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Published: 03/08/2006 - by Mike Hudson, News Editor
If the Yankees have a gap at second base, they're going to lose games. If a bridge has gaps in its span, it's gonna fall down. No matter how great something is, gaps will eventually destroy it if left unfilled.
Sport-utilities are no different. Over the past few years, the SUV's gaps have become painfully obvious. Nowadays, the lumbering sport-ute segment is plagued by worries about high oil prices and bad gas mileage. And it's stymied by uncomfortable handling in tight corners.
With this in mind, the folks at GMC set about filling the SUV gap when developing the 2007 GMC Yukon and its upscale cousin, the Yukon Denali. The revised Yukons attack the most famous weaknesses of the segment by aiming to give drivers of full-size SUVs the comfort, performance and efficiency they need to fill the gaps in their desire.
Not a slug
We sampled the 2007 Yukon and Yukon Denali on country roads in rural Georgia, navigating past the ponds, barbecue joints and town squares with surprising amounts of elegance and grace.
Far from the lumbering slug feeling you get from the typical full-size SUV, the new Yukon offers plenty of refined power, a tight 39-foot turning radius and stunningly accurate handling at higher speeds.
Our initial drive led us to believe the new suspension is the star of the show, with electronically adjusting shocks and a stiffer frame providing an impressive amount of control and confidence in the 5,200-plus-pound vehicle as it cruised the two-lane highways of the region. Essentially, the optional electronic-damper system stiffens and loosens the suspension, depending on the vehicle's load and speed, enhancing the ability of the coil-over-shock front and five-link rear system to handle the loads created by a large vehicle at speed. GM created a new fully boxed frame to increase stiffness and improve the ride. And the new Yukon's stance has been widened and lengthened, giving it a lower center of gravity, which improves handling greatly. Body roll on normal highway turns is a thing of the past. Add to this mix a superb rack-and-pinion steering system with comparatively impressive feedback, and this truck even offers a somewhat sporty feeling around town.
Under the hood, GMC offers a 320-horsepower 5.3-liter Vortec V8 as standard on the Yukon. Thanks to a GM system called Active Fuel Management, the engine shuts off four cylinders at cruising speed, pushing fuel efficiency up to 16 in the city and 22 on the highway with the rear-wheel-drive system. The four-wheel-drive Yukon gets ratings of 15 and 21, although we didn't take the system off-road so we can't really judge its performance. The engine provides plenty of acceleration for everyday city and highway driving. There's enough in there for passing, but not quite enough to punch out a sports car.
This engine also comes in an ethanol-compatible version which comes standard on four-wheel-drive versions, allowing the driver to use E85 fuel to reduce emissions. If ethanol isn't available, it'll gladly run on regular gasoline. On the low end, a standard gasoline 4.8-liter V8 is also available with 290 hp, and while we didn't sample it, we doubt that the down-powered V8 is enough for this size of vehicle. For now, the 5.3 liter comes standard on all Yukons, while the 4.8 liter will become standard later in the model year.
In the Yukon Denali, drivers get a 6.2-liter 380-hp V8 with substantially more power, but substantially worse gas mileage as well because it is not equipped with the Active Fuel Management system. This engine offers a noticeable step up from the 5.3-liter, especially in terms of passing. Regular Yukons come with a four-speed electronic automatic transmission with overdrive and a tow mode. The Denali comes with an impressive six-speed automatic with overdrive and tow mode; performance is also enviably quiet and efficient.
Braking was generally impressive and quiet, an improvement over the previous generation. As it turns out, there's a new brake system for all Yukons, with larger four-wheel discs, 50-percent stiffer calipers and next-generation four-channel ABS.
A world-class interior
The interior of the previous-generation Yukon left us feeling empty, with its cheap interior materials and generally unattractive design taking away any sense of refinement for the occupants. And with a price tag well over $30,000, we expected more.
This time around, GM focused like a laser beam on the interior, adding upscale design across the board. The result is a cabin that fits the personality of the SUV without appearing too posh for a practical vehicle.
Colors are warm and trendy, with matched tones across the dash, floor and seats. Radio and temperature controls are packaged more logically, eliminating gaps between pieces, and design concepts carry over between components. The instrument panel and other trim pieces feature new softer, low-gloss materials. And LED backlighting for the instruments provides a sophisticated appearance, complemented by brushed-metal-like accents around the gauges and vents.
All Yukons and Yukon Denalis come with a leather-wrapped steering wheel complete with cruise and audio controls. The Denali comes with wood inserts on the wheel and wood-like accents across the dash.
For 2007, GMC redesigned the Yukon seats, with a slimmer design, a greater range of recline angle and stiffer foam providing comfort on long drives, with easy adjustment and access to cupholders and controls. The rear seats are impressively firm, but slightly cramped considering the size of the vehicle. Third-row seats are fairly easy to remove, thanks to new tracks placed on the floor, but only if you're capable of lifting something like a 40-pound suitcase. Cloth upholstery is standard on base Yukons, with leather as an option. The Denali offers leather as standard.
What a drag
If you were to drop the stats of the new GMC Yukon into the lap of an auto engineer and ask, "What's cool about this?" he'd likely jump to an oft passed-by stat: drag coefficient. It might seem trivial at first, but the Yukon's class-leading 0.36 coefficient of drag is actually quite profound.
A host of problems with SUVs start with their huge wall-like physiques moving against the wind. Whereas a Toyota Prius glides through the air, the typical SUV fights it tooth and nail, wasting gallon after gallon pushing through the atmosphere like an obese elephant swimming upstream.
To improve the new-generation Yukons, GM increased the slant of the windshield, lowered the vehicle and tightened up all those little gaps between components on the front end. As a result, the new Yukon and Yukon Denali have almost as little drag as some cars. (The current design of the Honda Accord has been measured at 0.3, with its predecessor at 0.33. The VW Beetle has been measured at 0.38. The Hummer H2 has been measured at 0.57.) The Yukon's lower drag translates into savings at the pump as a result.
A job well done
Pricing for the base 2007 GMC Yukon begins at $34,690. The 2007 Yukon Denali will be offered with an MSRP of $47,990. The Denali offers a more advanced climate system, an auxiliary transmission oil cooler, more cupholders, adjustable pedals, leather, rain-sensing wipers, parking assist, remote starter, premium Bose speakers and wood accented steering wheel standard.
Given this extraordinarily wide gap in price, our first thought was that it might make more sense to simply cherry-pick what options you like on a regular Yukon rather than just paying for the loaded Denali, given the similar interiors and exteriors. Buying a Denali also keeps you from saving money with the Active Fuel Management engine as well, as the 6.2-liter V8 doesn't have that feature.
GM is making a case that you don't need to apologize or pay dearly for driving a substantial vehicle. The GMC Yukon and Yukon Denali offer hope for the segment's future by improving ride comfort and handling, increasing efficiency and refining a potentially atrocious vehicle into a potentially beautiful one.
So with that out of the way, how about those Yankees?
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