“The sound quality in here is amazing!” It must have been the fifth time my friend Louie, a New York DJ and sometime Vanity Fair music critic, blurted that out.
Mind you, this is someone more often found working it at the Top of the Standard than inside any vehicular conveyance. He was yelling above the din of Carly Rae Jepsen blasting through the 10-speaker Bose surround sound system. It did sound good. (And trust me on that Carly Rae shout-out—her latest album includes work by Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and has a number of “real bangers,” as Louie would say.)
We had just completed multiple hours of dutiful Thanksgiving visitation with his relatives in Westchester and, with sister and the cool cousin in tow, had slipped out the back to return through foggy night to the city’s safe environs. The 2016 GMC Yukon XL Denali I drove—as high as two cars stacked on each other and just as heavy—proved a steady, if less than luxurious, vehicle for the drive.
The Yukon XL Denali is indeed a real American gladiator, built in Arlington, Texas—the home of America’s Team. True to its XL name, it’s longer and heavier than its closest competitors, the Cadillac Escalade and Ford Expedition, and virtually toe-to-toe with the gargantuan Chevrolet Suburban.
I drove the $76,600 upgraded version of the normally $50,000 Yukon, with the same 6.2-liter V8 engine but with more horsepower (420 vs. 355) and torque (460 lb.-ft. vs. 460 lb.-ft.) than the entry-level offering—and more swag. Look to this version for extra chrome, new colorways like Crimson Red and White Frost, and bright aluminum rims big enough to bathe in.
Roaring down the back roads on a holiday weekend left no doubt about my complete dominance in this rig: It’ll blow past just about anything in front of it. Along with exemplary speed for its huge size and a dark flat grille that spans nearly the entire width of the car, the stacked high-intensity projection headlamps and LED daytime running lights make it look incredibly intimidating.
The Denali drives more like the equivalent of a dutiful but dimwitted Labrador. Generic. And that’s OK—it’s unfair to expect a Lab to have the intelligence of a German shepherd—but it’s worth noting. And the Denali is dutiful, after all: It will tow 8,100 pounds, which is more than enough to pull a gooseneck trailer and two quarter horses behind you (or an armada of snowmobiles, if that's your inclination). It will also hit 60 mph in an astounding 5.5 seconds, which is faster than the much smaller Porsche Cayenne.
On the other hand, do not even think about pointing it quickly in any direction other than straight. Despite the temperance afforded by GM’s Magnetic Ride Control (a suspension system that uses magnetically controlled shock absorbers), this block of metal has body roll bad enough to make you carsick. The steering, too, is so loose it feels like the wheel is missing a few screws.
Again, though, that is almost OK. You will probably buy this more for its 2WD or 4WD option on the eight-speed automatic transmission (with paddle shifting) than for its nimble performance chops. And we don’t really expect driving performance from such a Maximus as this, do we? Just know that neither mode gets anywhere near good gas mileage—the 2WD gets 15 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway, while the 4WD gets even less than that.
The Denali seats seven, officially, but you could fit a dozen inside and they’d be happy. The second-row heated bucket seats and third-row seats will all fold flat if, say, you need to fit a small table, with chairs folded, or a large dog kennel in the rear. It’s so big that you will lose things with frustrating frequency. During that short midnight jaunt, we inadvertently sacrificed a hat and at least one makeup bag to the dark caverns in back. The many multiple USB and power outlets (including a 110-volt three-prong option), Wi-Fi hotspot, and the worth-it upgrade ($2,860) that included a power sunroof, rear seat entertainment, and extended XM radio service softened the blow. And, really, those speakers are great.
In fact, this is the club-size truck perfect for your most slobbery toddler and/or mastiff: Despite the relatively steep price compared with other SUVs from non-luxe brands, the interior is not luxurious. At all. The dashboard and center console feel like plastic; the knobs on the new-for-2016 “IntelliLink” control system felt thin; it took me three drives before I even noticed the tiny wooden accents on the lower portion of the door. The perforated leather on the seats is real, but not of the higher grades you expect in a luxury car. And once you drive in something nicer, it’ll be tough to want to go back to it.
On the bright side it all makes for total freedom from care that animals and children will mess up your car; one swipe with a washcloth et voilà! Before paying that $75,000 price tag, you’ll want to realign your expectations.
You will, for instance, feel immaculately safe in the Denali. In addition to being bigger than anything else on the road—from your seat high atop its hulking chassis, you will literally be looking down at everything else, except maybe a trucker—it comes with loads of systems geared toward your maximum safety. There are alerts aplenty (side blind zone, lane change, rear cross-traffic), a head-up display, and a center front airbag that protects both front occupants in a side crash, to name a few.
The Denali’s competitors also offer generally the same safekeeping comforts and space, and there’s no harm in giving them a test drive as well; the Denali is perhaps the best choice for those already loyal to GM-made products, since its starting price is lower than some (Cadillac) while closer in comparison to the Ford and Chevy. And for many drivers, brand loyalty matters.
Inside this Denali, at least, you’re winning the vehicular arms race of America’s highways. We never did find that makeup bag, though.