- Strong, smooth powertrains
- Tow ratings
- Excellent ride and handling for a truck
- Tight third row
- Inflexible third-row arrangement
- Denali's luxury price, without the luxury brand
Large, capable, body-on-frame SUVs still have a place--especially if you're honed in on the 23-mpg, 2013 GMC Yukon Hybrid Denali.
Full-size SUVs like the GMC Yukon--along with the closely related Cadillac Escalade and Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban--simply aren't the hot items that they were just a few years ago. With families moving on to more fuel-efficient and space-efficient crossovers, these are once again niche vehicles.
But they're definitely not the same sort of niche vehicles they were before SUVs boomed in the 'burbs. The Yukon has, especially with its last major redesign for 2007, moved up the luxury ladder without forgetting completely about those who need to carry ladders for work, or rely on the Yukon's towing capacity to drag boats or race rigs. Especially when outfitted with some of its many upgrades (or in Yukon Denali guise), the GMC Yukon makes a compelling luxury that's also good for towing, trekking, and getting dirty. And at 23 mpg, the GMC Yukon Hybrid shows that gas mileage doesn't need to be such a sore point for a vehicle of this size and capability.
With regard to styling, very little in the GMC Yukon has changed--in years--and there's some good and bad to that. On the plus side, it's a tasteful, timeless, handsome design on the outside--and a slightly contoured version of the classic two-box SUV look. But the down side is that inside the Yukon definitely shows its age. There's none of the modern machine-shop look of some of the Yukon's rivals, which is fine, but the look is rather dull compared to the interior designs of more recent models like the Terrain. Denali models are the ones to spot; they have a honeycomb grille up front, and flashier wheels, with a more dashing interior dressed in Nuance leather and chrome details.
Across the model line, the Yukon offers strong, smooth acceleration and plenty of power, with ride quality that's surprisingly good, although the overly light steering is a disappointment. A 320-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8 is the mainstay for the lineup, with a six-speed automatic transmission, but larger Yukon XL and Yukon Denali models get a brawny 403-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8. Even considering that engine's greater thirst (despite having cylinder deactivation), it's the pick for those who have the toughest towing tasks. Overall, the Denali isn't tremendously maneuverable, but it handles surprisingly well on back roads; you'll quickly forget that you're piloting a 6,000-pound vehicle that can tow up to 8,600 pounds (or 5,000 in the case of the Hybrid).
The Yukon Hybrid models remain an interesting proposition; they perform about the same as a Yukon with the base engine, yet they manage up to 23 mpg thanks to a Two-Mode Hybrid system managing a big 332-horsepower, 6.0-liter V-8, an electric motor system, and a substantial battery pack. Altogether, this full hybrid system can run at up to 27 mph on electric power alone yet tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Yukon models offer very comfortable (and quite wide) front seats, with a good driving position and view outward. It's quite comfortable in the second row, too, although passengers will have to wedge their feet and knees around the large door pillars when getting in, and squeezing back to the already-tight third row is, to put it best, an ordeal. Its cabin simply isn't as well-designed for passengers as more modern crossover designs, like the GMC Acadia. Also, while there's no easy way to tap into that interior space and turn it into cargo space in a pinch, as the rear bench seats don't entirely fold to the floor or into it; and removing them takes a lot of muscle and a storage space.
Across the model line, you'll find ride quality to be quite good; most versions have a nicely damped, almost carlike ride, though cornering over choppy road surfaces or railroad crossings will remind you that it's a body-on-frame truck. And while the look doesn't match that of newer GM and GMC products so much, fit and finish remains top-notch, with the interior free of road and wind noise. And the Yukon backs up that impression of security with five-star ratings from the federal government for frontal and side impact and a solid roster of safety equipment.
GMC has positioned the Yukon in a delicate pricing space that's a slight step ahead of Chevrolet for most of the lineup (though not with much more equipment) yet in Denali versions, offering nearly the luxury and price (if not the prestige) of a Cadillac. Base work-truck versions of the Yukon are gone. Two-wheel-drive Yukon SLE models top $40,000; but they include power features, air conditioning, and an AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with an auxiliary and a USB port; Bluetooth hands-free calling; and heated leather seats are added to the standard-equipment list. A heated steering wheel is now available even on the SLT, and a touch-screen-based navigation radio with SiriusXM Weather and Time Shift recording capability is optional.
Top-of-the-line Yukon Denali editions are a mixed bag, as they essentially wrap in all of the luxury features and premium appointments of the Cadillac Escalade (tri-zone automatic climate control, a power-folding second-row seat, parking sensors, side blind alert, and remote starting are just a few), albeit within a GMC exterior that has less cachet. But smart shoppers will note that these are priced just short of a base Escalade.