GMC Yukon solid SUV alternative

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

General Motors is making a concerted effort to update its aging fleet of cars. Cars have been lost in the shuffle as U.S. automakers have concentrated on hot-selling sport utility vehicles and the prolific pickup truck market.

These vehicles are more profitable than cars and they are selling at a near-record pace, so it’s easy to understand why more resources have been put into truck fleets.

But GM has embarked on a Herculean effort to update its sagging fleet of cars in every division. Fresh products started arriving in showrooms for the ’04 model year and dozens more are in the pipeline for 2005, 2006 and 2007.

But we discovered again last week why General Motors has been successful selling its wide array of trucks and sport utility vehicles — they are, indeed, difficult to beat for performance, ride, handling and ease of use. We were afforded the opportunity to spend a week in a full-sized GMC Yukon sport utility and found it a delightful companion.

Even its generally impractical third-row seats came in handy when we transported two grandchildren and three adults on a 70 mile round trip. The two kids clambered into the back leaving the adults room to stretch out.

Adults couldn’t do that trick unless they were conditioned athletes. But for the agile pre-teens it was a perfect hideaway.

So we will temporarily step off our soapbox and suspend for now our belief that third-row seats — except in the biggest of sport utilities, full-sized vans or in minivans — are a waste of space.

While the Yukon is full sized, precious little storage room is afford when the third seats are in use. But when not in use the seats fold up against the back of the second-row creating an ample storage area.

You can’t have it both ways in the Yukon. Either carry a load of passengers or a load of cargo, but not both at the same time. If cargo is your mission, there’s a generous 105 cubic feet of space available with both the second and third row folded, and 63 cubic feet with the third row stowed out of the way. If hauling up to eight people at a time is a must, than your storage is a thin sliver of space between the third-row seatback and the rear hatch.

We recommend if you need to haul more than five passengers on a consistent basis, move up to the larger GMC Yukon XL or its cousin, the Chevrolet Suburban.

The full-sized Yukon, and its cousin the Chevrolet Tahoe, were totally redesigned for the 2000 model year. And even though the redesign is nearing five years old, it has aged well.

We can’t think of a better full-sized package on the market. General Motors worked a miracle when it redesigned the SUVs nearly five years ago.

The new models gained a stronger and more rigid frame, a civilized ride that belies their off-road ruggedness, three strong engine choices and a comfortable and roomy interior. The real miracle is the agile feel of these full-sized 5,500-pound trucks. Agile seems an oxymoron when speaking of a large SUV. But in comparison to many of its competitors, the Yukon has a nimbleness more in attune with a mid-sized model.

This desirable trait, together with three V-8 engine choices, provides the Yukon driver with a confident sensation.

The standard Yukon SLE with two-wheel drive starts at $35,960. It comes with a 4.8-liter V-8 generating 275 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. All Yukons come with a heavy-duty 4-speed automatic transmission.

At the other end of the scale is the luxury-loaded Denali, with a base price of $50,710.

Very few options are necessary on this decked out model.

In-between is our test model with the SLT package and optional 5.3-liter V-8 generating 285 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. It is capable of towing up to 8,000 pounds with the optional $330 heavy duty trailering equipment.

The Denali, if you opt to spend the big bucks, comes with a 6-liter 325 horsepower V-8 as standard equipment.

We have driven all three engines and do not hesitate to recommend any of them. The 4.8-liter is healthy in its own right and can tow up to 7,700 pounds. The gas mileage difference between it and the 5.3-liter is minimal, two miles to the gallon in city driving. Both engines are rated at 19 on the highway.

The difference comes in performance feel. The bigger engine has more push off the line and provides a little bigger comfort zone when maximum power is needed in a pesky interstate merge situation or when quick passing is necessary on a nerve-racking two-lane road.

One interesting feature of the engine in out test vehicle, according to General Motors, is that it is capable of using Ethanol.

All Yukons can be purchased with a full range of four-wheel drive making the big GMC not only an excellent passenger and cargo hauler, but a confident back-woods traveler as well.

Our test vehicle was a rear-wheel drive version. For people who might want to avoid the expense of four-wheel drive but fret over occasional bad road conditions, the Yukon can be outfitted with General Motors’ excellent StabiliTrak stability control system. It came as a $905 option on our test vehicle. The system is very capable of handling slick-road situations. The $900 also buys side impact airbags.

The driving position in the Yukon is excellent and the driver has the benefit of a full gauge package that is easy to read. Power adjustable pedals, part of the optional SLT package, should help any size driver gain a comfortable position the proper distance from the airbag. 

A driver information center provides fuel mileage statistics. The driver also has the option of personalizing up to nine functions on his including vehicle memory seat and automatic locking.

Among the functions standard across the lineup this year is a tire pressure monitoring system.

Also standard for 2004 is tri-zone automatic climate control. In addition to separate passenger and driver settings, rear seat passengers can select their own temperature independent of the front.

Our test truck came with the $6,085 SLT package which included leather seating, second-row captain’s chairs, upgraded Bose sound system with 6-disc in-dash changer, luggage carrier, XM satellite radio and rear-seat audio controls.

Other extras included DVD entertainment center, 17-inch alloy wheels and a power sunroof. The test truck also came with GM’s Autoride, a $1,200 option that rear air-assisted load leveling and automatic adjustable shock dampening for a smoother and more controlled ride. The total package came to $45,570.

There are numerous competitors in the full-sized SUV ranks including Ford, Toyota and Nissan. The Yukon remains a solid alternative and should not be overlooked by the SUV shopper.