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Review: 2003 GMC Yukon Denali AWD

2003 GMC Yukon XL Denali AWD
2003 GMC Yukon XL Denali AWD

SEE ALSO: GMC Buyer's Guide


    Need a luxury car that can hold seven or eight people, tow 8,200 
lbs, and has all-weather, all-wheel drive capability? That sounds like 
a tough order to fill. Think you're out of luck? Think again. Think 
GMC Denali.

    The Denali is the premium version of the GMC Yukon, which is 
already a luxuriously-equipped sport-utility vehicle. Add in nearly 
every conceivable option and custom bodywork, and you have a 
cross between an American-style luxury car and an All-American 
truck. Power, 320 horses worth, is available from a 6.0-liter V8, and 
Denalis are offered in regular 116-inch wheelbase or XL 130-inch 
form. Denalis are aimed a little more upmarket than other Yukons, 
and so are equipped with a full-time all-wheel drive system that 
requires no driver intervention instead of the 4WD Yukon's dual-
range, part-time four-wheel drive. Denali owners are suspected of 
being more interested in getting to the ski slopes on some sort of 
improved road or towing a boat or horse trailer than in navigating 
washed-out Conestoga wagon trails, and the vehicle should serve 
them well.

    For, as I discovered during my week with a ``regular'' Denali, it is 
as much luxury car as it is truck. Sure, it's a body-on-frame truck, 
but trucks aren't what they used to be. A rigid ladder frame and 
well-matched, rigid body structure combined with very good 
suspension settings and soundproofing make it as quiet as a unibody 
luxury car. Many new features for 2003 add to comfort and safety. 
The ``StabiliTrak'' electronic stability control system helps the 
driver maintain control in tricky or slippery situations, and the brakes 
have been upgraded as well. There are a number of enhancements 
under the hood, and a new instrument panel, new seats, a redesigned 
driver information system, power-adjustable pedals, tri-zone 
automatic climate control, and more new features are found inside. 
A Bose(tm) AM/FM/cassette/in-dash CD changer audio system with XM 
satellite radio is standard, with a rear-seat DVD system available. 
The standard equipment list is long, the option list is short, and quiet 
comfort is at a premium.

APPEARANCE: There is no denying that the Denali is a sport-
utility vehicle, and a large one at that. It shares its basic styling with 
the plain Yukon, with gently rounded corners and edges on its two-
box shape, but has exclusive lower cladding, with integral running 
boards and mudflaps, car-like multi-element headlights and a unique 
bright chrome grille. A roof rack is standard, and the shark-fin XM 
radio and small whip OnStar antennas at the front of the roof give it 
an undercover look.

COMFORT: There is no shortage of space and comfort inside of the 
Denali. A third row seat is standard even in the regular-wheelbase 
model, which means seating for up to seven people with a second-
row bench. My test vehicle had the optional second-row captain's 
chairs, which meant seating for six, but with much better access to 
the rear seat thanks to the Denali's flat floor and the space between 
the captain's chairs. The third row is best for shorter people, but the 
second has plenty of room for full-sized adults. Back angle is 
adjustable for both second and third-row seats, and either or both 
may be folded flat when large items need to be moved. The 
supportive, redesigned front buckets are, of course, power-
adjustable, with memory on the driver's side. The optimum driving 
position is more easily attainable with standard power-adjustable 
pedals and a new tilt-adjustable steering wheel. Three-zone climate 
control keeps everyone cool or warm, as desired, with plenty of 
vents and a high airflow rate. The standard Bose AM-FM-XM-
cassette-CD changer sound system sounds great, and offers plenty of 
choice. ``Comfort'' and ``versatility'' are the watchwords.

SAFETY: The 2003 Denali's passenger-sensing airbag system 
automatically deactivates the front passenger air bag if a child is 
sitting in the front passenger seat. The ``StabiliTrak'' stability-
control system works with engine and transmission control computer 
and antilock braking systems to keep the Denali pointed as intended 
in tricky situations. 

ROADABILITY: On the road, the Denali has the classic American 
smooth, comfortable ride. But, with standard ``Autoride'' 
electronically-controlled shock absorbers that vary the damping rate 
according to road conditions, there is none of the excessive body 
movement that was an unfortunate hallmark of classic American 
luxury cars. The large truck tires help the ride comfort, too, as they 
cushion road shocks. Since a Denali is a 5,500-lb truck with a high 
center of gravity, it doesn't have the agility of a sports sedan, but 
thanks to a front suspension design that allows good steering lock it 
has good low-speed maneuverability. There is a new all-wheel drive 
system this year that improves fuel economy and allows more 
flexible torque transfer, for better traction. A 40/60 front-rear split is 
standard; that changes with traction conditions, with no driver action 

PERFORMANCE: Befitting its top-of-the-line status, the Denali has 
the 6.0-liter V8 that, in the regular Yukon range, is available only in 
the long-wheelbase, heavy-duty XL 2500. It's not quite the classic 
``big engine in a small vehicle'' performance strategy - even the 
regular-wheelbase Denali is in no way small - but it does give 
strength and a healthy reserve of power for towing. 320 horsepower 
and 365 lb-ft of torque can move even 5,500 lbs with authority, and 
contribute to an 8,200-lb towing capacity. 

CONCLUSIONS: The GMC Yukon Denali combines brute strength 
and luxury.

2003 GMC Yukon Denali AWD

Base Price			$ 48,440
Price As Tested		        $ 50,685
Engine Type			16-valve pushrod overhead valve V8, 
                                 cast-iron block, aluminum heads
Engine Size			6.0 liters / 364 cu. in.
Horsepower			320 @ 5000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			365 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission			4-speed electronically-controlled 
Wheelbase / Length		116 in. / 198.9 in.
Curb Weight			5425 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        17
Fuel Capacity			26 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P265/70 R 17 Goodyear Wrangler HP
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
                                 antilock and stability control standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent unequal-length control 
                                 arms with torsion bars /
				solid axle with 5-link location and 
                                 coil springs
Ground clearance		8.4 inches
Drivetrain			front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		12 / 16 / 12
0 to 60 mph				est. 8.5  sec
Towing capacity			        8,200 lbs.

Power sunroof				$1,000
Second-row captain's chairs		$  490
Destination charge			$  755