GM's big SUVs reward fans for their patience
Vehicles offer quieter interior, improved powertrain
NAPA, Calif. -- It has been eight years since the last redesign of the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban and GMC Yukon and Yukon XL. Some owners have been waiting even longer than that.
The average General Motors big SUV has been lumbering along the roads for about 11 years. That means there ought to be plenty of pent-up demand for the 2015 models, in spite of sticker prices that range from an extra $2,500 for a popular Tahoe model to nearly $7,000 more for a Yukon Denali XL.
The SUVs feature clean, contemporary designs, a more powerful yet more fuel efficient powertrain and a hushed interior that has been improved to vanquish some key complaints about the outgoing generation. They began arriving in dealerships last month.
The basics: The SUVs are still built on the same platform as GM's recently redesigned pickups. But for the first time, the SUVs don't share any sheet metal with their pickup brethren, giving designers more flexibility. The body sides on the Yukons, for instance, are more sculpted and have a higher beltline, giving the SUVs a "clean, classic" profile, lead exterior designer Chip Thole said last week during a media test drive here.
Designers distinguished the Chevys from the GMCs more so than in the past. Each gets unique front and rear fascias, and aluminum hoods and liftgates. The Yukon features C-shaped headlights with high-intensity discharge lamps, and a similar look for the taillights. The faces of the Tahoe and Suburban look more contemporary, with a chiseled look to the headlights and deeper dual-port grille.
The powertrain lineup features two of the new V-8 engines that debuted on the pickups. A 5.3-liter returns 355 hp, 11 percent more than the outgoing models, and 383 pounds-feet of torque, up 14 percent. The engine offered plenty of get-up while climbing steep mountain grades. The upscale Denali versions of the Yukon and Yukon XL step up to a standard 6.2-liter under the hood, putting out 420 hp and 460 pounds-feet of torque.
All of the SUVs feature premium-level interiors and the latest version of Chevrolet MyLink and GMC IntelliLink infotainment systems, which are more responsive and intuitive than previous iterations. Triple-sealed doors, laminated front door glass and additional acoustic padding under the floor and dash leave the cabin quiet enough for normal front-to-back seat conversations even at highway speeds.
McCormack: "A gigantic leap forward"
Notable features: GM engineers eliminated a key gripe of current owners by adding an electronically controlled, fold-flat third row; in outgoing models, the third row had to be detached and lugged out of the back for extra cargo room. The push of another button flips the second row flat.
To fix another pet peeve, engineers eased access to the second and third rows by pushing back the C-pillar. That created two extra inches of "foot swing" for back seat passengers.
Denali buyers get some exclusive goodies in addition to the 6.2-liter engine, including an 8-inch customizable screen in the gauge cluster. It also includes head-up display, 22-inch wheels and illuminated retractable steps.
What GM says: "We have a very passionate customer base that expects us to bring out a damn good truck after waiting this long," says Roger McCormack, GMC marketing director.
"We think this is a gigantic leap forward in a market that we already dominate."
Shortcomings and compromises: Adding cylinder deactivation and direct fuel injection boosted fuel efficiency, but GM missed the chance to go further by adding more gears beyond the carryover six-speed automatic transmission. Expect an eight-speed or even a 10-speed to enter the lineup within a few years.
The market: GM sold 194,322 big SUVs in 2013, up 15 percent from the previous year, with the Tahoe the volume leader at 83,502 units. That was good for about 45 percent market share in the segment, according to the Automotive News Data Center. GM claims 74 percent market share because it does not include the Jeep Grand Cherokee as part of the segment.
IHS Automotive expects that GM's volume will be flat in 2014, rising to about 196,000 units in 2015. The market's other players are the Toyota Sequoia, Nissan Armada and Ford Expedition, which is being re-engineered for the 2015 model year with a 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine and other high-tech features.
The skinny: Chevy and GMC shouldn't have much trouble keeping their loyal SUV owners in the fold with the vastly improved trucks. But a leap in sales volume or an influx of conquest customers seems unlikely given the increased prices and drivers' continued shift toward unibody crossovers, which increasingly come with three rows of seating.
You can reach Mike Colias at email@example.com.