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by Dan Carney

 

The gleaming green “Pacific” steam locomotive operated by the Southern Railway rests today as an icon of the steam age in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. This steam engine, and its contemporaries, represented the pinnacle of a century of steam locomotive development, with the ability to pull 1000 tons at 80 mph on level terrain.

 

But owners, ever conscious of operating expenses, phased out the lifelike, bellowing beauties, in favor of the more efficient and environmentally friendly hybrids. In the case of locomotives, the hybrids in question are diesel-electric, rather than the gas-electric hybrid passenger vehicles we see today.

 

Being the very best example of an old technology is apparently not enough to withstand the passage of time.

 

So it may be with full-size, body-on-frame SUVs like the . This truck is a member of the latest generation of General Motors big SUVs, the GMT-900s. It almost sounds like a name for a locomotive, doesn’t it?

 

GM has poured all of its know-how and technology into these vehicles, making them some of the best on the road in this category. The question is how much time remains for the category. There was a time when only those who really needed to tow big trailers or haul big families off-road bought such machines. We may be returning to such a time, as casual SUV buyers turn in droves to more efficient car-based transportation solutions, such as cars, SUV-styled crossovers, and vans.

 

Nissan Logo

Nissan Logo

The Yukon Denali’s 7900-lb towing capacity falls short of that of the Pacific locomotive, but it likely exceeds the requirements of most families by a wide margin. The 380-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 engine uses variable valve timing and six-speed automatic transmission to maximize efficiency, but with a nearly three-ton curb weight and full time all-wheel-drive, fuel economy is inevitably low.

 

The EPA predicts 13 mpg city and 19 mpg highway, but in our testing the Denali struggled to reach 14 mpg in mostly light highway travel hauling the family to and from our Bethany Beach, Del., summer vacation destination.

 

Lesser Yukon models are available with two-wheel-drive and less-powerful engines featuring Active Fuel Management, GM’s cylinder deactivation technology that lets the V-8 run on four cylinders when it is hardly workin’ instead of workin’ hard.

 

Inside, the Denali feels like the pinnacle of its type, with decadent heated leather seats in the first two rows. The third-row seats are leather too, but heaters don’t work with booster seats, so they aren’t missed in the way back.

 

It is hard to imagine a more complete array of comfort, convenience, and safety features. The Denali’s height and mass provide safety in some types of crashes, and that protection is augmented by front air bags and side curtains for all three rows. Power adjustable pedals let petite pilots keep a safe distance from the explosive charge that activates the driver’s airbag. For those situations where height and size are a detriment, GM’s Stabilitrak electronic stability control system intervenes to help keep the shiny side up.

 

If a crash can’t be avoided, drivers have the added peace of mind provided by the OnStar telematics service, which relays crash information automatically to emergency responders.

 

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In-flight entertainment is provided by XM Satellite Radio, AM/FM radio, an MP3 six-disc CD changer, and, of course, a remote-controlled DVD rear seat video entertainment system. Which doesn’t mean the front seats can’t watch movies too. The back seat’s feature film also displays on the navigation screen on the dash when the Denali is in Park.

 

The climate control system has three zones, with separate temperatures for the pilot and co-pilot, with all the passengers relegated to a single thermostat for the back two rows. This would seem a small penalty, except that when loaded with kids for a summertime run to the beach, the Denali consistently overcooled the third row.

 

For winter climates, the Denali features the holy trinity of Jack Frost-repelling technology: remote engine start, heated steering wheel and heated washer fluid. You may never need to scrape a windshield again, and if you do, the heated steering wheel will try to help you forget it as quickly as possible.

 

The interior in general and the dashboard in specific have been nicely upgraded from those in the previous generation truck, which were a plastic embarrassment. Now there are matte finishes and chrome trim galore, lending an exclusive air to the Denali’s interior worthy of a vehicle in this price range.

 

Incidentally, this pleasure dome also moves. Underway, the driver is fully aware of the Denali’s bulk, probably in part because full-time all-wheel-drive makes even 380 horsepower feel occasionally sluggish. Ride and handling are excellent for a truck-based vehicle, though the chrome dubs surely trade away a bit of comfort. If you aren’t making an entrance at the MTV Video Music Awards anytime soon, the standard 18-inch wheels will probably improve the ride and might even make the truck a little quicker on its feet, because they are lighter.

 

Steering is responsive and the brakes feel effective, though again, it is impossible to forget the Denali’s mass when making quick stops. The 43-foot turning radius makes the Denali easy to park for a vehicle of its size, which is all-important when trying to squeeze into available spaces at popular beach resorts. The engine purrs in near silence, though the fan can get noisy at idle keeping the engine cool and the A/C running in hot weather, as when, hypothetically, the driver has scrambled out to the change machine in search of quarters to feed the parking meters, to avoid paying the parking tickets which are evidently the financial lifeblood of Delaware resort towns.

 

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The power tailgate offers the best of both functions, because in addition to operating by remote control, it can also be closed manually, without fighting with an insistent power closing system. That means that when the hold is overstuffed with coolers, groceries and boogie boards, you can still smash the bread with a good slam of the hatch, rather than having the automatic closer refuse your command and reopen like a garage door with a kid’s bike in the way, letting all your precarious packing topple out into the driveway.

 

One on One: Louis Schweitzer

One on One: Louis Schweitzer

The flip-open glass means that you can still reach in the back to grab the bag of Disney DVDs that you didn’t mean to pack in the back, without jeopardizing the whole arrangement.

 

For all of the details GM got right, there are still a few that are unbecoming of a vehicle of this stature. The power windows should have one-touch express open and close functions for all four windows on any vehicle with an MSRP of $55,000. It has just gotta have ’em, and the Denali has only express down, and only on the driver’s window. GM has alternately said that this will be addressed later and that it won’t be, so it is impossible to know what the company’s real plans are here.

 

Similarly, the new Dodge Caliber entry-segment car has a key with remote door-lock functions built into it. The Denali still has a separate key fob for remote functions. GM says that switching to keys with integrated remotes will happen companywide, but that they didn’t want to hold up the SUV launch waiting for it.

 

The adjustable tilt on the steering column is manual, and it adjusts in large increments, never seeming to quite hit the spot a driver would prefer. It is hardly a deal-breaker, but it does seem so, well, truck-like.

 

But those are really the only nits to pick with this fine and opulent family hauler. If you aren’t put off by the price or the fuel economy and need something in a full-size SUV with all the comforts of Bill Gates’ home, the Denali is your truck. But as fewer customers are willing to clear those hurdles, the day may not be far off that Smithsonian starts clearing a spot next to its locomotive in the museum for vehicles like these.--Dan Carney



2007 GMC YukonDenali

Price: $47,115 base; $54,765 as tested
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Engine: 6.2-liter OHV V-8, 380 hp/417 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic, full time all-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 202.0 x 79.0 x 75.9 in

Wheelbase: 116.0 in

Curb weight: 5835 lb

Fuel economy: 13/19 mpg

Safety equipment: Dual front and side three-row airbags; stability control and anti-lock brakes; rear parking sensors and rearview camera

Major standard equipment: All-wheel drive; self-leveling rear shocks; locking rear differential; heated first and second-row seats; XM satellite radio; remote vehicle start; remote keyless entry; power liftgate

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper

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