Car review: GMC Yukon

2009 GMC Yukon SLT1 4x4

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Personality Big luxury car
Why we’d buy it Highly capable in any weather, comfortable, quiet, efficient for its breed
Why we wouldn’t Gas mileage, price
Mileage EPA, 14/20
Reviewer David Zatz

The GMC Yukon is one of the few big SUVs that can make it through tough terrain and deep snows, justifying its name. The big truck’s reputation for durability separate it from the posers, some of which have been known to break axles when going on even tame expeditions. While the Yukon was once bought mainly by those who needed its special capabilities, fashions made it popular among those who merely go on shopping expeditions.

Thus, the Yukon, while maintaining is muscular heart and skeleton, has a very quiet interior and a comfortable ride, with minimal jiggle and jounce; potholes are nicely damped and rough road surfaces are tamed, without any impact on cornering, which seems better than ever. The Yukon feels stable, with its standard stability control contributing when needed. Snow drifts and ice blocks seem to pose no real obstacle to the Yukon, either; GM did a fine job of civilizing the huge truck without cutting its capacity.

The cabin is moderately upscale, with features that would stun the owners of Yukons a couple of decades ago. (To be fair, they'd also stun luxury car owners of a couple of decades ago. OnStar, turn by turn navigation, an oil life indicator, and a mobile CD player? Imagine!) Coupled with the smoothly cushioned ride, leather trim and woodgrain dash and door appliqués on upscale models, chrome highlights, and quiet interior, one would almost think that this was not a workhorse GMC but a Cadillac... a Cadillac car.

The turn by turn navigation is a clever system which uses OnStar, since there is no other way to input the destination. Call the OnStar operative, wait on hold for a minute, then tell your destination; he or she programs it in, sends it to your car, and then the voice tells you which way to go. Even more cleverly, the dot-matrix display in the stereo spells it out, giving out the next direction and street, and even showing a graphic countdown. This is an impressively clever system.

The speed sensitive steering provides easy turns at low speeds and easy driving at high speeds, with a tight turning radius; the steering is tuned so you don’t notice anything, but the truck being easy to drive at any speed. The wide, long vehicle made sharp turns and got out of tight squeezes, making parking easier than it had any right to be. The boxy shape makes it easy to figure out where the big truck ends, and despite its huge size, the Yukon is easier to drive through traffic and to park than many other vehicles.

The new six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly, and under light acceleration there is barely any indication that it is shifting at all, other than a momentary power-management interval; kickdowns are smooth and somewhat firmer, but still cushioned. A trailer-towing mode changes the shifting subtly to increase the life of the transmission. The new six speed automatic is also almost always in exactly the right gear at the right time, though it is possible to confuse it and get odd behavior now and then. Rapid kickdowns allowed GM engineers to let the transmission shift up quickly, helping gas mileage and avoiding the odd "lugging-then-releasing" feel on some competing boxes. On the whole, it's a step up from past GM automatics and is superior to most transmissions out there.

Comparisons: 4x4 unless noted City Highway
Chrysler Town & Country (FWD) 17 25
Chevrolet Traverse (AWD) 16 23
Honda Odyssey (FWD) 16 23
GMC Yukon 14 20
Ford Expedition (RWD) 14 20
Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi 14 19
Toyota Land Cruiser 13 18
Lexus LX570 12 18

The 5.3 liter V8 provides strong acceleration from a standing start; on the highway it needs a downshift before providing passing power, but it never feels weak. The engine is fairly quiet at idle, a bit loud when under heavy throttle; the exhaust is tuned for an SUV sound, not a misplaced muscle-car drone. A 6.2 liter engine is also available, for those who think they need more power (presumably those who habitually drive heavy trailers up big hills). The difference between the engines is about what one would expect - the 6.2 gets 2 mpg less around town, 1 mpg less in the city. If you go for the hybrid powertrain, city mileage jumps up from 14 to 20 mpg around town - and stays at 20 mpg on the highway. (These figures are all for the 4x4; rear wheel drive models get better mileage.)

Our experience with a 2007 model was 13 mpg city, 17 highway; with the six-speed automatic in our 2009, we got about the same city mileage but with a better feel, and highway mileage went up to around the EPA-estimated 20. The 5.3 liter version has a variable displacement engine, shutting off four cylinders to save fuel when possible; GM, however, no longer provides any indication of when it is in power-saving mode.

The Yukon comes to a stop quickly on dry surfaces, outclassing many competitors, though you can quickly get into trouble with this much weight and inertia. Visibility is good for the class thanks partly to huge side mirrors, despite the blind spots unavoidable in big SUVs; though the wide, thick rear pillars and the middle-row seats interfere badly and cause a large blind spot. 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); a new feature is separate warnings for the left and right rear corners, with better warnings of vehicles to the side. Another option is a rear backup camera. We heartily recommend getting at least one of these.

The interior of the long-wheelbase Yukon XL is about the size of a big minivan, with three rows of seats for carrying seven people, but the flexibility is not quite as user-friendly as in a Caravan, Sienna, or Odyssey. The middle seats can be flipped forward to accommodate rear passengers, but getting through the passageway thus opened is not particularly easy; in any case, the rearmost seats provide little legroom or headroom, and are not raised high enough off the floor for even moderately tall people. Short adults and kids who have outgrown their child seats seemed happy back there, though. The middle row is also a bit awkward for taller people, with seats that aren't very high up, but the headroom is better there. In each case, the Yukon looks and feels better the further forward you go; features diminish as you go back, with the plastic in the rearmost row seeming cheap and flimsy, while the surroundings up front are rather nice. Storage options also diminish as you go back, with generous storage for things up front, map pockets on the back of the front seats and fold-down cupholders for the middle row, and molded in cupholders for the rearmost row. In other words, not only is the Yukon incredibly wasteful as a minivan; it isn't particularly well suited to be one anyway, in terms of passenger comfort, passenger space, passenger amenities, and getting people back there in the first place.

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, with a blueish-green backlight at night; the effect is highly readable and pleasant to look at.

The transmission has a 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 — it’s also around four inches further to the right than usual). The hood release is clearly marked and hard to mix up with the brake release. Under the hood, maintenance points are marked out and the battery is moderately easy to reach for jump starts.

Our test car had a manual override automatic, similar to the AutoStick; move the column shifter over one step past Drive, and the gear number shows up in the indicator. The up/down control is also on the stalk. This system is awkward for regular driving, but provides convenient enough access when the driver needs to start out in second (for ice or snow), or drop down a gear for a steep hill. Most people will probably leave it in Drive and ignore the system.

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.

Speaking of headlights, the actual headlights were strong and covered a wide area; while the tail-lights and reverse lights were bright and very helpful when backing up at night.

The old GM overloaded-stalk cruise control is gone, replaced by a 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. Instead, GM now provides an overloaded door control (someone has to put them in touch with Tog). The door button pod contains mirror adjustments, outside mirror folding, four window up/down buttons, the power window lockout, and the door locks; if equipped, the door also handles heated seats (with just-cushion or cushion-and-back choices) and power seats.

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, 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.

Our test vehicle had a full complement 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. 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, and the automatic mode puts the fan on full blast until the right temperature is reached, which can be rather loud.

Unfortunately, and oddly (it’s a Yukon!), you cannot effectively operate the climate control system with gloves on — at least, not easily. Hitting Auto or the fan up/down buttons is difficult at best with gloves, and not particularly easy to do while driving without gloves, either. These systems should be designed for easy use at a glance; but GM gave us a precision pointing game. Making matters worse is the odd mode button — instead of pushing one button or turning a knob, which you can do without looking just by counting the detents as they go buy (or dragging your hand across a row of buttons), GM provided a digital up/down control where each time you press, you get a different set of vents. That makes us long for the good old days of upside-down keys and combination cruise control/headlight/turn signal/kitchen sink stalks.

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. GM’s implementation has better antennas or a larger buffer than some competitors, providing more constant reception.

OnStar is also included; if you don't like the big nav system screens (and cost), you can subscribe to OnStar and get a system that gives you turn by turn instructions over the radio instead. OnStar goes as far downmarket as just letting authorities know when you've been in an accident and as far upmarket as providing a concierge to make hotel reservations for you, projecting what city you'll need them in.

Rounding out the comfort and convenience options was 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 (assuming you have a front screen) and allow you to control the system without the remote. That's good, because the remote doesn't seem to have a permanent home. Indeed, our test car didn't have a remote - or, for that matter, the wireless headphones.

One clever feature of GM's video system is that if you get a standard front radio instead of the little video screen, it can still let you navigate the DVD for your kids if they don't have a remote (or don't know how to use it). The DVD controls show up on the LED panel of the standard radio, complete with options for fast forward, skip, and Enter.

The standard stereo has excellent sound; our test vehicle had an optional stereo which resulted in fairly muddy, over-emphasized bass, an increasingly common failing of higher-end OEM stereos. No doubt the thudding bass is welcomed by some, but it would be good to be able to get an accurate rendition of the music, too.

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.

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. (Our 2009 did not have this but our 2007 did.)

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. Front doors have map pockets; the center console is huge (it easily swallowed up our GM information packet); 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 GMC Yukon 4x4 starts at $41,765 for the SLE-1, which includes the 320 horsepower 5.3 liter V8 on our more upscale truck; the engine pumps out 340 lb-ft of torque through the six-speed automatic, and the truck has the same 7,300 pound gross vehicle weight rating as our pricier model. For the most part, the SLE-2 and SLT models add features and conveniences - like the cupholders and upscale trim - more than capabilities. If you're into doodads and luxury features, though, going up a notch or two is a no-brainer, especially since at the SLT1 level, you get the backup alarm.

while our model, the SLT1, started at $46,450. That’s a pretty hefty chunk of cash, but a lot of goodies come with it. For offroad or snow and ice, you get an easy, electronic 4x4 control with low gear and automatic modes; in the automatic mode, the system kicked in instantly and was barely noticeable. You also get a locking rear differential, four antilock disc brakes, stability control system, traction control, and fog laps.

For safety, the Yukon SLT1 comes with dual front airbags, side curtain airbags in all rows, the aforementioned stability control, tire pressure monitoring with a display for each individual tire, ultrasonic rear park assist - that’s right, it’s standard — and, if you think these are safety features, daytime running lights and automatic headlights.

Other SLT1 features include one year of OnStar with turn-by-turn navigation, remote starter, exterior assist steps, roofrack, rear window defroster and wiper, deeply tinted glass, power heated outside mirrors, leather, triple zone automatic air conditioning, auxiliary rear heater and air conditioner, six-disc CD changer, BlueTooth for phones, XM Satellite Radio, floor mats for two rows (why not three?), auto-dimming mirror, and the enhanced trip computer. Ironically, the SLT1 model doesn't come with heated seats; those appear on the SLT2. Some would think a truck named after an exceedingly cold region would have things like heater buttons designed to be used with gloves, or heated seats, but apparently the suspension designers weren't allowed into the cabin.

Our truck was somewhat more expensive than the standard SLT1, with $4,285 worth of options. These were the massive 20-inch chrome-clad wheels, at a stunning $1,995; the rear seat video, at an almost as equally stunning $1,295; and the power sliding sunroof, at the usual $995. The total, then, came to $50,735, including destination charge, but excluding any sort of rebates that you are, frankly, very likely to find, and not little rebates, either.

The Yukon is easily a better buy than just about any Lincoln, the Cadillac Escalade, or the big Lexus 570, but it’s still a large chunk of change. If you can afford it, you can afford the gas it takes, too (estimated by the EPA at $1,556 per year, assuming — get this — $1.66 per gallon). As outfitted, with the 5.3 liter V8 and 3.42:1 axle ratio, it has a gross vehicle weight rating of 7,300 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. Most Yukon buyers do not need all the truck they are getting, and, at 14 mpg around town, that's a shame. If you really, really do need a full-sized SUV, the GMC Yukon (or one of its GM siblings) is the one to get. But if you’re just looking for something to get you to work and move the kids around... there are many more sensible choices.