They don't get much bigger, or much better, than this.
by Ron Moorhead
Base Price (MSRP) $36,157
As Tested (MSRP) $48,815
If you need three rows of seats on a regular basis and a minivan doesn't offer enough cargo room, then this is one of the best vehicles available for the job. And the only reason we say “one of” is because the Chevrolet Suburban is the other one. Each delivers the same great ability to carry six to nine people and/or a boatload of cargo. And they do it in comfort.
Based on GM's excellent full-size truck platform, the GMC Yukon XL and the Chevy Suburban are in many respects identical, but there are some key differences that go well beyond styling cues. GMC is GM's upscale truck division, so the Yukon XL is available with more luxury, more power, and better handling in adverse conditions than what's available from Chevrolet. At the top of the GMC model line is the Yukon XL Denali, an upscale version of the Yukon XL that comes with a powerful 6.0-liter V8 and all-wheel drive.
Completely re-engineered for the 2000 model year, the Yukon XL was further refined for 2001 and the Denali model was added. For 2002, the transmissions, the steering system, starter motors, child seat anchors, and other parts have been upgraded or redesigned for improved durability or better operation. More low-emissions models are also available. But, for the most part, the Yukon XL is unchanged over last year.
The GMC Yukon XL is a long-wheelbase version of the Yukon, just as the Chevrolet Suburban is a long wheelbase version of the Tahoe. 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 NewCarTestDrive.com review of the standard-wheelbase GMC Yukon and Yukon Denali.)
GMC offers the Yukon XL with two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. It comes 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 heavy-duty 2500 is rated to pull trailers up to 12,000 pounds in 2WD or 4WD. (Unless you're pulling heavy trailers, you'll want the 1500 model for its smoother ride quality.)
Each of these variations is available in two trim levels, the already well-equipped SLE and even better-equipped SLT.
Yukon XL Denali adds a bigger engine and a sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system to the Yukon XL. Denali also comes standard with nearly every option offered on the regular Yukon XL models. A distinctive grille, wheels, body cladding, and interior trim distinguish the Denali from the rest of the Yukon XL line.
All Yukon XL 1500 models 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. 2500 models offer a choice of the 6.0-liter V8, or a monster 340-horsepower 8.1-liter big-block Vortec V8.
All models come with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission.
Yukon XL 4WD models 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. A locking rear differential is optional.
Denali comes with a more sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system 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 the standard 4WD system. Aluminum front and rear prop shafts save even more weight and minimize vibration. A locking rear differential is standard on the Denali.
Prices start at $36,157 for the 1500 and $37,529 for the 2500. Add about $2600 for 4WD. Two different SLT packages are offered, one adding $2105, and the other $3273, to the cost of an SLE. Denali is priced at $48,050, but includes every possible option except an engine-block heater ($35), power sunroof ($1000), and second-row bucket seats ($490).
Today's GMC Yukon XL is a completely redesigned and re-engineered version of the 1999 GMC Suburban. (GMC and Chevrolet shared the Suburban nameplate prior to 2000.) Compared to the old Suburbans, the Yukon XL is strikingly different, yet familiar at the same time. Its styling is more rounded, like the old one was put into a giant polisher.
The Denali trades the standard Yukon XL's black grille for a bright mask of fine-metal mesh, but swaps the chrome bumpers for body-color 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 blends nicely into the Denali's color-keyed running boards.
Seating and cargo carrying are key features of this giant SUV, so we'll start with that. In our view, other SUVs with three rows of seats offer a workable solution for people who only occasionally need the third row. Cramming six or eight people into a Tahoe, Yukon, Ford Expedition, or a smaller SUV on a daily basis, however, may be cruel though not unusual treatment for third-row passengers. Minivans can carry seven passengers in relative comfort, but there's not much room behind the third row for their luggage. And Ford's Excursion is just too much truck for anyone who's not pulling a big boat or a big horse trailer. That leaves the Chevy Suburban and GMC Yukon XL. Short of driving a shuttle bus, you just can't beat these two behemoths of modern motoring for moving people and stuff.
The standard front seat setup in a Yukon XL is a three-passenger reclining 40/20/40 split bench with six-way power driver and passenger seat adjusters with dual manual lumbar support. Front bucket seats are available and we like them better when seven or fewer passengers need to be moved. Either way, the front seats in these vehicles are generally comfortable and supportive. Seat belts mount to the seat frame, and the side-impact airbags are incorporated into the seats. The basic GMC Yukon XL comes with nice custom cloth upholstery. Leather seating is available as part of an options package. Leather seating surfaces come standard on the Denali, and its tone-on-tone leather bucket seats suggest a luxury sedan more than a truck; 10-way power adjustments include side bolsters, lumbar support, and articulated headrests.
For the second row, the standard deal is a three-passenger 60/40 fold-down bench seat. Denali offers a choice of 50/50 split bench seat in the second row or a pair of heated bucket seats for $490. Because it seats three people, the bench seat offers more options for carrying passengers. If four adults plus two children is all you'll ever need to carry, then the second-row bucket seats are very comfortable. Second-row passengers in the Denali's optional bucket seats get a great pair of cup holders that flip out of the back of the center console. Just above are their comprehensive audio controls and headphone jacks. A pair of covered cigar-lighter style power outlets is available for running accessories. Besides the seat heaters, they get a pair of ceiling vents on each side that can be aimed. The driver controls the rear passengers' temperature and fan speeds and can direct the air to upper or lower vents or both.
The third row is a bench seat. It is surprisingly comfortable, unlike most third-row SUV seats. While many third-row seats put a fender under half your butt, leaning your body toward the inside, the Yukon XL provides a comfortable bench seat. Larger passengers may not love sitting back there, but most adults can tolerate the third row. There are cup holders for each person, great when heading to an event with a boatload of friends. Overhead vents can be aimed for heating and air conditioning, good because the rear side windows cannot be opened. A pair of three-point seat belts are nicely designed and easy to use. As with the other rows, the seat belts are integrated into the seats, which is the direction many manufacturers are taking now. There is a lap belt in the center of the third row, but putting three people back there is optimistic as the third row is considerably narrower than the first two rows to accommodate the rear wheels. Getting into the third row is a bit challenging, however. Third-row passengers will require assistance to get in or out as someone will have to move the second-row seats out of the way for them. Minivans tend to be much easier to deal with in this regard.
Need to haul some stuff? Yukon XL offers 45.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row. That's a lot. By comparison, a regular Yukon or Tahoe provides just 16.3 cubic feet and a Ford Expedition offers 20.5 cubic feet. Fold third-row seatback down, then tumble the seat forward and you'll have a lot more storage capacity. We don't have figures, but it opens up a lot of space with minimal effort and you'll still be able to carry four to six people, depending on the seating package you have. A pair of tethers is supposed to secure the third row in the up position, but they are flimsy (one of ours broke); it seems like they could have come up with a better solution. So be careful about putting a dog back without propping that seat up as there is a chance the seat could fall back down.
Need to haul a major load? Pull that third row out and stick it in the garage. That strategy provides 90 cubic feet of cargo room. Next, flip up the second-row seat bottoms, fold the seatback down, then flip the folding carpeted platform backward to cover the third-row platform. You're looking at a flat floor with 131.6 cubic feet of space, great for runs to the home-improvement center or big outdoor outings. This is one of the few vehicles that offers comfortable sleeping accommodations, a real benefit when fatigue takes over during the long trip home after fishing the evening rise.
Back up front, the Yukon XL and Denali driver is provided with excellent ergonomics. Switchgear is functional and seems familiar yet contemporary. Audio and climate controls are easy to operate without undue distraction. All Yukon XL models come with a high level of standard equipment. Our Denali came with an easy-to-operate six-disc CD changer mounted below the trip computer; this seems to be the best solution as it's within reach of the driver and does not take over the glovebox. Cup holders are superb, an important feature for people who live and work in these things. A pair of map lights is mounted above and can be aimed, one of the best designs we've seen. A covered power outlet is conveniently located for cell phones and radar detectors, and this is in addition to the cigar lighter inside the ashtray compartment. Rear heating/air conditioning controls, if available, are mounted overhead. Front and rear heating and air conditioning is standard on all Yukon XL models; automatic climate control is optional on Yukon XL models, and standard on the Denali.
There are also nicely integrated buttons for Homelink, which can open garage doors and gates and turn on house lights, and OnStar, the most widely accepted telematics system. GM's OnStar security and information service is standard on Denali, optional on SLT, and we recommend it. OnStar works well as a navigation system because there's nothing to program. Press the button and a human OnStar operator comes on asks what they can do to help you. OnStar operators will do anything short of organizing your daughter's wedding. OnStar always knows the location of your vehicle; they will notify authorities of your location if your airbag goes off and you do not respond to their calls. Press the emergency button and they'll send out the troops. They can also unlock your doors if you lock the keys inside. OnStar is a great safety feature.
A deep but short center console in the Denali provides slots at the bottom for CDs. The top of the console pops open to reveal a separate shallow compartment with a rubber mat and a net in the lid, good for sunglasses and other small items, though a little awkward to reach.
Other Denali features include teal-green instrument lighting, cloth-covered sun visors with pull-out extensions and lighted vanity mirrors, theatre dimming of interior lamps, and nine acoustic floor dampers to keep things exceptionally quiet.
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 like the cargo doors because they open wide and allow a closer working position to the vehicle's storage area. Cargo doors are 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. Most people find the liftgate preferable.
This is arguably the best full-size SUV on the market. First off, there's the smooth ride. GM completely re-engineered the chassis for 2000, making the frame stronger and lighter. It is a tremendously good platform, very rigid, with generous cross bracing and a hydroformed frame. This chassis is a key element to the greatness of the Yukon, Suburban, and Tahoe models as it allowed GM engineers to design a suspension that soaks up the jarring bumps and craters found on and off our roadways.
The optional AutoRide suspension system automatically varies the amount of shock damping according to the driving conditions. 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 $850 option on 1500s, $900 on 2500s, and standard on Denali.
The suspension system soaked up the large potholes and rough terrain we encountered. 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 Yukon XL's impressive turning radius when compared with pre-2000 models, 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 XL'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. And it's the best setup in inconsistent conditions (patches of snow and ice, gravel and pavement) because it transfers power to the wheels with the best traction.
Responsiveness from each of the three available V8 engines is excellent. Most people will find the standard 5.3-liter V8 a great companion. Our Denali came with the big 6.0-liter with its 320 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque.
All Yukon XL models come with a tow/haul mode for the transmission. Pressing a switch on the end of the gearshift lever changes the shift points of the automatic transmission. The tow/haul mode improves performance while towing through mountainous terrain and lessens wear on the transmission. It does this by holding it in any given gear longer and by shifting more abruptly to reduce heat buildup.
Towing a really heavy trailer? A 1500 model is plenty for pulling a car trailer or a light boat trailer, but you may want to look at the 2500 models if you have a heavy load to pull and you pull it often. Not surprisingly, the 1500 model, which comes with torsion bars up front and coil springs in the rear, smooths 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. Yukon XL 2500 models compare favorably against the Ford Excursion. At first glance, the Excursion, based on a heavy-duty F-350 pickup chassis, appears to have the upper hand for towing and hauling; however, the excessive weight of the vehicle itself significantly reduces its payload capacity. Also, it's important to note that towing capacities are partly decided in meeting rooms; different manufacturers determine these figures in different ways.
If you have the need to move lots of people, loads of stuff, and/or a heavy trailer, all at the same time, then GMC's Yukon XL (or Chevy's Suburban) is the best choice. If you want to add luxury to that equation, take a look at the Denali.
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