What IÕm Driving At: Crossing the Yukon

Outside of the physics lab, there's no better way to understand the correspondence between time and speed than to be an auto writer in August. This is the month when new models are announced but not released; and invariably, every scribe is left with a sheaf full of notes about perfectly acceptable, presently available models that are nevertheless storia non grata by virtue of their "old age." Time, in other words, marches on; the humble auto writer speeds helplessly along in pursuit, waving adieu to stories he meant to tell but couldn't quite manage before the bloom of new models begins again.The only problem is, the majority of next year's models are loath to arrive much before September. So as a parting gesture to what has been a fairly eventful, if not necessarily signal, year in automobilia, I present two '97 models deserving of mention in this last window of opportunity:GMC YukonIndeed, the GMC Yukon full-size sport/utility will not change in any significant way from this year to next. The version I tested this summer--a two-door, four-wheel-drive model--remains both a brute and an anomaly in the ever more crowded SUV category. The Yukon, of course, is the fraternal twin of Chevrolet's Tahoe. Both are derived from the original Blazer of the '70s; and although they have both evolved into best-selling four-door models, the two-door configuration is to sport/utilities what "roots rock" is to popular music. It's a combination of the way we were and the way contemporary die-hards want things to remain.Personally, I find the GMC iteration of this full-size sport/ute to be gratifyingly more truckish in appearance than its Chevy sibling. Now that GMC light trucks have been folded in with Pontiac autos under a single-dealer arrangement, it's only appropriate that GMC mirror Pontiac's traditionally sportier image. The Yukon's styling incorporates bold-looking fender eyebrows, for example, that evoke the rough 'n' ready ethos of custom aftermarket parts.With its potful of torquey V8 power, the Yukon's Vortec 5.7-liter engine is part stump-puller, part trail-buster, part trailer-tower, part Interstate cruise missile. As a result, the overall package is amazingly spirited for a vehicle that weighs over 2-and-a-half tons, thanks to engine output of 255 horsepower and 330 ft.-lbs. of torque. The 13/17 mileage ratings, however, serve as a reminder that performance has its price. So does the SLT option package, which combines appearance options, power controls, and comfort amenities into a $5,700 bundle. The further addition of a towing package, push-button 4WD, those sporty fenders, and aggressive off-road tires brings this '97 Yukon's as-tested price up to $33,398.Despite the proliferation of SUV window stickers bearing similar totals, any price over $30-grand is a lot to spend for a personal truck, regardless of its ground-pounding capabilities. The Yukon is further hampered by its two doors in what is fast becoming a four-door universe. Traditionally, two-door four-wheelers have been favored by kids and sportsmen; yet kids aren't likely to manage the equity loan they'll need to afford this much truck, and sportsmen...well, how many huntin', fishin', cussin', and spittin' types are left in these ever more delicate times?Aesthetically, however, the two-door wins the laurels. It gives the Yukon a "sporty coupe" image among trucks that may offer easier passenger access yet strike a more lumpen pose. Another forte of the Yukon is its ride: incredibly plush and car-like, but without a hint of the floatiness that marred GM's earlier attempts to deliver a soft cruise. Suspension esoterica involving springing and damping are perhaps chiefly to credit; but, for the layman, the most obvious evidence of the Yukon's driving poise is GM's masterful speed-sensitive steering system. Questionably dubbed "variable-orifice technology," it communicates crisp road feel through the steering wheel while requiring mere fingertip control for directional changes.From the standpoint of driver comfort and interior layout, my only substantive complaint is with the placement of the transmission shifter, which blocks your reach for the radio or air conditioner. But apart from that, and from the intrinsic liability of a two-door layout in a four-door age, this particular Yukon model provides both a fun and viable alternative to the station-wagon image that most other SUVs have sheepishly assumed.Mazda Millenia LPerhaps I betray too much sympathy for the underdog by lavishing praise on Mazda's Millenia right off the bat. It is qualified praise, nevertheless, since a special version of this near-luxury sedan features exciting technology in the form of a "Miller-cycle" engine. The Millenia L sedan I test-drove, however, was bereft of this notable powerplant (not to mention its $3,600 price premium). Despite a larger engine of 2.5 liters (up from the Miller's 2.3), the Millenia L rates 40 less horsepower than its more auspicious sibling. The resulting 20-percent drop to 170 HP sets off both aesthetic and actual chain reactions that do much to explain Mazda's frustrating challenge in promoting this car.Simply put, the Millenia L can't get out of its own way. In aesthetic terms, that's more than just a bad feeling; it looks bad for a car costing almost $35,000. Zero-to-60 takes 10 seconds, and although stoplight drag races are hardly the point, a sort of laissez-faire insouciance permeates the car's overall bearing. For one thing, compared to the Miller-motor model, the car's lower peak torque makes it difficult for the automatic transmission to select the proper gear; as a result, the gear changes seem downright manic at times. Attempting to match engine speed to the low and narrow powerband, the transmission "hunts" for shifting opportunities at unexpected moments--say, while cornering. That's one of your basic performance no-nos.Otherwise, however, the Millenia is a refined and elegant car; its comfort and poise equal or better anything else in its price range. True to Mazda's sporty tradition, the car handles spryly, even aggressively, without any misbehaviors that might ruffle or discomfit. In short, it's a car that needs every bit of the optional motor's 210 HP--which means that for connoisseurs contemplating the Millenia, it's always Miller time.Dealer news and other views are invited by fax at 615-385-2930 or via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.

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