GMC Yukon XL

Review Notes: 2007 GMC Yukon XL SLT (RWD)
Personality Minivan interior meets truck chassis
Gas mileage 15 / 21 EPA estimates

The GMC Yukon remains one of the few big SUVs that can actually make it through very deep snows, hence the name. Its efficient drivetrain, good brakes, and reputation for durability have made it stand out from the crowd, and we favor the Yukon's strong chassis and drivetrain over the Fords that are more marketing than substance; but if you need a vehicle for space and safety rather than towing and such, a minivan remains your best bet.

The heavy duty nature of the truck used to make the ride stiff and jiggly, though still good for a truck of this capacity; now, the ride is only a little stiff, and it is far more carlike. Indeed, the Yukon is not far from minivan levels of ride and comfort. Body jiggle has largely been conquered, washboard roads no longer cause problems, and pot-holes are handled with aplomb. It’s not a luxury car, but it’s a far cry from even the last generation, which remained at the top of its class until the end.

Cornering remains good for a vehicle of this size but well below minivan and car standards; likewise, crossovers have a real advantage in fast or sharp turns. The Yukon feels stable, with its standard stability control no doubt contributing, but the large, expensive tires protest around hard turns.

Speed sensitive steering provides easy turns at low speeds and easy driving at high speeds, with a surprisingly - even shockingly - tight turning radius. We were amazed at how such a wide, long vehicle managed to make sharp turns and get out of tight squeezes; it made parking nearly as easy as it would have been in a large car.

The standard automatic transmission shifts smoothly yet firmly; kickdowns are smooth but only come after an acceleration-sapping delay. A trailer-towing mode changes the shifting subtly to increase the life of the transmission.

The 5.3 liter V8 provides strong acceleration from a standing start, but on the highway needs a downshift before providing passing power. Other, more powerful engines are also available for those who can’t wait and don’t mind losing some gallons of gasoline.

Fuel economy is surprisingly good for a vehicle of this size and capacity, if still far below similarly sized minivans: we got about 14 mpg city, 17 highway (EPA ratings are much more optimistic, because the EPA accelerates very slowly, doesn't stop at as many lights, doesn't use air conditioning - not that we did - and doesn't exceed 55 mph). Variable displacement - a feature which shuts off four cylinders to save fuel - contributed to that. Based on the indicator in the trip computer, we found that four cylinder mode was used mainly while moving and not at idle, an interesting approach designed perhaps to avoid customer complaints about the engine noise changing; most of the time (and whenever tow mode was activated), V8 mode was used. GM claims the feature increases gas mileage by 8%, but we suspect that’s an overstatement for real world conditions, and also that the system could be retuned to be more effective.

Another feature of dubious merit is the flex-fuel capability; the engine can take E85 fuel (85% ethanol), which costs less. Fuel economy tends to be lower with E85, but if gas prices spike and you can find a station, it might be helpful, especially if there's an actual fuel shortage (something which has not occured for any length of time in about 30 years).

The Yukon comes to a stop quickly on dry surfaces, outclassing many competitors in this very important test, though you can quickly get into trouble with this much weight on four tires. Visibility is good for the class thanks partly to huge side mirrors, but there are big blind spots in all such vehicles; we also liked the large moonroof, which provided a sense of spaciousness. The generously sized sun visors included slide-out inserts which increased their range and usefulness. Our vehicle had the optional backup alert (four sensors in the rear bumper measure the remaining distance when in reverse) as well as the optional backup video camera; both were very useful, though the camera took a while to activate when the vehicle was first started. On the lighter side, darkness didn't seem to faze it; at dusk, the picture remained bright.

Wind noise is low, accompanied by a pleasant, deep note from the engine, the standard V8 induction roar.

The interior of the long-wheelbase Yukon XL is spacious, about the size of a long-wheelbase minivan, with three rows of seats for carrying seven people. The rear seats are not meant for adults; they provide little legroom and are not raised high enough off the floor for even moderately tall people. Oddly, they also don’t seem to have LATCH connections for small children; but very short adults and kids who have outgrown their child seats seemed happy back there. The rearmost row of seats folds nearly flat, while the middle row has electric "flip down" buttons both up front and by the seats. These controls replace the old hand lever and are nearly as useful.

The instrument panel is large and clear, with gauges for coolant and transmission temperature, oil pressure, and fuel level, along with a full size tachometer and speedometer. The traditional and highly readable dials are surrounded by trim, rounded bright chrome bezels, providing an elegant though still utilitarian look. When the headlights are on, a soothing green backlight is used; it can be handy to increase visibility at dusk. The dashboard is rounded out with dull chrome vent bezels and woodgrain panels between them; unlike most modern vehicles, the interior uses a limited number of colors, which is by no means bad.

The transmission has a sensible column shift and foot brake which makes it easy to fully apply the parking brakes; a hand-operated lever also makes it easy to release the brake and get going again, once you find it (it's the same color as the surrounding trim and doesn't stick out). The headlights are controlled by the new standard chrome-surrounding-black GM truck knob, which provides easy usability with a neat, upscale appearance, but to shut off the headlights you either have to go with running lights (which stay on after you shut the engine) or move to "no lights," a setting that has to be repeated each time you start the engine. Otherwise, the automatic headlights - which in GM parlance means "always on" - are the default.

Gone is the old GM overloaded-stalk cruise control; replacing it is a conventional system on the wheel, set up so that you only have to turn the cruise on once, and it stays on no matter how many times you stop and start the engine. A separate light indicates when a speed has been locked in; and there's a cancel button as well. All the buttons on the new corporate system are large and easy to reach, making us glad that GM finally changed over.

Replacing the overloaded stalk is the overloaded door. In one pod on the driver's door you can find the outside mirror adjustment (a four-point button for directions and a two-point one for selecting the mirror); the outside mirror folding control; the four window up/down buttons, with express down up front; the power window lockout; and the power door lock switch. That's 11 buttons (counting the four directions for the mirrors as one button), and the locks are awkwardly located close to the driver's elbow. Also on the door are the heated seat buttons (one for back-and-butt, the other just for the back) and the power seat memory button. There are also controls for OnStar on the rear-view mirror with a compass and thermometer, a welcome duplicate set of radio controls on the right side of the steering wheel, and the four trip computer controls to the right of the instrument panel. With these, you can easily set lock and light behaviors, see average and instant gas mileage and cylinder mode (V8 and V4), fuel range, tire pressures for each individual tire, odometers, and oil life remaining - the latter cleverly calculated by the computer based on GM research and road conditions, which can save you a bag of money and a few gallons of oil over time, since most people don't even need to change oil every six thousand miles, much less every three.

Next to the headlight knob is a mini-cluster with the dome light defeat button, rheostat, and fog light button. This is, sensibly, backlit at night, as are most controls. A small cubby takes up space next to it.

An automatic system detects whether the passenger is a child or an adult - and shuts off the airbag if the passenger is a child. Annoyingly, however, the system's readout is always on, but it's not overly bright any more.

Our test vehicle had a full compliment of comfort options, inluding a three-zone thermostatically operated climate control system. Similar to those used on minivans, the three-zone system lets the driver, front passenger, and rear passengers all have different heat levels. The system is generally easy to understand and use. There are many air vents in the rear cabin, and any can be re-aimed or closed completely. The rear climate control is too far away for most children to reach from their seats.

We had the XM Satellite radio system, which provides largely commercial-free music on over 100 channels. Unless you're under heavy tree cover or in a tunnel, the system works well, and is treated by the stereo as just another band. The system works nicely with the navigation screen (optional), providing the channel name, song title, and artist name, six preset buttons (with the names of the channels shown), and the time; when the map is showing, pressing the radio status button brings up the main radio screen. We have found XM more likeable than the competing Sirius system. OnStar is also included.

Rounding out our comfort and convenience features is a built-in, minivan-style DVD video system, with a large roof-mounted screen, remote control, and wireless headphones. The system can be played through the main stereo, and if you're parked, the front screen will show the movie and allow you to control the system without the remote.

Up front, there are many places to put things, including a large center bin (nearly large enough for a box of tissues), large dual cupholders, a covered slot in the center stack, and map pockets in the doors. A built-in garage door opener is placed by the rotating front dome lights. Overall, the interior design is clean, uncluttered, and practical. If you want more, you have to spring for the Cadillac Escalade.

We also had the newly revised navigation system, which works very well if with slow speed. The entire screen is touch sensitive, and things actually do what you'd expect. For example, if you press the compass, the screen changes orientation between North being up and your current direction being up; pressing the time brings up the date. It's sensible touches like these that make the difference between being useful and being infuriating (like Toyota's system). We would only ask for physical stereo buttons and knobs, since setting audio controls via touch-screen diverts attention and takes more time than it should. Overall, the system worked well, but we were surprised by the lack of coverage of points of interest: local parks and many local businesses were left out.

The stereo itself has excellent sound. Our main complaints were the size and placement of the two actual knobs, which were fairly small; the left one had to be found by feel, hidden as it usually was by the wheel. As with most such systems, using the navigation system to control the stereo could easily be an exercise in frustration, rescued largely by the steering-wheel radio controls.

The new climate control takes a little getting used to, but works well, with a quiet fan and clear, understandable buttons for each function. The oddball control was the mode, which made you press a button repeatedly to go through heater ducts, bi-level, vent ducts, etc. Underneath the climate control were dual power jacks and controls for the moveable pedals, parking assist shutoff, traction control shutoff, and rear wiper/washer.

The Yukon now features a minivan staple, the electrically operated rear hatch; operated by a button on the hatch handle, the key fob, or a roof-mounted button, it beeps quietly a couple of times (not quite often enough, we'd say), then slowly lifts up, stopping instantly if it senses an obstruction. It closes the same way, via a button near the driver, a button built into the bottom of the hatch, or the key fob. It's a nice gimmick and kids love it.

Storage space is extensive, with the middle and rear seats losing legroom in a quest for additional cargo area; for a vehicle of this size, the lack of legroom in the middle seats is rather interesting, and the lack of legroom in the rearmost seats makes it hard for adults to stay back there for any length of time. That said, adults can stay in the middle seats indefinitely; it's no worse than many mid-sized sedans of the 1980s or 1990s. And thanks to the placement of the seats, more cargo can be stored even with seven passengers than with most minivans.

Speaking of minivans, there are many little storage places and cupholders, albeit not with the full coverage of the average Caravan. Front doors have map pockets; the center console is huge; there is a large bin in front of the main cupholders; and a small bin by the headlight button. In back, there are a couple of small cubbies and cupholders for the rearmost seats that are easy to reach, but it's a stretch from the middle seats to the cupholders set up for them. The glove compartment is barely large enough to hold the owner's manual and related paperwork.

The Yukon XL half-ton in two wheel drive trim lists at a bit over $38,000, including the automatic transmission, locking rear differential, a year of OnStar Safe & Sound, four-wheel antilock disk brakes, stability control, power locks and windows, remote, tire pressure monitor, rear window wiper and defroster, fog lights, power heated mirrors, three rows of cloth seats, triple-zone air conditioning (with an auxiliary rear heater and air conditioner), CD stereo, cruise, two rows of floor mats, auto-dimming rear-view mirror with compass and thermometer, and the driver information center. That's an expensive truck but it's also a fully loaded one. Well, not quite fully loaded, we suppose - not when you consider the options ours came with.

This truck topped out at $50,150, including a package discount and destination charge. Still a better buy than just about any Lincoln or the Cadillac Escalade, that’s a pretty pricey truck, but if you can afford it, you can afford the gas it takes, too (estimated optimistically by the EPA at $1,940 per year). As outfitted, with the 5.3 liter V8 and 3.73:1 axle ratio, it has a gross vehicle weight rating of 7,200 pounds.

We don't think you can buy a better full-size SUV, but if you don't need to tow or haul thousands of pounds of stuff around, and don’t frequently travel in Arctic blizzards, you’ll almost certainly get much more for your money with a minivan or crossover, perhaps equipped with all-wheel drive; GM makes a range of minivans and a range of crossovers, and the original minivan, the Dodge Caravan, remains the best value, in our opinion, with the Chrysler Pacific providing minivan function in an SUV-like body (with all wheel drive). There are also GM's well made mid-sized SUVs, such as the TrailBlazer, which provide more economy with the ability to tow. Most Yukon buyers absolutely do not need all the truck they are getting, and, at 15 mpg, that's a shame.

That said, if you do need a full-sized SUV, the GMC Yukon (or one of its GM siblings) is the one to get.