GMC Yukon Denali

Review Notes:2005 GMC Yukon Denali AWD
Personality Real truck with lots of advanced technology and luxury features
Quirks GM overloaded stalk
Unusual features Sheer number of luxury bits
Above Average for Price Sturdy drivetrain, punch at any speed
Needs Work In While gas mileage is good for the class, it could always be better
Driveway Test Passed easily

Take one best-selling full-sized SUV, add about $10,000 in options, change the interior and grille, and you have either the GMC Yukon Denali, a car whose upscale status is reflected by the DENALI nameplate on the side - not Yukon, the model name, but Denali, the trim level.

The GMC Yukon is one of the few big SUVs that can actually make it through very deep snows, hence the name. Its relatively efficient drivetrain, good brakes, and reputation for durability have made it stand out from the crowd, and we favor the Yukon's strong chassis and drivetrain over the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator.

The heavy duty nature of the truck makes the ride stiff and jiggly, but still quite good for a truck of this capacity. If you are not looking for a work or tow truck, we strongly advise options such as all-wheel-drive minivans or car-based minivans such as the Pacifica and Rendezvous. If safety is a concern, minivans have a better record overall than SUVs, and the Pacifica, as an example, has all wheel drive and airbags for each and every row of seats, with five-star crash test ratings all around. That said, if you are looking for a truck to carry a lot of people or cargo, or to haul a few thousand pounds of trailer around, the Yukon may be your best choice.

Based on the full-size GMC pickups, the Yukon has a tough chassis, with a comfortable, practical interior, and surprisingly civilized ride and handling. Indeed, many who would never think of buying an American car happily buy a Yukon or one of its siblings - the Suburban, Tahoe, and Escalade.

Handling is better than one would expect of such a large and heavy vehicle, but again it falls short of vehicles designed to carry people rather than cargo. Speed sensitive steering provides easy turns at low speeds and easy driving at high speeds, with a surprisingly - even shockingly - tight turning radius. We were amazed at how such a wide, long vehicle managed to make sharp turns and get out of tight squeezes. The Yukon also has an electronic stability control system that takes the vehicle's already-capable handling and makes it even better. The ride is fairly stiff, as one might expect from a heavy duty vehicle, and rough roads make themselves known. The body jiggles over any kind of washboard surface, but deep ruts and shocks are cushioned well.

The standard four-speed automatic transmission seems a little more responsive than the last one we tested, or perhaps we were simply more patient this time around. It shifts smoothly yet firmly.

The six-liter V8 provides instant oomph at any speed, just as it does in the SSR - only it has much more weight to push around, and is not tuned for as much power (335 hp vs the SSR's 390, and 375 lb-ft of torque vs the SSR's 390). Still, it moves well from any speed and has good torque, providing instant satisfaction, and has a surprisingly quick sprint time of 7 seconds 0-60 (which may not sound like much compared with sport compacts, but consider the vehicle size, capacity, and instant-on torque - no need to wind up the engine - and it feels better). An 8.1 liter V8 is also available, with a bit less horsepower but 440 lb-ft of torque, on the Yukon XL 2500.

Standard suspension and traction features on the Denali are Stabilitrak (electronic stability control which includes traction control), all wheel drive, an autoride suspension with self-leveling rear shocks, and four-wheel antilock brakes.

The Denali comes to a stop quickly on dry surfaces, outclassing many competitors in this very important test, though we don't advise overtaxing the suspension - you can quickly get into trouble with this much weight on four tires. Visibility is good for the class thanks partly to large side mirrors, but there are big blind spots in all such vehicles. The generously sized sun visors included slide-out inserts which increased their range and usefulness.

Wind noise is low, accompanied by a pleasant, deep note from the exhaust.

The interior is spacious, about the size of a long-wheelbase minivan, with three rows of seats for carrying seven people comfortably or eight for a short distance. The Denali XL has a longer wheelbase, with captain's chairs in the middle to ease access to the back row; the normal Denali makes getting into the back seats rather hard (though our model did have optional captain's chairs in the middle row).

The instrument panel is large and clear, with gauges for coolant and transmission temperature, oil pressure, and fuel level, along with a full size tachometer and speedometer. It does not convey a sense of luxury; in keeping with the GMC brand, it's utilitarian and plain. The transmission has a sensible column shift and foot brake which makes it easy to fully apply the parking brakes. A hand-operated lever also makes it easy to release the brake and get going again. The only poorly designed control, in our opinion, is the standard GM cruise control, placed on the same lever as the directional signals and wiper/washer, and requiring too much attention to operate. We were also a bit surprised at the old-fashioned tilt-wheel, which only allows the wheel to be moved up and down in large increments, with no telescoping.

There are a huge number of controls, reflecting the large number of features. On the driver's door alone are two heated seat controls - one for the seat back, and another for the seat bottom - along with the dual driver preference controls, a button to move the seat all the way back for easy exit, pedal fore/aft controls, the window switches, and the mirror adjustment pod, which also lets you fold both mirrors in or out electrically to make it easier to walk past the vehicle (or go through very tight spaces). This last feature is quite handy in crowded parking lots and may save younger people bumps on the head.

The dashboard has a relatively small number of buttons and knobs - the rear wiper/washer is in the same pod as the fog lights, next to the headlight knob / interior lighting rheostat. You can choose between automatic headlights, parking lights, and headlights on; you can shut off the headlight just for one ride by moving the knob counter-clockwise. GM clearly wants you to have the headlights on, or to just let the truck decide for you.

There actually seem to be more controls on the steering wheel than on the dash, with radio buttons on the main spoke (volume, seek, and source), voice commands next to the radio source switches, and trip computer buttons on the two minor spokes. There are four trip computer controls; road information provides two trip odometers, tire pressures (for each individual tire), engine hours, and elapsed time. The gas button provides range, fuel used, oil life left (which can save a lot of time and a little money on oil changes, since the system generally leads to much longer oil-change intervals), and average mileage along with distance to empty. The third function lets you set vehicle preferences such as automatic lock behavior, how long the headlights stay on, and such.

Finally, we have the typical GM overloaded stalk with the wiper/washer, brights, turn signal, and cruise; and on the right side the shifter with its built-in trailer mode button.

A clever automatic system detects whether the passenger is a child or an adult - and shuts off the airbag if the passenger is a child. Annoyingly, however, the system's readout is always on, and is positioned on the rear-view mirror. In 2004, GM seems to have dimmed the bright amber display to make it less annoying.

Our test vehicle had a full compliment of comfort options, inluding the new three-zone thermostatically operated climate control system. Similar to those used on minivans, the three-zone system lets the driver, front passenger, and rear passengers all have different heat levels. The system is generally easy to understand and use, and is standard on the Denali. There are many air vents in the rear cabin, and any can be re-aimed or closed completely. In our test car, even the middle row of seats had their own seat warmers, in addition to their independent climate control (which can be overruled from up front). The climate controls are too far away for younger children to reach from their seats.

We liked the moonroof, an unusual feature for an SUV, which provided a sense of spaciousness.

We also had the XM Satellite radio system, which provides largely commercial-free, independently-programmed music on 100 clear channels. Unless you're under heavy tree cover or in a tunnel, the system works remarkably well, and is treated by the stereo as just another band - presets work just fine. The system works nicely with the navigation screen (optional), providing the channel name, song title, and artist name, six preset buttons (with the names of the channels shown), and the time; when the map is showing, pressing the radio status button brings up the main radio screen.

The optional OnStar system, which we recommend, came in handy for us when we got lost in Paterson, New Jersey, on a dark, rainy night. It took twenty minutes, but the OnStar operator guided us to the main highway, with never a hint of asking us to call back. He even dialed our appointment so we could say we'd be late. OnStar concierge services also handle things like hotel reservations, and the basic OnStar package includes emergency services - they know when you've crashed, and will send an ambulance.

Rounding out our comfort and convenience features is a built-in, minivan-style DVD video system, with a roof-mounted screen, remote control, and wireless headphones. The system can be played through the main stereo, though in our case, it would only work if we selected the source from the steering wheel control - and defaulted back to AM radio whenever the car was restarted. One thing we liked about the system was its no-intervention-required programming: it didn't get stuck at the DVD start menu, but went right ahead and played the movie without any prompting. That's the kind of behavior that makes friends.

Our model had four captain's chairs with built in, folding arms, and a rear bench seat holding three people. The middle and rear seats flip and fold to form a flat loading surface.

Up front, there are many places to put things, including a large center bin (nearly large enough for a box of tissues), large dual cupholders, a covered slot in the center stack, and map pockets in the doors. A built-in garage door opener is placed by the rotating front dome lights. Overall, the interior design is clean, uncluttered, and practical. If you want more, you have to spring for the Cadillac Escalade.

We also had the optional navigation system, which works very well if with infuriatingly slow speed. Those with sensitive hearing may sometimes be annoyed by the sound of the DVD constantly seeking on the road. More likeable is the fact that the entire screen is touch sensitive, and that things actually do what you'd expect. For example, if you press the compass, the screen changes orientation between North being up and your current direction being up; pressing the time brings up the date. It's sensible touches like these that make the difference between being useful and being infuriating (like Toyota's system). We would only ask for larger physical control buttons - which may not be possible without sacrificing some screen space - and, in an ideal world, physical stereo favorite-channel buttons. Overall, the system worked well.

The Denali has minivan features such as rear audio and climate control systems, with separate controls; lots of accessory jacks; side front airbags; and OnStar. The all wheel drive is the "normal driving" kind popularized by Subaru, which is simply always in all wheel drive mode and is not meant for off-roading.

Other standard features include 17" polished aluminum wheels, tire pressure monitoring, battery rundown protection, and keyless entry; heated outside mirrors that fold in electrically; steps to help people climb in; luggage carrier side rails; fog lamps; nine-speaker Bose stereo with CD changer and cassette player; light sensitive rear-view mirror with compass and thermometer; ten-way power driver and passenger front seats; power windows; driver information system; a whopping big 26 gallon fuel tank; and "commitment plus" priviledges including courtesy transportation if repairs are needed. This is all included in the base price of $50,710. Some of that is the options, and some is the exclusive nature of the Denali. People paying that much might not care about the rather high fuel costs. The base Yukon is nearly $18,000 less. That's enough to buy a base-model minivan, and is nearly enough for a supercharged Cobalt that's a whole lotta fun.

Our Denali cost $54,490. That includes a $4,290 package with the moonroof, navigation system, and rear-seat DVD player built into the roof, and a $490 charge for the middle-row captain's chairs (with included armrests on both sides).

We don't think you can buy a better full-size SUV (well, maybe an Escalade), but if you don't need to haul thousands of pounds of stuff around, we suggest you look at the Chevrolet Venture, Chrysler Pacifica, or any of a number of large but more efficient vehicles. Most Yukon buyers absolutely do not need all the truck they are getting, and, at 14 mpg, that's a shame.