1996 GMC Yukon

  • Driver

Call it poetic justice if you will, but General Motors' Tahoe and Yukon were left in the sport-utility category of this year's AJAC Car of the Year contest without its most formidable new competition.

Toyota's 4Runner wasn't released in time and Nissan withdrew the Pathfinder in order to fix some small glitches that appeared on the first production vehicles.

A win by default? No, because the big truckwagon is an apple among the oranges. The two compacts can fight it out in a battle royal in next year's Automobile Journalists Association of Canada Car of the Year vote.

But let's be clear that we are talking about a specific apple. The GMC Yukon and Chev Tahoe come as two-wheel and four-wheel drive models in two-door and four-door body styles on separate wheelbases. It was the four-door 4×4 that was crowned sport-utility of the year.

The quattroporte is actually in a class by itself: shorter than the land-yacht Suburban, but of better proportion than the original, much shorter two-door Blazer/Jimmy duo.

The four-door Tahoe possesses much of the Suburban's tow and load capability, and all of its serene highway behavior. Where the two stand in sharp contrast is at the entrance to any corner.

For all of its bulk, in normal driving, the Suburban is remarkably manoeuvrable. Push it a bit, however, and the monster takes on the reflexes of a cruise ship.

Not so the big Tahoe/Yukon. Either by design or good fortune, the combination of vehicle length, wheelbase, and weight distribution, plus some expertly selected springs, shocks, and anti-roll bars, really works with the chassis derived from the C/K (full-size) pickup. Works better, in fact, than any of the other C/K based vehicles including the pickup itself.

The ride is smooth and quiet, with none of the pitching and bobbing that characterized the original Jimmy/Blazer and continues to a much lesser extent in the present two-door models of the Tahoe/Yukon. And, the cornering posture is quite flat, the roll control remarkable for such a tall, heavy machine.

In normal driving the Tahoe/Yukon is as good as it currently gets for such a heavyweight. Push it a bit and it really hangs in there. Push it harder and the tires lose their grip, simply not able to keep up with the demands of the chassis, nor able to cope with the stresses imposed by all those kilograms — curb weight being unavailable, probably because it would scare you to know how close to 2 tonnes the truck really is. Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, including total vehicle, passengers and cargo, is

3,084 kilos (6,800 pounds).

That's a shame now that the truck is energized by the new Vortec 5700 V8. If any single factor acted in favor of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada win, it could be this engine.

The Vortec truck engine program, initiated with the 4.3 L V6 and including each one of the gasfired V8s for 1996, involves electronic engine control that extends to all operations — even the motor's relations with the automatic transmission.

It has its greatest impact on the induction system, where computer-directed sequential fuel injection provides the air/fuel mass and hyper-efficient manifolding delivers the mixture to the combustion chambers. Add an exhaust path to match the intake side and valve timing to pull it all together and the Vortec 5700 puts out 25 per cent more horsepower than the 5.7 L, and 25 more poundfeet of torque. A horsepower peak of 250 at 4600 r.p.m. and maximum torque of 335 at 2800 tell only part of the tale. The power delivery curve is flatter, providing useable propulsion right across the rev range.

As a result, this humongous vehicle, while not Corvette-quick, has become definitely quicker. So much quicker, that the GM corporates break taboo and discuss actual performance numbers. From the horse's mouth the '96 takes two seconds less than the '95 to get from 0-to-100 km/h with the 3.55:1 rear axle ratio, almost three seconds less with the optional 3.73 gears. We're talking about runs well under the 10-second barrier.

Just my luck, Wheels' Tahoe LT tester had the hot rod 3.73 rear end and the back roads were covered with snow and ice. There would be no acceleration tests, no power sliding handling evaluation.

What to do? Well, taking our cue from my banzai blitz through the traffic in a Range Rover 4.6 HSE, Diana and I decided to take the Tahoe out into its natural environment, the open highway. A fast (ahem) trip down to Kingston to visit son Rob at Queen's University would fill the bill.

I won't reveal the rate we maintained along the way. Let's just say that when I read those signs that list the speeds and related fines, I paid particular attention to the bottom line.

Joking aside, the point of such a run is not anti-authority bravado. A vehicle like this one is likely to spend many hours covering large distances. The driver and passengers must be comfortable. The driver must be confident in the machine's capabilities. If not, the trip is bound to be stressful and fatiguing.

So, by pushing the limits we were able to determine that this year's King Ute is capable of delivering up endless klicks of rapid, safe, relaxed motoring.

The seats are good. The brakes are strong. The cab is quiet. The view out is excellent. Moreover, the engine sang along, responding to my throttle foot's every whim.

At those speeds, and with those gears, the 5700 was thirsty, sucking back 15 litres for every 100 kilometres. Transport Canada methods employed the 3.55 rear end and more moderate (ahem) driving to record 12.7 L/100 km on the highway (17.6/100 in the city).

Things were very different on the way back home. A snowstorm blanketed the southern half of the province and both visibility and traction on the 401 were marginal. I kept the speeds way down and blessed the engineer who invented push button shift-on-the-fly. I don't propose 4WD as a panacea for slippery conditions, but it sure kept the huge Tahoe straight and stable in some truly scary moments.

Is there anything that I'd change on the vehicle? Yeah, I'd like to see the ride height dropped by at least 2.5 cm. (1 inch) to ease the tall step-in and lift-in distances.

The long lift up is compounded by another long lift over the lowered gate. GM should look to its own Astro/Safari minivan for a perfect solution. The van's combination of an upper lift glass and lower sidehung "dutch" doors is made for the Tahoe/Yukon.

And, I can't leave you without commenting on the color that swathed virtually every interior surface on our tester. Somewhere on the spectrum between blood stains and grape Popsicle, this bordello burgundy reached its peak intensity on the leather seats. What a terrible thing to do to cowhide.

Power, size and leather do not come cheap. Our Tahoe LT's base MSRP was $37,905. A long list of options added $4,975. Grand total: $42,880.00.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer.

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