Rolling in Richness With a 2015 GMC Yukon XL Denali

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

The call came in at 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night. A rich southern tycoon, who I’ll refer to as Mr. Moneybags to avoid a lawsuit, was on the other end of the line.

He heard about my fondness for navigational charity road rallies and wanted to hire me to chauffeur him around the countryside on an upcoming event.

OK, maybe that isn’t exactly what happened, but that was the theme/story my team thought up to use for our entry in the Rally North America 2014 OV700. The OV in OV700 stands for Ohio Valley and the 700 designates the amount of miles we were to drive over two days. Although it is not mandatory, many teams show up with a specific theme for the weekend in full costumes.

SEE ALSO: Rally North America 2014 Rally US 50

We planned to run with a Monopoly theme and as strange as a woman in a full jailbird outfit and a man dressed similar to Rich Uncle Penny Bags may sound, we fit right in. Car people are not normal; especially ones who get together to drive 700 miles over two days with no real sense of where they are going. Costumes and themes littered the starting line, including Bonnie and Clyde, two blind priests and two guys that came one day dressed as Wayne and Garth and the next as Bandit and the most frightening transgendered rendition of Carrie from Smokey and the Bandit fame.

A Luxurious Passenger Barge

Since I was chauffeuring a high class dignitary, I needed the right vehicle; something with style, comfort, power and enough space for a full entourage. That led me to GMC’s luxury barge: the Yukon Denali XL.

Measuring 224.3 inches long, the Yukon XL is one of only a few massive body-on-frame SUVs left on the market. With three rows of adult-sized seats, space is not an issue in the big GMC. But a regular Yukon XL wouldn’t do. With a dignitary that owns both the electric company and waterworks, only the upscale Denali would do.

Big Truck, Big Power

And as the driver, I can’t complain. By upgrading to the Denali, the regular Yukon’s 5.3-liter V8 is dumped in favor of the larger 6.2-liter V8 that makes a hearty 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. For the larger XL model, the new eight-speed automatic found in the regular Yukon Denali was not yet available at that time and instead my SUV made do with the six-speed automatic.

But not even 6,009 lbs of truck with the weight of four passengers and luggage had me missing the two extra gears in the eight-speed. As we left the starting line on the first day of the event I pinned the throttle to see just how much get up and go is available in the Denali. The big brute powered away from a stop as one of my passengers said, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that from this truck.”

It’s All about Navigation

In case you aren’t familiar with Rally North America events, the idea is to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible while finding a list of checkpoints that are unknown to the teams until they leave the starting line each day. Since these events are meant to raise money for charity and conducted on public roads, speeding and reckless driving are not tolerated so any team receiving a moving violation or spotted speeding in excess remotely on the GPS tracking software is disqualified.

Most teams are made up of two people, but we are a super team of four. With three heads looking up checkpoints and feeding me destinations instead of one, I could concentrate on driving. The Denali’s GPS, a hand held Garmin unit and two phones were fed various destinations as the Yukon erupted into a melee of computerized voices shouting directions at me as we planned our routes.

SEE ALSO: Five-Point Inspection: 2015 GMC Yukon Denali

The secret to winning an event like this isn’t how fast you drive or how sporty your car is. Instead, it’s all about navigation and finding the right checkpoints. As day one progressed and we leave checkpoint two, we noticed we are one of the only teams on a twisting small road in eastern Ohio that is a lane and a half wide at best. If I’m able to keep the Yukon XL around the speed limit on this road, it will shave a lot of distance off our day and put us near the front. It was time to see what this big monster can do.

Capable Everywhere

The Denali package can be had with optional 22-inch wheels wrapped in very un-SUV-like 285/45R22 tires. These wide patches of rubber really kept the XL Denali planted as I tossed it from side to side through the aforementioned twisting farm road as well as the subsequent hilly switchbacks of West Virginia we encountered next.

Broken pavement, concrete, dirt or gravel, the Yukon XL Denali handles all road conditions with the same composure no matter what the situation. The front two rows offer incredible comfort and after seven hours on the road, the only complaints have to do with a certain driver pushing the Yukon through one stretch of road a bit harder than the GMC probably liked to be as he tried to keep up with a BMW X5.

We Screw Up, the Yukon Screws Up

After a close fifth place finish on day one, we began day two by immediately missing the first checkpoint. At this point we know there is no point in trying to win, so we default back into what we know best when partaking in a Rally North America event – sight see.

During our futile attempt to find that checkpoint we ended up on a two-track dirt farm road. With plenty of ground clearance and just a bit of grass growing in the center of the roadway, this is no sweat for the Yukon XL. In fact, it’s no sweat for any car really as we meet other teams equally lost along the way driving very non-offroad vehicles like a Pontiac GTO, Hyundai Genesis Coupe and Mini Cooper Convertible.

SEE ALSO: 2015 GMC Yukon XL Review

A funny thing happened shortly after this road though as the Yukon’s 4X4 system suffered a failure and locks itself into 4X4 high. For a vehicle the size of the XL Denali, this becomes quite an issue when trying to navigate tight corners or parking lots as anyone who has driven a proper 4X4 will know. Hard resets of the SUV and/or any amount of knob twisting will not release the Yukon back into two-wheel drive mode. Later in the day the Yukon finally snaps out of 4X4 on its own and subsequently locks itself in 4X2, which is much easier to live with. After dropping the SUV back to GM, I learned that a simple computer error was to blame and a quick reflash solved the issue.

Entertain or Be Entertained

Now back to day two. After visiting a few of the more notable checkpoints along the way, we began finding our own stopping points adopting our Monopoly theme. Although it takes a while to get used to the Intellilink navigation system, once we master it, it proves more resourceful than our handheld units in finding places like Boardwalk, Park Place, Marvin Gardens and Waterworks.

After spending the afternoon stopping for photo ops, it was time to settle for the two-hour drive to the finish line. With 34.5-inches of legroom available in the third row, my front seat passenger climbed into the backseat and the dual DVD screens were flipped down so all three of my passengers could watch Spiderman on Bluray while I drive.

The Verdict

As we rolled into our final hotel for the night, everyone came away highly impressed with the Yukon XL Denali. Rear seat passengers did find the door mounted cup holders too small and the recessed seat belt latches a pain to operate, but other than that, everything was fine by them. Even fuel economy, which is rated at 14 MPG city and 20 MPG highway, surprised me as I average 17.8 MPG over 1,189 miles of fairly hard driving.

The price of entry into a 2015 GMC Yukon XL Denali is $69,375 while my heavily optioned tester came in at $77,965. That isn’t pocket change, but that price does get you a luxurious SUV that can comfortably seat seven people, tow 7,900 lbs. and travel through moderate offroad terrain. Minor nuances and one strange computer glitch aside, even my diehard Ford loving passenger was smitten with the new 2015 GMC Yukon XL, which may well be the highest praise possible for GMC’s new SUV.

Discuss this story on our GMC Yukon XL forum

GALLERY: 2015 GMC Yukon XL Denali

Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

More by Mike Schlee

Join the conversation