Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2016 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD

Last week, my wife and I hosted old friends from Finland. Their three teenagers had never seen this side of the pond, so we provided several in-their-face (North) American experiences. It started with me arriving at Pearson Airport in the 2016 GMC Yukon Denali, immediately after picking it up for a week’s testing. Imagine getting to channel your inner soccer mom at the height of Euro Cup fever.

“Welcome to AMERICA!” I hollered in a mock-Texan drawl. “We’re gonna grill three-inch steaks on the engine when we get back to the ranch.”

A rolling spa for seven on twenty-inch aluminum wheels, the Yukon Denali is a well-planned people mover. During the five Finns’ week here, we drove a lot: to the pretty Victorian town of Port Hope; the cliffs cupping Nottawasaga Bay; and, of course, all over stinking hot Toronto. Except for the airport commutes, the trips usually included all seven of us, plus an insane Labrador puppy, Orson – but the riders were always pampered, especially the closer they got to the front.

First, the airport pickup: My pal Biba gasped and laughed at the sheer volume of automobile that greeted them. Nonetheless, his family – spending a week in TO and another in New York – was up for the portability challenge. Each of the five had an oversized reinforced suitcase and carry-on bag. However, with all the seats up, the Yukon Denali’s cargo volume is just 433.25 litres. So packing the trunk was a panicky three-minute Tetris challenge with the airport police giving us the stink-eye.

We played with the power buttons, lifting and dropping elements of the two back seating rows arbitrarily.  Finally after some embarrassment, we flattened one backseat. We also discovered a few extra litres of storage cached beneath the floor in the back and a veritable cave beneath the armrest. Everything and everyone managed to fit. We were all inside and on the road.

“This is really big,” our friend Johanna seemed slightly overwhelmed, her neck craning 190 degrees.

“Welcome to AMERICA!” I hollered in a mock-Texan drawl. “We’re gonna grill three-inch steaks on the engine when we get back to the ranch.”

“The ranch” is a narrow downtown house whose tight parking space sits at the end of a pre-automobile-era laneway. Just getting the last few metres to that space this summer could earn you a Master’s thesis in geometry. It’s become a gauntlet of obstacles. Two houses of the eight in our alley are being completely gutted and renovated: pickups, cement mixers, re-bar and burly little men waving coffee cups and cigarettes jut into the lane on odd angles. At the end, the sliding door to our parking space hangs from a crossbar slightly over 1.9 meters high. The Yukon Denali’s roof peaks at 1.89. So parking the Yukon was more like shaving, or putting an uphill birdie on a windy day, than regular driving.

Home-turf appeal: Test Drive: 2016 GMC Yukon Denali

Fortunately, safety features that come standard with the Denali trim include a rear-vision camera, forward collision alert, rear cross-traffic alert and side blind-zone alert. These alerts are reported with busily active graphics of increasingly brighter colours culminating in red, all punctuated by excessively alarming beeps, plus a driver’s seat vibration that feels lovely to an inner soccer mom’s rump but sounds to jet-lagged Finnish people like wet farts. Nonetheless, the alerts helped prevent shaving cuts and bleeding red paint. Power folding mirrors stole those last few inches needed to fit.

The initial drives in the Yukon Denali required some adjusting for all of us. First it was the aforementioned size. Next was the excessive power. The Yukon Denali sports a 6.2L eight-cylinder with direct fuel injection that forces out a testicular 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. How powerful is that? Think of those POV shots in The Lord of the Rings, when the viewer accompanies oversized boulders suddenly launched from trebuchet catapults across the battlefield and – WHAMMO!  – into the White City.

That’s how powerful the Yukon Denali’s pickup was, except we didn’t crush any walls.

All it took was a spirited tap on the accelerator, even weighed down with a full complement of soccer fans. The cabin still cooled in seconds with the A/C on full.

But remember the old saying power corrupts and the mention above of spirited tapping? Well, we regularly faced urban congestion packed tighter than the arteries of an old smoker who’s eaten deep-fried animal fat his whole life. With an engine of such heroic girth, I was tempted, almost corrupted at first, to treat the Yukon Denali like some light, agile coupe.

It’s not.

Ever see one of those nature documentaries, showing a charging rhino sprinting towards the camera? They accelerate at seemingly impossible bursts – but can’t stop on a dime. Effective as the Yukon Denali’s brakes are, they can’t countermand inertia. So the first safety feature we tested was the seatbelts in the two rear rows. Turns out they’re as responsive as the eight-cylinder engine. Awkward Google translation? We lurched a bit on the first drives.

But, courtesy of the magnetic ride control and deep-breathing exercises learned in my early adulthood, the trips quickly became more comfortable for all. I stopped channeling my inner soccer mom (ever notice what aggressive drivers they are? I think it’s all that dieting, constantly futzing up their blood sugar) and defaulted to my real mother who always played it slow and safe to and from church on Sundays.

Which leads to a brief discussion on fuel consumption. Adaptive cruise control comes standard. It was employed regularly on highways, as was the active fuel management feature, which switches the eight cylinders to four during lighter rides. Between these and more careful driving that didn’t toss passengers like salad, we did relatively well on fuel consumption. Mind, that says ‘relatively’ and you haven’t seen my relatives fuel up at family weddings and funerals. The Yukon Denali usually achieved between 14 to 15 L/100 km, which isn’t much higher than the predicted EnerGuide formula of 13.8.

You can select from two-wheel, auto four-wheel, four-high and four-low drive modes. You’d think that we would’ve tried the assorted four-wheel drive modes in the country but the only “offroading” we did was in Toronto. Between hosting 10 percent of the world for Pride Month and the road works neglected last year during the Pan-Am games, the city was buried in congestion and construction. Traffic moved like lava. So we occasionally expanded the definition of “road” to circumvent frustrating barriers.

Quelling your inner soccer mom can prove difficult amid all the bling. The following is just a handful of the many other standards the Denali trim showers on riders.

Leather appointed seats throughout meant no embedded puppy fur (but our apologies to the detailers for the carpet seams; we tried). The front seats were heated and cooled. Coming from a country where it’s common to cross-country ski or cycle to work, our visitors couldn’t believe such decadence. The second row was twin bucket seats. When folded, they’ll somersault forwards at the touch of one of those confusing buttons in the back, providing easier access to the third row. Stadium seating resting flat on the floor, the last row awkwardly offered no shin-room for up to three passengers. That’s about the only complaint when it comes to this SUV’s appointment of space. (It also could’ve used a walk-in beer fridge but that’s more of a suggestion than complaint.)

Then there’s connectivity. As part of the IntelliLink infotainment system, a buyer gets five years of basic OnStar service with three months of highly addictive satellite radio — and six months of 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot capability. The kids could update their Instagram accounts with all-American tales of excess in real time. That hotspot-ness is ostensibly a data package like you’d get for your phone. In fact, your car essentially becomes a huge part of your phone, which adds dimension to the idea of connectivity. All this was enjoyed within a Bose surround sound system amid a quiet, insulated ride. Gun the engine; you won’t hear much.

The remote vehicle start and heated steering wheel weren’t necessary during our heat wave but both would be a boon in the winter. However the aforementioned power folding mirrors would be useful to urbanites year round.

Remember all of the above comes standard. What of the extras? The “Sun, Entertainment and Destinations Package” was the most notable, if least elegantly named. It costs an additional $3,455 beyond the Denali price – although it bizarrely kicks back a credit of $795 – and includes a sunroof, a rear-seat home theatre with retractable overhead video screen, Blu-ray/DVD player and two wireless headphones, plus an extra nine months of satellite radio on top of the three mentioned above. So you’ll definitely be hooked. (Finnish people love commercial-free classic rock.)

Another extra worth mentioning, which I can’t in clear conscience recommend but never tired of, was the power running boards. They automatically slide in and out with the opening of the doors. Ridiculously cool.

Between the size, comfort and well-planned extras, the Yukon Denali found five Finnish fans. Would they consider buying one? “Well, we may be forced to consider it,” Biba answered. The UK voted to shoot itself in the head while our friends were here, dropping Europe into deep disarray. He only half-joked, “We may have to emigrate to Canada.”

3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/160,000 km powertrain; 6 years/160,000 km corrosion perforation; 5 years/160,000 km roadside assistance

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Model Tested 2016 GMC Yukon Denali
Base Price $76,610
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,695
Price as Tested $85,910
Optional Equipment