The world, and the United States, has changed a lot since the late 1990s, not least in the automotive sphere. There are electric cars that aren't punchlines to poorly told jokes; electric cars which are in fact Very Good Things. Hybrids are common, no longer the sole province of the most granola-fed. Cars that drive themselves have become a matter of when, not if. Gasoline costs about three-and-a-half times as much as it did in 1999, and even pickup trucks are seeking greater efficiency. Despite all of these changes, the full-size SUV remains not just viable, but vital.
General Motors' full-size SUVs define that vitality for the vast majority of the market, accounting for about 7 out of every 10 of the large, capable vehicles sold when sales of the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban and GMC Yukon and Yukon XL are combined. Nearly half of the market is Chevy's Tahoe and Suburban pairing. If you rolled up all of GM's full-size SUV sales into a standalone business, it would be listed among the Fortune 400.
Which is to say: Full-size SUVs are still big business, and GM's are the biggest business of all, bought by governments, contractors, families, and professionals. That makes a new version of any of them incredibly important not just to GM, but to people and companies across the U.S., and this year, all four versions new.
So how do the new versions stack up to the previous best-sellers, and how do they adjust to the realities of the second decade of the 21st century? We've driven all four versions of them with precisely these questions in mind.
Exactly what you expect, but better
Across the range of GM's updated full-size SUVs, you'll find many common threads: aside from exterior and interior design, cabin materials, and a few feature packages, the Tahoe, Suburban, Yukon, and Yukon XL share the same core mechanical and structural improvements.
An all-new exterior design that, for the first time, shares no body panels with the pickup it's based on brings the look of the new SUVs fully up to date. It's not until you're standing in front of them, however, that you realize the scale; these are big vehicles. But despite the bulk, the proportions and details work, and it's clear Chevy and GMC put a lot of thought into sculpting the right form to convey both modernity and capability. Underlying the new aesthetic is considerable aerodynamics work that has helped to optimize the flow of air over, under, and around the vehicle to improve gas mileage and quiet the cabin. It has worked on both fronts.
Not all of the gas mileage gains come from the sleeker exterior, however. Under the hood lies GM's new SUV secret weapon: a heavily revised version of its 5.3-liter V-8. Up-rated to output 11 percent more power and 14 percent more torque (355 hp and 383 lb-ft for 2015), while simultaneously raising EPA gas mileage ratings to 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway in rear-drive form, the new V-8 engine is the heart of the new SUV line, and one of its most significant improvements.
Those gas mileage figures might not sound all that impressive when compared with a Volt or a Prius, but they represent gains of about 6 percent overall--while increasing power and capability. That's a significant feat, and it's one that's immediately noticeable on the road, whether you're eyeballing the real-time fuel efficiency gauge or smoothly cruising up a steep grade at 8,000 feet elevation. The technology underlying those improvements includes direct injection, a new six-speed automatic transmission, and, perhaps most importantly, Active Fuel Management, which deactivates half the cylinders.
Cylinder deactivation in the new engine is nothing like the kludged solutions of decades past. It's seamless, without any vibration or noise to indicate the crossover. In fact, the only way you'll know which mode it's in is if you look for the "V4" or "V8" indicator on the instrument panel-mounted display. During our time driving the 5.3-liter-equipped models, we routinely saw gas mileage estimates of 23 mpg or higher, while traversing primarily interstate and winding two-lane back roads. Some of the interstate driving saw high-altitude grades, including a transit of Donner Pass at 7,000 feet elevation. The 6.2-liter V-8 returned somewhat lower gas mileage on flatter, lower-altitude highways and byways, generally in the neighborhood of 18 mpg during our drive.
Both 2WD and 4WD versions of all models will be available, but we didn't get to test their capabilities off-road or in inclement weather.
Another improvement to the daily use of the new SUVs is the interior. Upgraded substantially from the previous model, and now deserving of the "luxury" appellation, at least in the top-tier LTZ or Denali trims, the new SUVs upholstery, interior design, and features all suit their price tags, even up to and beyond the $70,000 mark. The look and feel of every component is of durability and quality, something that couldn't always be said about last year's model. This last element is especially true of the Yukon Denali and Yukon XL Denali, where plastics in the Tahoe and Suburban are replaced by genuine wood and burnished aluminum, lending a more luxurious and substantial sensibility to the cabin.
There are significant improvements to the interior layout, too, including greater third-row accessiblity and space, new fold-flat second- and third-row seats, power-folding capability (optional) for the third-row seating, and more. Later this year, 4G LTE data access will be added to the OnStar system, allowing up to seven devices to share the in-vehicle data connection over a WiFi hotspot. A Blu-Ray DVD player is also now available for rear-seat entertainment. But that's not the only new technology in GM's SUV fleet.
GM's vibrating seat alerts have come to the SUVs, and are used for a variety of driver awareness functions, from lane departure warning to potential crash threats and more. Adaptive cruise control is available, with automatic braking if the system detects a collision is imminent. When properly equipped, sensors all around the vehicle will detect and alert the driver of danger to the front, rear, and sides of the vehicle. A rearview camera system is standard, as is StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover mitigation.
Take all of these things together, roll in towing capacity upgraded to 8,600 pounds maximum, and you have some truly impressive design and engineering that translates directly into improvements in the daily experience of driving--and the last generation was already very good. The 2015 models are what you expect, just better.
They're not all identical, however, despite the shared core of design and engineering.
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