GMC's full-size Yukon and Yukon XL may be all new for 2015, but the basic format is unchanged: These are the SUVs that can out-tow and out-haul nearly anything on the road. What has GMC done to the all-new Yukons? Let's drive 'em and find out. Pricing for the "Professional Grade" Yukon ranges from $47,330 to $79,990, and it carries a warranty of 3 years or 36,000 miles with 5 years/100,000 miles of powertrain protection and roadside assistance.
When Jason asked me to review GMC's new full-size SUVs, I figured it had something to do with the fact that I own one -- but then Jason opined that my three-decade-old GMC Suburban has nothing whatsoever to do with the slick new 2015 Yukon and Yukon XL. Not so, argued I: The two trucks may appear to be different in nearly every respect, but the mission remains the same: A full-size SUV that can do the work of a full-size pickup truck.
Back when my Suburban was built -- this was long before GMC changed the name to Yukon XL, giving Chevy exclusive use of the Suburban moniker and distinguishing it from the short-wheelbase Yukon -- it was basically a pickup truck with a station-wagon body. Today, the architecture remains the same; the Yukon is based on the bones of the Sierra pickup, itself freshly updated for the 2014 model year. But the body sees lots of changes, including a new front end and (for the first time in Yukon history) unique doors, which allowed the designers to re-style the Yukon's sides and emphasize its bold, blocky lines.
The stylists also took the opportunity to differentiate the Yukon from Chevy's Tahoe and Suburban. When my 'Burb was built, the only difference between the two was the badge at the center of the grille. Today's Yukon XL gets a unique front fascia with upright headlights, their tops swept back into the fenders, and two different grilles to differentiate the lesser SLE and SLT trims from the top-of-the-line Denali. The look is handsome and purposeful, very distinct from the Chevrolet Suburban and a nice change from the outgoing Yukon, which always looked a bit wide-eyed and confused to me.
In the Driver's Seat
One reason I keep my old 'Burb around is its unparalleled ability to carry people and stuff. Three decades later, that hasn't changed: The 2015 Yukon can tow up to 8,500 lbs, seat up to nine, and (in the case of the extended-wheelbase Yukon XL) haul up to 121.1 cubic feet of cargo space.
There are a couple of caveats: In order to seat nine, one must buy the base-level Yukon SLE (only available with a cloth interior) and specify the three-place split front bench. Bucket seats come as standard, and since the transmission shifter is on the column, that frees up the center stack for storage space, power ports, and an armrest built for two.
For the second row, buyers can choose a three-seat bench or two individual bucket seats; the former makes more sense to me (why buy such a big vehicle and minimize seating capacity?) but the widely-spaced buckets do put a formidable chasm between warring siblings. Second-row comfort and space are top notch, and higher-level Yukons get rear-seat climate controls, power ports (including a 120-volt outlet), and an optional Blu-ray/DVD player.
While the outgoing Yukon had a removable third-row seat, the new one has a seat that folds flat into the floor, and does so electrically with switches conveniently located just inside the tailgate. Seat comfort is marginally better in the XL than the short-wheelbase Yukon, but legroom in both versions is tight owing to the non-adjustable second-row seats.
Cargo space is what differentiates the long-wheelbase Yukon XL from other full-size SUVs: Even with all three rows of seats in place, the XL offers 29.3 cubic feet, more than most five-seat SUVs. Folding the third row opens up 76.7 cubic feet, and with the second row folded, that increases to a massive 121.1 cubic feet. But the short-wheelbase Yukon has nothing to be ashamed of, with 15.3 cubic feet of cargo behind the third-row seat (more than many small hatchbacks), 51.7 cubes behind the second row, and 94.7 with both back rows folded down.
On the Road
I expected the Yukon X to share its dashboard with the Sierra pickup, but was surprised and delighted to find a unique instrument panel -- at least unique from the pickup. It's nearly identical to that of the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, aside from the use of real metal and wood trim instead of painted plastic. The interior designers have taken advantage of all available real estate, with widely spaced and well-labeled controls.
SLE and SLT models are powered by a 5.3-liter V8 that delivers 355 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque (which jumps to 380 hp and 416 lb-ft when fueled with E85 ethanol-gasoline blend). The Denali gets a 6.2-liter V8 producing 420 hp and 460 lb-ft. The 5.3 is more than up to the task of shifting the Yukon's bulk, while the 6.2 produces even more thrust with a fuel economy penalty of 1-2 MPG. Both engines have direct fuel injection and a cylinder-deactivation system that seamlessly switches from 8 to 4 cylinders when power demands are low. EPA fuel economy estimates for the 6.2-liter Yukon are 15 mpg city/21 highway with rear-wheel-drive and 14/21 with four-wheel drive, as opposed to 16/23 and 16/22 for the 5.3 (The heavier Yukon XL's figures are either identical or within 1 mile per gallon).
You'd probably expect the bigger engine to tow and haul more, but it doesn't: Because of the Denali's extra weight, towing capacity drops by 200 lbs and payload by about 125. Even so, the lowest tow rating (Yukon XL Denali 4WD) is a healthy 7,800 lbs with the optional heavy-duty trailering package, which includes an electric trailer brake controller, a rare find in an SUV. Short-wheelbase Yukons tow more (up to 8,500 lbs in the 2WD short-wheelbase non-Denali version), but the XL's extra 14" of wheelbase provides additional stability for longer trailers.
While the towing and hauling abilities are comparable to my '83, the driving experiences couldn't be more different. My Reagan-era Suburban drives like a truck: Noisy and rough, with steering as imprecise as a blunderbuss. The 2015 Yukon is as quiet and refined as can be, and while the handling isn't exactly sports-car-like, it's remarkably tidy for such a big behemoth. Partial credit goes to the coil-spring rear suspension, as opposed to the leaf springs in the Sierra pickup and my old 'Burb. Short-wheelbase models feel lighter and sprightlier, while the longer wheelbase gives the XL a more steady and settled ride. Denalis are even better, with an active noise-canceling system for extra hush and GM's Magnetic Ride Control shocks (same technology used on the Corvette), which provide even better behavior in turns.
No question, the Yukon is an impressive piece of vehicular hardware: All the capacity and capability that endears my old Suburban to me, with the quality, refinement, and economy of a modern-day SUV. GM has the formula down pat, and if you doubt that, try looking for Yukons, Tahoes and Suburbans on your next drive -- there are a lot of them on the road, and I'll best most are driven by satisfied owners like me.
The Yukon does have a couple of things going against it. One is the proximity to the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban -- aside from a few detail changes, the two vehicles really aren't that different. That shows in the pricing: The Yukon SLE starts at $47,330 ($3,000 more for four-wheel-drive and $2,700 more for the XL), about two grand more than the entry-level Chevy, and with a few extra goodies to justify the extra cost. The SLT model, which adds a long list of equipment for its $55,730 price, sits right between the LT and LTZ versions of the Suburban. Only the Denali, with its big engine, long feature list, and $63,675 - $79,980 price range, steps away -- but it wanders right into the neighborhood of General Motors' other-other full-size SUV, the Cadillac Escalade. Although GM insists that GMC buyers rarely visit Chevrolet showrooms (and vice-versa), a smart shopper should do just that to find the exact vehicle he or she wants.
The other objection I have is that the 6.2-liter V8 is tied to the Denali trim level. If I were towing, I'd want the bigger engine, and yet the Denali has the lowest towing capacity of any Yukon. And if I wasn't going to tow, I'd want the more fuel-efficient engine, but then I'd have to forgo the Denali's extra creature comforts. Fewer and fewer automakers are tying engine size to trim level, and it's time for GMC to get with the times and do the same.
If you don't need the Yukon's extreme capability, you can save money by buying a different vehicle: GMC's own Acadia has just as much usable passenger space and delivers a big-truck feel, but it trades the Yukon's towing and hauling capacity for better fuel economy and an easier-to-park package. If you do need a vehicle that can do it all, then there really is no substitute for a GMC Yukon -- except for the nearly-identical Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and Cadillac Escalade, of course. If you do buy the big GMC, I'm sure that in thirty years you'll still be singing its praises -- just as I am. -- Aaron Gold
Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.