DAWSON CITY, YUKON?This trip has it all: long stretches of smooth highway, mining roads that turn slick as ice with mud, tight mountain curves, washboard gravel trails and the famous unpaved streets of this historic mining town. Where else but the Yukon would I go to drive a Yukon?
(Figuring they?d continue the trend of matching vehicle to namesake place, I begged the GM rep to bring back the Buick Riviera, but it doesn?t seem to be in the plans.)
The GMC Yukon is all-new for 2015, based on the platform of the Sierra pickup truck that was redesigned for 2014. The SUV doesn?t share any exterior panels with it, although it does feature the Sierra?s inlaid doors, which replace the old into-the-roof style to help make for a quieter ride.
Three trim lines are available in both the shorter Yukon and longer-wheelbase Yukon XL. The SLE and SLT use a 5.3-L V8: the SLE is two-wheel drive, while the SLT is 4WD. The upscale Denali uses a 6.2-L V8 and is 4WD only.
Pricing starts at $51,090 for the Yukon SLE; at $60,950 for the SLT; and $73,540 for the Denali. Choosing the long-wheelbase Yukon XL adds $2,990 to each of those numbers. All have three rows of seats, but the XL adds extra legroom and cargo space.
The engine sizes are the same as before, but the units themselves are completely new. They?re more powerful ? the 5.3-L makes 355 horsepower, while the 6.2-L produces 420 ? but come with fuel-saving technologies, including cylinder displacement, which seamlessly shuts off fuel to half the cylinders when full power isn?t needed. Keep in mind that fuel economy testing has changed for the 2015 model year to be more realistic, so while the new Yukon?s published figures don?t look all that impressive compared with the outgoing 2014s, these new engines drink less fuel.
Both engines mate to a six-speed automatic transmission, but the Denali will get an eight-speed later in the model year. The 5.3-L will get one at some time in the future. There won?t be a leap in fuel efficiency, but GM says it will improve driving performance. It may seem odd that the better unit wasn?t added right away, but the plant building the new transmission isn?t up to full production yet.
Behind the wheel, the Yukon feels smaller than it is, thanks to quick steering response and a pleasantly light feel. The Denali?s suspension includes automatic levelling and Magnetic Ride Control, a sophisticated system that uses magnets acting on metal filings in the shock absorber fluid, almost instantly tightening or softening the ride in response to road conditions. On a particularly nasty washboard section, the Denali held stable even at higher speeds, while transmitting almost none of the bumpiness into the cabin.
I recently drove the restyled Ford Expedition, which also includes a continuously controlled suspension system on its top-line Platinum. I found the Ford?s ride and handling to be slightly better than the Yukon?s, but they?re very close.
The Yukon?s cabin tops the Ford?s for looks, especially in the top-line Denali, where GM plans to attract buyers who want a seriously luxurious SUV without going to the Cadillac Escalade?s extra bling. What I really like is that the upper-crust appearance and materials are blended with big-and-simple buttons and dials. Far too often, luxury-car controls become needlessly complicated and distracting.
There is one misstep, though: there?s an indentation in the dash pad over the passenger side airbag. This is invisible on almost all other vehicles and it sticks out like a sore thumb, especially on a model that can top $76,000.
Several new electronic safety features have been added for 2015, depending on the model, including forward collision alert and braking, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and front parking alert, which is handy on something this big.
Access to the third row has been improved, but Ford takes the edge once you get there. The Expedition?s independent rear suspension allows for an adult-sized rear row with excellent legroom, while the Yukon?s hard chairs sit above the rear axle, and there?s very little space for your knees.
The first and second rows are very roomy, though, and the seats stayed comfortable on the 500-km-plus drive from Whitehorse to Dawson. That?s important, because this is often the vehicle of choice for snowbirds, or those who pile in some friends and trek down for a golf weekend at Myrtle Beach. Depending on the configuration, maximum trailer towing is 8,500 lbs. (3,855 kg), which is more than the Toyota Sequoia, but less than the Nissan Armada or the Ford Expedition, which tops the segment at 9,200 lbs. (4,173 kg).
Not surprisingly, the full-size SUV market is a small one, but GM firmly owns it: according to the company, one out of every three in the segment sold in Canada is a Yukon or Denali. The new Expedition has a lot to offer, and while there are items where one scores above the other, I find them very close overall. But customer loyalty always plays a huge role in this segment, and with these new engines and improved interior, I?m guessing that GMC?s customers will be coming back for more.