New Car/Review

1999 GMC Yukon Denali

by Carey Russ

Not long ago a "luxury truck" would have been a serious contradiction in terms. And customized styling on a truck was something seen only at car shows, not in polite company. Times have changed, considerably. To help establish its new role as the premium- level truck maker of the General Motors family, GMC now has the Yukon Denali, a luxuriously-appointed upscale version of the Yukon sport-utility.

"Denali" is the Athbascan name for the Alaskan peak known to most Americans as Mt. McKinley. The name means "the High One", and Denali is the highest peak in North America, an imposing presence visible for miles around. The Denali SUV is definitely the pinnacle of the GMC line, and an imposing presence of its own. Although the GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Tahoe are near-identical vehicles, no Chevrolet version of the Denali will be sold, to help differentiate GMC and the Denali from Chevrolet. For visual distinction, the front fenders, hood, and grille are unique to the Denali. It is so completely equipped that the only options are the rear door configuration -- regular up-and-down tailgate or side-hinged "Dutch doors" -- and the OnStar cellular phone and global positioning system-based electronic valet, navigation, and emergency assistance system. The only powertrain offered matches the tried-and-true 350 cubic inch V8 engine with a 4- speed automatic transmission and a sophisticated four-wheel drive system.

A drive in cold, rainy early fall weather on old Route 66 in Northern Arizona last year when it was introduced to the press, and a recent week at home in triple-digit temperatures allowed me to test the Denali under extremely varied conditions. In heat or cold, rain or shine, it has the style, comfort, power, and strength to be a go- anywhere, do-anything luxury vehicle.

APPEARANCE: The Denali is basically a Yukon, and so shares its general two-box SUV shape with other Yukons. But distinctive front styling and a monochrome paint scheme with body-colored side cladding, fender flares, integrated running boards, door handles, and bumper covers gives the Denali a handsome, custom look. The front fenders, hood, and grille are more rounded than those of the regular Yukon. Chrome is limited to a trim piece surrounding the rounded rectangular grille, "Denali" badging in front of the doors, and the special six-spoke alloy wheels. Like its namesake, the GMC Yukon Denali has presence.

COMFORT: Thanks to the running boards and plenty of grab handles, ascending to the interior of the new Denali is much easier than climbing its namesake. Inside is found a well-designed mix of do- anything functionality and luxury comfort, with plenty of room for five people. Zebrano wood trim on the doors and center console and fine leather upholstery set the luxury tone. Cupholders and power points galore, and plenty of storage spaces in both upper and lower consoles highlight the functional side. The two-tone upholstery motif is carried over into the door trim. The front buckets are power-adjustable, and both front and rear seats have two-position seat heaters. Hot weather is dealt with easily by a fast-acting air conditioner, with separate controls for front and rear and plenty of vents. The heater works just as well. Rear passengers have their own audio controls with headphone jacks. A great-sounding Bose premium AM/FM/cassette/CD/CD changer audio system is standard. All mirrors automatically adjust for light levels, and remote keyless entry with automatic illumination adds convenience and safety as well. A removable cargo shade over the rear of the cabin, and 60/40 split flip and fold rear seat make the Denali a versatile vehicle.

SAFETY: Standard safety equipment on the 1999 GMC Yukon Denali includes dual front next-generation airbags, antilock brakes, side door beams, and daytime running lights.

ROADABILITY: On a smoothly-paved surface, the Denali is as smooth-riding and comfortable as a luxury car. Over highway expansion joints, on bumpy, potholed pavement, or similar surfaces, its body-on-frame truck nature shows through. No major problem, no apologies necessary - it is a truck, after all, and a very good one at that. No attempt is made to hide the fact, and none is needed. The Denali tracks solidly and arrow-straight on the road. Speed-sensitive power steering makes it as easy to maneuver as a car. The "AutoTrac" active transfer case selects 4-wheel drive high or low range automatically when necessary for traction in poor conditions, with manual over-ride. A 6500-lb towing ability and good 8.5 inches minimum ground clearance add surefooted versatility.

PERFORMANCE: The power under the Denali's hood is appropriate for its trick appearance. The trusty cast iron, pushrod 5.7-liter V8 is the last incarnation of the venerable GM "small block" V8, one of the most popular engines found in custom cars and trucks. In 1999 truck tune, it makes 255 horsepower and a stump-pulling 330 lb.-ft. of torque, enough to move the Denali's nearly three tons plenty quickly. Forty-plus years of refinement have left it smooth and quiet, completely acceptable for a luxury vehicle. The 4-speed electronically- controlled automatic transmission is slightly more assertive in its shifting than a car transmission, but works very well.

CONCLUSIONS: Luxury truck? No contradiction in the case of the GMC Yukon Denali. It should fit in at the country club as well as it does in the backwoods.

SPECIFICATIONS

Base Price               $ 42,855
Price As Tested          $ 43,665
Engine Type              pushrod overhead valve 16 valve V8
Engine Size              5.7 liters / 350 cu. in.
Horsepower               255 @ 4600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           330 @ 2800 rpm
Transmission             4-speed electronically-controlled
                          automatic
Wheelbase / Length       117.5 in. / 201.4 in.
Curb Weight              5,940 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    23.3
Fuel Capacity            29.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded regular 
Tires                    P265/70 SR16 Firestone Firehawk LS Touring
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / drum, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent double A-arm with torsion
                          bars / solid axle with progressive multirate
                          leaf springs
Drivetrain                front engine, rear-wheel drive
                          with on-demand 4-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      12 / 16 / 13
0 to 60 mph                   9.3 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)               17.0 sec
Towing Capacity               6,500 lbs.

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

CA / NY / MA etc. emissions   $ 170
Destination charge            $ 640

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