On the Road Review: 2015 GMC Yukon

For all of the media drama, for all of the recall negativity and all of the unwanted recent attention, General Motors still builds the best selling, most popular full-size sport utility vehicles available in North America. With labels such as Tahoe, Suburban, Yukon and Escalade, these truck-based SUVs remain GM’s bread and butter products — the passenger/towing/working vehicles that generate the most profits.

{gallery}15yukon{/gallery} For 2015, the buying public gets heavily refreshed offerings of these six-, seven-, eight-, even nine-passenger trucks. Fuel economy is increased, available standard and optional power rises, while the safety portfolio is enriched with numerous new pieces. The styling remains boxy, although claims are made that each of these full-size wagons is more aerodynamic, however, GMC has worked very hard to create more visual separation from its volume-selling sibling. GMC also continues to heavily market the Professional-Grade Denali trim — a very high-end model that Chevy does not offer and Cadillac dealers wish that GMC dealers did not have.

A week behind the wheel of the newest Yukon, in mid-level SLT trim, revealed the virtues of these family-toting workhands.

It’s 8:30 on a mild June evening as I point the Yukon north from Middleboro, Mass. The usual thrum of Boston area traffic is still heavy as the GMC pushes through the city on I-93, easily keeping pace with the natural pace of busy life. Right from the first minutes behind the wheel, the new Yukon ‘feels’ livelier than previous editions; the new electric steering rack has decent performance and directional control, reacting swiftly to directional requests as we squirt through traffic that doesn’t know what lanes are for passing, or not. We pass two cars with no headlights (it is now pitch dark, with a full moon just glinting over the horizon) while the ‘fast’ lane is suddenly the far right lane of four.

The upgraded 5.3-liter V-8 now makes 355 hp running through a smooth six-speed automatic transmission accompanied by an electronic four-wheel-drive transfer case that has GMC’s standard auto-mode for detecting traction losses. Torque output is up as well; 383 pound/feet here, helping this 5,700-pound truck feel responsive, quick, even lively. In these first few hours, as well as after several days, the Yukon left the impression of driving like a much smaller vehicle — not the 17-foot-long, 7-foot-wide vehicle that is its footprint.

While rivals such as Ford are moving to turbo-V-6 engines for their full-size SUV’s, GM has continued to refine its tried-and-true push-rod V-8 motors. The current 5.3-EcoTec V-8 features Active Fuel Management with automatic cylinder deactivation, (the motor switches from V-8 to V-4 mode as load requirements change, all very seamlessly) Direct Injection, plus Variable Valve Timing. EPA mileage numbers improve slightly to 16-mpg city, 22-mpg highway and 18-mpg combined for our 4X4 tester; rear drive models get one more mile per gallon in each segment. Our best fuel economy realized was 21.5 mpg for a mostly rural jaunt, while the weeklong average was an actual 19.4 mpg. The Yukon can tow up to 8,200 pounds of trailer with the optional 3.42-to-1 axle ratio.

Anyone who has looked at the new Sierra/Silverado pickup trucks will see markedly similar layouts inside the latest SUVs — which share underpinnings with the pickup trucks. The new dash offers more selectable information, better tuning controls, soft-touch switches, and a central touch-screen for information and entertainment as well as navigation. GMC calls its setup IntelliLink. While not as good as some, it is a notable upgrade over Cadillac’s vexing CUE arrangement.

As in Cadillac, and some Chevrolets, the Yukon has the new haptic safety seat that vibrates to signal the driver warnings of your errant or distracted behavior. Forward collision warning, lane change warning, blind spot detection warning, plus cross-path rear detection systems are all employed here in SLT trim, sending audible, visual and/or that vibrating seat message to your brain that you need to be aware and reactive.

By midnight, the sandman is competing for my eyes as Maine traffic is notably less busy than metro Boston. A 15-minute power nap in the plush Yukon’s heated and cooled leather seat gives me enough boost to make the final hour’s assault to home. Strong headlamps, an extremely quiet cabin, and a potent sound system help the miles roll by quickly as we push on through the darkness.

If a load of passengers were aboard, they would find two additional inches of rear legroom in the second row and third row seats. Our well-equipped SLT featured second row bucket seats, which power fold (along with the third row seats) to create a flat load deck, stem to stern. Unfortunately, to accommodate this feat, the load deck is a full 3 inches higher than before so peak cargo volume actually shrinks by a few cubes. A power liftgate is affixed at the rear.

Nits and niggles; the front console is voluminous! But did this space come at the expense of front seat width and comfort? Some large-frame buyers might want the seat space and leave the console to others. The hidden storage bin behind the 8-inch information screen was accessed by motoring the screen up and away — how often will this be used, unless you are truly needing to ‘hide’ something? In addition, as automakers add even more electronic entertainment aids — Text to Voice and Siri Eyes are available in the Yukon, with 4G LTE Wi-Fi coming — some basic functions such as simple radio station operation become more difficult. The Yukon buyer is confronted by a completely separate entertainment manual to handle the myriad controls, layers and menus on IntelliLink. There has to be a way to satisfy both clientele without creating more driver distractions.

Hits include the powertrain’s seamless performance. Crisp power, smooth transmission work and reasonable economy are not to be ignored. Opt for the Denali trim and you get the 6.2-liter V-8 with 420 hp. The GMC’s relative nimbleness and overall drivability are a big plus too while the Yukon’s cabin remains people spacious. The fact that the Yukon is quieter inside than many luxury cars did not go unnoticed.

These changes have a cost. The base Yukon SLE now starts at $47,330. Add $3,000 to all trim levels for 4WD. Our SLT sample starts at $57,735 with 4WD and escalated to $64,520 with the Sun and Entertainment Package, $3,255, that includes power sunroof, Audio upgrade with IntelliLink, rear seat entertainment, $1,400 for 20-inch polished wheels, $650 for the trailer brake controller and max-tow package, $590 for power folding rear seats and $395 for an upgraded security package. Standard pieces include: heated second row seats, power tilt and telescoping steering column, remote vehicle start, memory controls, heated steering wheel, tri-zone climate control, front center airbag, keyless ignition and passive locks, Bose Audio, power liftgate, rain-sensing wipers, rear camera, front and rear parking assist, plus two years of free scheduled maintenance.

While the full-size SUV segment has moderated considerably in recent years, GM still dominates this class with almost 50 percent of total class sales. Chevy’s Tahoe is the segment leader, with over 83,000 sold last year, followed by the Suburban. Ford’s Expedition is a distant third, with the longer Yukon XL in fourth place on the sales charts, while the regular Yukon is fifth with over 28,000 units sold in 2013. So far in 2014, the Yukon is the only large SUV with growing sales, up 30 percent.

Apparently, the chiseled looks of the latest Yukon and Denali are keeping GM rolling. That is positive news given all of the events of this year.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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