Point of no return 

Off the floor

Off the floor

The sport/utility vehicle phenomenon is approaching a point of no return, and it is far from certain that four-wheel-drive capability will suffice to bring this runaway trend safely back home. For one thing, it is simply no longer clear where “home” is anymore. SUVs used to occupy a distinct place somewhere between cars and trucks, where cars served basic transportation needs for people and their sundries, while trucks went to work a-haulin’, a-totin’, and a-sloggin’ through often inhospitable climes.

Now it seems with good reason that basic transportation is too frequently a form of hard work in and of itself. At the same time, recreation has become more than a diversion from the rat-race, having entered into a realm of extreme sportiness where boys (and girls) with the most toys win. Our lives are meant to be sporty and utilitarian in equal measure maybe even simultaneously. How can it surprise anyone, therefore, that sporty, useful SUVs should pop up all around us like fairy-circle mushrooms after a spring rain?

It was only three or four years ago, surely you remember, when the vanguard of nuvo-SUVs boasted all-terrain scamper-ability without sacrificing a comfortable, car-like ride. Suddenly, that paradigm is judged an embarrassment in some circles. GMC now gleefully trumpets the obvious: “We make trucks, and we’re proud of that,” said company spokesman Denny O’Donnell to a reporter for Automotive News at last September’s introduction of the upscale ’99 Yukon Denali. The implication, of course, is that this huge, imposing, brawny, muscular SUV “is not meant to be a car” at all and that GMC is glad to buck a trend.

Then again, there is the Subaru approach, which typically confronts the real world head-on, only to bounce off in a unique, oblique trajectory. The company’s unorthodox yet very cute Outback Legacy Sport/Utility Wagon was such a novel success in 1996 that Subaru is attempting another moniker manipulation in ’99 with the world’s first Sport/Utility Sedan, or SUS. Forget about designing a truck that feels like a car; the all-wheel-drive SUS is a car a Legacy sedan, to be exact and Subaru dares ask why it can’t simply be sporty and useful in its own right.

'99 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD

In terms of market positioning, the ultra-plush GMC Denali is simplicity itself. One can imagine the plea that dealers hurled at GM product planners: “Give us a super-luxury, full-size sport/ute to compete with the hot-selling Lincoln Navigator that’s stealing so much of our business.” After all, Ford dolled-up its best-selling Expedition to create the Navigator, so why shouldn’t GM gild the same lily by “creating” a high-end Denali from its GMC Yukon/Chevy Tahoe platform?

And high-end it surely is, right up to its name the aboriginal appellation for the Alaskan peak we Yanks call Mount McKinley. Brushing aside the want/need analysis of a family vehicle costing $43,495, I have to admit that driving the Denali feels like the fulfillment of at least one of a genie’s three wishes.

The truck is eye-catching without flagrancy, both inside and out and this is a feat Lincoln’s Navigator has loudly failed. Sculpturally, the blacked-out, trapezoidal grille serves as the focal point for a subtle forward sweep of sheet metal and body cladding. Although the wheelbase is identical to a basic Yukon/Tahoe, the Denali’s overall length, width, and height are all greater by several inches each. Accordingly, curb weight grows 536 lbs. as well, to 5,867 lbs.

Mechanically, the newsmakers are GM’s tried, true, and impressive Vortec V8 and its four-speed auto transmission, which has been modified for smooth shifting at torquey low RPMs and for a new ActiveTrac automatic four-wheel-drive system. Shift from rear-wheel-drive into 4WD on the fly, if you please; but even so, ActiveTrac only delivers needed pulling power to either front wheel as conditions require. Meanwhile, you’ve 255 horsepower and, more importantly, 330 foot-pounds of torque to pull up to 6,500 lbs. of trailer. All that, of course, for a low, low mileage “price” of 12 mpg in the city, 16 on the highway.

Between contributions to the petroleum purveyor of your choice, Denali soothes the suffering wallet with an interior Elysium of leathery luxury. Front and rear seats are heated; split controls allow individual climate control by driver, front passenger, and rear passengers. The Bose Acoustimass audio system incorporates in-dash radio, cassette, and single-CD with an in-console six-CD changer and rear-seat volume/headphone controls. Denali is pre-wired for GM’s OnStar satellite navigation system; or, thanks to ample accessory power jacks, you can cobble together your own gadget stew of cell phone and hand-held GPS.

Ironically, the day after the Dow’s dip into nose-dive mode last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Lincoln Navigator sales for July tumbled 17 percent from the year before. As Navigator’s chief U.S. rival, GMC’s Denali may have cause for greater concern. The recently concluded pan-GM strike will reverberate far beyond its nominal eight weeks; and the drooping (if not dropping) Dow may recalibrate the wants and needs of the Mutual-Fund Class. With its standards set so impressively high, Denali may suddenly find itself at an unattainable summit of expectations for its manufacturer, and at an unreachable peak of price for many potential customers.

'99 Subaru Legacy Sport/Utility Sedan Ltd.

Even though it is styled as a 30th Anniversary Limited Edition, Subaru’s Legacy Sport/Utility Sedan makes no pretensions to overt luxury. It is, instead, clearly but enjoyably quirky. In its pedigree, this all-time, all-wheel-drive SUS lies somewhere in between the super-successful Outback Wagon, with its high ground clearance and rugged body cladding, and the sleek, quick Legacy GT sedan whose sport-touring brilliance is too little heralded.

The SUS feels lighter and nimbler than its wagon predecessor. But the same 2.5-liter “boxer” four-cylinder delivers the same excellent throttle response and torquey verve. Its 165 horsepower and 162 foot-pounds of torque are perfect for minor scrambles over off-road terrain. Fuel mileage is a decent 21/city, 27/highway. If the car corners a little less precisely than its GT cousin, there is but a simple explanation: Ground clearance for the SUS is a trail-worthy 7.3 inches, whereas the GT clears the road by just 6.5 inches.

I wouldn’t say the SUS is classically beautiful, but it is eye-catching in a jaunty, happy-go-lucky way. I drew the same conclusion about the interior: There’s a lot of dark plastic and dark upholstery; but the instruments and controls are logical and handy. If they’re sometimes located in unusual places, perhaps it’s because other manufacturers have trained us badly. Even though it’s thoroughly summertime in Nashville for now I like the standard inclusion of the Outback Weather Package, with heated front seats and side mirrors as well as a windshield deicer. There’s also a weatherband radio button for staying meteorologically informed year-round.

In its Limited Edition iteration, the Sport/Utility Sedan comes fully decked with fog lamps, moon roof, leather seats, and power everything for $26,090 as tested. A creaky structural groan emanating from the moon roof (whether open or closed) was the only “actionable” irritation during a week’s test drive. After road-testing several other vehicles recently, I found myself subconsciously gravitating to the SUS for its compactness, city smarts, and ease of use. The only real quirk was the occasional image in my rear-view mirror of the driver behind me pursing his lips and furrowing his brow in quizzical contemplation of the lettering on the trunk lid: “Soo-oo-oo-s. Whassat?”

The neighbors you keep

Not content to restrict its attentions to luxury-car buyers northeast of town, Lexus of Nashville hosted a grand opening last Thursday for its sparkling new showroom in CoolSprings’ burgeoning Westgate Commons development. In what is rapidly becoming a dine-and-drive concentration of theme restaurants and upscale car dealerships a Gary Force Acura store will open next door this winter the new Lexus showroom and service facility is poised to tempt the pocketbooks of the wealthy patrons fueling Williamson County’s explosive growth rate. Lakeside showboaters in and around Hendersonville have nothing to fear, however; the original Lexus of Nashville location at Gallatin Pike North remains alive and well until further notice.

New model news

Several interesting new models rolled into the public spotlight last week. Cadillac has finally revealed its Johnny-come-lately SUV, the ’99 Escalade, just as the GMC Denali starts making its reviewer rounds (see story above). Ironically, the Escalade is the sport/ute GM officials once said Cadillac could do without, to give Denali its due as GM’s most luxurious mommy truck. Now it seems that Denali is just a ring-bearer for King Escalade, whose list of standard features includes “free” OnStar GPS service.

Another GM notable for ’99 is the Chevrolet Corvette “Hardtop.” With its truncated canopy bubble (reminiscent of the venerated ’67 Sting Ray), the hardtop ’Vette will cost nominally less and handle arguably better than existing coupe and convertible models. Look for few à la carte options, since Chevy wants to sell the hardtop with two or three “feature packages” to keep things simple.

Meanwhile, BMW says “so long” to four-cylinder power for its U.S. 3-Series sedans in ’99. The new 323i and 328i feature brilliant looks and straight-six power to provide the most significant update of BMW’s “entry-level” lineup in nearly seven years.

Search engine

General Motors isn’t saying when, but the automaker is poised to launch a nationwide Internet shopping service, GM BuyPower. Currently being tested in the Northwest, http://www.gmbuypower.com. provides comprehensive model and dealer search capabilities, as well as helpful comparison-shopping information. With so many nameplates and dealer locations at its disposal, GM is actually primed to become part of the Internet’s retail revolution rather than a hapless bystander if only the beleaguered corporate giant can follow through with yet another good idea whose time is coming.

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. Or by fax at (615) 385-2930.

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