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2003 GMC Yukon XL Denali AWD

Making the Grade

GMC’s Yukon XL Denali pulls the load and coddles its occupants in a glove-soft leather interior.

Get behind the wheel of GMC’s Yukon Denali and it’s apparent that the engineers and designers have some freedom—and some budget. It stands to reason. GM’s large SUVs: Suburban, Yukon XL, Avalanche, Escalade and H2, dominated the marketplace in 2002 with a staggering 377,209 units.

Though the company sells more Suburbans than Yukon XLs, the GMCs are the more plush of the two. We spent a week with the—take a breath—Yukon XL Denali 1500 AWD, and we’re convinced the GMC is one of the better luxury SUVs on the market, at least when it comes to towing.

We hauled around a 24’ Nordic and a Formula 271 FAS3Tech, and when the notes came back, the comments were overwhelmingly positive.

We loved the nine-speaker Bose CD stereo system that comes standard on the Denali. Equipped with two bands of XM satellite radio and steering-wheel mounted controls, finding and cranking the music was no problem. But with so many stations and options from which to choose, there was always a nagging feeling you might be missing something on another station.

We also had high praise for the optional rear-seat entertainment system. The $1,295 feature is easy for kids to operate and the wireless headsets meant you won’t have to listen to the Little Mermaid for the 500th time.

Another cool option was the second-row captain’s chairs, a bargain at $490, and perfectly comfortable. They also were heated, a feature we haven’t seen in competitors’ models. Even with the front seats all the way back and the backrests canted rearward, there was ample room for 6-plus footers in the second row. Throughout the interior, the Denali featured supple leather seating surfaces on all upholstery. Seats were soft on the surface, yet firm and supportive.

The ride also was great, especially for a truck that pulls 8,000 pounds, and it actually could have been a bit firmer without being intrusive. Towing a boat on undulating SoCal freeway, the Denali was just a tad bouncy but never to the point of affecting driver control.
Lugging the boat up a 7 percent grade with the cruise control on, the four-speed automatic dropped into second gear and tached up to 4,200 rpm to maintain 65 mph. Noise intrusion into the cabin was minimal, quiet enough to maintain a cell phone conversation without raising your voice. As we’ve come to expect, the 6.0-liter Vortec ran as smoothly as any V-8 we’ve tested.

Coming back down that same grade, the four-wheel disc brakes grabbed firmly and slowed the rig without delay or drama. Feel was excellent. You always know where you are with this system, and power was more than ample. Unfortunately, we forgot to do our standard antilock tests before the manufacturer reclaimed the truck.

Without the boat, which is where we suspect engineers place more emphasis, the ride was downright tame. It wasn’t quite as good as the Lincoln Navigator, with its independent rear setup, but for a truck with a live axle, it’s probably as good as it gets.

Rather than using leaf springs in the rear, the Denali uses coils, which makes spring rates easier to dial in. The truck also came with a standard self-leveling rear air shocks as part of the Autoride suspension system. Drop a trailer on the hitch and you can hear the pumps inflate shocks and raise the rear end back to level. Someone at GMC apparently thought enough about towing to make this standard on the Denali.

Adjustable brake and accelerator pedals also were standard. Combined with the adjustment of the seats, they created enough legroom for 6-plus footers. Still, we’d prefer to see about an inch more travel in the pedals and as much as 2 more inches in the seat. Lateral support, however, was excellent.

The center console featured a small compartment for a cell phone, a 12-volt power outlet, a pair of Big Gulp-worthy cupholders, a lighter and a removable ashtray. The six-disc CD changer was mounted just above the ashtray, with six separate selector buttons. It’s done so well, it’s difficult to imagine what else you could need.

In truth, the truck has it all, including a rear heating and air conditioning system, which supplies enough air through its roof and floor vents to climatize the interior quickly.

Controls for the rear HVAC system are great: three rotary dials and lots of manual control. The front controls, well, they’re not bad, but they could be better.

For example, the electronic panel is awesome in automatic mode, but on the California coast, just outside air coming in the vents is often enough to keep the interior comfortable. We had to break out the owner’s manual to figure out how to set the controls on “vent.” And even when we thought we had just ambient air coming in, we weren’t convinced because the compressor would kick on if you rotated the dial to a lower temperature.

What’s wrong with the three-dial setup? One for fan speed. One for temperature. One for mode. Call us old-fashioned, but that system works as well as any, and you sure don’t need an owner’s manual to figure it out. That and the steering wheel were about our only misgivings about the truck.


Fuel Consumption:
Towing... 10 +/- mpg
Non-towing... 12 mpg

0-60 towing... 19.86 seconds
40-60 towing... 11.64 seconds
0-60 non-towing... 8.58 seconds
40-60 non-towing... 5.69 seconds

Engine... 6.0-liter (364 c.i.d.) Vortec V-8
Horsepower... 325  @ 5,200 rpm
Torque...365 ft./lbs. @ 4,000         rpm
Compression ratio... 9.4:1
Transmission... Four speed electronic automatic

Axle ratio... 3.73:1
Fuel capacity... 31 gal.
Tire size … P265/70R17
Brakes... Four-wheel disc with antilock
Suspension... Front: independent with torsion bars; Rear: multi-link with coil spring, automatic load leveling
Tow rating... 8,000 lb.
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating... 7,200 lb.
Gross Combined Weight Rating... 15,300 lb.

Overall length... 18’4”
Maximum width... 78.8"
Wheelbase... 130"
Curb weight... 5,839 lb.
Base price...$50,405
Price as tested... $53,005

Formula 271 FAS3Tech
8,000 lbs.

Customer service...800-462-8782
Web site...



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