2003 Yukon Denali -- Upscale and powerful

May 8, 2003
In the midst of one of the snowiest winters in years, Clevelanders were waiting for yet another 6 to 8-in. blast of snow from Old Man Winter. Lucky for me, the 2003 Yukon Denali arrived here first.

Even with gas prices barreling towards the $2/gallon mark, the SUV market is still going strong. The saving grace of this luxury version of the Yukon over the others is that it uses regular instead of premium fuel.

The Denali combines the pros and cons of three different vehicles: the luxury and high price tag of luxury cars; the interior roominess and bulky exterior of passenger vans; and the towing power and poor fuel economy of pickup trucks.

New for 2003, the Denali features all-wheel drive and GM's next-generation StabiliTrak system, a big plus for maneuvering through our snow-covered streets. The system taps into the suspension, steering, antilock brakes, and traction-control systems. Stopping power has been improved with an upgraded brake system. Drivers are alerted of malfunctions or failures by new warning chimes that sound in conjunction with red "brake" and amber "ABS" telltale alerts.

The muscle behind the Denali is a Vortec 6000, 6.0-liter V8, which produces 320 hp at 5,000 rpm and 365 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. The engine features a flat torque curve with 90% of its maximum torque available from 2,600 to 5,200 rpm. You'll have no problem cruising onto the highway or passing slower-moving vehicles. A heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission with GM's exclusive "Tow-Haul" mode and column shifter round out the driving package. The "Tow/Haul" mode changes the shift patterns to account for heavy trailering loads. To help in towing loads up to 8,400 lb, the Denali includes a standard weight-distribution platform trailer hitch and seven-way sealed connector, four-wheel disc brakes, 130-A alternator, and front stabilizer bar.

For a smooth ride and handling, the Denali has a permanently engaged all-wheel-drive system and an Auto Ride Control that automatically adjusts the shock absorbers' damping to road conditions. Aside from being snow covered, our roads have taken quite a beating from all the salt and potholes are everywhere. Even with these adverse conditions, the ride was quite comfortable. Also notable for its size is the quiet ride, especially at highway speeds.

Climb onboard and you'll find a stylish and plush interior. For 2003, the seats have a European-style appearance with thicker, more comfortable headrests. The Denali can seat seven or eight, depending on your second-row seating choice. You can now have second-row captain chairs, which can be folded to create a flat load floor. For safety purposes, all models are now equipped with third-row seats that angle back for better restraint of large adults; three-point seat belts in all first and second-row seats; and a LATCH safety system for children.

The instrument panel, cluster, and center console have all been redesigned. The instrument panel and cluster feature new trim plates, ISO symbols, and LCDs. Standard power-adjustable brake and accelerator pedals offer drivers greater comfort and safer operation for shorter drivers by adjusting 2.95 in. rearwards. You can now personalize up to nine vehicle functions with the standard eight-button steering-wheel controls.

On the safety front, the Denali features an automatic passenger-sensing air-bag system. The system determines whether the occupant is an adult or child and, if a child, automatically deactivates to prevent injury if deployed. My only complaint about the Denali -- the running boards are too narrow to be of much use.

While the Denali was great to drive, the sticker price will keep one out of my driveway. Base price of our test vehicle was $48,440. Add-ons included a power sunroof ($1,000) and second-row captain chairs ($490). Figure in the $755 destination charge and the grand total was $50,685.

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