It’s a reasonable assumption that, if you’ve landed on this website (thank you), you’re reasonably interested in cars and likely possess more than a rudimentary knowledge of the glitzy Barrett-Jackson auto auctions occuring throughout the year in America. Their flagship event, held every January in Arizona, features some of the rarest and most collectible vehicles on the planet. Bidder paddles wave and sparks fly when the action gets hot, especially when two deep-pocketed lotharios want the same 1969 Corvette ZL-1. Beautiful car, right?
So it flummoxes me, then, when collectors spend mad money on something I find to be absolutely repulsive. Mid-60s Thunderbirds. ’61 Chrysler 300H. ’56 Nash Ambassador Super. All hideous. Yet, bidding wars erupt and vocal cords are strained in an effort to take home the metal. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure it out.
Until I thought about it for a bit. These cars are likely the ones these people coveted when they were teenagers or rode about in when they were little kids. Suddenly, as I was driving this GMC Yukon Denali, it all made sense.
There are cars that, given the means, I would pay dearly to own … and I’d wager that others would think of me in the manner I used to think about the Big Spenders at Barrett-Jackson. An ’87 Mustang GT. A model year 2000 Acura Integra Type R (yellow, of course). Chevy Novas from 1973 and 1974. The 1971 Plymouth Barracuda. All of these vehicles made an impact on me at some point in my very impressionable youth. I’m sure the T-Birds and Ambassadors did the same for the Barrett-Jackson buyers on TV.
The 2016 GMC Yukon Denali, shown here in Crimson Red Tintcoat, brought all this to mind. You see, I grew up in a 1978 Chevy Blazer. Two doors, of course, with the emissions-strangled 302 V8 engine wheezing a miserable 150hp. Nevertheless, when I think of that big blue rig – even with its faults – I do so with many fond memories.
Chevy no longer makes a Blazer, of course, choosing instead in 1995 to name its full-sized SUV after the largest alpine lake in North America. GMC’s Yukon appeared at the same time, quickly earning favour with both customers who needed the big-brute’s capability … and those who wanted to look like they needed it. General Motors didn’t care, the money was good either way.
The 2016 Yukon is available in three different trims: base SLE, mid-level SLT, and high-zoot Denali. On the highest trim, and only the highest trim, GMC chooses to install the excellent 6.2L V8 which turns out 420hp and sounds, upon startup, like Chewbacca on a bad hair day. There were occasions during the week when I’d wantonly hit the remote start button while walking up to the thing, just to hear the gruff bellow of 420 very American horsepower. Bragging rights come courtesy of the ability to say you’ve got the ‘Corvette engine’. In broad strokes, this is true.
Getting the 6.2L is solely for bragging rights, though. It can’t tow any more (about 8000lbs, depending on options) than the 5.3L found in lower trims. It burns more fuel. An argument could be made that the larger mill may use slightly less fuel than the smaller one, given that it won’t be working so hard under heavy loads. Both engines feature cylinder deactivation, meaning the engine shuts off half its cylinders during certain light-load situations – highway cruising for example – effectively turning the V8 into a V4. The changeover was imperceptible, offering no indication that it was switching modes.
The reward of cylinder deactivation is fuel economy, with the meaty 6.2L returning about 13.5L/100km over a week’s driving. I think that’s fantastic, given the Yukon’s size and capability. With a greater stretch of highway driving and a light foot, I think dipping into the 12’s or even the high 11’s is entirely achievable. The well mannered eight speed automatic helps immensely in this regard; the engine is barely off idle at cruising speeds.
Inside, the Yukon Denali shows off its luxury trappings in an effort to justify the $85,610 price tag. Soft touch surfaces are everywhere, as you’d expect in this price range, and interior space is best measured in acres. Three rows of seating greet occupants, with soft captains chairs in the middle row and bench for three way in the back. The rearmost row can be split-folded, up and down, by the push of a button near the rear hatch. The second row chairs can similarly be flopped forward from astern with buttons but they must be raised manually. It is here that I’ll express my preference for a bench seat in the second row, as folding the rear seats with middle row buckets essentially turn the Yukon into a very large four passenger conveyance.
GMC’s infotainment (I dislike that marketing portmanteau but it describes the system well) works intuitively with some redundant buttons positioned below the large touchscreen, great for those cold winter days when we’re all froze to death and wearing gloves. Buttons pepper the steering wheel too, including one for its heating element. Excellent. Space abounds via covered cubbies in the centre console. Separate climate controls for the driver, passenger, and rear seat occupants ensure everyone is comfortable.
The touchscreen responded reasonably quickly to my inputs but the satellite radio lost its signal frequently amongst tall buildings or trees, something I’ve noticed lately in many XM-equipped vehicles; it is not unique to GM. Apple CarPlay is supported and works well.
Complaints are few but notable. The button for closing the power lift gate is unlit, an unforgivable act leading to fumbling in the dark and bashed-in heads. Similarly ill thought out is the rear seat DVD screen placement. The system worked fine, intuitive even for little kids, but the driver’s view rearward is completely scuppered by the screen when its flipped down. This author’s suggestion? Either GMC needs to put screens in the front seat headrests or, and here’s an idea, buyers can leave the $2465 option box unchecked and spend a fraction of that at Best Buy for a handheld DVD player or tablet instead.
The Denali handles itself well on the road, with the natural caveat that one should not expect Miata-like reflexes. Perhaps surprisingly, our tester was shod with 20 inch tires instead of the optional 22’s and was better off for it. Replacement prices won’t sting as much and the ride was of better quality. Surprisingly, the Yukon’s turning circle was quite good, especially since one generally expects a Titanic-sized turning radius in a vehicle the size of, well, the Titanic.
But it was the familiarity that made this week with the Yukon so easy. Perhaps it is the memories I have of the old Blazer but I do think it’s something more. Compared to its fancy-pants cousin, the Cadillac Escalade, there is a whiff of blue collar to the Yukon … and I mean that in a positive way. With the Cadillac, one almost feels compelled to buy the top rung Platinum edition. After all, if you only spring for the base model, what’s the point? Of late, Cadillac has been asking us to Dare Greatly. With the base model, knowing there’s better versions out there, you’ll feel you only Dared Kinda-Greatly. It’s ridiculous.
With the Yukon, though, it’s ok to get the SLT. Heck, get the SLE if you feel like it. You won’t find one on dealer’s lots, but the SLE is available with a front bench, just like a honest-to-goodness pickup truck, and choosing that option actually saves the buyer $275. The 5.3L is a fine engine, capable of towing nearly 8000lbs in most configurations. The SLT’s sticker will be a good $20,000 walk south of the Denali, yet its standard amenities are legion.
They say familiarity breeds contempt. In this case, is simply brought back good memories. Watch for me at Barrett-Jackson in 2036, irrationally bidding up a 1989 Lincoln Mark VII LSC.
Selling Points: acres of space, tons of power, agreeable fuel economy for its size and capability
Deal Breakers: Denali price tag, DVD player blocks your six
The Bottom Line: GM owns this segment for a reason