It’s more at home on the highway, but this SUV can still manage in the mud

When you’re given the opportunity to drive a luxurious vehicle like GMC’s Yukon Denali for a week, it’s hard to keep things in perspective. Large GMC and Chevy SUVs have been famous for their utility for years. But the advent of a completely tricked out SUV is a relatively new phenomenon – one some critics say is aimed more at soccer moms than working stiffs.

My 2003 Yukon was a case in point. The chassis is derived from GM’s 1500 Series frame, which means it’s robust enough to handle off-road flexing and stretching if need be. Full-time all-wheel drive also gives this SUV exceptional traction on slick roads and credible off-highway capability. Granted, you’ll never be able to follow a 2500 Silverado through the mud in this Yukon. It’s low-to-the-ground stance and lack of off-highway tires rule out traversing any seriously muddy terrain. This Yukon is more highway cruiser than off-road bruiser, but it’s plenty capable of getting off the pavement and out to the foreman’s truck for a chat about schedules.

Of course the “Denali” label denotes GMC’s top-of-line luxury package, and is readily identified by the broad, toothy, 1950’s-reminiscent chromed grill. The grill really jumps out at you when coupled with GM’s new, deep Ebony paint scheme. But it’s inside where the Yukon Denali really shines. The first thing you notice when you climb inside is the room: I’ve stayed in hotel rooms that were smaller. This is a wide, spacious and long vehicle. With the third-row seats installed, you can easily and comfortably seat eight adults in this SUV and still have plenty of cargo space available in the rear of the truck.

This being a Denali, infinitely adjustable heated leather seats are a given. Despite its size, I found the driver’s position to be as cushy and comfortable as a much smaller car. Once behind the wheel, you’re totally integrated into the Yukon’s driving position. All controls are at your fingertips, and a glance at the dash (equipped with GM’s electronic driver information system) gives you reams of performance data and allows you to completely customize a wide array of vehicle functions. Front and lateral views from the driver seat are quite good. Rearward visibility from the interior rear-view mirror suffers a little bit, but this is simply a function of the Yukon’s length. The panoramic side-mirrors help make up this deficiency quite well.

Rear seating is very comfortable, even for large adults. The rear comfort factor was further enhanced by separate climate control and entertainment systems including a fold-down DVD player. Interior sound levels were low throughout the SUV. Almost no road noise filtered through the body insulation into the interior.

Despite its heft, the Vortec 6000 gasoline engine proved to have more than enough pep to get the Yukon up and moving. It’s no dragster, but I was surprised at the engine’s responsiveness and how smoothly it accelerated the big truck. Handling characteristics were surprisingly crisp and nimble – no doubt helped by the all-wheel-drive system. For a big truck, the Yukon Denali maneuvered well, even in tightly congested driving conditions.

Gas mileage was an initial concern, but I found fuel consumption to be reasonable during my week-long test drive with a / of a tank still registering on the gauge when I turned it back in (and more than 300 miles clocked on the odometer).