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2009 GMC Yukon Denali Hybrid 4WD Review

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2009 GMC Yukon Denali Hybrid

A Travel Story From a Shunpiker’s Journal
By Steve Purdy and Joe Chagnon
Detroit Bureau

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We had to be sure we were driving a UAW-built vehicle for this project. In fact, the gate guard checked our VIN to be sure it was a US built GM truck. We’re evaluating the GMC Yukon Denali Hybrid and playing golf at the nationally rated, UAW-owned golf course at the Black Lake training facility in far Northern Michigan. This will be another of our road trip travel adventures.

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You may remember my accomplice Joe from previous road trip stories, particularly those that involve golf. He’s nearly a scratch golfer and great traveling companion. We’ve consulted on many stories over the years.

Our ride for this project is the luxurious, Arlington, Texas-built GMC Yukon Denali 4WD Hybrid. What a great truck - if we can call it that. As you probably know, this is a full-frame, full-size SUV with 2-mode hybrid powertrain - an upscale, full-zoot people hauler with substantial towing capacity (about 6,000 pounds) and an imposing presence. The 22-inch chrome wheels on this one make for an even more substantial presence. The bottom of the side window frame is even with my shoulder. That’s how big and tall it is.

It’s just about a 4-hour drive from the Detroit area north up I-75 to the little town of Onaway just a few miles south of Black Lake, one of many bodies of water that were gouged out by receding glaciers ten thousand years ago. We’re only about 25 miles from the Mackinaw Bridge.

Our Denali is a great open road vehicle, quiet and smooth. We managed about 18-mpg on the highway with cruise control set near the speed limit. (Speed enforcement can be quite oppressive along I-75, particularly around Standish. So watch out.) The seating position is high, of course, but after a few hours of driving I lost the sense of being in command of such a big thing. It felt like just a comfortable, luxury vehicle with generous leather seats, wood trim inside and a plethora of gadgetry to fiddle with.

Tom Stephens, GM’s former powertrain boss, told us about the GM philosophy on hybrids a couple years ago. That is, to put this 2-mode system into larger vehicles where it will have the greatest impact. Little sedans already get good mileage so a 20 or 30% improvement in mpg would be a bigger advantage in a vehicle that starts out at 12 to 15 mpg.

This Yukon Denali (top of the line) features the respected 6.0-liter Vortec V-8 with active fuel management (it shuts down 4-cylinders when they’re not needed) combined with GM’s innovative 2-mode hybrid transmission with two electric motors (one acts as a generator as well) and a CVT that pretends it has four fixed gears. We have at our disposal 332 horsepower and a substantial 367 pound-feet of torque. A 300-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack hides under the second seat and is fed by both the engine and regenerative braking. The electric drive assists the gasoline engine at low speeds and whenever we need a boost, like passing on a two-lane. EPA fuel economy estimates are 21-city and 22 highway for the two-wheel drive version and they have not established estimates for this four-wheel drive version yet. We’ll make our own assessment during this trip.

But first, let’s talk about the travel and golf. (If you’re not interested in golf, just skip ahead.)

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Michigan has more public golf courses per capita than any state in the union. The UAW’s Black Lake course is one of the finest, rated by Golf Digest’s 2007 list as Number 35 of the 100 Greatest Public Courses. Former UAW boss, Steve Yokitch, thought UAW workers ought to have access to premium golf courses just as do the managers. They hired Rees Jones, one of the finest golf course designers in the business, who took 300 acres to build this fine golf course alongside the training center and campground. The whole complex sits on about a thousand acres of north woods.

We chose a challenging day in late summer to play the Black Lake Course. The air was so heavy with heat and humidity that the ball would not carry, nor did sound. Warm summer rains had been passing through and the usual crack of the club against the ball became more of a thud. The course was wet though quite well drained. That meant all carry and no roll for the golf ball, so Joe’s big tee shots weren’t quite as big a usual, but still twice mine.

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Ubiquitous bracken ferns, goldenrod, and other wildflowers were just hinting at their fall colors. The scent of pine and sassafrass permeated the heavy air. Deer and wild turkeys watched us curiously but without fear as we played quietly through their forest. Like many of the northern courses pristine wilderness surroundings are part of the charm.

Many of the greens at Black Lake feature tiers and gentle undulations. And many are mounded naturally above the fairway - not made with a bulldozer. Course designer Jones focused on taking advantage of the natural terrain and the underlying ancient dunes here near the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Most greens are generous in size but not too difficult to read. Even soaking wet the greens offered a good challenge.

This course, as with most of the premium courses in northern Michigan, is carved out of pristine forests and wet lands. Undisturbed natural areas surround and crisscross the holes. The course meanders through 300 acres of woods so transits are lovely. Plenty of trouble is to be had by those whose balls stray from the fairway.

Tee box placement on each hole is very accommodating for all levels of golfers. Black Lake is consistently ranked among the best courses in the country for both ladies and men. From the back tees the par 72 course plays just over 7,000 yards.

Sculpted, undulating fairways offer mostly generous landing areas but strategically positioned large, deep bunkers guard the premium landing spots. Jones created a gem in this Black Lake Golf Club. Nearly every hole has the visual interest of a ‘signature hole’ with fairway-to-rough lines weaving back and forth distinctively.

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The unique designs and meticulous maintenance of the bunkers stand out. Hole #11, for example, looks as if 5 modest round bunkers guard the rear of the elevated green as we approach from about 100 yard out. Once on the green we found it to be one big, deep multi-section bunker stretching the full width of the green. Perhaps the most amazing bunker of all lines the entire length of the longest par 3, hole #14. This massive bunker stretches 187 yards with erratic fingerlings jutting out about every 20 yards making for a striking visual image.

The #1 handicap hole is a big par 4, hole #13, 454 yards long from the tips and 425 from the white tees. Joe was playing from all the way back, of course. He always wants to par the toughest hole because he says if you can par that one you can par all the rest. Number 13 got him this time, though. You’ll really have to put your best two shots together just to get close to the green on this hole. (Joe bogied it. I’ll not reveal my dismal score.)

Jerry McConnell, PGA Professional, greeted us as we came off the course all wet and tired. He’s been here about five years having previously worked at some of the premium courses in the Boston area. He reminded us that the course is open to the public and that UAW members and retirees get a discount.

Pam Phipps is the director of golf and PGA Master Professional. When I asked her what time of year was best to play up here, she said, “Any time of year is a good time to play here.” From mid spring to mid fall golf in Northern Michigan is glorious. I’m especially fond of fall golf. If you get one of those nice 60-degree days in late September through mid October with the fall colors in full flush you’ll think you’re playing golf in heaven – particularly here at Black Lake.

For pricing, scheduling and information on the course just go to:

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Back to the Denali, we loaded up and headed into the nearby little town of Onaway just as dusk began to engulf us. The standard power rear hatch of the Denali works at the push of a button, but the load floor is quite high. With the third seats in place there is not a lot of cargo space in the back. We can fold the seat backs down easily, but that makes for an even higher loading space. Or we can pull a handle and remove the seats entirely. They must weigh close to 50 pounds apiece, though, so the latter is not an easy task.

After a pair of substantial sandwiches and a couple trips to the salad bar at the family restaurant in town, where two cute young waitresses were cleaning up getting ready to close, we slid on down to the lively Flavel’s Northway Bar to hook up with Joe’s cousin Faith, who was celebrating her birthday with her daughter Valerie, a bubbly, charming former Latin dance instructor who had just gotten engaged to a young man from Sicily. We were joined by the bartender, Davey, and his dad Dave Flavel the bar owner. We spent a rowdy, convivial evening trading jokes and stories. Unfortunately, Dave knew most of my best jokes and beat me to the punch lines. The Northway in Onaway is a good advertisement for spending time at your local bar.

It was late when we got back to the cottage on the northeast side of Black Lake provided by Joe’s other cousin Glenn. We spent some time in the morning admiring the 8-mile-long by 3-mile-wide shimmering water being whipped up by a big wind. The air was finally dry and the breeze cool and comfortable – just the way we like it in the north country.

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Before leaving Onaway the next day we stopped to visit with Tom Moran, owner of perhaps the largest business in the area, the Moran Iron Works, and a fellow for whom Joe’s aunt Millie used to work. Not only is Moran a successful businessman with a nationally known custom metal working business, but he is an accomplished metal sculptor as well producing massive images welded together out of a variety of metals. He balked when I referred to him as an artist and he insisted he is like a “kindergartener” when compared to real artists. His works, though, belie that assessment in our view. A more altruistic fellow you’ll not be likely to meet. All his sculptures go to charities for auction or to use as they will. None are for sale.

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Back on the road with the Denali for a back-road route home we made one more stop at the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse, the tallest accessible lighthouse on the Great Lakes and the tallest on Lake Huron, where we climbed the 113-foot structure to look out over the verdant forests and meadows we’d just passed through boardering the big lake - Huron that is. As we left the park on the deserted two-lane I tried to ease onto the throttle gently enough to keep the Denali in the electric mode and managed it up to about 25 mph. They say it’ll go 30 on just electric, but I couldn’t do it.

The 4WD 2009 Yukon Denali Hybrid shows a base price of $61,080 and with a few options ours stickers out at $64,820. (The Yukon Hybrid 2-wheel drive starts at $50,945.) That base price includes those beautiful 22-inch wheels, self-leveling suspension, sophisticated ride and handling electronic controls, navigation system, remote start, rear camera and park assist, running board, trailering equipment package, heated folding outside mirrors, blind spot monitoring system, heated and cooled, 12-way power front seats, heated second row seats, three-zone climate controls, adjustable pedals, auxiliary rear seat AC, Bose premium audio, XM Satellite radio, 115-volt power outlet, driver information system and lots more. Denali is the premium content model.

The Yukon Denali does not have a spare tire or jack. It has tilt but no telescope on the steering wheel, express down in the driver’s window but no other express functions, and the rear windows only go down about half way which annoyed by photographer colleague, Margaret while she tried to shoot out the back window covering the Woodward Dream Cruise. Otherwise we found nothing to complain about with this lovely truck.

We managed an average of about 18.5 mpg on the whole trip. Just after one of our fills we drove about a hundred miles of open two-lanes over which we held close to 21.5 mpg, but that didn’t last. Without trying to drive conservatively we got about 17.8 mpg. That’s about 30 or 40% better than the gas version of this truck.

With 8-passenger capability, 5,600-pound curb weight, substantial luxury content and a stratospheric price tag this thing isn’t for everybody. But GM sells a good number of them for good reason. There are still plenty of folks who want and need all that content and can afford it. I wouldn’t mind being part of that demographic myself.

Thanks to Glenn and Maria Chagnon for the use of their comfortable cottage on Black Lake. Thanks to Pam Phipps and the UAW for arranging the round on Black Lake. And, thanks to GM for a great ride.

ęSteve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved