While I may not agree with building three versions of essentially the same vehicle, there are many brand loyalists who will always buy a GMC or a Chevy, while others desire the cachet of the Cadillac. I'd always advise picking the one that costs less; in this case, the Chevy Tahoe. For once it's also easy to recommend the Yukon to anyone in need of a vehicle that fits six and has strong towing capabilities.
Painted black and trimmed in chrome, my Yukon Denali test vehicle looked more like its Escalade corporate cousin than a tough truck. The Yukon is probably the safest-looking of the three siblings, with chrome used tastefully in all the right places. The Tahoe is a bit more aggressive and the Escalade more chromified. In black, the Yukon looks like it could shuttle either foreign dignitaries or rap stars, and maintains a look as elegant as any vehicle this big can manage.
Most noticeable to anyone approaching the Yukon are its huge, square headlamps and chrome mesh grille. It's a look that says "big" and not much else, but at least it's making a statement. The rest of the Yukon's look is generic. Although it's all too easy to make something this large look ugly, the Yukon never crosses into that unappealing territory. If you're trying to make a style statement, though, either the Tahoe with its more aggressive front end or the Escalade with its intricate grillwork would be the way to go. If you don't want to be noticed, pick the Yukon.
Ride & Handling
Whenever I approach a vehicle this large I bring along the expectation that it will be hard to maneuver. In the Yukon I was surprisingly sure of myself, even on the tightest city streets. Not only was the girth manageable, but I immediately discovered where the corners were, and the rear-mounted camera helped when I backed up. The Yukon was more intuitive to park than many midsize SUVs I've tested.
That same good sense of space kept me properly inside lanes on the highway and confident when moving in traffic. Still, the Yukon is extremely top heavy — as are most players in this segment — and there was considerable body roll on off-ramps.
As comfortable as the thick leather seats were, the ride itself could have been a bit cushier and quieter. Joints in the highway were extremely noticeable; the Yukon was much better at absorbing bumps and other road abnormalities at lower speeds. The rough highway ride was surprising because of the Yukon Denali's very fancy variable shock dampening system. There's a noticeable improvement in ride and road noise when you move to the Escalade.
Going & Stopping
The biggest drawback I found with the Yukon was the powertrain. A 380-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 is standard in the Denali, but it was sluggish in almost every passing situation I could simulate. The top power found in the regular Yukon range is a 320-hp, 6.0-liter V-8. That engine also has a fuel management system that shuts off four cylinders when they're not needed, improving gas mileage.
On the highway, the Denali's engine strained to pass both semis and the more common Sunday driver. Going from cruising speed to passing momentum meant enduring a long and slow climb through the revs, even with the foot depressed solidly on the accelerator.
Around town I was constantly applying the wrong pressure to the gas pedal. The transmission was counterintuitive at every turn and left me feeling like a 17-year-old who just got his license as I routinely jerked my passengers. Overall mileage was pretty impressive, remaining in the mid- to high teens throughout the week of testing; I logged around 300 miles, all on one tank. GM rates the Denali at 13/19 mpg city/hwy. The Yukon with the 6.0-liter V-8 and Active Fuel Management gets 16/22 mpg, which is exceptional for a vehicle this large and would be my choice.
Braking was adequate, but with such a big machine I would have preferred more pinpoint control. The Denali was easy to slow at varying speeds in bumper-to-bumper traffic — something I learned thanks to the idiocy of other drivers who believed the space I intentionally left in front of me was large enough for them to squeeze into. I was actually leaving the proper buffer zone for an emergency stop in the SUV, but at least I learned how well the Denali could brake on a dime without causing a larger traffic jam.
Here's where GM has really outdone itself in its new SUVs. Like the Tahoe, the Yukon shows off one of the best interiors GM has ever mustered in a mass-marketed vehicle. All the buttons are of above-average quality, and the environment and stereo controls are ergonomically perfect.
The front and middle seats were extremely comfortable and supportive. They were also extremely wide, to accommodate the ever-expanding American waistline. My passengers enjoyed the backseat accommodations, with their own environment controls and captain's chair accoutrements. The third row of seats came in handy for a day of house hunting in the suburbs with realtor, in-laws and wife aboard. My 5-foot-6-inch wife, who drew the short straw, thought the third-row seat was comfortable but that foot room was nonexistent. I wouldn't advise trying to squeeze three people onto it, despite GM saying the Yukon fits seven. We also didn't discover the handy button that automatically flips the second-row seat forward, allowing access to the rear row, until after the day's jaunt was finished.
The test Yukon Denali also came with a DVD entertainment system in front of the second row of seats so both rear rows could view it. Up front, the stereo featured XM Satellite Radio and a CD player. One brand-new CD we inserted didn't get past the first song before it skipped horribly. A different and well-played disc performed without incident. Sound from the upgraded Bose system was adequate, but felt unnatural and seemed to come from far ahead of the dash despite numerous adjustments to the audio settings. Perhaps that serves as a buffer for rear passengers who are watching DVDs.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the 2007 Yukon a five-star frontal crash-test rating; it hasn't done a side-impact test as of this writing. Rollover ratings were listed at three stars, which means in a single-vehicle crash the Yukon has a 22 - 24 percent chance of rolling over. That's about average for SUVs of this class. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not yet rated the Yukon or any other new full-size SUV.
The Yukon Denali is equipped with plenty of safety features, including side curtain airbags for all three rows of seats. It has four-wheel antilock brakes, stability control and a rollover mitigation system. All wheel drive is also standard.
Cargo & Towing
The Yukon Denali is a spacious three-row SUV for people, but that's it. If there are six people and no cargo, the Yukon is a terrific place to be. If you have a lot of cargo — you know, like luggage — that rear row has to be removed, and by removed we mean taken out. The popular fold-flat seats we're seeing in most other SUVs didn't make their way into this design, which makes the Yukon's overall usefulness suffer. The third row of seats does flip forward to add some room, but it won't impress owners of smaller five-passenger SUVs. Then you're back to carrying four people.
We also performed the dog test with the Denali, and our 2-year-old boxer didn't like either the second-row captain's chairs or the small amount of flat floor space that could be created in the second-row area. The chairs were too high for her when we took a turn, causing her to fall off, and the flat floor was too cramped even with the second-row seats flipped forward. While this isn't a must for all buyers, dog lovers can definitely cross this vehicle off their list.
The Yukon Denali is rated to tow 7,100 pounds — a decent amount, but nothing that gives it a decided advantage over the competition. More serious haulers will likely stick to four-door pickups that can handle larger loads.
The Denali comes with a long list of standard equipment to please passengers: Heated leather front seats, a Bose stereo with a six-disc CD changer, XM Satellite Radio and a three-zone air-conditioning system make both short and long drives enjoyable. For the driver, the power-folding side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, a heated washing system for de-icing the windshield, a remote starter, adjustable pedals and a tire pressure monitoring system help seal the deal.
Our tester had more than $6,000 in options added on to its $47,115 price. Some, like the rear entertainment system ($1,295) and power sunroof ($995), were welcome. I would not, however, opt for the 20-inch chrome wheels ($1,995) or the navigation system ($2,145). While I would never pay for a nav system in any vehicle, this one actually got us lost on our way home from an out-of-town trip and never correctly found the street address we were headed to, despite displaying it as a known address.
Yukon Denali in the Market
If you have a boat, trailer or anything that needs to be towed, the GMC Yukon Denali is a great way to travel. It's even better if you have a family. Yes, the country is in a panic over gas prices, but there's no other way to tow large cargo and fit six people in so much comfort and style. Just make sure to put your luggage in the trailer.
Opting for the base Yukon instead of the Denali saves a bit both at the bank and the pump; the mileage is extremely good for a full-size SUV, and its towing ability is another deciding factor. For those drivers who just need a people-mover, the tried and true minivan or a large crossover like the Chrysler Pacifica and upcoming GMC Acadia are more practical and efficient.
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