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First Drive: 2015 GMC Yukon / GMC Yukon XL / GMC Yukon Denali

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting
February 28, 2014
5 min. Reading Time

Here’s a little secret that most people aren’t aware of: GMC sells more vehicles than any other division of General Motors other than Chevrolet.  Helping to lead the charge – as it has for the past two decades, now – is the GMC Yukon, the truck-heavy brand’s full-size SUV, and the vehicle that launched one of the most successful stealth luxury names in the industry: Denali.

The 2015 GMC Yukon has been completely redesigned in the wake of a portfolio-wide do-over that includes fresh versions of the GMC Sierra/Chevrolet Silverado pickups that the Yukon has long shared a platform with.  Things change, however, and this is true for the Sierra / Yukon duality as well, with the new people mover slipping out of the long shadow cast by its truck roots and finally finding an identity all its own in terms of styling, on-road demeanor, and comfort.  This nascent personality shift couldn’t have come at a better time for the GMC Yukon, which is well-positioned to reassert its dominance over the premium SUV segment with imposing gusto.

The Same, But Different – And Better

Longtime fans of the box-like GMC Yukon – both short and long-wheelbase XL editions – will be pleased to know that the basic formula that has made the truck so popular hasn’t been messed with for 2015.  The Yukon is still absolutely enormous inside and out, with the Yukon XL offering an additional 20 inches of overall length over its entry-level sibling in order to boost rear leg room in the third row and push total cargo capacity from 94.7 cubic feet up to 121.1 cubic feet. 

Even better is the fact that the Yukon now gains a true folding third row of accommodations, instead of last year’s lift-out-and-remove unit that was ungainly to maneuver for anyone not possessing a fanatical devotion to Crossfit.  Switching from (up-to) nine passenger taxi to drywall hauler extraordinaire is now as simple as pushing the available fold-forward buttons nestled into the right rear paneling of the GMC’s mammoth storage bay.

In addition to its overly generous cabin space, the 2015 GMC Yukon has been given a thorough update to the design of its interior layout, including a new gauge cluster with LCD driver information display, the most recent version of the IntelliLink touchscreen interface, plusher, harder-wearing seats, vastly improved interior storage up front (including a deep center console that houses multiple power points) and a conversation mirror to keep tabs on those riding in the second and third positions.  Materials quality is up, up, up, and the interior of the Yukon is much quieter before thanks to the use of inlaid doors and acoustically-laminated glass.  Some models of the SUV can also be equipped with a configurable LCD gauge package that automatically adds critical engine and cooling meters when the transmission’s Tow/Haul feature is engaged.


Safety First - A First For The Yukon

One area where the current version of the GMC Yukon had fallen behind more advanced crossovers and SUVs was active safety.  The 2015 model comprehensively remedies this oversight comprehensively, introducing a blind spot monitoring system, a lane departure warning system, a forward collision warning and mitigation feature, adaptive cruise control, and the Safety Alert Seat, which vibrates from side-to-side to notify drivers of impending danger.  A center airbag between the front seats is additionally offered with the SUV.  GMC has also made the Yukon harder to steal, which will be welcome news to owners of this frequently absconded-with SUV that is prized for its delicious, profitable parts.  The revised set of anti-theft features includes glass-break and motion sensor technology, as well as a secondary power source to provide constant, unassailable juice for these technologies.


More Power Without The Efficiency Hit

Standard with the 2015 GMC Yukon and GMC Yukon XL is the EctoTec3 version of the brand’s durable 5.3-liter V-8 engine.  Now producing 355 horsepower and 385 lb-ft of torque (substantial increases over the 2014 edition of the engine), the unit features direct fuel injection and cylinder deactivation in order to reduce fuel consumption.  Fuel mileage for the base, two-wheel drive model checks in at 16-mpg around town and 23-mpg on the highway.  The Yukon’s transmission remains a six-speed automatic, and four-wheel drive continues to be available as an option. 

During the drive from Napa, California to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, I was given ample opportunity to punish the eight-cylinder under the hood of the GMC Yukon, including demanding downshifts through the infamous Donner Pass followed by passing maneuvers on flatter sections while clearing ski-seeking traffic.  Power from the 5.3-liter came across as - to borrow a term from Bentley - ‘sufficient,’ requiring kickdowns to third gear on steeper grades but generally acquitting itself well even in the thin mountain air.  I didn’t get a chance to evaluate the SUV’s heftier 8,500 lbs of towing capacity, but I can imagine that on more level surfaces it would be outstanding.

More impressive was the chassis work that has been done to the 2015 GMC Yukon, as its ability to not just keep up with the curves on the secondary roads of rural California but also soften the blow of the chain-chewed asphalt gauntlet one is forced to run on the way to Tahoe’s pristine splendor is quite good.  Make no mistake – this is still a very heavy truck, with a live axle slung under the rear seats and all the baggage that goes with those two qualifiers - but the minimization of body roll, and the response to steering inputs displayed by the GMC would have been unthinkable even ten years ago in a similarly-sized SUV.


Denali’s Upscale Majesty

For those willing to spend a not-inconsiderable sum (and most are: a full 60% of Yukon sales are Denali models), the 2015 GMC Yukon Denali offers a well-executed luxury spin on the base Yukon’s already appealing package.  Surely the most fully-formed Denali model yet (also available in the XL body style), this version of the truck grafts on a higher standard of leather, aluminum trim, and feature content throughout the vehicle’s interior, and also highlights the wonderfully chiseled front fascia of the Yukon by way of a chrome mesh grille and other styling flourishes.  In addition, it further visually distances the SUV from the Chevrolet Tahoe, which is also all-new for the current model year.

Aesthetics aside, the real secret to the 201 GMC Yukon Denali’s success lies under its sexy metal skin.  Between the front fenders sits a 6.2-liter V-8 that is exclusive to the model and which produces 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque.  Switch off the traction control system and floor the gas pedal, and the full bluster of this eight-cylinder beast is unleashed on an unsuspecting road surface with enough vigor to erase the more labored machinations of the 5.3-liter mill from memory.  It’s a sweet, sweet engine (also featuring the same direct fuel injection and cylinder deactivation as its smaller stable mate), and were it the only upgrade to the Yukon’s driving experience offered by the Denali package, then it would most likely be worth the steeper price of admission.  As the late-night TV announcer is wont to trumpet, however: ‘Wait – there’s more!

A lot more, in fact.  The Yukon Denali’s second showstopper is its magnetically-controlled adaptive suspension system, which can react to changing road conditions in as few as five milliseconds and alter the vehicle’s shock damping to preserve the integrity of its ride.  There’s a marked difference between the handling of the Denali and the base Yukon, and that can be attributed to the magnetic system’s refusal to let rough roads throw off the SUV’s stability.


Well Worth A Look For Large SUV Shoppers

Well Worth A Look For Large SUV Shoppers

The 2015 GMC Yukon manages to be better in every measurable way than the model it replaces, which is particularly impressive given the rather static nature of competitors like the Ford Expedition, the Nissan Armada, and the Toyota Sequoia – vehicles which can boast few, if any of the technological upgrades, safety features, or overall refinement found in the redesigned SUV.  Not only that, but the presence of the popular Denali line allows GMC to play in the luxury space as well, taking on much more expensive three-row rivals from Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti.

It comes at a price, of course.  As the GMC Yukon’s talents and temperament have evolved, so has the long number at the bottom of its window sticker (although it is still well below the ask of posh European SUVs).  The affluent customers that this SUV is targeted at don’t seem to care all that much, however, as the Yukon flies off dealer lots at an incredible pace on its way to forming the backbone of the brand’s balance sheet.  After spending so many miles behind the wheel of the 2015 model, I can’t see how that’s going to change for GMC anytime soon.



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