Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
New Denali is stylish, luxurious and big.A Suburban legend has moved upscale.
GMC completely redesigned its Yukon full-size SUV for 2000, but the luxurious Denali version had to wait until 2001. Now it's here. Yukon Denali sits at the top of GMC's SUV lineup, just one rung below GM's 2001 Cadillac Escalade luxury sport-utility.
The most visible difference between the Yukon Denali and the regular Yukon is the Denali's aftermarket-inspired chrome grille, in place of the Yukon's blacked out grille.
Behind that facade, however, is some hardware that sets the Denali apart from the rest of the Yukon line: a more powerful 6.0-liter V8 and a full-time all-wheel-drive system. Neither the engine nor the AWD system is available on the other Yukon models. Nor does Chevrolet offer anything comparable in its Tahoe line.
GMC's 2001 Yukon Denali rides on the same hydroformed frame and five-link coil spring rear suspension that gives the standard Yukon a smooth ride and surprisingly responsive handling. Denali's luxury touches don't overlook the fact that GMC customers will want to tow their boat to the lake or pull their daughter's horse trailer to the show, so it is loaded with features for towing and moving cargo. The bigger engine will help pull any load, while the all-wheel-drive system is just the ticket for pulling a boat up a water-slicked landing. (Denali shares its basic architecture with the GMC Yukon, Yukon XL and Yukon Denali XL, Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, and Cadillac Escalade. It is arguably the best full-size SUV and pickup platform on the market.). Folks who truly need a size extra-large sport-utility will find the Yukon XL hard to beat. All-new and tremendously improved for the 2000 model year, the Yukon XL has been refined even further for 2001.
Because it's available in two different load ratings, the Yukon XL 1500 and 2500 models can offer a more people-friendly alternative to Ford's brutishly heavy-duty Excursion. And now you can even buy the Yukon XL with the same luxurious Denali equipment reserved previously for the shorter-wheelbase Yukon.
Experienced SUV shoppers will recognize the Yukon XL as the direct descendant of the old GMC Suburban. For several decades, Chevrolet and GMC shared the Suburban label for their essentially similar, full-size, pickup truck-based station wagons. But after last year's complete overhaul, Chevrolet retained custody of the Suburban badge, and the corresponding GMC became the Yukon XL.
The name change made a lot of sense, because GMC has sold a shorter version of the Suburban called the Yukon since 1997. (Chevy has one of these, too, and calls it the Tahoe.) Now all of GMC's full-size SUVs are Yukons. In keeping with GMC's rank as the premium truck division for General Motors, Yukons are priced higher than Tahoes and Suburbans, but come with more standard equipment.
GMC Yukon Denali comes equipped with nearly every desirable feature as standard equipment, leaving only a couple items that are matters of personal preference as optional. Standard equipment includes: heated, leather, 10-way power seats, 6.0-liter V8, all-wheel drive, AutoRide computer-controlled suspension, On-Star driver assistance, 11-speaker Bose stereo with in-dash six-disc CD changer, thermostatically controlled climate control, rear heat and air conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, power windows and power door locks.
Only a sunroof ($900), second-row bucket seats ($290) and engine block heater ($35) are optional.
While the Denali is getting the headlines for 2001, GMC launched its standard Yukon on this all-new platform last year. And this year, the price of Yukons has dropped slightly: Yukon SLE ($32,200) comes loaded with air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, self-leveling suspension, CD stereo, power windows, power door locks, fog lights, tinted glass, heated outside mirrors, leather wrapped steering wheel, and vehicle alarm. SLE 4x4 retails for $35,078. Both come with a 4.8-liter V8. Upgrade to the 5.3-liter V8 for another $700. An optional SLT package for the Yukon comes in two levels. You can get an SLT that adds front and center-row leather seats, a nine-speaker CD stereo, floor console, better bucket seats and aluminum wheels for an additional $1,400. Or, you can order an SLT package power seats, seat heaters, premium ride suspension, OnStar driver assistance, automatic climate control and other features for $2,818. The XL in GMC Yukon XL means extra long; the Yukon XL is based on the same platform as the Yukon, but it's stretched 14 inches in wheelbase and about 20 inches overall. While the Yukon can carry a lot of people or a lot of cargo, the Yukon XL can do both at the same time. The Yukon XL also offers a bigger towing capacity. (Look for a separate nctd.com review of the standard-wheelbase GMC Yukon.)
GMC offers the Yukon XL with rear or four-wheel drive, and in two load ratings. The popular 1500 model is rated to tow trailers up to 8800 pounds with 2WD, or 8600 pounds with 4WD. The heavier-duty 2500 is rated to pull trailers up to 12,000 pounds in 2WD or 4WD. Each of these variations is available in two trim levels, the already well-equipped SLE and even better equipped SLT.
New for 2001 is the luxurious Yukon XL Denali. (GMC has offered a Denali version of the shorter Yukon since 1998.) Based on the 4WD Yukon XL 1500, the Yukon XL Denali packs a bigger engine and more sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive, and makes standard nearly every option offered on the regular Yukon XL models. Distinctive grille, wheels, body cladding, and interior trim distinguish the Denali from the rest of the Yukon XL line.
All Yukon XL 1500s in SLE or SLT trim come with a 285-horsepower 5.3-liter Vortec V8. Yukon XL Denali comes only with a 320-horsepower 6.0-liter Vortec V8. 2500s offer a choice of the 6.0-liter V8, or a new-for-2001 340-horsepower 8.1-liter Vortec big-bock V8.
Regardless of engine, all XL models come with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission.
SLE/SLT Yukon XLs with 4WD use a fairly conventional part-time system GM calls Autotrac; it uses a two-speed transfer case that locks front and rear axle speeds together in four-wheel-drive mode. This is the traditional kind of four-wheel drive that is considered best for serious off-road driving. Pressing a button switches the system to an Auto 4WD mode that automatically shifts torque between the front and rear wheels as conditions demand.
Denali comes with a more sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system from supplier New Venture Gear that uses a planetary center differential set for a 38/62 front/rear torque split; a silicone viscous coupling unit progressively locks up if one axle or the other starts to slip. This is all contained in a cast-magnesium housing that saves 15 pounds compared to Autotrac. Aluminum front and rear prop shafts save even more weight and minimize vibration. A locking rear differential, optional on other Yukon XLs, is standard on Denali.
Prices start at $35,552 for the 1500 and $36,924 for the 2500; add $2400-$2500 for 4WD. Two different SLT packages are offered, one adding $2050, and the other $2968, to the cost of an SLE. Denali is priced at $47,450, but that figure includes every possible option except an engine-block heater, power sunroof, and second-row bucket seats.
The most obvious aspect of the all-new Denali is that its styling is mildly evolutionary, not radically changed. While the new model looks similar to its predecessor, park a new one beside last year's model and the changes are immediately evident. One change is an arched roofline that provides extra headroom for the second and third rows. All the sharp creases on the previous body have been smoothed.
Denali buyers are limited to a traditional hatch rear door with flip-up window. Utility-minded shoppers looking for side-by-side cargo doors will have to limit themselves to an ordinary Yukon. GM completely redesigned the Yukon XL and Suburban for 2000. From chassis to interior, the Yukon XL is a more refined and comfortable vehicle than the 1999 Suburban. The frame is stronger, yet lighter, providing a tremendously good platform. Generous cross bracing adds stiffness, helping to retain the rigid chassis as well as allowing engineers to design a suspension that soaks up the jarring bumps and craters found on and off road.
For 2001, SLE and SLT Yukon XLs retain the slightly rounded-off styling introduced for 2000. Compared to earlier Suburbans, the Yukon XL is strikingly different, yet familiar at the same time. The design hasn't changed so much that you wonder whether it's equal to the capabilities of the previous model. Be assured it is just as capable, yet more contemporary.
The Denali trades the standard Yukon XL's black grille for a bright mask of fine-metal mesh. But the Denali goes with body-color rather than bright bumpers to keep the overall flash level about equal. Round fog lights are neatly tunneled into the lower part of the front bumper. (All Yukon XLs have fog lights, but they are less conspicuous on standard models.) Oddly shaped lower body cladding incorporates front and rear stone guards and does blend nicely into Denali's standard color-keyed running boards.
Less visible are the mechanical improvements that GMC has made to all Yukons for 2001. The 5.3-liter V8 has tighter bearing tolerances for quieter operation, and its mass air-flow meter now uses an integral temperature sensor for more accurate fuel metering. Other changes, including platinum-tipped spark plugs, are designed to reduce maintenance requirements.
The 6.0-liter V8, meanwhile, now breathes through lightweight aluminum cylinder heads with more aggressive porting. Valve lift and duration have been re-tuned to match the new ports, boosting horsepower from 300 last year to this year's 320. (According to GMC, that's 10 horsepower more than the 310 developed by Ford's 6.8-liter V10.).
GMC has gone to great lengths to make the Denali's interior more comfortable, easier to operate and more attractive for families. Getting inside the 2001 Yukon Denali is easier thanks to new pull-handle style door handles that replace the old lift-up style openers. Step-in height has been reduced, making it easier to climb into the driver's seat.
All controls are mounted closer to the driver's seat. Visibility out of the Yukon is very good, thanks to new larger windows. The combination of good visibility and confident handling give the Yukon an air of nimbleness that the Lincoln Navigator lacks.
GMC Denali also tops Lincoln Navigator in the usefulness of its third-row seat. While the Lincoln's third seat is a children-only compression chamber, the Yukon's third seat provides space for adults' feet. It isn't a lot of space, but it is there. The third seat also folds, flips, slides and removes impressively. Whichever way you choose to stow the third-row seat, it is easy to do; it even has wheels to help it roll into the garage for storage.
The Denali features optional second-row bucket seats that give passengers better support and let them adjust their seats individually to suit each person. The leather upholstery is very nice looking and feels comfortable. Seat-mounted shoulder harnesses on the front and rear seats make the Yukon's belts easier to wear.
Music lovers will enjoy the Bose Acoustimass 11-speaker stereo with a subwoofer. It uses a spiral-wrapped radio antenna to cut wind noise. GMC says it chose to use a conventional mast rather than embedding the antenna in a window for better performance. Interior designs for GMC trucks have become very untruck-like. The Yukon XL dash retains a utilitarian aspect, with instruments and controls familiar to owners of other GM vehicles, yet the entire appearance is more contemporary.
Our test vehicle was a Yukon XL Denali, whose tone-on-tone leather bucket seats suggest a luxury sedan more than anything even distantly related to a truck. Seat belts mount to the seat frame, and the side-impact airbags are incorporated into the seats. Ten-way power adjustments include side bolsters, lumbar support, and articulated headrests.
Other unique Denali features include teal-green instrument lighting, a specific center console with storage space for CDs, cloth-covered sun visors with pull-out extensions and lighted vanity mirrors, theatre dimming of interior lamps, and nine acoustic floor dampers to keep Denali exceptionally quiet.
Our Denali had the 50/50 split bench seat in the second row, although a pair of heated bucket seats is available for the second row for $290.
The third-row bench also splits 50/50 so that each side can be folded independently. The first two rows are convenient and relatively easy to slide into or out of. However, the third row is a bit more challenging. While members of our test group were all able to use the seat, a few of our larger cohorts felt it wasn't the place for them. Still, they're a vast improvement over any of the third rows in smaller SUVs.
Last year, buyers could not order both a power sliding sunroof and automatic air conditioning, because the location of the controls conflicted. GMC has fixed the conflict this year, and added separate controls for the rear-seat heater. Front and rear heating and air conditioning is standard on all Yukon models; automatic climate control is optional on SLE/SLT and standard on Denali.
GM's OnStar security and information service is standard on Denali, optional on SLT.
Buyers of basic SLE or SLT Yukons can select either side-by-side cargo doors or an all-aluminum liftgate with a glass section that lifts independently. the liftgate is convenient for quickly adding and removing lightweight items to the cargo compartment. We preferred the cargo doors because they open wide and allow a closer working position to the vehicle's storage area. Cargo doors are also useful when pulling trailers because they will usually clear the trailer tongue jack. The hinges can be released, allowing the doors to open fully when loading large items. However, the luxury-oriented Denali offers only the lightweight liftgate. The liftgate has the advantage of offering better rearward visibility than the cargo doors, which block the view in the center where the doors meet.
Yukon Denali delivers on the promise of its impressive specifications. On bumpy rural byways that make some SUVs feel like pogo sticks, the Yukon rides with impressive, sedan-like smoothness. On smooth highways, the Yukon cruises effortlessly.
Car-based SUVs such as the Lexus RX300 use independent rear suspension to provide the ride and handling customers expect, but GMC has managed to give the Denali those benefits without compromising its cargo-carrying utility. A new five-link coil spring rear suspension contributes to better ride and handling than any vehicle in this class. The front suspension is conventional in design, except for the springs. To save space, the Yukon Denali uses torsion bars instead of coil springs in the front. The Denali's conventional ladder frame is fully boxed in the mid-section for maximum rigidity, while the front and rear portions are shaped by the same hydro-forming technique used to make Corvette frames. This rigid design is a key to the Yukon's excellent ride and handling. At the very front of the frame is a section that is designed to crush and absorb impacts in a crash.
The AutoRide computer-controlled suspension helps keep the Denali level over bumps. This effect is especially pronounced when towing; a trailer tends to cause the towing vehicle to rock back and forth when driving over bumps, but the AutoRide system keeps the Denali amazingly smooth.
The recirculating-ball steering provides good control and feedback, even if it falls short of the rack-and-pinion steering found on the Ford Explorer and in many sports cars. Denali's power steering system is designed for durability by operating at a lower temperature range. A much-tighter 38.3-foot turning diameter makes the Yukon easier to park than before.
Handling is impressive and surefooted for a full-size SUV.
The rear axle now carries dual-piston brake calipers for its disc brakes. Along with bigger front discs, the new Yukon Denali enjoys a much-needed upgrade in the stopping department. The upgraded brakes perform nicely. To check this out, we towed a heavily laden horse trailer without trailer brakes connected and were impressed with the braking ability. A dynamic proportioning system continuously balances the front and rear brakes for maximum braking without activating the ABS.
Under the hood, the Yukons employ the latest version of Chevy's small-block V8 engine family. These Generation III overhead-valve engines are the best yet and rival competitors' overhead-cam engines for smoothness and efficiency.
The new 6.0-liter version cranks out 320 horsepower, which is 45 more than the old 5.7-liter motor. That power comes at the expense of a mediocre EPA gas mileage rating of 12 mpg city and 16 mpg highway, but that is similar to the ratings of some vehicles with much less horsepower and lower towing capacities. At least the 6.0-liter V8 burns regular unleaded fuel, making pit stops a little more affordable. (See NewCarTestDrive.com's review of the 2000 Yukon for more information about standard Yukon engines.)
The all-wheel-drive Denali features a fluid coupled transfer case that sends 38 percent of the available torque to the front wheels and 62 percent to the rear, maintaining constant traction. (Standard Yukons are available with a more traditional four-wheel-drive system or a two-wheel-drive setup with optional traction control.)
All Yukon Denalis are equipped to accept a lighting plug for trailer towing, and have provisions for connecting a trailer brake controller very easily. They also have a new heavy-duty version of the four-speed automatic transmission that is made with hardened parts to withstand the extra power of the 6.0-liter engine. For drivers' peace of mind while towing, the Denali features a transmission fluid temperature gauge, so they can be confident they are not cooking the transmission when pulling a trailer up hills. The new Yukon XL displayed its ruggedness while driving through the Sierras near Lake Tahoe, California. Here, we were able to drive through conditions produced by the natural occurrence of weather and terrain that only the Sierras can provide. The rugged buttes stretching skyward provided everything from warm sun to freezing snow and ice. Our drive took us from just a few feet above sea level to lofty treeless altitudes. While a loss of power at these heights is noticeable in any vehicle, our Yukon XL equipped with the 5.3-liter V8 continued on with barely a hiccup. It persevered through muck and mire as we climbed ever deeper into the mountains and weather conditions grew worse.
New for 2000 is the AutoRide suspension system, a fully automatic suspension, which varies the amount of damping the vehicle may need. Whether towing a horse trailer or picking up the soccer team, AutoRide continually adjusts the suspension for optimum ride and handling. This technology also helps reduce dive on braking (so that the nose of the vehicle doesn't dip down unduly) and body roll (or lean) during cornering. AutoRide is a $700 option on 1500s, $750 on 2500s, and standard on Denali.
The suspension system soaked up the large potholes and rough terrain we encountered. Not surprisingly, the 1500 model, which comes with torsion bars up front and coil springs in the rear, smoothed out road vibration much better than the 2500 model, which is fitted with rear leaf springs. That comes with the territory of the larger load-hauling capability of the 2500 series. By far, most buyers opt for the 1500-series Yukon XL models, which offer good towing capability. But the 2500 is the better choice for pulling extremely heavy trailers.
The independent front suspension flattens the most rugged terrain so that the Yukon XL's passengers feel coddled, while the solid rear axle allows impressive towing capability. The suspension also contributes to the 2001 Yukon XL's tighter turning radius when compared with pre-2000 models, and that's useful for crowded parking lots, U-turns, and off-road driving.
Good brakes are important for a vehicle that weighs more than two tons and is sometimes asked to pull heavy trailers. With the Yukon's redesign came exceptionally good brakes, with 40 percent larger ventilated discs at the front wheels, and big 13.2-inch discs on the rear axle. While we equate fast emergency braking maneuvers with testing a vehicle's ability to stop, sometimes being able to stop straight and true at slow speeds is important, and the Yukon XL delivers on that front. The previous-generation Suburban had a mushy brake pedal, but that has been replaced with a much firmer pedal in this new Yukon XL for improved driver control.
More than once we were particularly glad for the quick manner in which the driver can shift the Yukon XL in and out of four-wheel drive. Four switches mounted on the left side of the instrument panel make it is easy to change modes. The top switch engages GMC's automatic four-wheel-drive system, Autotrac, which automatically transfers power from the slipping wheel to the wheels with traction. A switch controls two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and four-wheel drive low-range. This system makes shifting from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive and back as easy as turning on the radio.
By contrast, the Denali's full-time all-wheel-drive system requires no input from the driver.
Responsiveness from each of the three available V8 engines is excellent. Yet we continually returned to the big 6.0-liter with its 320 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque. A carry-over from the truck line is the tow/haul transmission mode. By pushing a switch on the end of the gearshift lever, the driver can change the shifting points of the automatic transmission. The tow/haul mode improves performance while towing through mountainous terrain and lessens wear on the transmission.
GMC Yukon Denali gives full-size SUV shoppers an alternative to their Cadillac dealer when shopping for a luxury SUV from General Motors. Yukon Denali is styled more conventionally than the Escalade, so some buyers may be more comfortable with its traditional appearance. But both are comfortable, roomy SUVs that get surprisingly good gas mileage. Denali offers more power and more seating capacity than its predecessor and adds safety features such as side-impact air bags. These changes don't just make the new Yukon Denali better than the old one; they make it one of the best full-size luxury SUVs available. In its most basic guise, or dressed up as the luxurious Denali, the Yukon XL retains all the ruggedness and versatility that the old GMC Suburban taught us to expect.
If you have the need to move several people, loads of stuff, and/or a heavy trailer, all at the same time, then GMC's Yukon XL is a great choice.
Yukon Denali ($45,950); Yukon SLE ($32,200). 1500 SLE 2WD ($35,552), 4WD ($37,983); SLT 2WD ($37,602), 4WD ($40,033); Denali 4WD ($47,450)
2500 SLE 2WD ($36,924); 4WD ($39,439); SLT 2WD ($38,974), 4WD ($41,489).
Janesville, Wisconsin. Janesville, Wisconsin; Silao, Mexico.
Options As Tested
Denali ($45,950). Yukon XL Denali ($47,450).
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