There's no lack of options in the Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Yukon XL full-size SUV lineup these days. From the everything-plus-one Suburban/Yukon XL to the slightly more manageable Tahoe/Yukon to the minivan-but-not Traverse/Acadia, whatever your specific crossover/SUV niche, Chevrolet and GMC make a vehicle for it. With six options for a seven- to nine-seat vehicle with optional all-wheel drive that can tow your toys, there's bound to be one that fits your wants and needs. To determine which, read on.
As you've read in our First Test of the full-size-and-then-some Suburban/Yukon XL, the new GM SUVs are light-years ahead of their predecessors in most subjective and objective ways. As you might expect from vehicles sharing a common architecture, the shorter (in length) Tahoe/Yukon are likewise improved.
Driving impressions are mostly positive. The vehicles' height presents a commanding view of the road and the excellent outward visibility helps minimize blind spots, the vehicles' size notwithstanding. A blind-spot warning system and rearview camera aid in maneuvering, though it's slightly disappointing vehicles this large don't have an around-view camera system like some competitors. Despite that, the vehicles' boxy design make it very easy to determine exactly where the front and rear bumpers and corners are in relation to other cars and barriers. Steering is just heavy enough to feel substantial but doesn't require more than a strong finger's effort to turn when stopped.
Power from the standard 5.3-liter V-8 is plenty adequate, though the slow initial response from the throttle pedal makes the vehicle feel slower than it is. Judicious use of the go-pedal reveals a powerful mill hiding behind all that soundproofing. A Yukon Denali model was not available for testing, but we can extrapolate based on testing of the Tahoe, Suburban, Yukon, and Yukon XL Denali. The Yukon XL Denali was 1.1 seconds quicker to 60 mph than the Suburban, so if the same holds true for the smaller vehicles, the Yukon Denali should be similarly quicker than the Tahoe and Yukon. The Tahoe, for its part, needed 7 seconds flat to hit 60 mph and the Yukon 6.9 seconds, which would put the Yukon Denali theoretically in the low 6-second to high 5-second range. For comparison, the 200-pound heavier Suburban needed 7.3 seconds to do the deed. All of our testers were 4WD models.
Regardless of engine or vehicle size, power is managed by a six-speed automatic. Calibration is the same across the board, and in typical GM form, emphasizes fuel economy and heads straight for the high gears. Thankfully, it will downshift at the drop of a hat when you request power. In this way, the throttle pedal acts more as a downshift request, dropping one or two gears if you get into it. Thankfully, GM's rear-wheel-drive transmission calibration is finally caught up with the foreign competition, offering nearly seamless shifts up or down. Equally seamless is the shift between four- and eight-cylinder modes, which happens nearly as often.
On the other end of the spectrum, the brakes require some familiarization. The pedal is surprisingly firm, and as such, the amount of pedal pressure initially leads you to think you're requesting more stopping force than you actually are. You quickly learn that there's a lot more mass behind you than you think, and a stronger pedal application than expected is necessary. Get your leg into it, though, and the vehicle has no trouble stopping. Here, the Tahoe needed 121 feet, which is on par with many smaller SUVs and crossovers and even some sedans. Interestingly, the slightly lighter Yukon on the same tires needed 125 feet.
Handling likewise takes recalibration if you're not used to driving a vehicle of this size. The Tahoe/Yukon actually handles pretty well for its size and weight, with surprisingly aggressive turn-in and grip. The high center of gravity is a little disconcerting the first time you take a fast corner, but the chassis response is very reassuring.
Ride quality is roughly on par with the trucks these SUVs are based on. Damping is generally good, but can only do so much with well above 5500 pounds onboard. You feel all the bumps in the road, but they're pretty well muted. Bigger bumps can make the solid rear axle squirm a bit, but nothing to get excited about. Opinions were mixed on the Yukon's optional magnetic shocks. Some felt they improved the ride slightly, while others thought they hurt it slightly. Either way, it wasn't a substantial difference.
Likewise, the overall experience inside the trucks isn't substantially different. Like the driving experience, the interior experience is pretty similar on both the Chevy and GMC. The design is virtually the same, save for unique instruments for the GMC with a larger display. Materials are of a higher quality in the GMC when it comes to trim and seat coverings, but not wildly more so. Both are shockingly quiet inside, allowing easy conversation between the first and third rows on the highway. Both have the same trouble spots with incomplete-looking trim around the bottom of the rear door openings, carpet between the standard second-row captain's chairs that can be grabbed and pulled right off the floor surprisingly easily, and chrome strips on the center console cup holder covers that reflect light in the driver's eyes on a sunny day.
At this point, you've got a pretty good idea of how these rigs drive. How, then, do you decide which size is right for you, given their similarities? As with all vehicle purchases, it comes down to what you plan to use it for.
To whit, will you use the third row regularly? On the larger Suburban/Yukon XL, the longer wheelbase puts the rear axle under the third row seat, leaving adequate foot room. Two adults can sit all the way back there in relative comfort. On the shorter wheelbase Tahoe/Yukon, the rear axle is farther forward, where the third row passengers' feet would go. This means the third row floor is just inches below the seat, so anyone sitting there will have their knees in their chest. The shorter wheelbase also makes for slightly smaller rear doors, which makes entering the third row just a bit harder.
Likewise, you'll need to consider your cargo. The long wheelbase models offer substantially more cargo room behind the third row seats, at 39 cubic feet compared to just 15 for the shorties. Naturally, the same holds true as you fold the third- and second-row seats.
Conversely, the shorter wheelbase vehicles are a little more maneuverable. Per the specs, the short trucks require a 39-foot turning circle to the longer trucks' 43 feet. Four feet doesn't sound like much, but in a tight parking lot or when making a U-turn, it makes a substantial difference.
Unintuitively, the short trucks also haul and tow more than the long ones. In the case of payload, the short trucks haul 20 to 115 pounds more than the long ones, depending on whether you have two- or four-wheel drive. Similarly, the short ones tow 300 to 400 pounds more than the long ones. An integrated trailer brake controller is optional with the trailering package on all models.
Of course, there's another pair of full-size, three-row, all-wheel-drive-optional SUVs to consider. The Traverse/Acadia might not look as butch as the Tahoe/Yukon, but they'll do 90 percent of the work. Consider the number: The unibody, car-based Traverse/Acadia have more EPA-rated cargo volume than the Tahoe/Yukon, not to mention roomier third rows. The crossovers also get slightly better fuel economy. They're easier to get into, but sacrifice only half an inch in ground clearance. (The Tahoe/Yukon have a very low air dam on the nose for fuel economy that drags on steep driveways and doesn't appear easy to remove.) Oh, and they're substantially cheaper (roughly $12,000-$14,000) to start. The only clear wins for the Tahoe/Yukon are acceleration (the crossovers are 0.7 second slower to 60 mph), space in the first two rows (shoulder and leg room, mostly), and towing (an additional 2800 to 3400 pounds), owed mostly to the crossovers' less powerful V-6 engines. Despite generally accepted wisdom, the percentage of owners who actually tow is in the teens or lower depending on model. Per our partners at IntelliChoice, depreciation, as a percentage of purchase price, is slightly better for the crossovers. If you don't need the extra towing capacity, or the ability to carry nine passengers instead of eight, the numbers make a strong case for the Traverse/Acadia.
Whichever family/gear/toy-hauling crossover/SUV you choose, you've got a solid choice on your hands. This is a market that GM knows very well and has built vehicles to dominate it. They may not command the huge sales figures they once did, but their fans are a fiercely loyal crowd that will take cell phone pictures while driving on the freeway, crane their necks out the window at a stop light, and approach you at a gas station just to get a look at the latest model. They won't be disappointed.