Testing the theory of evolution
Drive the GMC Yukon and the Ford Expedition back-to-back, and Charles Darwin comes to mind. The British naturalist wrote On the Origin of Species, the seminal work on evolutionary science. Darwin died four years before Karl Benz built his Patentwagen and sparked a process of mechanical evolution that would lead to automobiles as fascinatingly diverse as Bugatti Chiron and Volkswagen Golf, Ford F-150, and Jeep Wrangler, Tesla Model S and Chrysler Pacifica. But he would have instantly understood the key difference between the Yukon and the Expedition.
America’s full-size SUVs are a unique automotive genre. These big, tough, easygoing family holdalls are well adapted to the relatively cheap gas and wide-open spaces of the United States and Canada. Their pickup truck underpinnings—chassis, suspension, brakes, powertrains, electrical architectures, etc.—are built in high volume and are thus low cost. They shrug off bad roads and worse weather with the cheerful nonchalance of a retriever bounding out of an icy duck pond. For that, we’ve forgiven them their clunky ergonomics and unsophisticated road manners.
But times are changing.
For a start, these things might be cheerful, but they ain’t exactly cheap anymore—both rigs here boast a base price north of 60 grand. The 2019 Ford Expedition Limited 4WD with the Texas Edition package costs a couple of Starbucks lattes under $71,000 USD as-tested. But the money buys you the useful Driver Assistance package (which includes adaptive cruise, auto high-beams, lane-keep assist, and forward collision warning) and the Heavy Duty Trailer Tow package, plus 22-inch wheels and Texas Edition badging.
Gilded with options, our 2019 GMC Yukon SLT Graphite Performance Edition rolled in at a breathtaking $74,790 USD. The Graphite bit seemed obvious—everything, from wheels to grille to roof rails was coated in glossy black paint—but you can order the $5,995 USD Graphite Performance Edition pack with white or dark gray body panels if you don’t like the whole Darth Vader shtick. The Performance bit comprised a 420-hp version of GM’s versatile 6.2-liter V-8 under the hood and Magnetic Ride Control suspension.
Ford gives you more full-size SUV for less money—literally. The Expedition is 6.1 inches longer overall than the Yukon, and rolls on a 6.5-inch longer wheelbase. Impressively, all that extra rig scarcely registers on the weighbridge: Its aluminum-intensive body, technology shared with the F-150, means the big Ford weighs barely 60 pounds (27 kg) more than the smaller GMC. Though the Expedition’s 375-hp, 3.5-liter, twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 boasts 10 lb-ft more torque than the Yukon’s woofly big V-8, the GMC has 12 percent more power and so is quicker, taking 5.8 seconds to hit 60 mph versus 6.2 seconds from a previously tested model, with the quarter mile dispatched in 14.2 seconds at 98.3 mph (158.2 km/h) versus 14.8 seconds at 91.7 mph (147.6 km/h).
Those numbers don’t tell the full story, however.
Both these rigs cost luxury SUV money, but only one comes close to offering a luxury SUV experience. It takes but a few miles behind the wheel to understand the Ford is the more premium, more refined, more… evolved of the two. The Yukon, by contrast, feels exactly what it is—a truck in a tux. For a start, engaging a gear in the GMC means reaching around the leather-trimmed steering wheel and arm-wrestling a massive column shifter—straight out of a Chevy pickup—as it clunkety-clunks through the PRNDL detentes. And once underway you’re constantly aware of the hoppy-skippy, live rear axle as it busily rhumbas over lumps and bumps in the road, those trick Magnetic Ride Control shocks notwithstanding.
That old-school rear axle makes its presence felt in other ways, too. Because the diff needs room to move up and down, the floor behind the Yukon’s second row is stepped upward. Room and comfort in the third row is therefore remarkably poor for a vehicle of this size, with taller passengers perched uncomfortably on flat seats with their knees in their face. The Yukon interior boasts many of the modern luxury vehicle accoutrements—leather trim, power this and that, a digital infotainment interface—but once you get past the front part of the cabin, you’re forcefully reminded it’s merely a veneer, luxury thinly layered over a package that, for passengers riding in the back, is irredeemably compromised.
By contrast, the big Ford’s premium credentials run more than skin deep. The impressive turbo V-6 under the hood and the aluminum intensive body are important, but what really sets the Expedition apart from the Yukon is its smooth-riding independent rear suspension and a rotary transmission interface you can actuate with your fingertips. These two features alone are the evolutionary steps that catapult the Expedition out of the truck gene pool and into the higher order realm of the personal-use SUV. It’s not just easier and more comfortable to drive than the Yukon; the more compact independent rear suspension layout means the second and third rows are roomier as well as being much more pleasant places for passengers to ride.
It’s not perfect, though. The Expedition’s steering feels gluey, over-weighted compared with the more finely tuned tiller in the Yukon, and the 10-speed automatic doesn’t always shuffle through the ratios quite as smoothly as it should. And though the big Ford rides better and tracks truer than the GMC, the shock tuning still needs a little work, particularly in terms of controlling secondary motions from the rear axle. Impact noise and harshness better controlled than in the Yukon, but the hefty 22-in wheels and tires can patter over broken surfaces.
Despite these quibbles, the Ford Expedition stands as the benchmark full-size mainstream American SUV. It delivers competitively modern levels of ride and refinement, and even more interior room, without compromising the relaxed toughness and endearing durability that has been the hallmark of the category. And although the Texas Edition version of the Expedition isn’t cheap, it pulls together a suite of technologies that offer real consumer benefits.
By contrast, the Yukon SLT Graphite Performance Edition comes off as an overpriced marketing gimmick. On the road it feels like a wrestler auditioning for the Bolshoi Ballet, and that work-truck shifter sticks out like a hardhat at a black-tie ball. Of course, the Yukon is built on hardware that is nearing the end of its service life. A new generation of GM full-size SUVs is coming, and among the rumored upgrades is a new electrical architecture that will allow enhanced driver aides—including easy-to-use shift-by-wire transmission interfaces—and the availability of independent rear suspension.
Call it the evolution of the species.