GMC continues to try to map out a unique and separate territory between Chevy and Cadillac. Some have called the Yukon "the Buick of SUVs"; it offers elegant, near-Cadillac luxury at a lower price. The only exception to that rule (there's always an exception) is in Yukon's top-level Denali option package, which traditionally has offered a base price just underneath that of a base Escalade. It might make more sense to call the Yukon Denali the unassuming-man's Escalade.
All Yukons (which start $13,000 below the all-wheel-drive Denali's base price) benefit from major changes to GM's full-size utility line with the introduction of the GMT900 platform (recently introduced with the new Chevy Tahoe). GMC's styling looks the softest of the three divisions--not as handsome as Chevrolet's and not as bold as Cadillac's. For a couple grand less, the Denali is bereft of the Escalade's supple "Nuance" leather seats, gets simulated wood trim in place of the Caddy's brushed chrome, and receives its light cashmere and cocoa interior scheme as an option, contrasting nicely with our test model's gloss-black paint job.
The Denali and Escalade are the only two GMT900 platforms to get the new L92 6.2-liter all-aluminum small-block V-8, with a standard 6L80 six-speed automatic. But here's where divisional hierarchy gets silly: The Escalade's L92 is tuned for 403 horsepower and 417 pound-feet of power, whereas the Denali gets 380 horsepower and 415 pound-feet in a blatant attempt to preserve the Caddy's reputation as the most powerful SUV in GM's lineup. General Motors expects it won't be long before someone offers a chip for the Denali to give it Cadillac power, and maybe more. Retrofit Nuance leather and you'll have a full-lux SUV that can slip in and out of a hip-hop video unnoticed.
As to the noise this engine makes, it starts up with the sound of a motorboat burble at idle. And it's fast, but not 520-horsepower Cayenne Turbo S fast, which weighs much less and uses twin turbos. In the Yukon Denali, the power and torque are most noticeable in the mid-range rpm, as there's lots of weight to move off the line.
Its new rack-and-pinion steering is wonderfully crisp (a huge improvement over the previous model), and the suspension shows control, with a nice balance between ride and handling. However, unlike the smaller 5.3-liter V-8 Yukons, the Denali's 6.2-liter V-8 doesn't have Active Fuel Management cylinder shutoff. A highway-intensive run from Ohio to Michigan yielded 15.8 mpg, with around-town mileage later in the week running about two mpg worse. Look for the Yukon Denali to be offered in both short- and long-wheelbase versions and to be in dealerships by June.