2000 Full-Size Detroit SUVs vs. Arizona’s Canyons
From the July 2000 issue of Car and Driver.
You can whip out your Visa card at the entrance to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “duh-shay”) National Monument, but unless you’re hauling it around in a four-wheel-driver, you’ll be turned away. This is 4×4 territory. And an exhilarating outing in an SUV.
Not a single canyon, as the name would suggest, but rather a confluence of canyons in northeastern Arizona, in the Navajo Nation, the monument is shaped like a mutant oak leaf; water drains in at the tips, eroding deeper and deeper through solid-red sandstone as it cuts toward a central stem and then flows out the stem in a broad sandy stream bed called the Chinle Wash.
We enter here, splashing up the wash against the rippling current of springtime runoff, four burly Detroiters locked in “four high”—a Chevy Suburban LT K2500; a GMC Yukon SLT K1500; and two Fords, the jumbo Excursion Limited and an Expedition XLT—all following in line, respectfully, warily. Our Navajo guide, Veronica T. “Ronnie” Yoe, riding shotgun in the lead truck, watches the stream for tumbling ripples, and over the two-way she talks us around the invisible holes and hollows.
“If a truck bogs down,” she warns, “don’t stop behind it. Go around. Get to high ground.” Her aunt lost a truck near here, a 1972 GMC pickup. “It just went down. Quicksand.” Nothing left but a memory. And a lesson.
Mostly the weighty machines roll easily. But now and again I feel the sand grabbing the wheels, resisting motion. “Soft here,” I tell her. “Gun it,” she says, and radios a warning to the others.
Wheels are a recent innovation in the canyon. From the first inhabitants about 2500 B.C. until the early 1600s, personal transportation relied on two feet. Then the sight of Spanish horsemen inspired the natives to tame wild mustangs. Now, not quite 400 years later, our mounts are leather-lined, climate-controlled, stereo-infused, go-anywhere machines, moccasins for the 21st century.
We’ve come to the canyon to test our moccasins, to drive them upstream as far as we can, to sites on which the “ancient ones,” the Anasazi, created their own masterpieces. By 1100 A.D., their tools and techniques had become sophisticated enough to construct large, multilevel cliff dwellings in the canyon walls, tucked under overhangs and into shallow caves. They left no written history, but the ruins of their great pueblos speak eloquently of the abilities and aspirations of these mysterious people.
Well, up to a point. Around 1300, these native farmers and builders suddenly abandoned their homes in Canyon de Chelly and other pueblo sites. Prolonged drought leading to crop failure? Overpopulation? Disease? Anthropologists have theories. But all anyone knows for sure is what the eyes can see.
So we’ve come to see for ourselves, shod in the latest off-road moccasins. New for 2000 is a pair of jumbo SUVs. GM has slipped an all-new machine under its renowned Suburban nameplate. By lore and legend, this is the Conestoga of the SUVs, a go-anywhere hauler with amazing owner loyalty.
Ford, after years of being marked absent in this class, finally countered this year with a whopper of its own, the Excursion, a machine much reviled by enviros and big-city columnists—for what? Being seven inches longer than the Suburban?
Unquestionably, these are big machines. Too big for canyon questing? Just in case, we brought a model one size smaller from each maker, a GMC Yukon from GM (a Chevy Tahoe twin) and an Expedition from Ford. If size matters, let’s find out which size is the right size.
We left Phoenix on an April morning while the shadows were still long and arrived 320 miles later with enough daylight to scout the canyon floor from overlooks 900 feet up along the south rim. At Spider Rock Overlook we spotted a small ruin in a fold on the opposite side, halfway between top and bottom. For that dweller, the commute home would have been straight up or straight down, and impossible either way. Yet there were the stones set into man-made walls.
Seeing Canyon de Chelly is only a small step toward understanding.
Fourth Place: Ford Excursion
Seeing this bruiser of a sport-ute—7260 pounds at the curb—crawling the same quicksand bottoms and climbing the same creek banks as the others confirms its basic off-road competence, but it does not begin to explain how this supersized SUV is different from the others.
It is different, very different, and size is only a secondary factor.
The Excursion is truckier. Its sheetmetal and front structure are borrowed from the F-series Super Duty pickup. In this four-wheel-drive version, leaf springs and a Panhard rod locate a massive solid front axle. The tie rods are the diameter of your author’s wrists. We’re talking heavy-duty machinery here, and rustic technology, and the inevitable trucky imprecision those mechanicals bring to a class of machines that many folks think of as substitutes for cars.
The Excursion is never carlike. It’s stiff-legged over bumps, the structure quivers constantly even on relatively smooth roads, and it’s the absent-minded professor on the topic of highway directional stability—it regularly forgets which way is straight ahead; you must remind it with a crank of the wheel.
Trucky, too, describes the way the Excursion lumbers through our test-track trials. Stopping from 70 mph takes 231 feet, longest of the group. Road grip, at 0.68 g, edges past the Expedition but falls behind the others. And 48.4 mph through the lane-change test puts it in a class by itself, the blunderbuss class—big and vaguely aimable in your chosen direction.
The four-wheel-drive system is trucky as well, purely a part-time arrangement with front hubs that can be left to an automatic locking system (recommended in the owner’s manual) or locked manually. We trusted the automatic setting until, after a short stop at Junction Ruin, the rears began digging into the soft sand. No drive to the fronts. Uh-oh. You wouldn’t want to make that discovery in the midst of a quicksand patch.
Still, the Excursion never got stuck, never stopped swallowing more of our gear, and never refused the next challenge. Past White House Ruin—named for the white plaster walls of the upper section, built during the last 50 years of Anasazi residence—the stream cuts deep and narrow. The banks are abrupt and muddy. What lies unseen beneath the rushing water? That is the question, isn’t it? Too much speed down the slope might stick the Excursion’s nose into the soft bottom like a dart. But engine braking in four-wheel low holds back this leviathan to creeping speed as it slips into the water. Pongs and sharp clanks resonate from the submerged machinery as the body wallows over unseen rocks. Maybe a loose bushing? Or the hefty anti-roll bar hitting the end of its travel? Something troubling but not fatal, we decide.
One bit of bad manners: The Excursion has a jumpy throttle, all wrong when you’re trying to ease along in low range.
Faster going brings discomforts as well. Watching the Excursion traverse dry-mud ruts, Yoe laughed into the radio: “You guys are getting tossed around in there!”
We rated the Excursion lowest for ride comfort by a substantial margin.
For passengers, this is the space shuttle, with vast expanses of leg- and headroom in the second row, and footrests angled just right. The third-row seat cushion, however, is inexplicably narrower than its space, and it has round shoulders, so the outer passengers feel as if they’re about to fall off the seat ends.
The bottom line? If you’re seeking a beast of burden, the Excursion works. But don’t expect a pleasure cruiser.
2000 Ford Excursion Limited
310-hp V-10, 4-speed automatic, 7260 lb
Base/as-tested price: $41,375/$41,450
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 10.1 sec
1/4 mile: 17.6 @ 78 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 231 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.68 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 11 mpg
Third Place: Ford Expedition
If you put the Excursion in a class by itself—and you should—then this Expedition becomes the ’tweener of the remaining three-truck group. It’s between the Yukon and the Suburban in size (closer to the Yukon; six inches longer vs. 15 inches shorter), between them in weight (at 5940 pounds, 540 more than the Yukon, 420 less than the Suburban), between them in passenger and cargo space, and generally between them in measures of speed, although the Expedition is only 0.3 second quicker to 60 mph than the Suburban.
The four-wheel-drive system is similar to that of the two GMers, and nearly identical shifting procedures apply. With the dash selector in “4AWD” (the normal setting), all power flows to the rear wheels until they slip, at which point the fronts automatically get a share. Or you can shift to “4-Hi” at any speed up to 55, which locks the center coupler, thereby driving both ends; this is the “loose surface” setting. To select “4-Lo,” you must stop, shift to neutral, step on the brake, maybe even reverse a foot or two. This demands planning ahead, engaging low range before you get yourself into a precarious place that won’t tolerate the stop-neutral-mutter-mumble ritual.
For the steepest slopes we encountered—they were creek banks in the last few miles of trail to Spider Rock—low-range four-wheel drive provided just the right engine braking, and with a slight nudge of revs the transmission lever could be pulled into first gear without snatching the wheels.
The Expedition’s suspension is stiffer than that of the two GM utes, noticeably less comfortable on the highway, but on really rough going it provides secure control. The structure wasn’t as solid as that of the newer cars—for example, the doors shake visibly in their openings, but they’re very quiet about it.
Off-road, the Expedition has the best approach clearance of the bunch, which made for graceful entries into the creeks, but it seemed to drag more on departure than all but the Yukon. Also, the rounded hood blocks less of the view when you need to see what’s immediately ahead.
On-road, we liked the silence of the interior and the generally smooth feel of the powertrain. Certain details are a matter of personal taste. The front seats, for one, are fairly flat, with only modest lateral restraint. That’s just fine for those of us who hold that cockpit intimacy is an inappropriate expectation in a three-ton truck. The intimacy seekers, on the other hand, much preferred the hugs that the GM seats will give you at the touch of a power button.
There was no agreement, either, on the feel of the column-mounted shift levers. Getting exactly the right gear can be critical when maneuvering offroad—for example, mistakenly pulling into a ratio too low can start the tires skidding on a steep incline. On this topic, the Ford shifters worked best in the view of most of our drivers, but there were heartfelt exceptions.
This Expedition’s extra six inches of length over the Yukon brings significant hauling benefits: five more cubic feet of space behind the third row, six more when the two rear rows are folded flat. Room for second-row passengers is excellent, although the cushion is angled wrong for meaningful thigh support. For access to the third row, the second row neatly parallelograms forward, opening up a generous walk-through space. But there’s little hospitality behind the second row for adults.
Some of the canyon’s ruins are so high in the walls they’re best seen through the sunroof. Rounded Corner Ruin was built for grain storage, Yoe says, far above the flood water and vermin of the canyon floor. Most Anasazi structures—except the round kivas (ceremonial chambers)—have square corners, making the smoothly radiused walls of this one look very much like modern architecture. One last observation: The Expedition’s sunroof is surprisingly small for such a broad-shouldered machine.
2000 Ford Expedition XLT
260-hp V-8, 4-speed automatic, 5940 lb
Base/as-tested price: $33,310/$41,010
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 9.9 sec
1/4 mile: 17.3 @ 80 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 215 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.65 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
Second Place: GMC Yukon
This is the easy rider of the bunch, the softest and most carlike in its suspension motions. The interior is plush and quiet. It glides over the soft, dry-sand trails of Canyon del Muerto as if cruising on carpet. For on-road ride, this would also be our top choice.
At the same time, the Yukon’s limited interior space raises the issue of sport-ute usefulness. This is the most compact of the group, with an overall length just a tick under 199 inches. It has a maximum cargo volume of 105 cubic feet, and third-row seating is uninhabitable for adults. Consider: GM’s short-wheelbase Venture/Montana minivan is a foot shorter, weighs about 1350 pounds less yet provides 133 cubic feet of cargo space—27 percent more—and it will accommodate third-row adults (albeit with some murmuring). The point: Sport-utes, with their floors high over truck frames, have limited interior space.
What you get in the sport-utes, in trade for a minivan’s roomy interior, are high ground clearance and roomy wheel wells for big wheels and tires. They’re useful, even essential, for off-road travel. But with all those clearances nibbling up interior space, there’s surprisingly little left in the case of this shorty Yukon. With the third row up, not much more than a few grocery sacks will fit behind it. And passengers attempting entry to the third row will have to scramble over the second row, which merely folds flat in the station-wagon mode instead of moving out of the way. With all seats folded flat, only 69.5 inches of your 96-inch sheet of plywood will fit inside the compartment, compared with 86 inches in the next-shortest Expedition (the larger utes swallow the full eight feet, and the Excursion even allows some rattle room around the plywood).
Although the visual similarities between this Yukon and the larger Suburban tested here are considerable—including identical colors—the Suburban, equipped as a 2500, is rated for heavier loads. There is no high-load version of the Yukon, so the “base payload” rating of the two is substantially different, 1751 pounds vs. 2839. In anticipation of less weight, the Yukon rides lower on its suspension, Spider Rock from the south rim. Note the four tiny SUVs and tinier testers on the trail 1000 feet down (lower right). making it the most likely of this group to drag bottom on rutted creek banks. That, combined with the less aggressive tread of its Firestone Wilderness LE tires, produced more wheelspin and slithering up the creek banks.
The Yukon, in four-wheel-drive low, had superb engine braking, better than all the others, but in low range the transmission also makes kick-in-the-butt shifts, snappy enough to break traction, particularly to and from first gear.
When the trails were undemanding and there was little likelihood her charges could get themselves stuck, Yoe revealed a droll side altogether contrary to the solemn-Navajo stereotype. “Up ahead,” came her voice over the radio, “is Poison Rock.” (Rodney Dangerfield pause here.) “One drop’ll kill ya.”
Moments later, as the stream crowded close to the canyon wall, leaving us just a narrow path under formidable outcropping, she added: “Martini Rock.” (Pause.) “Big hangover.”
The Yukon won us over because its 5327 cc V-8 delivers the best performance here by a wide margin, because its relatively compact exterior eases maneuverability, and because of its fine ride. It’s the least trucky of the bunch.
2000 GMC Yukon SLT K1500
285-hp V-8, 4-speed automatic, 5400 lb
Base/as-tested price: $35,280/$41,502
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 9.0 sec
1/4 mile: 16.8 @ 82 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 194 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.70 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
First Place: Chevrolet Suburban
When it comes to sport-utes, the middle ground is hard to defend. Small and maneuverable make sense, although none here fits that description. Or go big, so you have capacity for both people and stuff. In between those positions, you end up with lots of weight but not much capacity.
The “go big” choice is much easier to rationalize once you’ve covered enough miles in the Suburban to realize how well it behaves in all circumstances. It rides smoothly, almost as well as the light-duty Yukon. Directional stability—we covered about 100 miles of Interstate 40 in crosswinds gusting to 40 knots—was best of the bunch. (The Yukon was least stable.)
Mostly, the Suburban’s bulk becomes an issue when tight maneuvering is required or when backing up. The side-hinged rear doors cause a large blind spot in back, right where the middle of the glass should be. As a nocost option, you can choose the same easy-lifting aluminum swing-up hatch that’s standard on the Yukon. And we would.
Our test model had the 5967cc V-8, the largest engine available, producing 300 horsepower at 4800 rpm. Acceleration, though well behind the Yukon’s, was neck and neck with the two Fords’. Fuel economy on our 800-mile trip, including all our canyon low-gear creeping, was 12 mpg, 2 mpg behind the Yukon and Expedition, 1 mpg better than the Excursion. So the Suburban’s hauling capacity comes with little penalty in performance. Even braking, at 203 feet from 70 mph, was better than average, and the Suburban topped them all on the skidpad, circling at 0.72 g.
Off-road, the long wheelbase (130 inches) increases the chance of getting high centered (so do the running boards and step rails on all of these SUVs). The longer rear overhang is more apt to drag, too; it also makes that school-bus whee! back there over the bumps—we got used to hearing equipment behind the third row lofting off the floor. Yet the Suburban seemed no more limited than the lower-riding Yukon. Several times its nose got dunked deep enough to submerge the bow tie in the center of the grille, plunging the outside-temperature digits in the mirror to 52 degrees (the sensor is mounted behind the grille). Both GM trucks grounded their brackets holding the trailer-light plugs, breaking the welds; Ford engineers saw this problem coming—they located their plugs high off the ground and armored them as well.
The GM trucks also scraped their running boards hard enough to force gravel up between the metal frame and plastic cover, producing a crunching sound under foot. But silence returned after high-pressure-hose therapy.
The Suburban’s second-row accommodations closely match those of the Yukon. The payoff for the longer wheelbase appears in the third row, where you get chair-height seating and generous footroom. Three adults will be tight across the hips and shoulders, but they probably won’t file charges. Behind the third row you’ll find 46 cubic feet of cargo room, nearly three times that of the Yukon.
Very civilized, this 6360-pound SUV, the perfect private tour bus as we ease slowly along the canyon trails watching for pictographs and enjoying the pink and lavender springtime blooms of the Navajo farmers’ peach and apricot trees. The silence is thick and comforting. Deep in Canyon del Muerto, on the return from Mummy Cave, the canyon floor widens into a meadow flecked with fallen cottonwood leaves, silvery in the sun. As the Suburban’s speed rises, a muted thunk breaks the mood.
Yoe cocks her head, shooting me a questioning glance. “Automatic door locks,” I explain to her. “All the perps are locked out now.” Her laugh is heavy, and it rolls up from deep inside. These trucks are from another world.
2000 Chevrolet Suburban LT K2500
300-hp V-8, 4-speed automatic, 6360 lb
Base/as-tested price: $31,305/$43,215
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 10.2 sec
1/4 mile: 17.6 @ 80 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 203 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.72 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 12 mpg
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