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Quick Spin: 2018 GMC Yukon Denali [Review]

by Byron Hurd

We check out the enhancements to GMC\'s flagship.

Remember when a 10-speed was a bike? Times have changed, and large vehicles have changed with them. Earlier this year, General Motors and Ford announced the first implementations of their joint-venture 10-speed automatic, among them the 2018 Ford Mustang and the vehicle you see here: the .

With the year winding down and truck sales still humming along, GMC invited us to Beaver Creek, Colorado, to check out the fruits of its new partnership with Vail Resorts, and sample the new 10-speed along the way. As we'd yet to sample this new gearbox, we accepted.

What is it?The Yukon Denali is the standard-bearer of GMC's people carriers. It's available in two flavors (standard wheelbase and XL) and in multiple seating configurations. It remains a classic example of old-school, body-on-frame SUV construction, meaning it's a "real" truck underneath. Towing capacity runs from 8,000 to 8,500 pounds, but we never put more than about 3,500 behind our testing samples.

The 2018 GMC Yukon Denali doesn't represent much of a departure from the 2017 model in terms of everyday features and comfort. It's still powered by the venerable 6.2-liter small-block GM V8. In this application, it pushes 420 horsepower and 460lb-ft of torque. That's no slouch, but consider that the Yukon and Yukon XL weigh 5,482 and 5,655 pounds, respectively (5,743 and 5,965 if you opt for four-wheel-drive), so there's a lot of metal to move here.

Its party piece, of course, is the new ten-speed automatic. GMC paired it with new active grille shutters and the V8's pre-existing cylinder deactivation system to maximize performance and fuel economy, while providing crisper, quieter operation.

We drove both the regular Denali and the XL, both in standard 2+2+3 layout, and got some passenger-seat time in both the second and third rows to boot.

What's it up against?The Yukon Denali is in an odd spot, market-wise. GMC is GM's premium truck brand, but even the Yukon Denali isn't quite on the same level as the Cadillac Escalade--its corporate stablemate. Still, there is some overlap in their pricing and they could be considered competitors, depending on whether the customer's priority leans toward luxury (Caddy) or no-nonsense capability (Denali).

There are plenty of other three-row SUVs on the market ( Ford Expedition, Dodge Durango, even GM's own Chevrolet Suburban), but the Denali angle makes GMC's offering a unique one.

How's it look?As was the case mechanically, the 2018 GMC Yukon Denali's looks remain essentially unchanged. Most noticeable is an updated grille (which incorporates the active shutters mentioned above). This new "faceted" design is described as a departure from the previous honeycomb style, but to us just looks like something out of the GMC accessory catalog.

Elsewhere, it's business as usual. We find the XL's proportions a bit more aesthetically pleasing with the short-wheelbase model's rear end seeming a bit more abrupt and incomplete, giving it a taller, less buttoned-down appearance. We're probably splitting hairs, really. It's a perfectly fine-looking truck, and whose design allows it to function as such without compromising interior space. Win-win.

And the inside?It's the same story in here. GMC highlighted some minor interior trim changes, including the availability of real aluminum and Mastique Ash trim components for the dash. A rear-seat entertainment system with wifi connectivity is available, and there are USB charge points just about everywhere you look.

First- and second-row accommodations are quite h, and we found the rear bench more than tolerable even on longer trips. For those pushing six feet, it will start to become cramped, but for kids and smaller adults, it's firm but passable. It's also wonderfully accessible. Getting in or out of the third row is a breeze with the second-row captain's chairs equipped (provided of course that nobody's sitting in them).

We can't say for certain whether the new transmission really decreased cabin noise at all. We can attest to the Denali's quiet ride and non-intrusive (but pleasant) exhaust note, but that's about all.

But does it go?We spent most of our time in the 2018 GMC Yukon Denali just driving on I-70 between Denver International Airport and Beaver Creek. It's a trek of roughly 130 miles and, if you're never done it before, far more complex than it looks at face value.

For starters, there's the elevation change; DEN sits at 5,400 feet, Beaver Creek at 8,000. Even that doesn't tell the whole story. Along the way, you'll encounter the Eisenhower and Vail passes, at 11,158 and 10,666 feet, respectively. The route is also far from a straight shot, even if it appears that way on Google Maps, and with 6-7 percent grades greeting you at some of the passes, maintaining a safe (and consistent) speed is trickier than you might imagine.

Then there's the weather. Each pass and turn marks a boundary between mountain micro-climates. 30°F and sunny gives way to 15°F and snow in a matter of seconds, with road conditions changing to boot. One participant in a different wave of the event witnessed a rather spectacular accident in which rapidly changing conditions was an obvious contributing factor.

Welcome to winter in Colorado.

Challenging though it may sound, all of this allowed us to put the new 10-speed through its paces. We found that it did a more-than-adequate job of maintaining the Yukon's speed on up-grades, and when paired with GMC's grade braking tech or its adaptive cruise control, did an excellent job of keeping it from running away when we were headed back down. Putting the gear selector in "low" allows the driver to lock out the top three gears (everything above seventh--there's a hell of a thought) and manually override gear selection for a controlled descent.

From a big-picture perspective, the new gearbox does everything it should do well, and does an admirable job of minimizing the negative qualities one would expect from an automatic with so many forward gears. It doesn't hunt and fish for gears constantly, even with frequent changes in grade, and it pairs nicely with GM's cylinder deactivation. Having 420 horsepower on hand helps, of course. That engine is so flexible that it really plays to the transmission's strengths and perhaps even hides its weaknesses. But GMC chose this application for a reason, we suppose, and there's no harm in that.

MG's bottom lineThe story here is the gearbox, and it performed quite admirably under taxing conditions. For the big family on the go, the 2018 GMC Yukon Denali remains a solid choice.

2018 GMC Yukon Denali base price, $66,1652018 GMC Yukon XL Denali base price, $68,865

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of GMC.

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