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A black 2024 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate parked in a driveway.

Are Full-Size SUVs Superior? The GMC Yukon Makes Its Case

Drivers are flocking to off-road models like never before, but there can be a wide gulf between legitimate offerings and those simply looking to capitalize on the trend. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this new generation of so-called “soft-roaders,” which provide a rugged, sporty look while lacking the actual heavy-duty components needed to ensure off-road success, but it’s important for buyers to know what they’re getting themselves into before they set off down a particularly challenging route.

There are some easy ways to differentiate the pretenders from the contenders when it comes to today’s off-road and performance-focused SUVs at your local Chevy, Ford, or GMC dealer. The first and most obvious would be the distinction between traditional body-on-frame SUVs and the new breed of lighter-duty crossover models.

Built with the same sturdy construction that underpins most of today’s pickups, body-on-frame SUVs like the GMC Yukon excel in off-road environs for one simple reason: the design allows for more flex, meaning the vehicle can navigate rough, uneven terrain without sustaining any long-term damage. The same can’t be said for crossover models, which, due to their unibody construction, are much more susceptible to the rigors of off-road driving.

The body-on-frame versus crossover construction is only one factor that differentiates the Yukon from some of the less off-road-worthy models on the market. From its AutoTrac two-speed transfer case and limited-slip differential to skid plates and recovery hooks to innovative additions like Magnetic Ride Control and Hill Descent Control, the GMC Yukon’s off-road-focused AT4 trim turns this full-size SUV into a go-anywhere adventure vehicle with two extra inches of ground clearance.

For those more concerned with on-road fun, this SUV is also offered with a full suite of components designed to improve both performance and power, including an available cat-back exhaust, Brembo brakes, and oil and transmission coolers. With such a long list of off-road- and performance-related features, it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed, but we’re here to break it all down and show you why the GMC Yukon might be one of the most capable SUVs in the full-size segment.

The black interior view of a 2024 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate.


In order to maximize chances of off-road success, GMC has graced the Yukon with one of the segment’s most comprehensive 4WD systems. Active Response 4WD includes the standard 2WD high, automatic 4WD high, and full-time 4WD High—but that’s just the beginning.

Drivers will also be able to take advantage of an AutoTrac two-speed transfer case with StabiliTrak traction control, an available electronic limited-slip differential, and a Traction Select system with seven distinct drive modes. Let’s break each of these features down individually and see how they work together to create a safer and more reliable ride for Yukon drivers.

Traction Select System

By tailoring the Yukon’s powertrain, traction control, and stability control settings to specific road conditions, GMC’s Traction Select System allows this SUV to seamlessly shift between different driving scenarios.

Are you looking to optimize fuel economy for everyday driving? Normal mode is the way to go. Sport mode tightens the SUV’s steering while increasing the suspension’s responsiveness, resulting in a fun, dynamic ride that’ll truly exploit the Yukon’s brawny V8 engine. Tow/Haul mode is perfect for those times when you’re loaded down with some heavy cargo, shifting the Yukon into a lower gear for improved torque.

AWD mode is the go-to choice when encountering challenging road conditions, but GMC has even included a Snow/Ice mode designed for winter weather that reduces wheel slippage by slowing the vehicle’s acceleration and torque response. Off-Road mode is all about traction and handling, while Terrain mode does much the same while adding automatic braking to the mix. With seven drive modes to choose from, you’ll always be prepared when you’re behind the wheel of the Yukon.


The Yukon’s Traction Select System isn’t the only technology that’s working to keep you safe. GMC has also included its proprietary electronic traction control system known as StabiliTrak. Think of it as an enhanced form of the common anti-lock braking system, which automatically applies the brakes when encountering wheel slippage.

StabiliTrak improves on this time-tested approach with the addition of speed sensors and the ability to independently apply the brakes to each wheel. When you start to fishtail or hydroplane, StabiliTrak kicks into action, determining which way you’re trying to steer the vehicle and keeping you firmly pointed in that direction.

Electronic Limited Slip Differential (eLSD)

Traction is the golden word when it comes to off-road driving, but all the drive modes and traction control systems in the world don’t amount to much if you’ve got one tire that’s helplessly spinning away. That’s where a limited-slip differential comes in.

Using a series of clutches, a limited-slip differential automatically sends power to the wheel with the most traction, which can mean the difference between making your way out of a particularly muddy rut and whipping out the tow straps. An electronic limited-slip differential has the added benefit of being able to automatically detect when it’s needed, ensuring consistent traction while improving overall convenience.

AutoTrac Two-Speed Transfer Case

A two-speed transfer case is a must-have feature for any legitimate off-road vehicle. The GMC Yukon’s AutoTrac two-speed transfer case allows drivers to shift between two- and four-wheel drive modes on the fly. A two-speed transfer case comes in especially helpful when trying to climb or descend a particularly steep hill, giving drivers all the low-speed traction they need to conquer some of the toughest obstacles they might encounter while off-roading.

AutoTrac’s system provides some notable improvements over traditional transfer cases. Instead of asking drivers to fiddle with controls and choose when to shift in 4WD, the AutoTrac two-speed transfer case features an Auto mode that will keep the SUV in a more efficient 2WD mode until it starts to detect a loss of traction. At that point, the AutoTrac system jumps into action, engaging 4WD and reducing wheel slippage as you work your way through a messy stretch of trail. Drivers seeking a little more control can also manually shift between 2WD and 4WD.

Hill Descent Control

Between logs, boulders, trees, and muddy ruts, there can be a lot of obstacles to keep track of when you’re tearing through an off-road trail. While the ability to multitask is an admirable trait, it’s also easy to get a little overwhelmed and let safety fall by the wayside. GMC has engineered around this common problem with the introduction of Hill Descent Control.

Essentially a form of off-road cruise control, the selectable Hill Descent Control feature can be used to automatically apply the brakes when you’re making your way down a steep hill. The system provides smooth, consistent brake pressure, freeing the driver up to focus on steering around obstacles and keeping the Yukon firmly on the trail. Simply select a preset speed and Hill Descent Control will keep the Yukon moving at a steady pace while you divert your attention to the road ahead.

Hill Start Assist

Hill Start Assist is a feature that’ll come in just as handy during everyday driving as it will when you’re navigating the backcountry. We’ve all been in a scenario where you’re stopped on a steep incline and worried about rolling back into traffic when you go to move your foot to the gas pedal. Hill Start Assist helps to bridge this momentary gap, automatically applying the brakes as you go to engage the accelerator.

This feature doesn’t just prevent the sort of costly fender benders that can come with rolling backward in dense traffic. Imagine you’re making your way up a muddy off-road trail and begin to lose traction while in 2WD. Simply come to a stop, shift the transfer case into 4WD Low, and Hill Start Assist will make sure you don’t lose any ground in the process.

Close-up shot on the headlight of a black 2024 GMC Yukon Denali.


Engine Options

It’s hard to be angry about a 5,500-lb full-size SUV that can sprint from zero to sixty in six seconds flat. The GMC Yukon achieves this feat of automotive athleticism thanks to its 6.2-liter V8 engine. Putting out 420 hp, the 6.2-liter engine is offered as an optional upgrade to the standard 355-hp 5.3-liter V8. Those looking to take advantage of the Yukon’s towing credentials should look into the 3.0-liter Turbo-Diesel, which—thanks to a hefty 460 lb-ft of torque—can tow up to 8,200 lbs with relative ease.

Magnetic Ride Control

Those opting for the Yukon’s AT4 or Denali trims will enjoy a smooth, refined ride thanks to the inclusion of GM’s Magnetic Ride Control technology. This chassis and suspension system is basically a sort of next-generation shock absorber that uses a unique magnetic fluid to help the vehicle respond to changing road conditions in real time.

Magnetic Ride Control is built around a set of four monotube dampers filled with a magnetorheological fluid, a complex system of sensors, and a central electronic control unit. The central computer constantly monitors the motion of each wheel and can make tiny adjustments every millisecond by using electromagnetism to adjust the density of the fluid. This technology improves traction as it allows all four wheels to stay in consistent contact with the road.

Cat-Back Exhaust

The Yukon certainly isn’t hurting for power, but if you’re looking to squeeze every last pony out of the V8s, you might consider springing for the optional cat-back performance exhaust system. The $2,795 option adds a full cat-back exhaust, replacing every component south of the catalytic converter with a new, performance-focused version that improves not only power but fuel economy as well as the sound of the exhaust itself. For those who are dubious about the myriad benefits of the system, it all comes down to increased airflow.

A cat-back exhaust system like the one found on the GMC Yukon utilizes a larger diameter pipe, allowing exhaust fumes to escape the vehicle more quickly than they would with the stock system. This increased airflow makes for a more efficient and powerful engine, reducing the overall workload and allowing drivers to squeeze more power out of every gallon of fuel. The increased exhaust sound might not confer any benefits in terms of efficiency or performance, but it’ll provide a nice, healthy roar that is sure to set your ride apart.

Brembo Brakes

Weighing in at over 2.5 tons, the GMC Yukon is a whole lot of SUV. That size can be helpful when you’re trying to tow, haul, or bring the extended family along for the ride, but it can also put a lot of stress on the brakes. This SUV’s stock brakes are certainly up to the job, but those who plan on really putting their Yukon through its paces might want to invest in the optional six-piston Brembo front brake kit.

An optional $3,750 add-on, these brakes come with Duralife vented rotors that are 42% larger than the stock components. The six-piston design is perfect for slowing down this massive SUV and, most importantly, the brakes also look the part with arresting red calipers bearing the GMC logo. If you’re the type of driver who appreciates stopping power and enhanced pedal feel, the Brembo brakes are a must-have.

Oil & Transmission Coolers

The brakes aren’t the only component that takes a beating when you’re dealing with a full-size SUV that can reach 60 mph in just six seconds. This SUV’s transmission and engine are also expected to put in their fair share of work, which can easily lead to the sort of overheating that can have a lasting effect on these pricey components. To address this harsh reality, every version of the GMC Yukon comes with an external auxiliary transmission oil cooler and engine oil cooler.

The external auxiliary transmission oil cooler uses a heavy-duty air-to-oil cooler to keep the transmission at the optimal temperature, while the engine oil cooler uses the same sort of mechanism to keep the oil within its peak performance range. These systems are especially important when it comes to towing heavier cargo or high-performance driving, and having them included as a standard feature is a real bonus.

The Unparalleled GMC Yukon

In a segment that’s been increasingly inundated with lighter-duty offerings, the GMC Yukon is a refreshing change of pace. Between its body-on-frame construction, comprehensive 4WD system, and performance- and off-road-focused components, the Yukon provides a great argument for bucking the crossover trend. It’s simply a more mature SUV than some of the newer models that have made their way into the market over the last couple of years.

That’s not to say it’s not also a lot of fun. This SUV—especially in its AT4 trim—is a ready-made adventure vehicle, giving drivers the opportunity to head from the dealership and directly to your local trail. The Yukon’s power and towing credentials are also above reproach with a stable of hardy V8 engines ready to put in some work. If you’re looking for one of the best full-size SUVs on the market and you’re serious about performance and off-road ability, the GMC Yukon is worth a closer look.

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