The GMC Yukon is a big seven-seat SUV with V8 power, essentially the GMC version of the Chevy Tahoe though with some significant differences in equipment.
The GMC Yukon XL is the Suburban-size version, with a wheelbase of 130 inches, giving more legroom in the third row and cargo space behind it.
Built on truck chassis, these vehicles are among the few full-sized SUVs built body-on-frame, as opposed to being a unibody crossover with a car chassis. So the Yukon, like the land it was named for, is all about ruggedness, towing capability and hauling ability.
The standard Yukon engine is the 5.3-liter V8 making 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque, with a 6-speed automatic; but GMC also offers a 6.2-liter V8 making 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque.
So if you want the most towing capability, Yukon is the way to go. It’s rated at 8500 pounds, although that’s still not as much as the Ford Expedition’s 9200 pounds, on the back of is twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6. It’s also less than the Nissan Armada’s 8200-9000 pounds, but more than the Toyota Sequoia or Dodge Durango.
Both Yukon engines are direct injected, which improves response and efficiency with precise fuel metering; and both use cylinder deactivation, which cuts the engine down to a V4 when the throttle is reduced. It’s indicated on the instrument panel, but the driver never feels the transition. Fuel mileage with the 5.3-liter is EPA-rated at 16 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, and 18 mpg combined.
The ladder-type boxed frame uses mostly high-strength steel, for safety and rigidity. The rear suspension is old school, with a live axle and leaf springs, delivering a very good ride. But Magnetic Ride Control is available, the high-tech active suspension that basically absorbs bumps that the solid axle just deflects. A locking rear differential is standard.
Because the Yukon was redesigned for 2015, there’s nothing new for the 2016 model year, except a capless fuel filler. However, there are enhancements to packages, such as the addition of Apple Car Play to the infotainment system.
Safety equipment standard on all models are a rearview camera and proximity sensors in front and rear, and with models having a bench seat in front, there’s an additional airbag that separates the two passengers. Optional safety equipment includes adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic warning, and forward collision alert.
Rear-wheel drive is standard, four-wheel drive available. Yukon 4WD models use a single-speed Autotrac system for automatic operation on the highway. If you want 4WD with a low-range for rock crawling or slimy boat ramps, you have to get the HD tow package two-speed transfer case. Denali 4WD comes with it.
GMC Yukon models are built on a 116-inch wheelbase, XL models have a 130-inch wheelbase. Denali versions are more luxurious and come with the 6.2-liter V8 and 8-speed automatic.
Available features include Bose audio, keyless entry, pushbutton start, an 8.0-inch LCD touchscreen interface, head-up display, power tailgate, cargo-management system, five USB ports, Blu-Ray DVD entertainment, and 22-inch alloy wheels.
This latest-generation Yukon abandoned the boring slab sides of the pre-2015 models for square corners and a masculine presence. Edges, angles, and character lines on its sheetmetal give it a sharp and tailored look. Aerodynamics played a strong role in its design.
As with the Chevrolet Sierra pickup upon which it is based, the doors are triple-sealed, set into the body.
The Denali has its own distinctive grille, and high-intensity discharge headlamps. Other models have projector-beam headlamps.
The GMC Yukon feels more like a sedan than a truck inside. Way bigger, of course, especially the center stack with its large dials. It’s taken over by the IntelliLink infotainment screen, with its big icons for various functions. The center console is big and deep enough for a tablet or notebook computer. So on second thought, the Yukon feels more like a modern semi-truck than a sedan, inside, and outside, with available retractable steps to climb up to the tall cabin.
But then you feel the cabin’s soft-touch materials. And the Denali, downright luxurious, with its ambient lighting, Bose surround sound audio system, and Blu-Ray entertainment in the rear seat.
The second and third rows fold flat, with available power to create vast cargo space with one touch of the finger. There’s plentiful legroom in the second row, and even the third row of the XL, although headroom is still tight back there. If it’s the 116-inch wheelbase model, don’t expect decent legroom in the third row but it still works for occasional use, so if that’s all you need for passengers, the shorter wheelbase would probably be a better choice.
The Yukon doesn’t sound like a truck inside, either. It’s remarkably quiet. Those triple-sealed doors silence most of the road noise, and windshield and front window glass is treated to cancel noise. Most of the sound comes from the exhaust pipe, and it isn’t intrusive, it only makes it evident how well the engine compartment is insulated.
The forward visibility is quite good, thanks to fairly slim windshield pillars and angular bodywork on the hood and fenders. The side pillars are substantial, blocking the tapered rear flanks in the rearview mirror. The standard sideview mirrors aren’t wide enough to see what you’re towing if it’s tall and wide. Fortunately a rearview camera and proximity sensors front and rear are standard.
The optional head-up display projects speed, rpm, turn signals, warnings, navigation instructions on the windshield ahead of the driver, but, like all of them in our experience, it’s not readable on sunny days with sunglasses.
The Yukon is as easy and pleasant to drive as a car, as long as you pay attention to the corners that are way out there. Despite its size, the Yukon turns tight, better than many sedans, so there’s no reason to be daunted by malls, at least not with the short-wheelbase versions. The XLs are less wieldy when pulling into a parking space.
The handling is secure and stable, with electric rack-and-pinion steering. The power assist is consistent during slow-speed maneuvering.
The ride is more comfortable with the standard 18-inch wheels than with the optional 20-inch wheels, partly because the bigger wheels use tires that have less of a sidewall height to absorb bumps. The available Magnetic Ride Control feels like magic to us, and makes all the problems go away. The shock absorbers continuously adjust in milliseconds to the road surface. On washboard surfaces the system is a blessing.
The 5.3-liter V8 delivers plenty of smooth power, the 6.2-liter even more so. Both develop peak horsepower at more than 4000 rpm, and they cruise at less than half that speed even at freeway speed. To get a downshift for instant acceleration, you hammer the throttle.
The 6-speed automatic does a good job of selecting gears. Its manual mode rev-matches the downshifts, and that’s cool, and welcomed. The mode is managed by a switch on the column shift lever.
The Denali’s 8-speed automatic has quicker and smoother shifts with smaller surges because the engine speed doesn’t change as much, that’s one of the reasons for more transmission speeds. The added gears also allow easier engine braking on long grades.
Towing is the best reason for buying a GMC Yukon. Even if you don’t use your Yukon for towing, you might want the towing package because the way it programs the transmission is sharper around town. Same with the optional brake controller for trailers with electric brakes: it’s needed if you tow, but even if you don’t, it helps the resale value.
With its attractive fresh styling and modern features, big V8 engines and smooth automatic transmissions, decent fuel mileage for the size, towing and cargo capability, offroad potential, and last but not least room for seven passengers, the Yukon is a compelling choice if those are your needs.