The civilization of the brute-ute.

By Mitch McCullough

Nothing can haul people, move stuff, pull railers and go anywhere like a full-size sport-utility vehicle.

That term was once synonymous with -- and limited to -- the Suburban. You know the Suburban. Sold by GMC and Chevrolet, it's been around since 1946, and it's still the king when it comes to hauling capacity. But it is no longer alone; there are other choices now.

Four of those choices come from the same dealerships that sell the Suburban. The nearly identical GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Tahoe are essentially short versions of the Suburban; each of them is available as either a two- or four-door model. The two-door Yukon measures 188 inches from stem to stern. The four-door is nearly a foot longer, while the Suburban adds another 32 inches.

GMC says the Yukon is the sport-utility vehicle of choice for people who want to comfortably dominate the roads they travel. There's certainly some truth to that. The Yukon can do most of what a Suburban can do, yet it's easier to park and ease into a garage.

This year those choices were expanded even further by Ford's new Expedition, which is four-door only. The Expedition is an extraordinarily good sport-utility vehicle, but the GMC and Chevrolet trucks stand up well to this challenge.

Walkaround

The Yukon and Tahoe appear boxy compared with the Expedition, but it's a ruggedly handsome shape. Those cowboy looks come from sharing sheetmetal with the full-size General Motors pickup trucks.

Power is plentiful, with GM's 5.7-liter Vortec V-8 engine as standard equipment. It's a smooth, powerful and efficient engine, enabling the Yukon to accelerate quickly and pull trailers up to 6500 pounds on the 4WD model, 7000 on 2WD versions. The optional 6.5-liter turbodiesel V-8 produces even more trailer-pulling torque and greater fuel economy for the two-door Yukon, but there hasn't been sufficient demand to offer a diesel four-door.

The two-door 2WD Yukon starts at $21,265, the 4WD at $26,861. The four-doors are considerably more expensive -- the 4WD four-door Yukon starts at $32,189 -- but they include more standard features. That compares to $27,988 for a 4WD GMC Suburban K1500. A 4WD Ford Expedition XLT starts at $30,510.

Three trim levels -- SL, SLE and SLT -- are available for the two-door Yukon. Our tester, a black two-door 4WD GMC Yukon GT came with full SLT trim, which includes $6537 worth of popular options bringing the grand total to $33,398.

These full-size trucks cost $4000-$8000 more than compact sport-utility vehicles like the GMC Jimmy and Ford Explorer, but provide more utility and value when compared with the $41,488 Toyota Land Cruiser or the $56,125 Range Rover. And they also have more muscle.

The Inside Story

The ground clearance of the Yukon means short people have difficulty getting in and out. And with two doors, it's obviously more difficult to climb into the back seat. On the other hand, the shorter two-door models are handier off-road.

Running boards can improve the ease of entry, but they reduce the ground clearance which was the point of the exercise in the first place. The Expedition is even more challenging with a step-in height that is two inches higher. This difference also means it's easier to load cargo into the Yukon.

Once inside, the Yukon offers a pleasant cabin. The high-back bucket seats are comfortable with inboard armrests, though we wish GMC had gone farther on the lumbar support. Like other big sport-utilities, the Yukon offers a commanding view of the traffic, while the long side windows provide good visibility over the shoulder. New for 1997 is a passenger-side airbag and a revised climate control system.

The instrument panel is straightforward, if somewhat dated, and the dash is a modern design with rounded curves. Storage space abounds in the form of a glovebox, center console, door pockets and nets behind the seats. Well-designed cupholders are everywhere, while extra power outlets for cellular phones and radar detectors make life easier.

People in the back seats aren't forgotten. The back of the console provides them with cupholders and storage. Map lights are available and the heating and air conditioning is directed to keep them comfortable. The four-door models offer an additional rear air conditioning unit with overhead controls.

The two-door Yukon offers a generous cargo area with 51.6 cubic feet of storage space behind the rear seats. Folding the seat cushions forward and flipping the seat backs down increases it to 99.4. With the rear seats folded down, the four-door Yukon offers 118.2 cubic feet -- nearly identical to the Expedition -- while the Suburban provides 149.5 cubic feet. Buyers may order these vehicles with either the split panel doors or, better, a tailgate.

Our Yukon came with the electronic shift transfer case, allowing the driver to select four-wheel drive by pushing a button on the dash. The standard four-wheel drive system is engaged by moving a transfer case shift lever mounted on the forward portion of the center hump. We have found the standard shift lever is rarely in the way, but we've also found that it can be balky to operate in some examples we've experienced. Either way, the shift-on-the-fly system can be operated while in motion.

The 4WD system includes a low range for tough traction situations, while an optional locking rear differential is extra insurance against getting stuck a long way from home. This is a part-time 4WD system, incidentally, designed for use in low-traction situations, as distinct from full-time systems.

We recommend ordering the optional $164 trailer-towing equipment, which includes a Class III receiver capable of pulling more than the Yukon's 7000-pound capacity. In our experience, the Yukon and Tahoe make stable, powerful tow vehicles with good brakes.

Ride & Drive

In spite of its size, the Yukon is easy to handle. The steering is extremely light. Drivers who find the increased height and bulk initially awkward usually adjust and before long find themselves driving the big Yukon like a car. It isn't a car, however. The two-door 4WD Yukon takes 39 feet of real estate to complete a circle, the four-door model takes another two feet, while a Suburban K1500 needs nearly 48 feet. This makes the two-door model easier to manage in tight, crowded parking lots.

The Yukon does a good job of cushioning bumps, though it floats a bit too much for our taste. The two-door lacks some of the Suburban's aircraft carrier stability, a result of its shorter wheelbase. But the shorter wheelbase is far handier off road.

The Yukon, Tahoe and Suburban all suffer from mushy brake pedals. They stop well, but firm, positive pressure is needed for quick response.

A 4WD Yukon is a highly capable -- if somewhat bulky -- off-road vehicle. It handles well on rough roads and the 4WD system helps it through slippery conditions. Our tester never hesitated over silty two-tracks, muddy trails and roads covered with snow and ice. It also stops and accelerates well on dirt roads. A Yukon will go anywhere the most serious of outdoorsmen are likely to go.

Final Word

The Yukon can tow huge loads while offering impressive off-road capability. And it can do that while comfortably hauling four people with all their luggage. There's plenty of power, a commanding view of the road and bad roads are not a problem.

The two-door model has a lot to offer, and is a better choice for those who envision regular excursions into the wilds. But we prefer the four-door Yukon/Tahoe or the Suburban for their easier access to the back seats. The four-door Yukon is a good daily driver that's capable of pulling heavy loads and carrying four or five in comfort.

And for those who need even more capacity, the Suburban is unbeatable. Size notwithstanding, all these trucks are stable, comfortable cruisers that easily slice through nature's worst. Be prepared to stand in line, though, as buyers often outnumber trucks.

Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084

© Copyright 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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