2003 GMC Yukon XL Reviews and Ratings

Utility C2500 SLE 2WD

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2003 GMC Yukon XL
Mitch McCullough

Completely redesigned just two years ago, GMC Yukon XL comes loaded with major changes for 2003 that add convenience, refinement, and reliability.

Interiors have been redesigned with new seats, a new instrument panel, a new steering wheel with new controls, and new audio and climate control systems that are both more sophisticated and easier to use. The heating and air conditioning systems themselves have been improved for faster warm-ups and cool-downs. Brakes have been upgraded for improved performance and pedal feel. StabiliTrak and Quadrasteer, two great systems, are available on more models.

Hate the way the doors lock every time you shift out of Park? Annoyed that the horn blows when you lock the doors? Don't want the daytime running lamps on? Turn those features off, turn them on, or deploy them partially. Everything is programmable. New Bose stereos, XM Satellite Radio, Panasonic DVD video, wireless headphones, independent controls, and auxiliary inputs galore should ensure everyone is happy for crying out loud. OnStar redirects you when you get lost or can help locate a good Italian restaurant.

Other changes for 2003 are invisible, but important. New air bag systems offer improved safety. An all-new electrical architecture eliminates thick bundles of wires and hundreds of connections for improved reliability and easier repair. Engine improvements result in quicker throttle response, better reliability and lower emissions levels.

Yukon XL remains an excellent choice for families who need three rows of seats on a regular basis. It can haul six to nine people and/or a boatload of cargo. Towing? You can pull a 12,000-pound trailer with a Yukon XL 2500, and you can tow that trailer quickly by opting for the Vortec 8100. That's right, 8.1-liters.

Based on GM's excellent full-size truck platform, GMC Yukon XL and Chevrolet Suburban have much in common, but there are some key differences that go well beyond styling. As GM's upscale truck division, the GMC is available with more luxury features, 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.

Model Lineup
Yukon XL is available with two-wheel drive ($37,405) or four-wheel drive ($40,105). It comes in two load ratings: Most popular is the standard 1500 model is rated to tow trailers up to 8400 pounds (8100 pounds with 4WD). The heavy-duty 2500 2WD ($38,905) and 2500 4WD ($41,605) are rated to pull trailers up to 12,000 pounds. Unless you're pulling heavy trailers, we recommend the 1500 model for its smoother ride quality.

The base Yukon XL 1500 SLE is well-equipped and comes with the new automatic tri-zone climate control system. It also comes standard with power windows, three rows of seats, an eight-speaker stereo with CD player, cast-aluminum wheels and most other features associated with a premium vehicle. Upholstery is cloth. Front seats are a split bench with six-way power adjustments for the driver.

Several trim packages are available, along with many stand-alone options. SLT ($3090) adds bucket seats with leather inserts, Bose speakers, assist steps (running boards), and rear-seat audio controls. SLT Plus ($5566) adds ultrasoft leather seating surfaces; full-function leather heated bucket seats with 10-way power, two-position memory, power lumbar support; heated, auto-dimming outside mirrors with turn indicators, ground illumination (puddle lamps); Driver Information Center; power-adjustable pedals; Security Package, which includes OnStar's Safe and Sound package, a universal transmitter, dual front side-impact airbags, steering wheel controls for audio and DIC; Cargo Package with cargo shade, cargo net, cargo mat, luggage rack center rails.

Yukon XL Denali ($50,405) comes loaded with luxury features along with a more sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system and a bigger engine. A locking rear differential is standard on the Denali.

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. 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 Yukon can carry a lot of people or haul a lot of cargo, Yukon XL can do both at the same time. Yukon XL also offers a bigger towing capacity.

All Yukon XL 1500 models except Denali come with a 285-horsepower 5.3-liter Vortec V8. Denali comes with a 320-horsepower 6.0-liter Vortec V8. Yukon XL 2500 models offer a choice of the 6.0-liter V8 or 8.1-liter big-block V8. All Yukon XLs come with electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmissions.

Yukon XL 4WD models use a part-time system GM calls Autotrac. It has a 2WD mode that was revised for 2003 for more fuel-efficient operation. Shift into 4WD and it locks the front and rear axle speeds together. This is the traditional kind of four-wheel drive that is considered best for serious off-road driving. However, pressing a button switches the system to an Auto 4WD mode that automatically shifts torque between the front and rear wheels as conditions demand, good for wet pavement, gravel roads, or inconsistent conditions. Autotrac was revised for 2003 for improved feel in Auto mode when turning corners at low speeds. A locking rear differential is optional, but a good idea for heavy snow or serious off-road driving.

Denali uses a sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system. 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 Denali's unique front bumper. Oddly shaped lower body cladding incorporates front and rear stone guards and blends nicely into the Denali's color-keyed running boards.

Opting for Quadrasteer does not improve the appearance of the Yukon XL as ungainly fender flares are added to the rear to accommodate the significantly wider track (by five inches).

The GMC Yukon XL and Chevrolet Suburban are leaders when it comes to seating and cargo capacity. Yukon XL comes standard with nice custom cloth upholstery. The optional Ultrasoft leather is makes this big truck look and feel like a luxury vehicle, if not beautiful to behold.

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.

Bucket seats are available and that's what came on our 2003 Yukon XL 2500 SLT. Cushy, multi-adjustable and swathed in Ultrasoft leather, we had trouble getting comfortable in them. The seat bottoms lacked support and didn't seem long enough. The bucket seats are separated by a deep center console that holds lots of stuff. The top of the lid features a nice rubber-lined indention handy for sunglasses and other items. It would be even better if the rubber was an insert that could be removed for cleaning. It would be better still if the top of the console wasn't angled forward: Lay a clipboard there and it'll slide off.

Interior ergonomics are otherwise excellent. Cup holders are superb, an important feature for people who live and work in these things. A well-designed pair of map lights is mounted above and can be aimed. A covered power outlet is conveniently located for cell phones and radar detectors, in addition to the cigar lighter inside the ashtray compartment. The Driver Information Center is redesigned for 2003, now located immediately in front, below the speedometer. It's very handy and easy to use, allowing the driver to program automatic locking and other features, as well as providing trip mileage, fuel economy and other data.

New audio and climate controls are more sophisticated, yet easier to operate than last year's (2002) models. All Yukon XL models come with a high level of standard equipment. Our 2003 Yukon XL SLT came equipped with XM Satellite Radio, great for traveling because the stations don't change as you drive across the country, allowing you to keep up on news and weather. You still get ads. New audio controls on the steering wheel make it easy to switch among station presets and modes, among other things. Program the AM, FM1, FM2, XM1, and XM2 bands and you can quickly zip to favorite stations without taking your hands off the wheel. Digital three-zone climate controls permit separate adjustments for driver, passenger, and the rear. The rear heating/air conditioning controls are mounted overhead, good for people as well as pets.

Buttons for Homelink, which can open garage doors and gates and turn on house lights, and the OnStar telematics system are nicely integrated. GM's OnStar security and information service works well as a navigation system because there's nothing to program. Press the button and a human operator comes on to provide directions and other assistance. 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 unlock your doors if you lock the keys inside, and they can direct you to the nearest gas station or help find a good restaurant or motel.

The second-row bucket seats, which came in our 2003 Yukon XL 2500 SLT, were supremely comfortable. They recline and seemed more supportive and more comfortable than the front seats. If four adults plus two children is the maximum you'll ever need to carry, then we'd recommend the second-row bucket seats. The standard second-row bench seat offers room for three passengers, however, giving you more options.

A pair of ceiling vents is provided on each side of the second row that can be aimed effectively. The driver controls the rear passengers' temperature and fan speeds and can direct the air to upper or lower vents or both. Our SLT came with a great pair of second-row cup holders that flip out of the back of the center console. Immediately above those are separate audio controls for the rear-seat passengers. Wireless headphones are comfortable and sound good. The optional Panasonic DVD system is impressive, with a crisp monitor, allowing second- and third-row occupants to watch movies and other programming while underway or parked.

The third-row bench seat is fine for kids or short trips, but that comfortable for adults on longer trips. Knee room is tight. There's little hip room and the center of the bench lacks support, causing occupants to lean toward the center. Cup holders are provided, however, and overhead vents can be aimed for heating and air conditioning, important because the rear side windows cannot be vented. 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. 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. 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.

For cargo, Yukon XL offers 45.7 cubic feet of space behind the third row. That's a lot. By comparison, a Yukon or Tahoe provides just 16.3 cubic feet, while a Ford Expedition offers 20.5 cubic feet behind the third row. Fold the third-row seatback down, then tumble the seat forward and you'll have a lot more storage capacity and can still carry four to six people, depending on the seating package. Remove the third row and put it in the garage for 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 and 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 benefit when fatigue takes over during long trips home after a day afield.

Yukon XL offers a choice of liftgate or split cargo doors for the rear. The liftgate comes standard and features a glass section that opens independently. Made of lightweight aluminum, the liftgate is convenient for quickly adding and removing cargo and offers better rearward visibility than the cargo doors, which block the view in the center where the doors meet. Cargo doors work better for work vehicles as 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. Most people find the liftgate preferable, however.

Driving Impressions
For moving people and cargo, you can't beat the GMC Yukon XL and Chevrolet Suburban and the GMC models tend to be more luxurious. Yukon XL 1500 models offer a smooth ride. It's built on a rigid platform, which plays a key role in the Yukon XL's ride and handling.

AutoRide is an optional package that automatically varies shock damping according to driving conditions. Whether riding empty, carrying a full load of people, or towing a horse trailer, 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 (lean) during cornering. AutoRide is standard on Denali, optional on 1500 and 2500.

The suspension system in the 1500 models 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.

Autoride didn't seem to help our 2500 with Quadrasteer, however, which rode rough on I-405 in Los Angeles. Quadrasteer requires heavier components to sustain all of the extra equipment on the rear axle. Our 2500 also came with light-truck tires, rather than passenger-car tires. Weight would likely improve the ride, but we don't think we'd want to put up with the jounciness of the heavy-duty suspension on a daily basis unless we were towing heavy trailers.

Brakes were revised for 2003 and we found they worked very well. The new brakes are easy to modulate, offered good pedal feel, and seemed to do a good job of stopping our 2003 Yukon XL 2500. They are a far cry from pre-2000 GM truck brakes.

StabiliTrak is a valuable option that could save your life someday or reduce the chance of stuffing your big Yukon XL into the ditch. StabiliTrak is an anti-skid system that compares the driver's intended path with the vehicle's actual path, and adjusts engine torque and any of the four brakes to help bring the vehicle back under control. Sophisticated sensors monitor the suspension, steering, antilock braking and traction control systems, constantly measuring steering angle, wheel speeds, brake pressure, lateral and longitudinal acceleration and yaw rate (the vehicle rotation rate, such as when cornering).

Shifting among the four-wheel-drive modes is easily accomplished with four switches mounted on the left side of the instrument panel. The top switch engages GMC's automatic four-wheel-drive system, 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, 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 Yukon XL 2500 came with the big 6.0-liter, which felt and sounded powerful when accelerating onto the freeway.

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. The 1500 model comes with torsion bars up front and coil springs in the rear, which filter road vibration much better than the 2500 model, which is fitted with rear leaf springs.

Quadrasteer ($4495) provides vastly improved maneuverability at low speeds. By turning the rear wheels opposite the direction of the front wheels, this four-wheel-steering system reduces the curb-to-curb turning diameter of the Yukon XL 2500 from the standard 44.3 feet to 36.5 feet, an improvement of about 20 percent. That's a huge difference when maneuvering in crowded parking lots and public garages, and allows a U-turn in places that previously required backing up. Quadrasteer becomes even more important when towing trailers. It greatly improves control when backing, eliminating trial and error runs. It also allows you to move a trailer into spots where you could not physically do so without it.

GMC Yukon XL is a highly capable vehicle when it comes to moving lots of people. But this is a big truck based on a full-size pickup platform. If you simply need a vehicle for carrying four kids around, you'd be better served by a minivan. If you have lots of cargo or pull heavy trailers, however, you'll be well served by the Yukon XL.

Ride quality of 2500-series models with Quadrasteer is rough on rippled highways, but Quadrasteer helps immensely when towing trailers or parking in tight confines.

We found the front seats lacking, but refinements for 2003 make this great vehicle better.

Model as tested
GMC Yukon XL 2500 4WD ($41,262)
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Janesville, Wisconsin; Silao, Mexico
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
SLT decor ($5501) includes ultrasoft front leather seating surfaces, full-function front bucket seats, Bose premium nine-speaker system, rear-seat audio controls, in-dash 6-CD player, XM Satellite Radio, steering wheel controls, OnStar, universal garage door opener, dual front side-impact airbags; Quadrasteer ($4495); rear seat entertainment system ($1295); Autoride ($900); second-row captain's chairs ($490) heavy-duty trailering equipment ($290); outside rearview camper mirrors ($175); LT245/75R16 tires ($144); roof marker lamps ($55); 4.10 rear axle ratio ($50)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
1500 2WD ($37,405); 1500 4WD ($40,105); Denali AWD ($50,405); 2500 2WD ($38,905); 4WD ($41,605)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual front air bags; four-wheel ABS with dynamic rear brake proportioning
Safety equipment (optional)
6.0-liter ohv V8
4-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
automatic three-zone climate control, power heated outside mirrors with turn-signal indicators and puddle lamps, programmable automatic door locks, driver information system, anti-theft system, roof-mounted luggage carrier, light-sensitive rearview mirror with compass and outside temperature display, six-way power driver's seat, cargo tie-down anchors, power windows with driver's auto-down, remote keyless entry, fog lamps, rear wiper/washer, cruise control, full interior lighting, overhead console with map lights, locking rear differential, automatic headlights, tilt steering column, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cast aluminum wheels, intermittent front wipers

Engine & Transmission
6.0-liter ohv V8
Drivetrain type
four-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
320 @ 5000
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS and dynamic rear proportioning
Suspension, front
independent with torsion bars
Suspension, rear
live axle 5-link with coil springs

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

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2 / 5

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