2001 GMC Yukon Denali and Denali XL First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
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2001 GMC Yukon SUV

(6.0L V8 AWD 4-speed Automatic)

Yukon Goes Upscale

Despite gas prices cracking the $2-a-gallon barrier in many instances, the full-size luxo-SUV market is booming. In the American nameplate segment, the Lincoln Navigator and upcoming all-new Cadillac Escalade lead the way with sumptuous interiors, high-tech drivetrains and near 50K price tags.

Being that Ford has the Expedition and Navigator, it stands to reason that (besides Cadillac) The General would have a fancy-schmancy version of the Chevy/GMC Tahoe/Yukon and Suburban/Yukon XL. If you're wondering what that might be, wonder no more. The full-zoot GM utility vehicles are marketed under the GMC banner and are known as the Yukon Denali and Denali XL (read, the fanciest version of the Suburban there is). Think of the Yukon Denali XL as the biggest and most luxury-laden ute you can get since Lincoln doesn't market an upscale version of the Ford Excursion. What would that one be called? The World Navigator maybe?

Anyway, enough of our feeble attempts at model naming, let's take a look GMC's fresh new full-size SUVs, because these things aren't just a rehash like the first Caddy Escalades that were nothing but Chevy Tahoes with Cadillac emblems.

But first we'll note that almost all of what we discuss here applies to both the standard Denali (same size as a regular Yukon or Chevy Tahoe) and the Denali XL, which has the same dimensions of a Chevy Suburban or Yukon XL. The main distinction with both sizes is that the Denali nameplate implies the high-end of the spectrum much like Eddie Bauer does on Ford SUVs.

That said, the full-time all-wheel-drive Denalis (two-wheel drive isn't offered in Denali trim) are loaded with a whole slew of new features, not the least of which is a muscled-up iteration of the Vortec 6000 (6.0-liter) V8 engine.

The largest version of GM's Gen III small-block V8 that's used in trucks and SUVs corporate-wide (the only car applications of the Gen III motor are for Camaro/Firebird and Corvette), this engine makes an impressive 320 horsepower and 365 foot-pounds of torque at 5,000 rpm and 4,000 rpm, respectively. Furthermore, this powerplant delivers 90 percent of its peak torque from 1,500 to 5,200 rpm, which makes it perfect for heavy towing situations.

Several features of the Vortec 6000 have been specially added for Denali duty. They include aluminum cylinder heads with improved intake and exhaust ports, a different cam than standard 6000s, and a fly-by-wire throttle control that uses an electronic signal rather than a cable or mechanical link to connect the accelerator pedal to the throttle body.

All Denalis will come equipped with a heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission called the 4L60-E HD. While not as big as the massive 4L80-E used in three-quarter- and 1-ton trucks, this beefed-up unit has numerous upgrades over the standard 4L60-E for towing and added durability behind the Denali-specific 6.0-liter powerplant.

Part of the reason we'd justify the purchase of a vehicle as large as the Denali XL (or even a regular Denali) is towing ability. In that department, these babies don't disappoint one bit. With a standard 3.73 axle ratio across the board, both Denali and Denali XL are eminently capable tow rigs. The smaller-brother Denali is a bruiser that can lug 8,500 pounds along the highway. The XL is rated to tow near the same amount at a still mighty impressive 8,400 pounds.

Numerous other mechanical revisions or outright additions highlight the Denalis, such as a better all-wheel-drive transfer case, stronger axles in the rear end and the standard Autoride computer-controlled suspension and damping system. FYI, many of these systems are similar to those that will appear in the upcoming 2002 Cadillac Escalade since that vehicle could ostensibly be considered yet a fancier version of the Denali. The most significant difference is the Escalade gets its own unique version of the 6.0-liter Vortec V8 that makes 345 horsepower.

But we like the look of the Denali better just as we like the looks of an Expedition better than those of the garish and gaudy Navigator. Take a look at the photos and see for yourself as, for example, the front end has been nicely redesigned with a single-piece bumper fascia that encompasses two tow hooks, round fog lights and a four-bar lower grille. There are also 17-inch wheels, a monochromatic paint scheme, and body-side moldings to integrate the design with the running boards, and a brushed stainless-steel exhaust tip to punctuate the powerful character of these machines.

As with the Escalade, the Yukon Denalis are full luxo all the way. Inside might be few differences appearance-wise (the Escalade gets its own gauge cluster, for example) but for all intents and purposes, the cabins are the same. That's not a bad thing, because we'd say that all three of GM's luxo-utes (the two Denalis and the Escalade) are now equipped with the nicest cabins you're going to find in this segment.

Standard in the Denali (and Escalade) is the new generation of GM's OnStar system that now includes Virtual Advisor and Personal Calling. The laundry list of other standard appointments is also quite awe-inspiring. Highlights include ABS, a six-disc CD changer with an 11-speaker hi-fi setup and rear seat controls, a driver information center (DIC), electronic HVAC controls, two-tone leather seating, 10-way power seats up front, heated front and second-row seats, remote keyless entry, a trailer package that'll handle the aforementioned towing capacities, and about 25 other features that makes the option list for the Denali very short. In fact, the Denali and Denali XL are so loaded, the option list includes a total of three items: a sunroof, second-row bucket seats on the big-brother XL, and an engine-block heater that's standard in Canadian market versions.

As we said earlier, one purpose we see as key to justifying the need for an SUV as huge as a Denali XL is towing capacity. The other is interior volume and cargo space. Of course, the XL (just like a Suburban) is the champ in this segment supplanted only by the much-less luxurious Excursion. In fact, the XL is the choice if you want jumbo size and decadent luxury all in once place since it's bigger than an Expedition, Tahoe, Yukon or regular Denali and it's scads more plush than an F-Series Super Duty-based Excursion. Still, the standard Denali is plenty roomy enough for most with 16.3 cubic feet of space when set up to carry eight people. Remove the third-row seat and space more than triples to 63.6 cubic feet. With all seating removed other than room for two up front, it nearly doubles again to 104.6.

Hang on to your hat for the XL as it's a big boy. With seating for eight, you still get 45.7 cubic feet of storage. Remove the third row and that figure doubles to 90. In full cargo-carrying mode, the XL is positively cavernous with a full 131.6 cubic feet of cargo-carrying capacity.

We think how much an SUV can carry or tow is at least as important as how it drives, if not more so. If you're in the market for any SUV (especially when they're as massive as the Denali XL) and expecting it to drive like an Audi S4, then you're barking up the wrong tree. The bottom line is that full-size SUVs are heavy, they guzzle gas, and their center-of-gravity is less than ideal no matter the make and model. However, just like with cars, some are certainly more pleasant to drive and the GMC offerings are near the top of the heap.

Just don't expect the tightly controlled feel of a sport sedan or sporty coupe. That said, the Denalis (both big and huge) are nice enough to pilot even for those whose appreciation of a fine-driving car goes beyond the masses. These machines are whisper-quiet on the highway, they coddle you with every power convenience we can think of except for an automatic back-scratcher, they have more than adequate power for getting around econoboxes and big rigs, and they can clearly carry and tow with the best of anything else that's available in the world.

In fact, GM's full-size SUV brigade might be the best in the world. From the lowest-optioned Tahoe to the full-boat near 50-large (pricing for the Denali will begin at $46,650, while the XL Denali will be $48,185) Yukon Denali XL, we wouldn't steer anyone away from a Chevy or GMC SUV. Be it a Tahoe, Suburban, Yukon, Yukon XL or the high-end GMC Yukon Denali stablemates, it's clear that these vehicles -- along with their full-size Chevy and GMC truck counterparts that share powertrains and several other technical highlights -- are among the best products that General Motors currently has on the market.

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