2018 GMC Yukon Denali First Drive Review: Shifting Gears


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There is a certain expectation when you are rolling in an $80,000 SUV big enough to seat eight and tow a horse trailer. You want to be rolling in style. You want your seats to be comfortable and heated or cooled with the push of a button, your playlist pumping out of high-quality speakers. And the journey should be smooth and effortless.

Fitting the bill is the GMC Yukon Denali. For the 2018 model year there is a new grille, dropping the honeycomb to share the new GMC look already on the new Acadia and Terrain. The more jeweled look will eventually migrate across the portfolio. Denali also picks up new and unique 22-inch wheels and adds the Ultimate package with an assortment of creature comforts and safety features.

But the key upgrade is the 2018 Yukon Denali becomes one of the first SUVs in the GM stable to get the new 10-speed automatic transmission paired to its 6.2-liter V-8 engine that produces 420 hp and 460 lb.-ft. of torque to propel a vehicle weighing almost 6,000 pounds. Lower trim levels have the 5.3-liter V-8 with a six-speed transmission. The previous Yukon Denali with the 6.2-liter engine had an eight-speed.

This is the fourth GM application of the 10-speed that debuted in the 2017 Camaro ZL1 and is also in the 2018 Cadillac Escalade and Chevrolet Tahoe RST. GM will continue to expand its use in rear-drive vehicles.

Although the 10-speed was tuned for performance in the ZL1, it was engineered for smoothness, accuracy, and comfort in the big SUV. What it doesn’t do is make the vehicle less thirsty. Fuel economy of the V-8, which can deactivate half the cylinders, did not improve with the new transmission. The 2018 Yukon Denali with 4WD gets 14/22 mpg in city/highway driving (or 14/21 mpg in the longer XL form) and 14/23 mpg with rear-wheel drive, compared with the 2017 model’s 14-15/20 mpg with four-wheel drive and 15/22 mpg with rear-wheel drive.

But Denali buyers are more about the experience than the pocketbook. After all, the Yukon Denali starts about $67,000 and the XL is closer to $72,000. Our XL tester stickered at $80,585 and has the $8,030 Denali Ultimate package that includes a personal favorite: power running boards.

GM developed the 10-speed for rear-drive vehicles in a partnership with Ford. The two rival automakers also developed a nine-speed for front-wheel-drive applications.

Ford first introduced its version of the 10-speed in its full-size pickup line, starting with the F-150 Raptor performance truck and then moving it down to the regular F-150 lineup mated to the 3.5-liter turbocharged V-6. Ford wants customers to know the gearbox is working hard to ensure it is always in the optimum gear for the task at hand. In some trim levels, there is a gauge in the driver’s screen that shows which gear it is in at any given moment and you can watch it leap from fourth to eighth or back down to sixth.

GM chose a different path, calibrating the transmission’s control, triple clutch packs, and algorithms for shift points and throttle response that are quick but seamless. If there is gear jumping going on, it is designed to be imperceptible.

The 10-speed has a wider 7.39 gear ratio spread than the eight-speed it replaces and is optimized to stay in the right torque curve and in the power band longer.

GM did its job well. We found the more efficient gearbox kept engine speeds lower at highway speeds, preventing it from revving even as it worked hard on a drive route from the Denver airport to the 11,158-foot elevation of the Eisenhower Tunnel and then back down thousands of feet into Beaver Creek. The Yukon never struggled, gasped, or lunged. The return 130-mile trip was even more challenging, with falling snow and slick roads where vehicles were spinning off I-70, and one SUV clipped the back of a transport truck in front of us. We safely pulled over to run back to the crushed vehicle to make sure the occupants were OK—they were—and we continued on with a welcome sense of safety in the Yukon.

The drive route also showcased the powertrain automatic grade braking on the long downhills. The algorithm senses how much you are on the brake and automatically downshifts to save brake life while maintaining speed without cruise control. It turns on automatically; a message appears in front of the driver and confirms it was activated.

We also did a quick towing loop with about 3,200 pounds worth of trailered ATVs, which did not cause the Yukon—or driver—to break a sweat, even in a roundabout in town. The Yukon Denali can tow 8,100-8,400 pounds.

GMC picked the drive location for a couple reasons. GMC and Vail/Beaver Creek have a multiyear partnership that allows GMC displays at 14 locations and provides Yukon courtesy vehicles at a number of resorts. GMC saw the area as the kind of place a typical Denali customer would go, says marketing director Stu Pierce.

Denali occupies a unique space that is luxury but still hardcore and mainstream. GMC introduced the high-end Denali trim in 1999 and has sold a million units netting some healthy profits. It achieves some of the highest average transaction prices for a nonluxury brand at more than $55,350. Denali accounts for 53 percent of Yukon sales and 63 percent of Yukon XL sales.

The current Yukon rides on the latest architecture introduced for the 2015 model year with important improvements such as third-row seats that fold down instead of being removed. Although they’re an improvement, they are still tricky to get in and out of.

Some interior upgrades for 2018 include new ash trim as well as new brushed aluminum and some of the high-gloss finish has been replaced with a satin finish. There is a four-color head-up display, and the SUV retains its 8.0-inch infotainment screen, Wi-Fi hot spot, wireless phone charging, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.

Many drive features are carryovers. The 2018 Yukon Denali has Magnetic Ride Control adaptive damping suspension, tow/haul mode, hill start assist, locking rear differential, trailer brake controller, and low-speed auto braking up to 5 mph. There is adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and alerts for a bad lane change or impending forward collision. The seat will vibrate if you stray out of the lane, but there is no steering assist to pull the vehicle back in line. If you have put anything in the back seat, a chime reminds you to check the rear seats when you leave the vehicle.

GM sold about 49,000 Yukons, not including the XL, in 2017, which was down 8 percent from the previous year. The automaker is hoping the updated look and new transmission will keep it fresh and attractive as it competes with the new 2019 Ford Expedition and 2019 Lincoln Navigator.

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