2012 GMC Yukon Driving Impressions

Yukon's 5.3-liter V8 delivers 320 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque, and most Yukons weigh in the mid-5000-pound range where lots of torque is welcome. It's a flex-fuel engine, meaning it can run on 85 percent ethanol, called E85.

Denali with its 6.2-liter V8 rates 403 hp and 417 lb-ft of torque. This powerhouse gets the Denali moving with ease, delivering very similar power-to-weight as Toyota's 5.7-liter Sequoia. The Denali's tow rating is 100 to 200 pounds less than that of other Yukons and it is not available with a 4WD system that has low-range gearing (except Denali Hybrid).

Both V8s have a system that idles half the cylinders when not needed, though the reality is that condition occurs infrequently in big trucks.

Fuel economy ratings for the Yukon typically run 15/21 mpg City/Highway, a little better than the Ford Expedition. The considerably more powerful Denali is in the 13-14 mpg City/18 mpg Highway range, much like the similarly powered Toyota Sequoia. Any way you look at it, you're going to use lots of gas. Using the flex-fuel capability and running on E85 ethanol drops fuel mileage even more.

The Hybrid Yukon offers big gains in city fuel economy, netting EPA numbers of 20/23 mpg City/Highway. Real-world drives show EPA numbers for hybrids remain on the optimistic side, however. In back-to-back drives between hybrid and standard GM SUVs we found the standard truck (which is lighter than the hybrid) edged the hybrid on highway fuel economy while the hybrid was better in urban environs; we found the hybrid got 17 mpg in city and suburban driving versus 13 mpg for the 5.3-liter a substantial difference.

Tow ratings for the Yukon range from 8100 to 8500 pounds maximum, not quite as high as those for Ford Expedition but superior to top values of the Toyota Sequoia. Note that trim and drivetrain affect tow rating, and that an industry standard was developed in 2010 but not all vehicles have been rated to it yet. To find real towing ability you need to know the truck's GCWR and subtract the weight of the truck (and all passengers/cargo) from it. For example, a Yukon rated to tow 8200 pounds max might be rated to pull only 6700 pounds with the truck loaded.

Driving a Yukon is pleasant. Power comes on smoothly, with no surges or hiccups, and it is accompanied by a pleasant tone that reminds us of classic dual exhaust. Transitions effected by the fuel-management system are invisible, with the only indication a telltale in the information display in the tachometer. The 6-speed automatic sorts out gears well. It has a manual shift function managed by a rocker switch in the handgrip on the column shift lever that rev-matches downshifts, but unlike most competitors you must first move the lever to M to use the rocker.

The Hybrid works seamlessly and doesn't require any special driver action, just some familiarity with the different noises it makes. Altering driving style to work with the hybrid can improve efficiency, however. At very low speeds propulsion is by electric power only, and you have to watch for people walking out in front of you in parking lots since there is only tire noise and some whirring when you start or stop and you'll be sneaking up behind them almost silently. The system will do 30 mph on electric alone in ideal circumstances, but in most cases the gas engine is on by 10 mph. So the gas engine will be kicking on in stop-and-go traffic. It usually shuts off the gas engine when the vehicle is stationary. The majority of time, however, if your foot is on the gas pedal it is a combination of the gas engine and electric motors powering the truck.

If you step on the gas hard as you might to get across a busy street there is a moment, some fraction of a second, before the gas engine starts and the system delivers its full 367 lb-ft of torque, so you should try that in the open a couple of times to know exactly how the truck will respond. Watch safety margins and don't pull out in front of someone. There's enough power to get the Hybrid (and a 4000-6000 pound trailer) going easily, though it may sound odd at first as the gas engine goes to a certain rpm and stays there while the truck catches up with it. The brakes in a Hybrid will feel touchy at first because they are generating electricity when used in addition to slowing the vehicle, which adds more retarding without any change in brake pedal pressure.

Driving Yukon models along twisty, two-lane roads on both coasts we found they tracked well through sweeping bends taken well above the marked 40-mph advisories. Like all large truck-based SUVs, steering is somewhat slow, but it is precise and offers good feedback. The Yukon is a full-size truck and is prone to body lean in turns and slow reactions to quick changes of direction.

We found the ride to be comfortable and controlled on South Carolina freeways, some of which were glass-smooth while others were buckled from severe winters. With the Denali's available 20-inch wheels, the suspension didn't jolt, but on Chicago's pockmarked streets we could sense the heavy truck parts underneath. The turning circle impressed us. It takes less space to make a U-turn in a Yukon than it does in other SUVs in this class; even some relatively small vehicles such as the Mitsubishi Eclipse need more space to turn around than does the Yukon. This is helpful in a world of crowded streets and compact parking lots. The brake pedal was solid and firm, with a prompt and confident response.

Abundant sound deadening material mutes road noise; you'll hear some from the rear tires only if the stereo is off. That the stereo has to be on for the navigation system to operate is irritating, a strategy shared with expensive Mercedes vehicles. To stop the audio you essentially turn the volume down all the way. That shouldn't bug us, because electricity is not in short supply in a gas-powered truck, but for some reason it does. We like that GM vehicles provide off switches for the daytime running lights and for the inside rearview mirror's auto-dim function.

The Yukon 4WD models use a single-speed transfer case. If you want a 4WD with low-range gearing, as you might for backcountry access or even slippery boat ramps (or to tow the Yukon behind a motorhome), you have to get the optional two-speed transfer case. Hybrids have low-range gearing but check with your dealer about towing one as a dinghy.

The available brake controller for trailers with electric brakes (it obviously won't work with surge brakes and may not be compatible with electro-hydraulic disc systems) integrates the brakes on both vehicles for the smoothest, most effective action. An integrated brake controller is a wonderful thing for towing so be sure to opt for this feature if you plan to use your Yukon for towing. And towing capability is what this vehicle is all about.

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