On the Road Review: GM Yukon Denali



Lost in the political debate, for many politicians and pollsters, is the relative importance of industrial production to the fabric of America. With the vast majority of American workers lacking significant employment opportunities, manufacturing has long been a stable work segment for millions of taxpaying Americans.

That is less apparent locally today, as evidenced by the fall of many of Maine’s paper mills. New England, the birthplace for many American automakers a century ago, now makes no new cars — period. Textile mills, gone. Shoe shops, gone. Some small computer chip manufacturing, some machinery operations and some boatbuilding are all that remains in this region.

Yet in Arlington, Texas, and other southern communities, automotive manufacturing is big, huge in fact. Arlington is the home for not only the Dallas Cowboys, but also GM’s full-size SUV plant, turning out Chevy Tahoes, GMC Yukons and Cadillac Escalades six days a week, three shifts a day. GM employs over 3,000 people. Supporting parts industries provide thousands of other high-paying jobs.

BMW, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia have assembly plants in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Volvo has plans to construct a new plant in South Carolina. Mercedes is expanding its plant in Alabama. Toyota has moved its U.S. headquarters to Texas. This is an industrial zone, with lots of jobs, and it matters.

GM’s Arlington plant produced a quarter-million new trucks last year, SUVs that accounted for 70 percent of the total sales in the full-size, three-row category. Arlington is also one of the most profitable assembly plants in the world.

Amazingly, large SUVs have remained popular despite fluctuating fuel prices. Despite steep drops in the price of gasoline, Yukon sales increased 10 percent last year — a tick behind the industry average, yet on a pace consistent with previous years. While competitors fade (Ford’s Expedition and Navigator, primarily) GM’s fleet of big SUVs continues to dominate this category.

Key to that continued success has been a steady list of improvements. GM’s trucks, like this week’s supreme Denali, have received better engines, better brakes, better operating systems, more safety gear and more amenities — all of the things that buyers expect in their cars, luxury crossovers and pickups have migrated to the Tahoe, Yukon, Escalade, Suburban, etc.

For instance, in 1994 the enthusiast publication Automobile Magazine brought a fleet of big-engined vehicles on a road trip from Detroit to Blue Hill and Deer Isle, Maine. Partly for the spirit of satire and personal entertainment, (P.J. O’Rourke was the guest writer) and partly to visit Wooden Boat Magazine, these editors drove a Viper, a Ferrari, a big Jaguar sedan, a Ford pickup, a Mercedes and a Chevy Suburban.

The featured Suburban got 9-10 miles per gallon, with a V-8 engine like the other cars on the trip. The editors loved its performance, space and relative over-the-road capabilities with a load — until Mobil Oil called and said they were charging so much gas, they thought the credit card had been stolen.

Compare this week’s Yukon Denali to that Suburban. The GMC is roughly 16 inches shorter, but sports a roomy three-row interior with features that older Chevy could only dream about; heated rear seats, power-folding third row seats, hands-free power liftgate, rear seat entertainment, blind-spot protection, cross-traffic detection, lane-keeping assist, driver’s safety seat, three-front airbags, plus dynamic cruise control and forward collision warning — with automatic braking. The Yukon has remote starting, keyless ignition, tri-zone auto-climate controls and a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel that is heated, plus a Magnetic Ride Control system that smoothes the road ahead. Rear drive converts to part-time all-wheel drive, or locked full-time four-wheel drive in high or low range — all with a simple electric knob on the dash.

Under the hood is a 5.3-liter 355-hp V-8 with direct injection and fuel-saving cylinder deactivation under light loads, standard in Yukon SLE and SLT models, while the Denali trim gets a 420-hp 6.2-liter V-8 powering an eight-speed automatic transmission. The older Suburban made do with 250 hp and a four-speed automatic. The four-wheel drive was directly engaged via a reluctant shifter on the floor. The Denali today could literally blow the doors off that Suburban and still return 21 mpg, according to the EPA. Our brand new tester achieved a high of 19.5 mpg and a thousand-mile average of 18.4 mpg that included lots of AWD/4WD driving.

Despite the marked changes in styling, with the Denali’s new LED lamps glistening from all angles, the latest GMC drives with a verve that many truck buyers are still adapting to, but quickly embracing. Tuned steering responses, plus the improved ride provided by the Magnetic Ride Control, gives the big GMC the feel of a much smaller, more agile vehicle. Maybe the engineers can find a way to keep the 8,100-pound tow rating (8,400 with rear drive) and gravitate to a fully independent rear suspension for even more responsive handling and ride dynamics.

After O’Rourke and party flogged their assembled wheels en route from Montreal and on our local roads, they retreated to several coastal establishments for grog and grub in typical Downeast fashion. Re-enacting their route in the new Yukon demonstrated, surely, how the Denali is, A) vastly more comfortable, B) a more responsible family wagon, loaded with safety gear, electronics, as well as superior performance, and C) is actually more popular today than the three-row crossover/SUV was 20 years ago.

Key for the latter is not just style, or status or arrogance, but how well these trucks work. Buyers are loyal to the platform, the whole genre, because not many trucks can tow, haul people, and look great at each task like the GMC Denali.

No longer a rudimentary transportation tool, the Denali represents a course of refinement that includes adding features like Wi-Fi Hotspot capability, 8-inch information and touch panels with navigation and entertainment, plus programmable vehicle settings. And now your phone works in conjunction with the Denali by using Apple Car Play. Littered with USB ports, power sockets, an SD slot, and an accessory power outlet, the Denali is a modern wagon for the modern family.

GMC sold 74,000 Yukon and Yukon XLs last year, while Chevy sold 134,000 Tahoe and Suburban models. These trucks are not for everyone, yet the niche that adores these vehicles is not shrinking. For towns like Arlington, Texas, and other assembly plant communities, the residents pray that Americans will continue to purchase these big money-makers. So does GM.

Yukon pricing starts at $48,165. Trim levels range from SLE to SLT to Denali, which starts at $68,045 with 4WD.

EPA mileage estimates, 4WD, 15/21/17 mpg. Rear drive models gain 1 mpg.

Yukon Denali carries a five-star safety rating for front and side crashes, 3-star rating for rollovers.

Yukon is 204 inches long, on a 116-inch wheelbase. Denali weighs over 5,600 pounds.

 

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.

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