it’s more conventionally laid out. The gauges could be right out of a top-line Sierra 1500 Denali, while the leather-wrapped multi function steering wheel looks identical to that in the luxury pickup. Ditto for the contrast stitched leather upholstered front seats and center armrest, but more of its interior design has closer ties to the top-tier Tahoe LTZ, whereas much of it is totally unique and as noted more luxuriously appointed.

2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD dashboard

Truly, GMC hasn’t missed many beats when it comes to soft touch surfaces. The entire dash top is covered with a high quality padded pliable synthetic, whereas the instrument hood is wrapped with a separate piece of stitched leatherette. The door uppers are finished in similarly stitched leather-like material while soft surfacing covers the door inserts and even cushier leather-clad armrests sit underneath. Also impressive, the instrument panel and lower console are detailed out in French-stitched leather-like synthetic; even including the two lids covering a small bin filled with dual USBs and dual cupholders.

GMC doesn’t trim off the lower portions of the instrument panel with any soft surfaces, mind you, or the glove box lid, these done out in harder plastics that are at least matte finished and appear up to the type of abuse a 4×4-capable family hauler is often forced to endure. Likewise for some small sections of the upper door panels and all lower door moldings, again this more durable plastic probably appreciated by Yukon buyers. My only complaint would have to be roof pillars that aren’t fabric-wrapped, this the most obvious differentiator between a mainstream volume-branded model and something from a true premium marque, and I must say such is expected in a vehicle that costs upwards of $80k.

I don’t think anyone will complain about the switchgear, however, being that most of it is made from high quality materials, is nicely damped, and fits together tightly. The majority of buttons, knobs and toggles are large and easy to use with winter gloves, plus those that rotate are wrapped with grippy rubber rims. I’ve always liked the way GM incorporates digital readouts within many of its knobs, particularly those used for the HVAC system, and the Denali doesn’t disappoint in this respect either.

Also eye-catching, the Denali boasts gorgeous planks of high-gloss Java Burl poplar across the instrument panel, down each side of the console and across its doors, while beautiful dark-tinted burnished aluminum pulls attention toward the corners of the dash, each steering wheel spoke, and other key areas throughout the cabin.

2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD infotainment

One of those areas is atop the center armrest where that metal trim surrounds a wireless device charger, this just a hint of all the leading-edge kit integrated into this big SUV. At first glance the primary gauge cluster appears fairly straightforward in GM tradition, but wedged between the sporty chrome-rimmed white and red on black dials is a large, fully featured, color TFT multi-information display. You’d be forgiven for not noticing that interface first, as the massive infotainment system up top on the center stack will grab most peoples’ initial attention. Its colors are stunning, contrast deep and rich, while its overall resolution is as sharp as this or any segment gets, whereas the graphics are brilliant, especially the menu display that’s filled with smartphone app-like buttons for audio, phone, camera projection, navigation, vehicle settings, video, text messages, OnStar and more. The system is a 4G LTE hotspot capable too. How cool is that? Just below are go-to prompts for quick access while a nicely laid out auto HVAC interface resides under that, capable of controlling the temperature within all three zones. GM’s excellent three-way heatable seat controls with separate buttons for the seatback and squab deliver toasty warmth when needed, or alternatively those seats can be air conditioned via perforations in their leather inserts.

The seats are wonderfully comfortable too, thanks to good inherent design and myriad adjustability. The seating position is upright, access to controls and overall ergonomics excellent thanks to a powered steering column and powered pedals, plus visibility superb no matter where you look, the rear vantage point assisted by large side mirrors, a big backup camera with active guidelines, plus parking sensors front and rear. And believe me, even this regular wheelbase Yukon needs all the help it can get from electronic driving aids. Once out on the road, however, it’s an easy SUV to guide through town, a joy to coax through a winding country road, and effortless on the open highway, even mid-winter, all due to a nice, tight body structure, a fully independent suspension setup that includes a rear multi-link setup with coil springs, as well as magnetic ride control.

2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD rear seats

As sophisticated as that sounds and as wonderfully as it works there’s nothing like tonnage to keep a vehicle planted in its lane no matter the weather, and the Yukon Denali’s 5,746 lbs put it well into heavyweight territory. Water build-up from rain will only cause aquaplaning in the most severe floodwaters, while the Denali merely plows through slippery slush and white fluffy stuff. Kept at reasonable speeds it’s one of the safest, most comfortable vehicles for a winter road trip, and as for doing likewise in the summer it’s a most capable beast of burden too. GMC rates its as-tested payload capacity at 1,755 lbs plus trailering capability at 8,300 lbs (it can haul and tow a bit more in standard RWD guise), and even when fully loaded on the way up a steep grade you won’t have to worry about traffic buildup behind.

The Denali’s standard 6.2-liter V8 might be its most alluring asset, and not just because of the guttural mechanical machinations ahead of the firewall or sensational rumble emanating from its exhaust. It puts a substantive 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque down to all wheels via an ultra-smooth state-of-the-art eight-speed automatic transmission, which not only makes light work of heavy weight but pulls with enthusiasm off the line, especially when its just you, the kids and their baseball gear in back.

Of course you’ll probably want to behave responsibly more often than not as it’s hardly a Chevy Volt when it comes time to fill up, but then again when driven modestly it’s impressive for as a full-size SUV with an EPA rating of 15 mpg city, 22 highway and 17 combine in RWD and 15 city, 21 highway and 17 combined with AWD. Most of those imports noted earlier suck back a lot more premium fuel, and premium in mind the Yukon Denali will run happily all day long on cheaper regular gas; premium is only recommended for maximizing performance.

2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD cargo area

That baseball gear I mentioned earlier is hardly an issue in a vehicle this large, the Yukon capable of a full-size family sedan’s worth of cargo when all seven or eight seats are filled (the second-row bench-seat a no-cost option). By the numbers it’s capable of swallowing up 15.3 cubic feet of what-have-you behind its 60/40-split third row (about the size of very large sedan’s trunk), 57.6 cubic feet behind its second-row captain’s chairs, and a gargantuan 94.7 cubic feet when both rear rows are laid flat. And the Denali makes this process ultra-easy thanks to down/up power-folding third-row seatbacks, as well as second-row seats that release and drop into the loading position, albeit need to be manually set back into place.

I’ve mentioned a lot of features so far and most of it is standard kit, the $66,520 Denali ($69,520 with 4WD) details not yet mentioned including HID headlamps with auto high beams, fog lamps, chrome-trimmed side steps and roof rails, 20-inch alloys, remote start, backlit chrome-trimmed exterior door handles, proximity-sensing access with pushbutton ignition, courtesy interior lighting with theatre dimming, lighted footwells, ambient interior lighting, rain-sensing wipers, a heatable steering wheel, heatable power-adjustable and power-folding side mirrors with driver’s side auto-dimming, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a garage door opener, a 4.2-inch multi-information display, an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen, five USB ports, a 110-volt power outlet, Bluetooth hands-free with audio streaming, satellite and HD radio, tri-zone automatic climate control with separate rear controls, leather upholstery, heatable and cooled 12-way power-adjustable front seats with four-way lumbar and memory, heatable second-row seats with the power-release function and power-folding third row mentioned a moment ago, 10-speaker Bose Centerpoint surround sound audio, a hands-free powered liftgate, a cargo management system, front and rear parking assist, tire pressure monitoring, hill start assist, lane keep assist, forward collision alert, side blind zone alert, rear cross traffic alert, and a safety alert driver’s seat that vibrates when one of the just noted safety features activates, plus more.

My tester was dressed up a bit further with optional power retractable side steps featuring perimeter lighting at $1,745, a head-up display and adaptive cruise control with automatic front braking for $1,420, and a currently discounted Open Road package that features a powered glass sunroof up front and Blu-Ray DVD entertainment system in back for $2,260. Lastly, its first- and second row all-weather floor mats were $225 and Crimson Red Tintcoat exterior paint $495.

2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD engine

I said earlier I only had one complaint, the plastic-covered roof pillars, although another niggling problem was the direct result of its ultimately quiet interior brought about by lots of sound deadening material, acoustic laminated windshield glass and active noise cancellation, the issue being an incessant squeaking from the dash that was its own form of Chinese water torture. I can’t remember a modern vehicle doing this in more than a decade, the last one being a Saturn Vue compact SUV, but that was an early production vehicle pre-built for a long-lead press launch program (these are generally not built to the same standard as production models), while before that the offender was a Cadillac DTS that actually had its dash top coming apart. That General Motors manufactured all three shouldn’t go unnoticed, but as noted the other two were a very long time ago and I’ve driven hundreds of GMs since that didn’t even make a peep from chaffing plastics. I don’t mean to be a wrench in GM’s machine, or more specifically a squeaky gear, but more is expected from an $75k as-tested luxury ute, even if that number represents a pretty good deal as far as premium 4x4s go. On another note, we’ve already photographed more than a hundred 2016 models, plus we shot over 200 last year, and the year before that, etcetera, etcetera, and this is the first in as long as I can remember that had noticeable condensation within its taillights. Not good.

Still, I’m going to chalk these problems up as anomalies, especially considering GMC’s incredibly high owner satisfaction and customer service ratings by J.D. Power. Although that same third-party analytical firm gave GMC a below average rating for initial quality, yet then again it rated fifth amongst volume brands in that company’s latest dependability study. Let’s not even discuss Consumer Reports, however, as GMC’s 23rd out of 29-brand standing in that magazine’s latest report card on reliability is hardly pretty; its 13 out of 17 volume brand-standing doesn’t look any better. You can’t win ‘em all, so they say, but I’d be willing to bet the Yukon Denali is one model that props GMC’s results up rather than dragging them down, while some of GMC’s key competitors are even rated lower.

All in all the Yukon Denali is an SUV I could happily live with even if it caused me the odd headache. It’s so good-looking, so great to drive and so nicely finished, while its overall feature set and all-round functionality is superb. You could say I’m impressed.

Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press; Photo credits: Trevor Hofmann and Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press; Copyright: American Auto Press

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