2012 GMC Yukon Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
January 27, 2012

The 2012 GMC Yukon–in Hybrid Denali form especially–makes a strong argument that there's still very much a place in today's market for big, capable, and supremely comfortable body-on-frame SUVs.

Like GM's other full-size trucks, including the Cadillac Escalade, and the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, the 2012 GMC Yukon isn't the hot seller it was a few years ago. Many families have moved on to more space-efficient and fuel-efficient crossover designs, yet it would be premature to call the Yukon out as obsolete. Especially when outfitted with some of its many upgrades (or in Yukon Denali guise), the GMC Yukon makes a compelling luxury that's also good for towing, trekking, and getting dirty. And with the GMC Yukon Hybrid getting ratings of up to 23 mpg, gas mileage no longer has to be a sore point.

From a styling standpoint, the GMC Yukon is a handsome vehicle with a rather timeless design; the down side of that is that those not in the know might not be aware that you have a 2012 versus a previous model year though, and it's changed little in recent years. Inside, the Yukon is also very straightforward, with a somewhat more contoured look instead of the upright, macho, machine-shop look that has become the norm for pickup and SUV interiors. With their honeycomb grille up front, flashier wheels, and Nuance leather and chrome cabin details, top-of-the-like Yukon Denali models are at the top of the GMC luxury ladder (nearly on par with the Cadillac Escalade), and they're easy to spot.

While the Yukon spans a wide range of focused models, all of them have good acceleration and ride quality, but rather light steering, with little if any handling feedback (they're huge trucks, after all) is the down side. The base engine on the Yukon remains a 5.3-liter V-8 with 320 hp, but a larger 403-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 is offered in the longer Yukon XL and luxurious Yukon Denali model. The latter is the pick for the toughest towing demands and accelerates smartly with a rich engine note, but even with the included cylinder deactivation system, it's a very thirsty engine. Overall, the Denali isn't tremendously maneuverable, but it handles surprisingly well on back roads; you'll quickly forget that you're piloting a 6,000-pound vehicle that can tow up to 8,600 pounds (or 5,000 in the case of the Hybrid).

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Yukon Hybrid models perform about the same as a base-engine Yukon, yet they manage up to 23 mpg. In them, a big 332-horsepower, 6.0-liter V-8 is augmented with electric motors and battery power, using a version of the Two-Mode Hybrid system developed by GM with BMW, Daimler and Chrysler. With this system, the Yukon can accelerate (lightly) on battery power alone or with a mix of engine and motor power.

If you've driven a full-size pickup or full-size SUV before, you'll recognize the driving position; front seats are comfortable, with a great view outward. The 2012 Yukon offers interior space aplenty, but its cabin simply isn't as well-designed for passengers as more modern crossover designs, like the GMC Acadia. Yukon XL models add precious inches of third-row legroom, making it manageable for adults going short distances, but standard Yukon third rows are only for kids. In either version, second-row occupants will have to wedge their feet and knees around large center door pillars when getting in.

Also, while there's no easy way to tap into that interior space and turn it into cargo space in a pinch. The rear bench seats don't fold into the floor or fold flat, as they do in many other utility vehicles, and they can be a chore to remove.

Across the model line, you'll find ride quality to be quite good; most versions have a nicely damped, almost carlike ride, though cornering over choppy road surfaces or railroad crossings will remind you that it's a body-on-frame truck. And while the look doesn't match that of newer GM and GMC products so much, fit and finish remains top-notch, with the interior free of road and wind noise. And the Yukon backs up that impression of security with five-star ratings from the federal government for frontal and side impact and a solid roster of safety equipment.

The GMC Yukon is definitely not cheap; the base, two-wheel-drive Yukon SL tops $40,000 for 2012. But even in that SLE trim, the days of work-truck versions of the Yukon are gone; it includes power features, air conditioning, and an AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with an auxiliary and a USB port; Bluetooth hands-free calling is included in all models as well, and for 2012 heated leather seats are added to the standard-equipment list. Also, a heated steering wheel is now available on the SLT. Also newly available through the lineup is a touch-screen-based navigation radio with SiriusXM Weather and Time Shift recording capability.

Denali editions are essentially on par with the Cadillac Escalade and come absolutely loaded with luxury and convenience features, including tri-zone automatic climate control, a power-folding second-row seat, parking sensors, side blind alert, and remote starting. But for that you'll pay; either the Yukon Denali 4WD or a Yukon Hybrid Denali can top the $60k mark.

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2012 GMC Yukon

Styling

Still handsome after all these years, the 2012 GMC Yukon is as tasteful as its Escalade cousin is blingy.

It's been on the market since 2007, but the GMC Yukon still looks to us like one of the better pieces of styling in the SUV realm. The plainer details work in its favor--where the same mechanicals wrapped in Cadillac Escalade couture are starting to look a little bit like last season. The GMC's grille is a simple frame for a straightforward red logo; even the headlamps and taillamps are all business. The Yukon's large windows and tall expanses of sheetmetal steer far clear of the overwrought cliches that drown out the Nissan Armada, for example. Here, it's just understated and serious. Yukon XL utes, by the way, add about 20 inches in overall length, and the gain goes right into the rear windows and metal. The Yukon XL looks less balanced as a result, but it's still well executed.

The interior of the GMC Yukon is also very straightforward, and has a more rounded, simple style instead of the upright, macho, machine-shop look that some other models sport. The Yukon's interior has slight differences depending on seating configuration, but they all get the same nicely styled interior, with wood grain trim, tightly grained plastics, and soft, upscale-looking upholstery on offer. Denali versions add more luxury touches, like a honeycomb grille up front and Nuance leather and chrome details to the cabin.
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2012 GMC Yukon

Performance

There's not much feedback at the wheel, but the 2012 GMC Yukon has smart acceleration and a ride that smothers any bad roads.

Ranging from gas-powered short-wheelbase SUVs to luxury hybrid utes, the 2012 GMC Yukon lineup has a unified theme: strong acceleration, good ride quality, with light steering feel that doesn't yield much driving feedback, mostly due to the Yukon's vast size.

The standard engine is a 5.3-liter V-8 making 320 horsepower, coupled to a six-speed automatic. This Yukon, even as an XL, has surprising acceleration and fuel economy that bests some notable vehicles in the class. It's responsive, too--a well-tuned combination of a torquey engine and a transmission with a good mix of small and tall gears.

There's a larger engine for those who tow all the time, and can live without extra cash in their pockets. It's a 403-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8, and it's optional in the longer Yukon XL, and standard in the luxurious Yukon Denali. It steps off the line with gusto, and with a deep exhaust note, but fuel economy takes a big hit, even with the engine's cylinder-deactivation technology.

All Yukons are offered with some sort of four- or all-wheel drive. The basic system has a single-speed transfer case; a more rugged setup with a two-speed transfer case can be had on either body style. Denali Yukons have electronically controlled on-demand four-wheel drive. The Yukon Hybrid, covered elsewhere, has its own complex two-mode hybrid system with four-wheel drive.

The Yukon lineup has some of the best handling in its class, with ride motions absolutely smothered by the huge curb weight numbers and in most versions, by a big coil-spring suspension. Denali versions have Autoride, an electronically controlled set of shocks that flatten out the ride without inducing any roughness. Ride quality in the Yukon is quite good throughout the model line, with most trims having a nicely damped, almost carlike ride—only cornering on choppy surfaces, or railroad crossings, will remind you that it's actually a body-on-frame truck.  On all versions, the steering's pretty light, but doesn't share much road information with the driver.

Overall, the Denali isn't tremendously maneuverable, but it handles surprisingly well on back roads; you'll quickly forget that you're piloting a 6,000-pound vehicle that can tow up to 8,600 pounds.

One essential issue to tackle before you buy a Yukon XL is its length. Even those who frequent urban Home Depots may find it's just too big to fit easily into conventional parking spaces.

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2012 GMC Yukon

Comfort & Quality

A disappointing third-row seat cuts down on the GMC Yukon's usefulness, but not by much--it's simply huge inside.

As long as you're not penalizing adults with a ride in the third-row seat, the GMC Yukon does just about everything you can rightfully ask from a large sport-utility vehicle.

In either of the two body styles (standard and stretched XL), the Yukon has massive space in its front two rows of seats. The seats are fairly wide and flat, and taller drivers will find the windshield header sits fairly low--while the seats don't power down to a driving position that's low enough to see stoplights easily. It's not unique to the Yukon, but it's striking in such a tall vehicle. Getting into the seats is more of a clamber than in, say, an Acadia crossover, too. Second-row seats in the standard Yukon have good leg room, but the stretched Yukon XL improves even on that space.

That Yukon XL adds about 20 inches of overall length to the stock truck, with 14 inches devoted to the wheelbase. The stretch makes the third-row seat more accessible, and adds more cargo space in back, but the space in back is still only suitable for kids. The combination of a high step-up and a narrow opening to clamber through are amplified by a low seat cushion and a high load floor, which doesn't leave enough head room for adults.

In the standard-length version, there's very little space behind the last row; it has 108.9 cubic feet with the second and third rows down, but just 16.9 cubic feet with the third-row seat raised. With the third row removed and the second row folded, the Yukon XL has a huge 137.2 cubic feet of cargo space, and there's still respectable room for cargo with people in all three rows. In either version, the third-row seat doesn't actually fold into the floor when not in use; it needs to be lifted out of the vehicle, which is really a job for two people.

Fit and finish inside is generally top-notch, the interior is pleasantly free of wind and road noise.
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2012 GMC Yukon

Safety

Strong crash-test scores underscore the GMC Yukon's safe appearance.

The initial impression given by the GMC Yukon is one of strength and safety. It's big, true--but it also earns some excellent crash-test scores.

A stout SUV, the Yukon has excellent protection for occupants. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives it an overall score of four stars. Digging deeper, the Yukon actually gets five-star scores in every crash test, but four stars for the mathematically derived rollover test since it's such a tall vehicle.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't tested the current Yukon.

Standard safety gear on all Yukon models includes dual front, side, and curtain airbags that cover all rows of seats; traction and stability control; OnStar; and tire pressure monitors. On the options list, there are blind-spot detectors, parking sensors, and a rearview camera--not the wraparound kind being pioneered now by Infiniti and Land Rover, but a higher-res one with a crisp display.

The Yukon's tall stance might be an issue for some shorter drivers as they park or change lanes. However for that there are large side mirrors.

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2012 GMC Yukon

Features

Basic versions aside, the 2012 GMC Yukon is every bit the luxury SUV.

Drivers of the old GMC Suburban would hardly recognize today's Yukon lineup. All versions of the big SUV have the kind of luxury features that were common only in imported sedans a few years ago.

For about $40,000, the base Yukon waves goodbye to its work-truck heritage with standard features like power windows, locks and mirrors; climate control; Bluetooth; and an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary and a USB port. That SLE model is upgraded into SLT trim with the addition of remote start; three-zone climate control; rear parking sensors and a rearview camera; power-adjustable pedals; and a Bose audio system.

For the Denali, GMC piles on luxury features, including all those found on the SLT. It also gets a power-folding second-row seat; Bose surround sound; ventilated front seats; and heated second-row seats. Options on the Denali include DVD navigation and entertainment systems; power side steps; and a sunroof. Yukon Hybrid models include most of this gear and also get the Denali's additional sound insulation.

It doesn't come cheap, though. A loaded Yukon Denali 4WD or a Yukon Hybrid Denali can top $60,000.
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2012 GMC Yukon

Fuel Economy

One of the most efficient big SUVs is the GMC Yukon Hybrid, but even the basic V-8 version is better than average on gas.

With the base powertrain, both the 2012 GMC Yukon and its long-wheelbase version, the Yukon XL, earn respectable fuel economy numbers for the class. The EPA rates Yukons with the 5.3-liter V-8 at 15/21 mpg--still low in absolute terms, but better than other big utes like the Armada or GL-Class.

Upgrading to the 6.2-liter V-8 on XL versions and in the Denali drops gas mileage to 14/18 mpg, or 13/18 mpg with all-wheel drive.

The Yukon lineup does include a Hybrid edition, a vehicle that really only is approached in efficiency by the turbodiesel version of the Benz GL-Class. The Yukon Hybrid ekes out 50 percent better city fuel economy, for an overall EPA rating of 20/23 mpg, while it still can tow 5,000 pounds.

All standard Yukon models are also E85 (85-percent ethanol) compatible; but when you fuel up with ethanol you'll get an EPA-estimated 11 mpg city, 16 highway.
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Styling 7.0
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Comfort & Quality 8.0
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