Nope, the big bad V8 symbol of America's pre-crash era hasn't lost its charm.
Nostalgia is a funny thing for the simple reason that all experiences are relative. It’s why a trip to Applebees can invoke familiar warm feelings of family to aging boomers while millennials see a profitable cardboard guise complete with too many calories, all designed by food scientists to make the consumer blissful and numb to piling mortgages and credit card debt. Applebees, a symbol of the pre-crash era, is closing doors left and right. But that doesn’t mean every representative of America’s near demise is in trouble.
For an example of that, look no further than the GMC Yukon XL Denali. GM's full-size SUV recipe is so old you’d be forgiven for thinking it's still being made because the General is feeling nostalgic, but rising sales numbers show that it still has plenty of reason to keep mounting cavernous boxes onto a ladder frames. Besides, nostalgia wasn’t the reason we borrowed the 2017 Yukon XL Denali this time. We did it because millennials or not, the Yukon still has its place in our hipsterized gluten-free and Instagram-friendly world. Instead of driving it to Walmart as its design encourages, we decided to make a 600-mile trek to Nevada’s Black Rock City to spend our money on an experience like every other childless bachelor living in a big city does.
Armed with a 6.2-liter EcoTec3 V8 and an 8-speed automatic transmission—column-mounted because modernity should only go so far in an American SUV—the Yukon was a powerful companion for our trip. Even weighed down—saddled with two people, two bikes, camping gear, and every conceivable item needed for seven days in a desert with daytime temperatures that could dehydrate a camel and cool nighttime air that requires festive fur coats to survive—the Denali package's 420 horsepower V8 burbled through every challenge it encountered, even when it was stuck behind a slow moving line of cars snd the only prescription was to grow a pair and bury the throttle in the passing lane.
It’s in moments like these, where the V8 is handling the job of carrying two Americans and their excessive list of possessions without a hint of trouble, that the General’s magic touch could be felt. As old and unrefined as the full-size SUV recipe is made out to be, GM has learned a thing or two over the 8 decades of experience it has building it. Unlike the family of new crossover SUVs, the Yukon still needs to be driven like a pickup, which is a boon to anyone with a childlike love for “twucks.” Loaded with new technology like Magnetic Ride Control and an automatic rear load-leveling system, that feat was made easy, the Yukon staying composed while it was whisked through Tahoe’s curving freeway roads with the speedometer hovering around 80.
Not once did it feel like the reins had left our hands, a spectacular feat considering the Yukon’s bulging 6,000-pound mass and cumbersome yet handsome dimensions—which inexplicably made parking both more challenging and more entertaining at the same time. Handling it on downhill slopes wasn’t all the Duralife brake rotors’ responsibility either. That could be shared among eight gears by shifting into manual mode and using the column-mounted buttons to keep sleeping passengers from becoming alarmed with excessive body roll. Using adaptive cruise control to regulate speed and distance on the straights, most of that 600-mile trek was uneventful, our singular passenger shuffling through radio stations on the 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
If kids piping up every 15 minutes with “are we there yet?” are a factor, check off the $2,985 Open Road package, which adds a power sunroof, extends the Sirius XM subscription by 9 months, and adds a rear sear entertainment package. The beauty of the modern millennial hangout space, after all, is the ability to tune in or tune out of conversations accordingly. By adding minor but necessary touches like a 110-volt outlet or the multiple onboard USB ports and GM's onboard LTE WiFi, the Yukon becomes that perfect hangout by keeping devices that facilitate that separation charged, connected, and ready to scroll. But even with creature comforts that’ll keep anyone who grew up with dial-up Internet satisfied, some of the Yukon XL Denali’s pleasures are carnal.
Transcending tastes and generations can be done by appealing to the senses with soft leather-appointed seating surfaces. However, $71,000 is a lot of money and comfortable seats are to be expected at that price point. So GMC further compensated with heated and cooled front seats as well as a heated steering wheel, power running boards (a $1,745 option), a 360-degree camera for easy parking, a stash spot housed behind the touch screen, an automatic liftgate, 10 Bose speakers bathing occupants with surround sound, and power-adjustable pedals (since a power-adjustable steering wheel is not enough to ensure drivers of all sizes can pilot a gargantuan SUV) among other features.
Aside from its spaciousness, the interior of the Yukon XL isn’t as luxurious as we’d hoped. Expensive options like $2,495 22-inch aluminum wheels, an $895 adaptive cruise control system, a $410 theft deterrent system, and the aforementioned Open Road package and power running boards pushed our tester to an $80,890 MSRP. That’s Cadillac Escalade money, but the inside remains full of dark beige plastics and fake wood trim that GM was famous for in the early 2000s. At least the Denali package makes it so that the Yukon could fool passengers in a blind comparison test between the two. Better still is the fact that it can fool a city of wealthy hippies who spent thousands of dollars to go a week without showering into thinking you're one of them.
A philosophy of caring for the planet and leaving no trace dominates Black Rock City's culture, which makes a big SUV gleaming with chrome and chugging along with a gas-sucking V8 seem like the antithesis of the millennial-dominated event, but that was far from the case. With Black Rock City's dire need for heavy duty utility vehicles combined with attendees' median household income of $94,200 per year, we arrived on scene to find our GMC in the company of other Yukon Denalis and swanky Escalades with their chrome bits covered in playa dust. It was here, in the middle of the desert surrounded by LED lights and blaring techno, that the genius of GM's full-size SUV layout became apparent.
The reason the GMC Yukon and its GM siblings have survived so long is the same reason the human species has conquered every crevice of this planet: flexibility and mastery of all environments—both physical and cultural—that puts it in the unique position of always being needed. It can adapt to new situations, generations, and ideologies and just like humanity will never go back to living without the comforts brought about by learning how to make and control fire, our species will never go back to a time where we can't fit the members of our tribe and all its possessions into a machine that'll traverse all lands—whether it's a dried riverbed or the I-80. It's just an added bonus that the machine is air-conditioned, covered in leather, and has WiFi.