2003 GMC Yukon Reviews and Ratings

Utility 4D SLE 4WD

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2003 GMC Yukon
Mitch McCullough

GMC Yukon offers a roomy cabin, impressive cargo-carrying capability, a nice ride, and a choice of V8 engines that deliver strong power for towing or tackling steep grades. Yukon Denali is a luxury version that adds a sumptuous interior, a bigger engine, and full-time all-wheel drive.

Either way, the Yukon is a good size for large families. Built on GM's excellent full-size truck platform, the Yukon is the same size and, in many ways, the same vehicle as the Chevrolet Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade. Yukon is 20 inches shorter than the Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Yukon XL, making it much easier to park and garage. It is slightly smaller than the Ford Expedition, but longer and wider than the GMC Envoy, Chevy TrailBlazer, and Ford Explorer. Yukon is wider and shorter than the Envoy XL, giving it better stability in cornering and more comfortable accommodations for third-row occupants.

Yukon was completely redesigned for 2000, and the luxurious Yukon Denali was introduced for 2001. For 2002, GMC upgraded the automatic transmissions, designed a more efficient starter, built a more durable steering gear housing, installed new child safety seat anchors, and achieved an ultra-low emissions (ULEV) rating for the Vortec 5300 V8 engine.

2003 brings major revisions for improved comfort, safety, reliability, and emissions. The front seats are more sculptured for 2003. The brakes have been improved, the airbags are smarter, and optional Autotrac four-wheel drive is more sophisticated. StabiliTrak electronic stability control, power adjustable pedals, and multi-zone electronic climate control are standard on 2003 Yukon Denali and optional on other models. A rear-seat Panasonic DVD system is available for all models.

Model Lineup
Three trim levels are available: SLE, SLT and Denali.

GMC Yukon SLE ($34,305 with two-wheel drive and $36,905 with four-wheel drive) comes loaded with automatic dual-zone air conditioning, a power adjustable split-bench front seat, anti-lock brakes, self-leveling suspension, CD stereo with nine Bose speakers, power windows, power door locks, fog lights, tinted glass, heated outside mirrors, leather wrapped steering wheel, and alarm. A 275-horsepower 4.8-liter V8 is standard; a 285-horsepower 5.3-liter V8 is optional ($700).

SLT trim ($36,635 with 2WD, $39,235 with 4WD) adds high-back bucket seats with leather inserts, rear seat audio controls, and assist steps. The 5.3-liter V8 is standard.

Yukon Denali ($48,505) is an upscale model that comes with a big 6.0-liter V8 engine, full-time all-wheel drive, StabiliTrak stability control, and a computer-controlled AutoRide suspension. Denali also comes equipped with nearly every desirable feature as standard equipment, including: heated leather 10-way power seats, On-Star driver assistance, nine-speaker Bose stereo with XM Satellite Radio capability and in-dash six-disc CD changer, and 17-inch alloy wheels. Denali options are limited, but include a sunroof ($1,000) and engine block heater ($35).

GMC Yukon is conservatively styled. GMC is taking a more sophisticated, more understated approach to design than Chevrolet. Yukon looks like a shortened version of the Yukon XL, which looks like a fancy Chevy Suburban, which is what it is. An arched roofline provides extra headroom for the second and third rows.

The most visible difference between Yukon SLE/SLT and Denali is the Denali's aftermarket-inspired chrome grille, in place of the blacked-out grille worn by other Yukons.

An important choice to make here is whether you want a contemporary hatch rear door that lifts up, or old-fashioned side-by-side cargo doors. (The former is standard, the latter a so-called "delete option" that comes with a $250 credit.) Cargo doors are more useful for towing trailers, while the hatch style is usually more convenient for families, partly because the window can be opened separately for quick loading or unloading of smaller items. Denali buyers are limited to a hatch with flip-up window. Utility-minded shoppers looking for cargo doors will have to settle for an SLE or SLT.

GMC Yukon is comfortable and convenient. GMC has gone to great lengths to make the Yukon more comfortable, easier to operate and more attractive for families.

Getting inside is easy thanks to pull-out style door handles that replace the old lift-up style openers. Step-in height is lower than in previous-generation models, making it easier to climb into the driver's seat. The Denali's leather upholstery is very nice looking and feels comfortable.

The front seats have been redesigned for 2003, but we found them lacking in comfort. Seat-mounted shoulder harnesses on the front and rear seats make the Yukon's belts easy to wear. Safety in all Yukons has been enhanced with dual-stage front airbags. The luxury-oriented Yukon Denali provides side-impact airbags as well. Visibility out of the Yukon is very good, thanks to large windows. The combination of good visibility and confident handling give the Yukon an air of nimbleness.

The instrument panel is substantially new for 2003. All controls are mounted close to the driver's seat. Climate controls and audio controls are redesigned for 2003 and are easier to use and more sophisticated than before.

Second-row seating is roomy and comfortable. Second-row bucket seats are now optional in SLE and SLT as well as Denali. They offer excellent support and can be adjusted individually. We think they're more comfortable than the front seats.

Yukon's third-row seat provides space for adults' feet. It isn't a lot of space, but it is there. The third row folds, flips, slides and removes easily. Whichever way you choose to stow the third-row seat, it is easy to do; it has wheels to help roll it into the garage for storage. Still, getting into and out of that third row isn't easy for adults. If you're going to put people back there on a regular basis, we recommend considering the longer GMC Yukon XL.

Music lovers will enjoy the Bose nine-speaker stereo with a subwoofer. It uses a spiral-wrapped radio antenna to cut wind noise. GMC says it chose to use a conventional mast for improved performance, rather than embedding the antenna in a window.

The optional Panasonic DVD Passenger Entertainment System ($1295) includes a DVD player with seven-inch flip-down screen for second-seat passengers; plus two sets of wireless (infrared) headphones with independent volume control, a wireless remote control and three sets of auxiliary video and audio inputs. The wireless headphones are light and comfortable and the display offers a crisp picture.

Driving Impressions
GMC Yukon offers a nice ride, whether on asphalt or dirt. On bumpy rural byways that make some SUVs feel like pogo sticks, the Yukon rides with impressive smoothness. On smooth highways, the Yukon cruises effortlessly. Handling is impressive and surefooted for a full-size SUV. Yukon is stable at high speed. It's much easier to park then the longer Yukon XL, but it's still a full-size truck and not as maneuverable as a mid-size SUV such as the GMC Envoy or Ford Explorer.

Car-based SUVs such as the Lexus RX use independent rear suspension to provide the ride and handling customers expect, but independent suspensions don't carry heavy loads as well. So GMC has given the Yukon a live rear axle mounted on coil springs and located by five control links, an arrangement which provides a good compromise between ride/handling and cargo-carrying utility. Yukon's front suspension is conventional in design, but uses torsion bars instead of coil springs to save space. Its conventional ladder frame is fully boxed in the mid-section for maximum rigidity, while the front and rear portions are shaped by the same hydroforming technique used to make Corvette frames. This rigid design is a key to the Yukon's excellent ride and handling. At the very front of the frame is a section designed to crush and absorb impacts in a crash.

Denali's AutoRide computer-controlled suspension helps keep it level over bumps. This effect is especially pronounced when towing; a trailer tends to cause the towing vehicle to rock back and forth when driving over bumps, but the AutoRide system keeps the Denali amazingly smooth.

The steering on all Yukons provides good control and feedback. It's a recirculating-ball system, however, which doesn't offer the response of the rack-and-pinion steering found on the Ford Explorer and Expedition.

A tighter 38.3-foot turning diameter makes the Yukon much easier to park than a Yukon XL, which takes another 4.7 feet of space to turn around (unless it has Quadrasteer). That makes a huge difference in the grocery store parking lot. The current Yukon's turning diameter represents a big improvement over previous-generation Yukon and Tahoe models.

The brakes perform well. Improvements to the system for 2003 have reduced pedal effort while improving feedback. A dynamic proportioning system continuously balances the front and rear brakes for maximum braking without activating the ABS. To check this out, we towed a heavily laden horse trailer without trailer brakes connected and were impressed with the Yukon's braking ability.

Under the hood, the Yukons employ the latest version of Chevy's small-block V8 engine family. These Generation III overhead-valve engines are the best yet and rival competitors' overhead-cam engines for smoothness and efficiency. As mentioned, they come in three sizes: 4.8-liter, 5.3-liter, and 6.0-liter.

The popular 5.3-liter V8 is rated at 285 horsepower and its acceleration is impressive. Like the 4.8-liter engine, the 5.3-liter burns regular unleaded fuel, but at the same 14/18 mpg rate as the big 6.0.

The 4.8-liter V8 is rated at 275 horsepower and gets better fuel economy, earning 15/20 mpg on the EPA's city/highway test in a 2WD Yukon.

The big 6.0-liter V8 that comes with the Denali cranks out 320 horsepower. Fuel economy is improved for 2003, up from last year's 12/16 mpg city/highway to a more reasonable EPA mileage rating of 14/18. The 6.0-liter V8 burns regular unleaded fuel, making pit stops a little more affordable.

Standard Yukons come with a choice of two-wheel drive or a traditional, part-time four-wheel-drive system. On two-wheel-drive models, an optional limited-slip rear differential provides better traction in slippery conditions. A second-gear winter start feature in the automatic transmission helps get the vehicle rolling without wheel spin on snow or ice.

Optional StabiliTrak electronic stability control ($750) offers greater safety on uncertain surfaces. StabiliTrak measures where the driver is steering against where the truck is actually heading and, when necessary, reduces engine torque or selectively applies one or more brakes to correct the Yukon's path. StabiliTrak's traction-control function, combined with the limited-slip differential, help make the 4x2 Yukon sufficient for many people.

However, it's a shame to pass on the four-wheel-drive system, especially where winter brings snow. Press the 4HI button when standard four-wheel drive is needed for driving off road or on roads covered with snow and ice. The 4LO setting is used for creeping through deep sand, deep mud, deep snow or up or down steep grades. If conditions are fluctuating, hit the Auto 4WD button and the Autotrac all-wheel-drive system automatically transfers power from a slipping wheel to the wheels with the best traction; no input is needed from the driver. The Auto 4WD mode has been refined for 2003, providing improved road feel in low-speed turns. It works well in pouring rain, on snow, ice, or gravel roads.

Yukon Denali comes with full-time all-wheel-drive, and it has also been revised for 2003. To improve fuel efficiency, last year's viscous-coupling transfer case has been replaced by a single-speed open-differential-type case. At the same time, the front/rear torque split has been adjusted slightly, from 38/62 to 40/60. GMC claims better yaw stability with the new setup. StabiliTrak is standard on Denali, and combined with Denali's full-time four-wheel drive helps maintain good traction in changing conditions. It's a good system for snow, ice, heavy rain, dirt, and gravel.

Denali's luxury touches don't overlook the fact that Yukon drivers still want to tow their boat to the lake or pull their horse trailer to the show, so it is loaded with features for towing and moving cargo. The bigger engine will help pull heavy loads, while the all-wheel-drive system is just the ticket for yanking a boat up a slippery landing. Denalis use a heavy-duty version of GM's four-speed automatic transmission made with hardened parts to withstand the extra power of the 6.0-liter engine. For drivers' peace of mind while towing, the Denali features a transmission temperature gauge, so you can be confident that you are not cooking the transmission while pulling a trailer up a hill.

All Yukons come equipped to accept a lighting plug for trailer towing, and have provisions for easily connecting a trailer brake controller.

GMC Yukon is among the best of the full-size SUVs. It's large enough to carry a crowd in comfort or haul a lot of cargo, yet doesn't require an aircraft hanger and a flag man to park it.

Yukon Denali gives full-size SUV shoppers a luxury alternative to the more overstated Cadillac Escalade. Denali is styled more conventionally than the Escalade, so some buyers may be more comfortable with its traditional appearance. Both are comfortable, roomy SUVs. Lots of power, comfortable accommodations, and safety features such as side-impact air bags place the Yukon Denali among the best of the full-size luxury SUVs.

Model as tested
GMC Yukon Denali ($48,505)
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Janesville, Wisconsin; Arlington, Texas
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
2WD SLE ($34,305); 2WD SLT ($36,635); 4WD SLE ($36,905); 4WD SLT ($39,235); Denali ($48,505)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual-stage front air bags, four-wheel ABS with dynamic brake proportioning
Safety equipment (optional)
6.0-liter ohv V8
4-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
tri-zone electronic climate control, cruise control, rear defogger, power door locks, leather seating surfaces, nine-speaker Bose stereo system with subwoofer, second-row audio controls, leather-wrapped steering wheel with tilt, power windows, fog lamps, heated outside mirrors, remote keyless entry, 17-inch polished aluminum wheels

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

Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS
Suspension, front
independent short-long arm with torsion arms
Suspension, rear
five-link live axle 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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J.D. Power Rating Legend
Among the Best
5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

* The J.D. Power Ratings are calculated based on the range between the car manufacturer or car model with the highest score and the car manufacturer or car model with the lowest score. J.D. Power generates a rating of a five, four, three, or two. If there is insufficient data to calculate a rating, “Not Available” is used in its place.

J.D. Power Ratings may not include all information used to determine J.D. Power awards, visit the Car Ratings page to learn more about awards and ratings.