America's Last Big SUVs - As Good As Can Be?
Drive big or drive home.
That’s the mantra for Chevrolet and GMC, which are rolling out new big SUVs that have an improved ride, more features, and are teeming with technology that can make passengers happier and drivers safer.
Really, the 2015 Chevrolet Suburban and 2015 GMC Yukon XL are the last big SUVs still to roam American highways in significant numbers. Most others were scrapped when more fuel-efficient crossovers took hold and the stigma of SUVs became more pronounced. But there are people who need to carry up to nine people and a lot of stuff, as well as tow something of substance. In fact, there are probably about 275,000 of them, which is the total number of big SUV sales in 2013. GM captured 74 percent of those sales.
There’s also something inherently fun in driving these kinds of machines. They have a V-8 rumble and loads of power. They feel substantial and complete. For those who use them correctly, there is no substitute. Of course, there is some criticism that they are inefficient, unnecessary dinosaurs. Thankfully, this is still America, and if you want something that can’t fit in many garages, you can pay someone to build you a bigger garage.
But political correctness aside, these big rigs were getting long in the bumper as part of GM’s truck program. A remodel was overdue.
To break this down by models: The Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon make up the smaller, sportier versions, and the Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Yukon XL stretch 224.3 inches and can seat a baseball team if you chose the optional three rows of bench seats. At the top of the food chain are the GMC Yukon Denali and Denali XL, the most powerful in the bunch, driven by GM’s 420-hp, 6.2-liter V-8 creating 460 lb-ft of torque.
The Yukon Denali models — both in short and long form — represent the “all boxes checked” type of vehicle, with few options and lots of luxury features, including include GM’s third-generation magnetic ride control. They also have price tags that can top $70,000, so they are not for the faint of heart. (GMC is proud to tell you that 60 percent of all Yukon sales are Denali vehicles.)
All of the other models come equipped with GM’s 5.3-liter V-8 that was overhauled for the new Silverado and Sierra pickups. The 355-hp, 383 lb-ft of torque engine is extremely smooth and quiet. The engine is mated to GM’s nicely calibrated six-speed automatic transmission.
While driving around Lake Tahoe for three days, there was never a want or need for more power. All of the test vehicles handled the hills well, whether going up or down.
On the highway, the Active Fuel Management system, which turns off four cylinders, worked extremely well for both engines. I was able to cruise at 77 mph in four-cylinder mode for long stretches of road in a Denali XL. The GMC versions seemed quieter than their Chevrolet counterparts, but both were remarkably quiet, allowing passengers in the second row to easily converse with those in the front. On a long trip with a lot of people and a lot of gear, few vehicles would be better.
The EPA rating for the rear-drive 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe and 2015 GMC Yukon is 16/23 mpg city/highway. The four-wheel-drive model will get 16/22 mpg. The bigger Suburban and Yukon XL range from 14/20 to 16/23 mpg.
Despite their size, all versions of these SUVs are surprisingly easy to drive. The strengthened and boxed ladder frame has been improved and made stiffer, giving the vehicles a strong and stiff foundation.
The electric power steering is smooth. It’s easy to spin the steering wheel with one hand and there’s a nice snap back to center. There’s a certain attitude that comes with driving these big vehicles, and the steering needs to have a good balance between ease and feedback. GM nailed it.
The ride for all of the vehicles was impeccable, whether in two-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive, or auto, which acts like an all-wheel-drive system by monitoring the vehicle’s performance and sending power where it’s needed.
GM also added a lot of driver-assist technology. There is adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assist, rear cross-traffic alert and other technologies that make life a little easier. The Lane Change Alert uses a vibrator in the seat to alert you when the SUV has begun to change lanes. (The vibrating seat cushion also is used when for other features that require a driver’s immediate attention.) Personally, I like the seat notification because it informs the driver — but not everyone in the vehicle — of an urgent situation.
Both brands added a number of technologies to improve safety, and encased the entire cabin with a high-strength steel safety cage. GM added a front middle airbag as well, a feature no other carmaker has adopted. And one less-talked-about safety feature is this vehicle’s size. Some models can top 6000 pounds. If a Toyota Yaris hits it, will the driver even notice?
The exterior of these SUVs, in general, maintain their big, rugged looks. The Chevys are supposed to look more blue-collar. The GMCs are more upscale. The Denali version adds even more shiny parts, including a huge grille and badging to remind everyone you have a Denali. No matter which way you look at them, they’re big and boxy. They have to be, in the same way a minivan has to look like a block of cheese. Utility dictates form.
While the forms might be similar, the interiors were not. Chevrolet uses more rustic — and slightly cheaper — materials inside the cabins, all of which have standard captain’s chairs in the second row. I prefer these because it makes getting into the third row much easier.
On both brands the build quality is excellent and the layout thoughtful. The 10-way power adjustable seats are comfortable and everything is right at your fingertips. Chevrolet and GMC also offer an improved telematics system that incorporates apps displayed on an 8-inch color touch screen. Later this year, there will be a 4G LTE system offered, making each vehicle a Wi-Fi hotspot. (That system will come with additional charges.)
But perhaps the biggest perk is the sheer amount of size these vehicles offer. The Suburban and XL offer 121 cubic feet of storage if the second and third rows are folded down. Also, instead of those awful removable third row seats in the outgoing models, both models offer fold-flat third rows that drop electrically with the touch of a button. The floor, however, is not actually flat, but close enough for storage purposes. There is also a cargo-management system under the floor in the back to that can keep small things hidden from prying eyes. It can be removed for additional cargo space.
In and out, the 2015 Tahoe, 2015 Suburban, and 2015 Yukon are better. Their drive is vastly improved. Their interiors are much more user-friendly, and the array of technology makes driving, parking, and operating any of these vehicles easier.
Are they for everybody? Not at all. But if you need a big SUV, nothing else really compares to these brutes. Nothing.
|2015 Chevrolet Tahoe / GMC Yukon||2015 Chevrolet Suburban / GMC Yukon XL|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD/4WD, 5-9 pass, 4-door SUV||Front-engine, RWD/AWD, 7-9-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINES||5.3L/355-hp/383-lb-ft* OHV 16-valve V-8; 6.2L/420-hp/460 lb-ft* OHV 16-valve V-8||5.3L/355-hp/383-lb-ft* OHV 16-valve V-8; 6.2L/420-hp/460 lb-ft* OHV 16-valve V-8|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||6-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT||5500 lb-5800 lb (mfr)||5700 lb-6000 lb (mfr)|
|WHEELBASE||116.0 in||130.0 in|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||203.9-204.0 x 80.5 x 74.4 in||224.3-224.4 x 80.5 x 74.4 in|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||16/22-23/18 mpg||14-16/20-23/16-18 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||210/147-153 kW-hrs/100 miles||211-241-00 / 147-169 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.06 lb/mile||1.05 lb – 1.20 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently||Currently|