x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

General Motors’ new full-sized SUV range are heavyweight champs

Kevin Hackett discovers that General Motors’ latest range of behemoths are hugely improved beasts.

The GMC Yukon, which is one of General Motors’ 2015 range of updated, full-sized SUVs, typifies a raft of improvements that have been made across all of the models, addressing previous problems with the ride quality. Courtesy of General Motors
The GMC Yukon, which is one of General Motors’ 2015 range of updated, full-sized SUVs, typifies a raft of improvements that have been made across all of the models, addressing previous problems with the ride quality. Courtesy of General Motors

This is it. This is the final test for General Motors, in my book at least. After unveiling a startlingly good line-up of new product over the past two years or so, only one vehicle would provide conclusive proof that GM has been listening to its critics, and that’s this one. Or, should I say, that’s these two. Or three, four, five – the variants that are essentially the same thing are mind-boggling here. GMC Yukon and Yukon XL, Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, Cadillac Escalade – they’re all the same thing with slightly different cosmetic treatments, trim and engine options. And they all used to be woefully poor when it came to the driving experience.

I’m on the regional first-drive event for the new Yukon and Tahoe / Suburban, and the press conferences amount to little more than corporate preaching. I’ve seen the new models and no amount of brainwashing is going to have me agreeing with what’s being said about any of these behemoths being “beautiful”. I know beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, but come on – these are enormous hunks of sheet metal and glass, with barely a curve between them. They’re purposeful, certainly, and they’ll continue to do their party trick of clearing the outside lane of the E11 with their headlamps set to “battering-ram mode” while mere millimetres from the rear bumpers of unsuspecting Yaris drivers. But they’ll never make me stop and stare in disbelief at their gorgeousness.

According to GM’s local marketing people, the Yukon appeals to those with – and I quote – “a self-indulgent lifestyle”. Really? I’m not arguing the point with this one, because it may well be true, but I’m not sure that it’s something to be bragging about. We’re also told that GMC’s vision is to be held in “the same regard as the world’s most highly crafted ­vehicles”. Now that’s a fine aspiration to have and one to be applauded. But the truth will out and that’s when we get behind the wheel.

The last time that I drove a Yukon, I felt, shall we say, underwhelmed. I’ve never before driven a Tahoe, but since they’re the same thing I can safely say that it would have been at least a similar experience. It felt 30 years past its sell-by date; it wobbled on the slightest road imperfections; it bounced up and down like Tigger after a quadruple espresso. Its interior was blighted by cheap-looking and inexcusably old-fashioned switchgear, and it all felt like it had been slung together with a minimum of effort.

The all-new Yukon’s engines are a base 5.3L V8 good for 355hp and 519Nm of torque and a 6.2L V8 that pumps out 420hp and 624Nm – also good news, especially if GM’s claims regarding increased efficiency are to be believed.

Soon enough, I’m climbing up and into a Yukon Denali (the posh one), which will retail at Dh270,000 – almost Dh100,000 more than the entry level SLE variant.

My jaw slackens as I come to the realisation that, despite the exterior looking almost exactly the same as the outgoing model (apart from new headlamps and door-top edges that cover the bodywork when closed), the interior has been treated to a makeover of epic proportions. Gone are the horrid green LED instruments that would have looked ancient in 1986. Gone are the scratchy plastic surfaces and rough edges. Gone is the impression that nobody cared about its design or ­ergonomics.

Instead, there’s an overwhelming sense that time, effort and plenty of money have been poured into this car. It actually looks and feels like it’s worth the money. But what about the drive? What about the bounce and the shock waves through the chassis whenever you hit a small pebble? Could they have been banished into darkness, too?

My initial drive is across the hideously surfaced roads at the top of The Palm in Dubai, where the block paving has, in many areas, become reminiscent of the surface of the moon. Potholes abound and, even when the going is relatively fine, it’s always a bit rough. Yet the Yukon deals with these imperfections with aplomb and, even when I deliberately aim it at a speed bump and don’t slow down, it passes the bounce test with flying colours. A fluke? The next couple of hours will tell.

By the time I’m peeling off the main highway onto some deserted country roads, it’s clear that this vehicle feels like a car, not a truck. It’s nothing short of a revelation and I could not be happier.

GM’s people ask me what I think while we drink coffee and melt under a midday sun. We’ve stopped about an hour before lunch to swap cars and compare notes. I’m candid in my response. “The differences are like night and day,” I say, lazily reverting to motoring journalism clichés, because I don’t know how else to put it.

Next up is the SLE – the poverty-spec one – and at Dh175,000 for the normal-wheelbase version (the mahoosive XL is another 10 grand) it does seem like an awful lot of metal for the money. The overall look is the same inside and out, with less garish chrome, different wheel designs and a slightly less opulent interior. The engine, too, is smaller, and the suspension isn’t equipped with magnetic dampers like the Denali. Could this be the weak link that sends me and the Yukon back to square one?

Not a chance. If anything, the lower-powered SLE feels livelier and even more together. Bumps are soaked up with firm resistance and there’s none of the seasickness that the old one brought about. I’m impressed even more by this one, because I expected it to feel like a poor cousin of the range topper – but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a vehicle transformed, I tell you.

As the day draws to a close, I’ve been unable to fault the new Yukon. Sure, the styling is still a bone of contention for me. but I’m prepared to admit that might be down to the fact that I’m a Brit and prefer a more reserved approach to appearance. But I’m genuinely gobsmacked at how much effort has been put into re-engineering this thing, and, while chatting with a visiting GM bigwig from Detroit before sitting down for dinner, I’m happy to tell him that it’s a job well done.

This gentleman turns out to be Mike Symons, GM’s global vehicle performance manager. He’s been with the company for 25 years. I tell him how much I loathed the old models, and he grimaces slightly, but slaps me on the back and tells me that the Chevy Tahoe will impress me just as much in the morning. On the basis of what I’ve experienced today, there’s no reason to doubt what he says.

The following morning, I find myself sitting behind Symons in the Tahoe press briefing. While the ­Yukon is aimed at the self-indulgent consumer, the average Tahoe customer apparently has a more considerate approach to life. More often than not driven by a married man with a young family, the all-new Tahoe is an extension of his personality and delivers everything that he needs for his modern and busy life.

Outside awaits a fleet of Tahoes and Suburbans (that’s the XL equivalent), and, as I take my seat, I’m joined by Symons, who takes the passenger side. Obviously he wasn’t too offended by anything that I said last night, and he’s keen to talk me through the challenges faced by the designers and engineers when it came to bringing these new models to market.

The Tahoe is cheaper than the Yukon and is GM’s best-selling SUV in the UAE. But I think I actually prefer the looks of this thing – there’s a sort of humility to it missing from the Yukon that endears me to it. It’s well-equipped, with a powered split tailgate and seats that fold flat at the touch of a button to transform the interior into a cavernous and entirely usable space. It’s loaded to the gunnels with safety tech, too, and the ­infotainment system is intuitive and a joy to use. And, yes, it drives just the same as the Yukon and my feeling about the standard spring suspension remains. It’s the one that I’d go for.

Symons explains in great detail about the suspension tuning that went on, and this, I admit, is its greatest achievement. It’s not a truck any more; it’s an SUV and a great one at that. And it’s people like Symons, who have been freed from the commercial shackles of a destitute General Motors of old, who have been responsible for the group’s masterstroke. Despite the continuing issues with product recalls and litigation in the United States, the fact remains that GM has turned the biggest corner of its entire ­history. The Yukon and the Tahoe are, for me, the final pieces in this elaborate jigsaw; the picture is complete. General Motors is now building cars that I wouldn’t mind owning myself. There, I said it. Now I think I need to go and have a lie down.

khackett@thenational.ae

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