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Yukon Denali AWD hauls it all Nimble, quick SUV provides occupants with sense of security

A funny thing happened on the way to the auto show.

Actually, it almost wasn't funny, and could have been tragic.

Several journalists were being driven in a large sport-utility vehicle through the crowded downtown streets. As we crossed an intersection under a green light, a huge tourist bus came barreling through from the right, running the red light.

Its driver was oblivious to our existence which was now in peril.

Our driver made an immediate three-lane swerve. We all gasped.

A few grabbed onto something anticipating an impact.

Sitting in the third-row seat, I was the last one out of the way as our truck narrowly escaped the path of the Prevost bus.

"Bet you're glad you're in a full-size SUV now," joked one occupant.

Not only was I glad we had some mass on our side, reinforced by a fully-boxed ladder frame, but I was especially relieved that the Yukon managed the manoeuvre so successfully.

The incident highlighted one of the most impressive features of the new large sport-utility trucks from General Motors, the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon. Namely that these things are nimble! Extended-length versions of these vehicles are named Chevy Suburban and GMC Yukon XL. They are large and extra-large, yet handle easily with a tighter-than-expected turning circle. The XL designation actually stands for extra length.

The Suburban was for many years (until the launch of Ford's bus-like Excursion two years ago) the biggest utility truck on the market.

When GM redesigned it last year, the GMC Suburban was renamed Yukon. Nonetheless, it remains an identical twin of the Chevrolet.

This year the Denali version has been added, and the recently-tested an XL version.

Except for the chrome grill, every square inch of the entire vehicle was Onyx Black. It looked like one of those Secret Service vehicles used in a Presidential motorcade.

Everyone else on the Gardner Expressway must have thought so too — during each rush hour commute, checking blind spots became almost unnecessary once the turn signal indicators started blinking for a lane change. The masses simply parted like the Red Sea.

By the end of the week, I started answering to the name Moses.

Commanding this ship is a power trip.

The Denali is more than just the dressed-up Yukon it used to be. In past years, it was just a leather trim and power accessories package at a hefty price. Today, it is distinguished with some SUV-exclusive equipment including a monochomatic exterior with a chrome front, two-tone leather interior, a sweet sound system and a full-time all-wheel-drive system.

No longer must you guess about what mode the four-wheel drive is in, as there are no switches to fuss with — the system is always engaged.

Electronic regulation determines how much force goes to the front or rear wheels. Normally, more is sent to the back for an attempt at better fuel economy.

The only down side to this set-up is the lack of a low-range gear for deep off-road driving. Since few luxury SUVs are seen that far into the woods, the AWD is probably more useful anyway.

It is powered by the 330-hp Vortec 6000 V8 engine that is only otherwise available in the rougher-riding 2500 series suspension.

The Denali has an Auto Ride suspension that used a computer to continuously adjust the shock absorbers, including the rear air-lift ones, for a controlled and level ride.

Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are effective but the initial feel is soft. It encourages a following distance that is longer than typical in Toronto traffic.

Should navigational, emergency or travel assistance be needed, Denali has OnStar. All sorts of other equipment is included too, such as a driver information centre that displays the trip computer's data.

When someone asks, "How long until we get there?" the answer is the push of a button away.

The 11-speaker Bose Acoustimass stereo has an extra set of controls on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, they are further than a finger's reach away from the wheel rim. A rear audio system allows a separate music or radio station to be played over headphones.

Leather covers the seven or eight seats and the first two rows have electrically-heated cushions.

The second row bench can be replaced by a second set of buckets.

Either way, they flip up easily for access to the removable third row bench.

The extra length of the XL is noticeable in additional foot and leg room plus more cargo room behind the seats.

A weight distributing hitch and other standard trailer equipment has over 3800 kg (8,400 lb)capacity.

Not only does this SUV have it all, it can haul it all.

To have it all in a Denali costs almost $62,900. Competing full-size SUVs are the Lincoln Navigator, Ford Excursion Limited and Expedition Eddie Bauer, plus the Toyota Sequoia Limited.

About 20,000 of these large utility trucks were sold in Canada last year.

GM used to be the only offering, and it still controls almost two-thirds of the segment.

With the poise and control demonstrated by its latest design, it should remain that way.

Paul Fleet can be reached by e-mail at: pfleet @ idirect.com Paul Fleet can be reached by e-mail at: pfleet @ idirect.com

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