For years, GMC was General Motors' orphan division.

You couldn't find a GMC dealership without a map.

Then someone at GM came up with a brilliant idea.

Hold it, you say, someone at GM had a brilliant idea?

Yes, folks at GM do come up with brilliant ideas. Not very often, but onoccasion GM will surprise us and come up with a gem, like it did in 1989, whenthen-Chairman Roger Smith decided to form Saturn to take on the Japanese.

As we prepare to enter a new millennium, the powers that be at GM decidedit was time for another brilliant idea--to merge GMC with Pontiac to givePontiac instant access to GMC's sport-utility vehicles and GMC instant accessto a line of cars and more important, a bunch of easy-to-find dealerships todisplay its wares.

A marriage made in heaven.

And after tying the knot, someone came up with yet another brilliant idea.

Not content with taking on the domestic automakers by offering full-sizeluxury cars, the Japanese were entering a new market the domestics hadn't eventhought about--full-size luxury sport-utility vehicles that sell for $40,000to $50,000.

Cadillac was the obvious choice to take on the Japanese luxury sport-utes,but didn't want any part of it, insisting that you'd probably be able to countsales on your thumbs. Besides, Cadillac had a better idea, a hybrid vehiclethat would be half car, half sport-utility so you'd still enjoy year-roundfour-wheel-drive motoring while getting better mileage than those truck-basedsport-utes.

So Cadillac left it to GMC to come to the rescue. Chevrolet would buildeveryday variety sport-utes while GMC would produce a luxury model and do soon the cheap by dolling up a Yukon with leather and thick carpeting.

And so now we have the 1999 Yukon Denali, which started arriving indealerships at about the time Cadillac said "oops" and announced that it willbring out a dolled up Yukon called the Escalade this fall rather than waitingfour more years for its luxury-sport-ute hybrid.

Cadillac's decision was prompted by the fact Lincoln jumped into the luxurysport-ute segment with a clone of the Ford Expedition called Navigator. Peopleare buying Navigators faster than the paint can dry at the factory.

So, for a few months at least, GMC has a luxury sport-ute to competeagainst the Japanese and Ford. A Chrysler rival is still a few years off.

The Denali we tested is a most pleasant machine, though a few items willcause heart palpitations--one being the $42,855 window sticker, the otherbeing the 12-m.p.g.-city/16-m.p.g.-highway mileage rating from the 5.7-liter,255-horsepower V-8 that powers a vehicle that puts most mobile homes to shamein terms of room, comfort and luxury.

All that's missing is a sunroof, though in a vehicle this big, a sunroof isa rather significant item to leave out, especially when you have a $42,855sticker. A sheet of gl ass and a power push button to provide the cabin withfresh air seems a small request for a vehicle at $42,855.

What is Denali?

"You could say it's our Navigator," says Denny O'Donnell, Yukon brandmanager. "About 20 to 30 percent of sales will come from those who don't own aGM vehicle."

Denali is offered only as a four-door and only with four-wheel-drive. The4WD system is like that at Ford. Rather than fiddle with a transfer case, aseries of buttons in the dash allow you to choose two-wheel high, four-wheelhigh or four-wheel low or a set-and-forget automatic four-wheel-drive thatsenses the need to engage or disengage based on traction at the time and doesso.

Typically 4WD vehicles sit a bit higher off the road. Denali is noexception, but unlike many four-wheelers, you sit high without the raisedcenter of gravity making you feel wobbly in corners and turns and forcing youto back off the gas in a sharp maneuver to either side.

The suspension i s specially designed to provide Denali with firm ride, butwithout being so stiff you bounce every time you pass over a ripple in theroad. There's far less float than in the much softer-sprung Japanese luxurysport-utes. The wide-profile p265/70R 16-inch tires serve as large paws togrip the road while the specially designed heavy-duty Bilstein shocks keepharshness from coming back into the cabin.

Also contributing to pleasant ride and handling are speed-sensitive powersteering, front stabilizer bar and two-stage rear multileaf springs, though amajor factor in making this a comfortable long-distance traveler was thesimple, but wise choice of designers to make high seat backs and long seatbottoms. The high backs provide ample support and cushioning to preventfatigue while the long seat bottoms provide above-average thigh support. TheDenali seats four or five, depending on if the rear-seat armrest is raised orlowered.

The only engine offered is a 5.7-liter V-8 that moves without hesitation,but in mountainous Arizona terrain seems as if it could use a deep breath offresh air before taking on steep inclines. The Denali, after all, is loaded.Should be no trouble in the Midwest flatlands, however, other than the factthe V-8 has a thirst for petrol that requires a 30-gallon tank to fill andfill and fill.

Denali comes with dual depowered air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes,daytime running lamps and large heated outside rearview mirrors for excellentside and rear vision.

Though the price tag is a tad stiff, Denali comes fully equipped with nooptions, other than a choice of exterior color and a flip-up rear hatch lid ora pair of swing-out doors. The swing-outs are most convenient but do leave youwith a pair of door pillars blocking your vision through the rearview mirror.

Denali has some noteworthy features, such as automatic headlamps that go onon their own at dark, a large reversible mat for the rear cargo hold withcloth on one side, rubber on the other for when you carry wet items. Then,too, there are tow hooks, fog lamps, plastic fender/wheel well/rocker panelcovers to prevent rust and parking-lot dings, a running board with a non-skidrubber surface for ease of entry/exit, 6,500-pound trailer towing capacity,power plugs front/middle/rear, rear-seat air/heat/audio controls, consolewriting pad, second seat folding armrest that exposes dual cupholders andtissue holder. (There are four sets of dual cupholders in this machine, twoper occupant.)

There are also headphones for the rear-seat audio system, outsidetemperature and compass readings in the rearview mirror, programmable garagedoor/front gate opener that will turn your home's outside lights on and apower-door lock system that won't lock the doors if you leave the keys in theignition. Also standard are front/rear air conditioning, powerwindows/locks/seats, remote keyless entry, Bose stereo with CD changer, roofmounted luggage carrier and tinted glass.

But there are a few problems, such as the steering column blocking the viewof the 4WD buttons in the instrument panel. And the button to activate theheated seats is low on the side of the driver's seat right next to the controlbuttons for the power seats. When adjusting fore/aft positioning, it's easy tostrike the button and turn the heated seats to "roast." By the way, the seatsare solid leather. A perforated breathable leather would be more comfy in anyseason other than winter.

In addition to Denali, GMC has come up with Envoy, a luxury version of itsJimmy sport-utility cousin to the Chevy Blazer. Cadillac won't get a versionof that.

Hmm. About all that's lacking at GMC is a luxury version of its really hugeSuburban that holds nine. But not for long.

"A luxury Suburban would be obvious and logical," O'Donnell said.

Look for one possibly in 2000 but more likely in 2001, which would be thesame year Cadillac's hybrid s port-ute should bow.

Tahoe/Yukon as well as the Chevy/GMC Suburban are built off the sameplatform as the full-size Chevy/GMC C/K pickup truck. Those trucks are redonefor 1999 while the sport-utes will be redone a year later for 2000, when aluxury version could be added unless GMC waits until 2001.

>>1999 GMC Yukon Denali 4WD
© 1998 Chicago Tribune Wheelbase: 117.5 inches Length: 201.2 inches Engine: 5.7-liter, 255-h.p., V-8 Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 12 m.p.g. city/16 m.p.g. highway Base price: $42,855 Price as tested: $42,855. Add $640 for freight. Pluses: So big, so comfortable, so roomy, so luxurious, no CadillacEscalade to compete with as GM luxury sport-utes. Minuses: So expensive, so little mileage, no sunroof, a Cadillac Escaladeto compete with as the other GM luxury sport-ute in a few more months.>>