The GMC Yukon is a full-size three-row SUV with V8 power, a step-brother of the Chevy Tahoe, as the Yukon has one significant genetic difference, an available bigger V8, as well as a Denali model with more features.
As, as the Tahoe has its big brother the longer Suburban, at GMC both wheelbases, 116 inches and 130 inches, belong to the Yukon, with the Yukon XL model matching the Suburban, and bringing more legroom in the third row. The price, of course, being the hauling around of another dozen or so inches on the outside of the vehicle.
SUVs built on truck chassis, like Tahoe and Yukon, are a dying breed. They’ll never disappear because the world needs trucks, but when they’re mostly gone, we’ll say, with fondness and appreciation, They don’t build them like that any more. That’s your Buy American pitch. The Yukon isn’t Canadian. Its name was taken out of admiration.
The standard V8 is a 5.3-liter making 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque, with direct injection, mated to a six-speed automatic. That sounds like enough horsepower and torque for a truck, but there’s nearly three tons of its own weight to carry, and then there’s the issue of towing. So if you don’t want your Yukon to be the wimpy one, you need to opt for the 6.2-liter V8 making 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic. At the moment the Yukon Denali is the only GM SUV using this engine that’s gained fame in high-performance Cadillacs, Corvettes and Camaros. It’s coming to Tahoe as a 2018 model, and probably inevitably for Suburban, but Yukon was first.
The Denali with the 6.2-liter is rated to tow 8500 pounds, but that still only holds its own in the big-mother SUV tow department. The Ford Expedition, with its twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 can tow 9200 pounds. The Nissan Armada lives up to its name with 9000 pounds. Both the Toyota Sequoia and Dodge Durango can tow more than the Yukon.
Very few people ever tow that much, of course. If you tow more than 8500 pounds, you’re into horses, racecars, or boats big time. But that tow rating is a number that gives you an idea of overall strength of the chassis and powertrain.
Both engines have cylinder deactivation, which cuts the engine down to a V4 when the throttle is relaxed, to use less fuel. The mileage still sucks. 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.
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.
There are only a couple changes to the 2017 Yukon. Automatic emergency braking is now standard on SLT and Denali models, optional on SLEs. The Enhanced Driver Alert Package has been upgraded to include forward collision warning, automatic high-beam headlamps, lane keep assist, and automatic emergency braking. It also features GM’s Safety Alert seat that buzzes the bottom cushion to let drivers know if they’re drifting out of their lane or if there’s about to be a close call.
The Yukon comes in SLE, SLT, and Denali models, and is offered in standard and extended Yukon XL configurations, and rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
The Yukon shows masculine presence, with square corners like square shoulders. Edges, angles, and character lines on its sheetmetal give it a sharp and tailored look.
GM designers paid close attention to aerodynamics. The doors are triple-sealed, set into the body.
The Denali has its own grille, and high-intensity discharge headlamps. Other models have projector-beam headlamps.
It doesn’t feel like a truck inside, with all the quiet, the soft touch materials, and the center stack with its large dials, dominated by the IntelliLink infotainment screen big icons. The center console is big and deep enough for a tablet or notebook computer.
The Denali is downright luxurious, with its ambient lighting, Bose surround sound audio system, and Blu-Ray entertainment in the rear seat.
The third and second rows fold almost flat. We read one outraged comment in a forum because the folded rear seatbacks sloped upward, so you can’t put groceries behind the front seats or the bags will dump. It is true, we have been there.
There’s plentiful legroom in the second row, not quite decent in the third row, unless it’s Yukon XL although headroom is still tight back there.
There’s optional power to fold the second and third rows flat, an optional retractable step up into the cabin, and an optional head-up display that you can’t read with sunglasses.
It’s remarkably quiet inside, with the triple-sealed doors and glass treated to absorb sound. Most of the sound in the cabin is the rumble of the engine through the exhaust pipe.
Forward visibility is excellent, with high seating, slim pillars, and sloping fenders. A rearview camera and proximity sensors are standard, and it’s a very good thing.
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 2000 even at 65 mph.
The six-speed automatic chooses its gears well. 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. There’s a manual mode that actually does rev-matching downshifts like a sports car, we like it.
The Denali’s eight-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.
The Yukon is as easy and pleasant to drive as a car, as long as you pay attention to where its corners are. It turns tight, better than many sedans, improving the large SUV experience parking in malls. The XL is another story.
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 Yukon checks off every box in the big SUV class, with a rating of compelling. Styling, cabin, features, chassis, engine, transmission, differential, ride, handling, cargo capacity, seating. Another way of saying, What’s not to like?
Sam Moses contributed to this report.