If they were around today, Max and Morris Grabowski - founders of what later became the GMC division of General Motors - would probably be proud to see where their old company is headed. Part of the latest reorganization at General Motors calls for each of the giant automaker's divisions to carve out a unique identity and image for itself in the market. The GMC division is in the process of being merged with Pontiac. Once all the dust settles, the division will cater to well-to-do buyers looking for upscale trucks and sport-utilities. GMC's vehicles generally will be better equipped and offer more luxury features than similar models sold by Chevrolet. This week's test vehicle, a bright-red $34,000 Yukon with leather seats and a full load of luxury items, is proof that that process already is well under way. Our Yukon was an expensive vehicle; it came with nearly every item available. I wouldn't call the V-8-powered Yukon a real alternative to the $50,000 British-built Range Rover luxury sport-utility, but it is a classy vehicle in its own right. And given the Yukon's generous level of equipment and its powerful engine, it looks like a bargain when compared with fully loaded imports such as the Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, Acura SLX and Isuzu Trooper - none of which offers a V-8 engine. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING GMC engineers went to work on the Yukon's V-8 engine and delivered a motor for 1996 that offers higher performance and lower maintenance. GMC rates the Yukon's 5.7-liter Vortec V-8 at 250-horsepower - 50 more than last year. Surprisingly, the big boost in horsepower does not come at the expense of fuel economy. The big V-8 sports a new fuel-injection system that precisely measures and delivers fuel to each cylinder through small tubes in the intake manifold. GM calls the setup ''sequential central port fuel injection.'' I call it fabulous. At 4,731 pounds, the Yukon might have been a real beast had it been underpowered. But the smooth-running Vortec V-8 is very lively at low speeds and provides ample power for all driving situations. In fact, the Yukon does not feel as if it weighs more than 2 tons. Also, the Yukon's engine should require little regular maintenance other than oil and filter changes. Its spark plugs, spark wires and radiator coolant are designed to last 100,000 miles. The Yukon is available with a manual transmission, but it is likely that few will be sold. The Yukon got 15 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway. A turbocharged diesel engine, which is a bit more fuel efficient, also is available. Our test vehicle's four-speed automatic and four-wheel-drive setup made the big sport-utility very easy to drive. The power-assisted steering system feels firm and positive, but not too heavy. The front disc/rear drum brakes bite quickly when you step on the pedal. However, the anti-lock system seems a bit eager to engage when braking hard on slippery surfaces. The Yukon rides on 16-inch tires. Its ride is generally smooth and quiet, on the road and off. The suspension system is fairly firm and it manages harsh terrain well. You can drive the Yukon aggressively on bumpy roads with confidence. The body dips gently as the suspension system absorbs the larger bumps. Buttons on the dash control the four-wheel drive system. I liked the Yukon best on the highway. It isn't bothered by crosswinds, and you sit high enough off the ground to have a commanding view of the road. FIT AND FINISH Our Yukon was bolted together tightly with the exception of a speaker that caused a door panel to vibrate when the radio was turned up. I liked the feel of the materials used in the Yukon's interior. The plastic trim around the windshield, door panels and dash had a rich, grainy texture and a durable, heavy duty feel. The thickly padded front bucket seats were superb. The leather wash avy and soft, and there was plenty of support for the lower back. Fold-down armrests in the inner sections of the seats made for comfortable cruising on the highway. The rear 60-40 split bench seat offered ample foot and leg room for three passengers. Folding the seats forward exposed a big, flat area that increases the Yukon's cargo-carrying capacity. I put a pair of full-size bicycles in back and closed the two-piece tailgate with no problem. The dash and instruments are not particularly stylish, but they are cleanly designed and easy to read. Rotary knobs in the center of the dash control the air conditioner. The AM/FM radio had both a cassette and a CD player. Visibility to the front, rear and sides was excellent. That helps instill confidence when you are parking the Yukon or driving it in a confined area. Unlike the gigantic GMC Suburban, you have a good sense of the Yukon's proportions. About all the Yukon is lacking is a passenger's air bag, but that will be addressed next year. Even though the fully loaded Yukon has a fairly steep price, buyers have been snapping them up. The Yukon and its sister vehicle, the Chevy Tahoe, have been hot since the day they rolled out of the factory. Truett's tip: Quiet, quick, smooth and powerful, the fully equipped GMC Yukon is a high-quality luxury sport-utility vehicle.
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