Pros: Credibly balances workaday capability and weekend playability; fits neatly between Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and Cadillac Escalade
Cons: Like its core demographic, the Yukon and Yukon XL are showing their age.
What's New: Revised powertrain grade braking
Regardless of the current price of a gallon of gas, the full-size SUV remains a popular choice for many drivers. Like many large sport utilities, the 2013 GMC Yukon offers spaciousness and versatility that's unmatched by smaller SUVs and crossovers. Whether it's the shorter wheelbase (116 inch) Yukon or longer (130 in) Yukon XL, this GMC's high hip point, expansive glass area and truck-based platform make it a great perch from which to navigate school zones, the morning commute or the Friday afternoon drive to a weekend getaway.
The Yukon/Yukon XL shares a chassis, a drivetrain and most sheet metal with the Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban. Both remain enduring examples of a plentiful American past in which gasoline was cheap, roads were wide and families -- or families and their friends -- were large. With the Yukon, GMC has attempted to keep up with the demand for more efficiency while still offering this capable full-size SUV. There is even a more economical Yukon Hybrid that's rated at 21 mpg in combined driving. But the Yukon still demands a sizable investment. In return, drivers get abundant space for people and cargo, plus the simplicity, reliability and inexpensive maintenance that come with the Yukon's dated, truck-based architecture.
With the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcing ever-stricter fuel economy requirements, body-on-frame trucks and SUVs like the Yukon may not be around much longer. Although the traditional truck setup makes for a strong and capable SUV, it creates inefficiencies in a world that's growing less tolerant of them. GMC hasn't confirmed the design path for the next-generation Yukon, but a unibody design is likely. That will mean lighter weight and better fuel efficiency, but also reduced capabilities.
The 2013 Yukon arrives mostly unchanged, except for a new exterior paint color and a powertrain grade braking function that now operates both in the normal transmission mode, and with the tow setting activated.
Comfort & Utility
Because of its high ride height, entering the Yukon requires stepping up. Once seated behind the relatively narrow steering wheel, the driver quickly realizes the payoff resulting from the climb. The view is almost unrestricted, allowing the driver to see over and beyond the vehicles in adjacent lanes, provided that the other vehicles aren't also large SUVs. Even with the lower, 2WD chassis, the Yukon's tall perch and bright greenhouse provide excellent visibility.
If the Yukon's separate body-on-frame architecture is a tad long in the tooth, so is its interior. To GMC's credit, the instrument gauges are easily readable, but the Yukon's center stack is decidedly last century. The automaker has added those technological bits and pieces necessary in the luxury truck category, but they appear to be an afterthought, not an integrated part of the design. And although seating is comfortable, it provides just the smallest suggestion of real lateral support.
For those who regularly carry a bunch of people, or a few people in combination with a bunch of things, the Yukon and Yukon XL are better equipped for the task than most vehicles. Both front and middle rows are genuinely spacious. The Yukon's third row is one an adult can actually enjoy, not the for-kids-only penalty box common to smaller vehicles. For those that carry a lot of stuff on a regular basis, we'd go for the extra space of the XL. It gives you three rows and prodigious cargo space. And if you're towing, the Yukon XL 2500 is a three quarter ton platform with more than 9,000 pounds of towing capability.
Navigation radio with touchscreen is standard on the Yukon Denali and optional on the Yukon SLT. The entertainment side includes SiriusXM satellite radio with CD/DVD player, color touchscreen display, USB port, radio data system and pause/play radio. This package is optional on SLE and SLT and standard on Denali, Hybrid and Denali Hybrid models. Bluetooth technology is standard on all models. An available rear seat DVD entertainment system comes in handy, keeping passengers occupied on long trips.
GM's OnStar is provided on all trim levels. Whether you're using it for turn-by-turn navigation, concierge service or an on-road emergency, it can prove invaluable with only a modest subscription fee.
Performance and Fuel Economy
GM's Active Fuel Management technology is employed for all available V8 engines, including the one in the Yukon Hybrid. With this program, computers monitor the engine's load; if all eight cylinders aren't necessary for forward movement, then four of those cylinders are deactivated.
Within the GMC Yukon family (Yukon, Yukon XL, Yukon Denali, Yukon XL Denali and Yukon Hybrid/Denali Hybrid), there are four available drivetrains. Standard on the Yukon/Yukon XL 1500 is the 5.3-liter V8 with Active Fuel Management, which makes 320 horsepower and 335 lb-ft of torque. Opt for the Yukon Hybrid (only with the standard, short wheelbase Yukon platform), and you'll enjoy a 2-mode hybrid system featuring an electrically variable transmission and 300-volt nickel-metal hydride energy storage system, working with a 332-hp V8 displacing 6.0 liters. Both drivetrains are seamless in their operation, with prodigious torque, instant off-the-line response and sleep-inducing over-the-road relaxation.
All Yukon Denali models are equipped with a larger displacement, 6.2-liter V8 delivering 403 hp and 417 lb-ft of torque. And if you opt for the three quarter ton Yukon XL you'll find a 6.0-liter V8 under the hood providing 352 hp and 382 lb-ft of torque. Despite three tons of mass and barn-like aerodynamics, the Yukon family delivers reasonable but not stellar fuel economy. The thirstiest is the 4-wheel drive Yukon XL, delivering 10 mpg city/15 mpg hwy. The most efficient is, of course, the Yukon Hybrid drivetrain. It gets an estimated 20 mpg city/23 mpg hwy. The 5.3-liter in the 1500 and 6.2-liter in the Denali split the difference, with city ratings in the mid-teens and highway ratings in the high teens/low 20s.
When confronted with a collision scenario, size does matter; the Yukon will be bigger than most things it collides with. But to improve your survivability if a collision does happen, the Yukon includes standard side curtain air bags with rollover protection for all seating rows, standard seat mounted side impact air bags for driver and right front passenger and seat belt pretensioners, which minimize passenger movement during a collision.
Helping to avoid collisions or unintended off-road excursions are StabiliTrak with rollover mitigation technology, standard 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS and the safety of responsive (albeit relatively thirsty) V8 powertrains.
Within the context of a 20th century design, GM's engineering team has done a remarkable job of keeping the Yukon driver connected to the pavement. However, with 6,000 pounds of mass and a fairly conventional front suspension and live rear axle, there's only so much a design team can do without scrapping all of the hardware. In the next-gen Yukon, though, we're fairly confident they'll be ditching the antiquated suspension for some more modern components.
We found the Yukon to deliver what you'd expect from a big, 2-box design intended for people hauling and trailer towing. The ride is comfortable, the handling fairly remote and the power delivery seamless. In these times, and at these price points, it would be difficult to ask for more.
Other Trucks to Consider
If shopping for a GMC Yukon, we'd also consider the Lincoln Navigator, Toyota Land Cruiser, Lexus LX570, Mercedes-Benz GL and Infiniti QX56. The Lincoln reflects the same (old) school of thought, while the LX570 is a luxurious reinterpretation of today's Land Cruiser. The GL Mercedes is certainly more contemporary, and with the available Bluetec diesel it is significantly more efficient. But with either a gas or diesel powertrain, the Mercedes is more expensive. Infiniti's QX56 is an upscale derivative of Nissan's well-respected, not-for-U.S. Patrol. Despite somewhat swollen proportions, it benefits from a unit body, a King Kong powertrain and a more responsive suspension.
When considering the larger Yukon XL (especially the three quarter ton 2500) competitors are fewer. The Yukon XL 2500 stands in a league nearly all its own.
We'd spec a 2013 GMC Yukon XL 2500 with 4-wheel drive, the SLE appearance package and all-weather floor mats. With a topped up tank of gas, we could drive happily ever after with a transaction price of just over $50,000. So equipped, the Yukon would deliver almost 10,000 pounds of towing capability, all-season safety and room for seven of our closest friends.