Dawson City, Yukon – The Yukon is all-new for 2015, now in its fourth generation since its 1992 introduction. It’s based on the platform of the GMC Sierra pickup truck that was completely made over for 2014, although it doesn’t share any sheet metal. While both models have three rows of seats, the XL has a longer wheelbase and overall length, divided between more legroom for the second and third rows, and more cargo space when the third-row chairs are up.
Disclosure: Travel, accommodation, meals, and a pre-set route were provided to the author by the automaker.
While the Sierra is available with a V6 engine, the Yukon and XL models are strictly V8-powered. The SLE and SLT trims use a 5.3-litre V8, making 355 horsepower and 383 lb.-ft. of torque. The upscale Denali comes strictly with a 6.2-litre V8, producing 420 horsepower and 460 lb.-ft. of torque. Both engines mate to a six-speed automatic transmission, but later in the model year, the Denali will get an eight-speed (the 5.3-litre will eventually too). That late availability might not seem like the most logical marketing decision, but GM says it’s primarily a case of eight-speed production catching up with the Yukon assembly line.
Big SUV, less choice
Because the full-size SUV segment is low-volume, configuration choices are kept to a minimum. In both the Yukon and Yukon XL, the SLE comes in two-wheel drive, while the SLT and Denali are four-wheel. The Yukon’s prices start at $51,090 for the SLE; $60,950 for the SLT; and at $73,540 for the Denali. For the XL, it’s $54,080 for the SLE; $63,940 for the SLT; and the Denali starts at $76,530.
All of the vehicles on my far-north drive were 4×4s, and I started out in a short-wheelbase SLT. The base SLE model includes such features as assist steps, backup camera, rain-sensing wipers, automatic tri-zone climate control, and a Bose audio system, but the SLT then adds numerous other items including leather upholstery; power liftgate, power-folding third-row seat and adjustable pedals; and a suite of electronic nannies such as forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, and cross-traffic alert. Some of these warn via a vibrating seat, which apparently works well with many drivers, but which always startles the hell out of me and it takes a second to figure out what I’m supposed to be noticing.
The engine sizes may sound familiar from the outgoing Yukon models, but these powerplants are completely new. Both engines feature direct injection, variable valve timing, and cylinder deactivation, which shuts off half the cylinders when full power isn’t required, such as when cruising at a steady speed. This improves fuel economy, which ranges from 14.9 city/10.1 highway for the 5.3-litre 2WD, to 16.8/11.7 for the 6.2-litre 4WD Denali XL. Those numbers are actually worse than the published figures for 2014, but keep in mind that 2015s undergo the new, more realistic five-cycle fuel testing that takes effect this model year. According to Natural Resources, if the 2014 Denali had undergone the five-cycle, it would have rated 18.8/13.4.
But that’s enough for numbers; let’s get behind the wheel. The interior is based on that of the redesigned Sierra, and it looks good, even before you get into the upper-line Denali. GM’s new philosophy is to group button functions together, which makes the controls easier to use, especially since the buttons are fairly large and intuitive. For Yukons with a head-up display, adjusting the height is simply a matter of pushing a toggle switch up or down, unlike aggravating systems that make you page through computer screens to find the control.
I recently drove the refreshed Ford Expedition, possibly the Yukon’s closest competitor, and the GMC’s handsome innards win hands-down over the Ford’s more dated cabin. But there’s one glaring error on the passenger side of the Yukon’s dash pad, where you can see the indentation for the airbag. These seams are invisible in almost all other vehicles, regardless of their price. They shouldn’t be obvious on an SUV that tops $76,000.
The Yukon’s seats are a bit flatter than the Expedition’s, but still very long-distance comfortable, an important point in a vehicle that will probably see a lot of use as a “snowbird” vehicle, or towing a vacation trailer.
Access to the third row has been considerably improved, and there’s more room under the seats to slip one’s feet. The second and third rows fold completely flat for cargo space. But the Yukon’s third-row chairs have hard cushions, and legroom is tight. The Expedition has the edge here: its independent rear suspension allows for a true adult-sized rear row.
Big fish in a small pond. REALLY big fish…
The Sierra is already a smooth-handling truck that drives smaller than it is, and the Yukon improves on that with even more sophistication and a car-like feel. I spent a lot of time on a very rough mining road, and the Yukon stayed firm and stable. Head-to-head, I still thought the Expedition rode a bit better, and its available automatic damping system was slightly smoother than the Denali’s Magnetic Ride Control. But they’re close enough that, for most drivers, it’ll come down to personal preference.
GM is still the big fish in this little-pond segment, though: the company says that of all full-size SUVs sold in Canada, one in three is a Yukon or Denali. If you throw in the Yukon’s Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban siblings, GM accounts for 65 per cent of all sales in the sector, which also includes competitors such as Toyota’s Sequoia and Nissan’s Armada. With the way this new model drives and performs, I don’t expect that to change anytime soon, no matter what strange things may happen under the midnight sun.