GM has struggled mightily over the last 30 years (longer really, but who’s counting?). However, they have done at least two things very well and continue to today: designing light duty trucks* and selling premium versions of those trucks. One of the General’s most successful ongoing ventures started small right here with this dusty, but solid looking, black truck.
I’ve been chronicling a few of the early, flagship SUVs in the Give Them What They Want series. I zeroed in on the first generation Cadillac Escalade as one to profile and struggled to find a good one to photograph. In a year and a half of looking, I only found one parked and a couple others in motion.
*current generation full-size pickups excepted?
As we saw in the Escalade CC, that first Caddy SUV was based so heavily on the GMC Denali as to be virtually indistinguishable. So, if you’re looking for first-gen Escalades, you are by definition also looking for Yukon Denalis. In that same time period, this is the only one I ever found, either parked or driven. Could this be the rarest turn-of-the-millenium SUV in America?
GM’s idea started small: build a higher luxury version of the GMC Yukon that could compete with the new 1998 Lincoln Navigator and the other import luxury SUVs that were starting to proliferate in the late 90’s. The Denali went on sale in early 1998 as a 1999 model. Standard mechanical features included automatic four wheel drive, Bilstein shocks and special Firestone tires.
The interior featured unique leather upholstery and real zebrano wood accents on the center console and window switch panels (one of the Escalade’s few distinguishing features was additional wood on the dash, doors and steering wheel). Denali buyers also enjoyed a Bose stereo system that included a subwoofer and in-dash six-disc changer, and an early version of Onstar.
The exterior is probably the most unique part of the package. Denalis got their own grille, headlights. bumper, hood, front fenders, wheels and body cladding. This is a lot more than later Yukon Denalis, which mostly just got a chromier grille and wheels.
I would say perhaps the best part of the new model was the name. Those who are familiar with mountain geography know that Denali is the highest peak in North America, located in Alaska and also known as Mount McKinley (officially, prior to 2015), perhaps coincidentally not too far from the Yukon Territory . What better imagery could you have than America’s tallest mountain, which would surely need the biggest and fanciest SUVs you could buy to travel to? I myself am pretty ignorant about mountains and didn’t know in the past what or where Denali was. To me and other dummies, the name may not have had specific meaning but it sure sounds wild and picturesque, like someplace an adventure is sure to happen.
That imagery and the extra features justified a 1999 base price of $42,945, or about $10,000 more than a base 4×4 Yukon XLE. For 2000, it curiously stayed on the old GMT400 platform with the Escalade and Tahoe Limited even as all other Tahoes and Yukons went to the new GMT800 redesign. 2001 saw the grand re-unification of GM trucks, so Denali moved to the new platform. I haven’t been able to find production figures for early Denalis. The numbers may not have been huge initially, but with a nearly 25% markup it’s easy to see why GMC kept it around.
In fact, the formula was so successful, it spread to the Sierra pickup for 2002, the Acadia SUV for 2011, the Terrain SUV for 2012 and Canyon compact pickup for 2017. In 2017, 29% of GMCs sold were Denalis, with comparable numbers continuing to the present. If it seems like all late model Yukons you see are Denalis, it’s probably not a coincidence because they represent up to 60% of Yukons sold in recent years. GMC has consistently been one of GM’s best sources of profit.
This 2000 Denali is in surprisingly clean condition, even if its black tuxedo suit is a bit dirty. I think with a good wash and detail, it would look real fine. Not bad for seemingly being one of the only surviving first-gen Denalis left in Texas, a place that doesn’t generally suffer from a lack of any truck.
At the time, no one knew how big a trend the initial Yukon Denali would be starting. It just seemed like a comfy and capable, if a bit costly, new option for hauling the family in grand style. Now GMC wants to Denali all things, which seems to be working pretty well for them, but it all started right here.
photographed in Fredericksburg, TX December 27, 2020