It's easy to label full-size sport-utility vehicles "outdated." Scoff at them. Say that their time has passed and dismiss them as relics whose high-water mark came during the last Bush administration. Since then, this line of thinking goes, shifting consumer tastes, spiking fuel prices, and environmental concerns have rendered them all but extinct.
Not so fast, says General Motors. Large SUVs are profitable. Very profitable. That's why there will be redesigned versions of the Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe and the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL in dealerships early next year.
Now, that cold logic does not cast GM in the most environmentally friendly light. This is, after all, the automaker that was defined, fairly or unfairly, as manufacturing only huge, gas-guzzling SUVs like the Hummer. Today, though, GM will happily sell you an electric car or a fuel-sipping four-cylinder crossover even while it produces a new class of big-boned SUVs. GM unapologetically maintains that the vehicles are for those who truly need or want serious capability and can afford to pay for it.
Regardless of the rationale, it's not a surprise these strapping SUVs are returning. They're closely related to GM's full-size pickups, the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, which were redesigned for the 2014 model year. So naturally, the automaker was going to re-do the utes.
The thorough makeover for GM's SUVs is their first since 2007, and they launch as 2015 models. The Chevy Tahoe and Suburban and the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL are the same vehicle under the skin. It's one truck, with short- and long-wheelbase variants, sold through two different sales channels. They all have reinforced frames, new four-wheel disc brakes, and electric variable-assist power steering systems. Top versions (GMC's Denali and Chevy's LTZ) are fitted with third-generation magnetic ride control.
All of the SUVs are slightly longer and wider, resulting in about two more inches of legroom in the second row and easier entry and exit. The hoods are aluminum in a bid to cut weight, and the doors are now inlaid to reduce wind noise and improve aerodynamics.
The cabins can still carry up to nine passengers in three rows. They get fresh dashboards and a new panoramic "conversation" mirror that allows the driver to monitor what's going on in back. GM paid special attention to that key area, as the second and third rows can fold flat into the floor, and there is an optional power operation feature.
The utes also have more standard and optional safety equipment, including warning systems for collisions and lane departures, adaptive cruise control, and automatic braking. Anti-theft devices include interior motion detectors and steering column locks, a tacit admission by GM that its large SUVs are frequent targets for thieves.
The vehicles get a power boost from a new EcoTec3 5.3-liter V-8 rated at 355 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque and paired with a carryover six-speed automatic transmission. Power increases significantly from the previous Vortec V-8's 320 hp and 335 lb-ft. They're all available with rear- or four-wheel drive. GM did not release fuel economy ratings, though it claims the engines are more efficient than their predecessors. The GMC Yukon is also offered with a 6.2-liter V-8 pumping out 420 hp and 450 lb-ft, up from the previous V-8's 403 hp and 417 lb-ft.
Chevy gets stylish
The Suburban and the smaller Tahoe get updated exterior styling, with fresh sheetmetal not shared with their pickup truck relatives. In simple terms, they look familiar, though the panels are more creased to create a buffer appearance. Redesigning the iconic Suburban was a particular challenge, says Alexandre Henriques, lead designer for GM's full-size SUVs. The goal was to make all of the parts feel visually connected—especially with the placement of the projector-beam headlights and the way the fenders flare out. This is in stark contrast to the previous generation, which looked very truck-like and now appears dated on the road.
Henriques, a veteran designer with 13 years at GM, did stints in studios in Australia and Brazil before moving to Detroit to work on big SUVs. His outsider perspective clearly influenced the vehicles, as the new, richer exteriors help justify the hefty prices GM is going to charge.
"We tried to make them elegant and more straight forward," he says.
The new styling allowed designers to explore some of the Suburban's history and culture, including its pre-war roots as one of the original SUVs. They are not retro, but they capture the historic presence of the Suburban and "translate that look going forward," Henriques says.
Chevy designers made a similar effort to improve the cabin, which is a noticeable departure from the previous generation. The materials have nicer colors and textures. "It looks like a luxury vehicle," says Bryan Priebe, creative design manager for Chevy's large SUVs, about the spacious interior. Indeed, the updates to the cabin are obvious and handsome to the eye.
A nifty new feature called "ambient air" disperses air more evenly through specially shaped vents with the aim of avoiding blasting big gusts of air, even when it's 90 degrees in Dallas.
Naturally, there's a full suite of modern electronic amenities for the cabin. A 4.2-inch touchscreen for navigation, climate, and audio is standard, while an 8-inch screen is optional. Rear entertainment systems with dual screens are available, exclusively in the Suburban. There are 12 standard power outlets, meaning all nine passengers can charge their iPhones, and a few more can power up their iPads. Somewhere, Steve Jobs must be smiling.
More refinement for GMC
The Yukons have a new cargo management system that has more places for storage, including a compartment underneath the floor in back. There are also laminated windows that keep out noise from the interior. A subtle roof spoiler improves aerodynamics and also hides the wiper blade.
"The rear is not only cleaner, there's more shape to it, and it's more functional," Henriques says.
The exterior is marked by headlights with a C-shaped LED pattern, sleeker (though still familiar) body styling, and new wheel packages. The cabin has an updated soft-touch instrument panel and standard eight-inch touchscreen. The GMC models also get a new 9.5-inch rear axle, automatic locking rear differential, and StabiliTrak electronic stability control as standard equipment. The Denali models add more chrome, additional sound proofing, and larger standard wheels.
The Long View
It's hard to predict if there will be another generation of big utes for GM after these. They are probably at least eight years away anyway, and who knows what fuel prices will be by then. Contrary to popular opinion, CAFE standards for 2025 don't impact SUVs that much, as the rules factor in vehicle size and sales mix, allowing companies like GM to sell them if there's demand.
For the immediate future, these vehicles remain a cash cow for the automaker -- and an opportunity. The average large SUV on the road is now 11 years old, so there will soon be a significant number of potential buyers in the market.
"We think we're in a really good spot to capture a lot of those customers as they come back in," says John Schwegman, executive director of product and pricing for GM's trucks.
While the large SUV market is shrinking, it could also become less competitive. Analysts speculate that the Ford Expedition and Toyota Sequoia will be phased out soon, allowing GM to grab market share easily. The Nissan Armada is expected to be updated in the coming years, but none of the others will likely get the significant improvements GM's 2015 SUVs are receiving. Yes, if you're wondering, there will also be a redesigned Cadillac Escalade, which goes on sale next year as a 2015 model. If the Chevy and GMC models are cash cows, the Escalade is a veritable golden goose for GM.
Historically, large utes were not mainstream transportation, except for the 1990s era of cheap gasoline. The Suburban, especially, long has been relied upon by a small group of devoted owners who truly wanted and needed the space, utility, and towing capability it provides. In fact, the 2015 model marks the 80th anniversary of the iconic nameplate. With this latest generation, GM is clearly hoping the Suburban makes it to the century mark.
2015 Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban; 2015 GMC Yukon/Yukon XL
|Engine:||5.3-liter OHV V-8; 6.2-liter OHV V-8 (GMC option)|
|Horsepower:||355 hp @ 5600 rpm; 420 hp @ 5600 rpm|
|Torque:||383 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm 450 lb-ft @4100 rpm|
|Drive:||Rear- or four-wheel|
|L x W x H:|| 203.9 x 80.5 x 74.4 Yukon|
224.3 x 80.5 x 74.4 Yukon XL
204 x 80.5 x 74.4 Tahoe
224.4 x 80.5 x 74.4 Suburban
|Headroom F/R:|| Tahoe/Yukon: 42.8/38.7/38.1|
Suburban/Yukon XL: 42.8/39.1/38.5
|Legroom F/R:|| Tahoe/Yukon: 45.3 (front) 39 (second) 24.8 (third)|
Suburban/Yukon XL 45.3/39.7/34.5
|Cargo Capacity:|| Tahoe/Yukon 94.7/51.7/15.3|
Suburban/Yukon XL 121.1/76.4/38.8
|Curb Weight:||Tahoe/Yukon 5349 (lb), Suburban/Yukon XL 5576 (lb)|