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Route 66 a drive through a different America

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It is not often as a motorist that you get the chance to take a car for a 2450 mile (3942 kilometre) test drive.

But hire a car in Chicago, the chances are that by the time you get to LA you are going to be pretty well acquainted with its strengths and weaknesses.
The very duration of the test seems appropriate for the GMC Yukon, which, like its closely-related cousin the Chevrolet Suburban, is so large it probably should be categorised as a medium to heavy commercial vehicle rather than a passenger car.
As with anything of substantial bulk, it’s reason for being might not be readily apparent (think blue whale, or the world’s tallest building in Qatar).
Manoeuvring the five-metre long Yukon around an underground car park feels like steering an oil tanker through the treacherous shoals of a tropical reef.
But put it on a major US eight-lane interstate freeway roaring along at 70 miles an hour, and it all seems to make sense.

That, and the fact that you can cram in three suitcases, one pram, a portable cot, several bags of nappies and baby food, a six-pack of beer, a bike and some random food purchases into the yawning chasm of its luggage space.
For a family of four on the move – or in this case, driving the fabled Route 66 – there could hardly be a better vehicle.

The thought of spending hours on the road with two small children may not be everyone’s idea of fun.

But anyone willing to take the punt and strap in for the drive through eight states – Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California – will be rewarded with a surprisingly interesting and scenic journey through small town United States, visiting places and meeting people most foreign tourists will never get to experience.

Americans are rightly renowned for their love affair with cars and, in many ways, Route 66 is a paean to that romance. Many of its landmarks are, not unsurprisingly, related to the task of keeping people mobile – service stations, motels, diners, roadside attractions.

But drive the real Route 66 – a two-lane black top that is largely intact, and often sits some distance from the eight-lane interstate freeway that has replaced it – and the car becomes almost incidental.

Because of the interstate freeway, Route 66 now has the character of a quiet country road – other cars are few, speeds rarely get above 50 miles an hour, and the reasons to stop come thick and fast (particularly in Illinois and Missouri): famous diners, incredibly well-preserved classic 50s and 60s motels, cute and quiet country hamlets, and museums and attractions on everything ranging from dinosaurs, wolves and classic cars to toys and cowboys.

The rhythm of the road in these areas has a gentler pace, leaving plenty of time to stop and explore.

Give yourself a couple of weeks, and you have time to make spectacular side trips.

While the Grand Canyon is on most itineraries, the nearby but much less well-known Canyon de Chelley National Monument is in some ways more spectacular.

Though a smaller version of the Grand Canyon, the fact that it is on a more human scale somehow makes it even grander.

Trip a little further north, and the Arches National Park in Utah is stunning, as is nearby Monument Valley, the setting for many a Western.

The drive across the Mojave Desert is striking

Then, of course, there are many well-preserved Route 66 motels, the most famous of which is the Wig Wam Motel in Rialto, on the edge of the Los Angeles megalopolis.

Driving a 5.3 litre V8 behemoth that gets around 18 miles to the gallon all that distance in Australia would be a major drain on the wallet, but the US’s comparatively cheap fuel makes it an affordable and enjoyable option, particularly when the alternative is to leave yourself at the tender mercy of America’s ramshackle domestic airlines.

Throw me the car keys any day…

2013 GMC Yukon

For: Big enough to carry the entire contents of your house

Against: You are never going to be the environment’s friend driving this beast

This car would suit: Doctors who think car lanes are too narrow anyway


5.3L EcoTec3 V8 engine 2WD

355 kW power @ 5600 rpm

383 Nm torque @ 4100 rpm

6 speed automatic

Length 5.1 metres

12 l/100km combined