GMC Denali XT "El Camino" Concept Debuts in Chicago

Another auto show, another broken embargo.

By Chris Haak


At this week’s Chicago Auto Show, GM will introduce the GMC Denali XT pickup concept. The truck is based on GM’s “Zeta” global rear wheel drive platform, which underpins the Pontiac G8/Holden Commodore, the upcoming Chevrolet Camaro, and several related Australian-built vehicles. It’s a rear wheel drive unibody platform (like the front wheel drive-based Honda Ridgeline), so it would have better ride, handling, and fuel economy than a traditional body on frame pickup truck, at the expense of towing and cargo carrying capability.

Compact and midsize pickup sales have been falling rapidly for the past few years, in spite of higher fuel prices. I believe that part of the reason for this is the huge marketing push that full size pickups receive – plus the fact that you can buy a new full-size Chevy, Ford, or Dodge for well under $20,000 if you need the truck purely for work and don’t check many option boxes. Meanwhile, the midsize class’s sales struggles have made manufacturers leery of investing into new products for this class. A lack of new or updated product then compounds the problem, and sales fall further. On top of all of this, the smaller trucks don’t get much better fuel economy than their big brothers, so they have less capability, less comfort, similar fuel economy, and similar prices (a GMC Canyon 4WD with a five cylinder is rated at 17 mpg combined, while a GMC Sierra 4WD with a 5.3 liter V8 is rated at 16 mpg combined).

Isuzu’s announcement last week that it was going to stop selling new light duty vehicles in the US because of a lack of/uncertain future product – and since its only products are rebadged GM vehicles – might lead one to believe that the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado, on which Isuzu’s I-series pickups are based, could be on their way off the market.

The problem with the demise of the midsize pickup market is that there is potential to serve as a springboard for newer, less affluent customers into larger, more expensive vehicles as their income increases. There is also potential for fuel saving if the engineering priorities are in the right place. Fuel saving technology is, of course, more important today than it has been in years with the CAFE fuel economy standard’s recent increase and consumer concern about fuel consumption.

The solution to this that GM is proposing is basically abandoning the traditionally styled/engineered small pickup and instead offering something similar in concept to the old Chevrolet El Camino. The El Camino was, of course, a car with a light duty pickup bed on the back instead of rear seats and a trunk. Aside from what is obviously a far more modern interpretation of the car-based pickup design, the other big difference between the Denali XT Concept and the old El Camino is the addition of a back seat. Our friends in Australia have enjoyed car-based “utes” for decades, some of which had back seats, so the idea isn’t a new one, but for the US it is.

Even without advanced powertrain technology, the Denali XT would surpass full size pickups in fuel economy (assuming similar engines and transmissions), but GM has installed a new 4.9 liter version of the venerable small block V8. This one is flex-fuel capable (meaning it can run on E85 or gasoline) and is connected to GM’s two-mode hybrid system. The engine also features direct injection, which provides for lower emissions, more power, and better fuel economy. The engine is rated at 326 horsepower, and boasts a 50% fuel economy improvement over a traditional arrangement. The Denali XT has a 3,500 pound towing capacity and 1,100 pound payload capacity. The bed is 55 inches long (about four and a half feet) but can be extended partially into the passenger compartment with an Avalanche-like Midgate.

I think the concept is kind of interesting, although the styling doesn’t exactly press my buttons. Maybe it will grow on me. I will say, however, that its proportions are more attractive to my eyes than a Holden Crewman (pictured), and it looks more truck-like. Will GMC still be able to argue that its “Professional Grade” tagline holds true in the face of two vehicles of questionable professional utility – the Acadia crossover and the Denali XT?

For more information on the Denali XT, please see GM’s press release below.


• New, robust design form serves as a test well for GMC’s future design direction
• First combination of GM’s two-mode hybrid system with E85 ethanol-capable engine
• Height-adjustable suspension and cargo space-enhancing Midgate®

CHICAGO – GMC unveiled the Denali XT concept at the 2008 Chicago Auto Show. It offers a 50-percent increase in combined fuel economy over comparable small pickup trucks when running on gasoline, and it incorporates a new, muscular form in a performance-styled, hybrid sport-utility truck (SUT).

The Denali XT has a unibody architecture and rear-wheel drive, enabling its distinctive design and efficient performance. It builds on the equity of the Denali line and its reputation for advanced engineering and refinement, including the first combination of GM’s two-mode hybrid system with an E85 ethanol-capable engine. Denali XT’s new, more efficient 4.9L version of GM’s small-block V-8 features fuel-saving technologies such as direct-injection technology and Active Fuel Management.

The engine is matched with GM’s unique two-mode hybrid propulsion system, giving the powerful SUT exceptional fuel economy and uncompromising capability – including all-electric drive at low speeds. It is a powertrain combination that makes the Denali XT perfectly suited to a variety of active lifestyle activities, such as hauling skis and snowboards to the mountain or towing a sport jet boat to the lake.

“Like all GMCs, the Denali XT is functional and capable, but it blends those traits with a more efficient, sporty driving experience,” said Jim Bunnell, GMC general manager. “It is a vehicle that exemplifies GMC’s engineering excellence, as well as GM’s commitment to hybrid and advanced technologies.”

With its unibody structure, the Denali XT is lighter than conventional body-on-frame trucks, with great ride-and-handling characteristics. This design enhances fuel economy while giving the vehicle a sporty driving experience. True to its GMC Professional Grade heritage, the Denali XT is filled with technologies and features that maximize its flexibility, including a cargo space-enhancing Midgate® and height-adjustable suspension.

The Denali XT’s proportions are framed around a high cowl and 123.4-inch (3,134 mm) wheelbase. This enhances the vehicle’s truck functionality, but packages it in an efficient, unibody architecture.

Design and construction were spearheaded by Holden Design, within the Australian arm of GM’s global design and engineering network.

“Denali XT is about working hard, playing hard and enjoying an active lifestyle,” said Bunnell. “It is the same philosophy that has helped make the GMC Acadia crossover a huge hit with consumers.”

Dramatic design statement
A muscular form and wide, firmly planted stance give the Denali XT a confidently capable road presence. Minimal overhangs, large wheels, sleek headlamps and a low roof profile deliver an aggressive, performance-oriented appearance.

“It is a robust yet tailored design statement that is unlike anything else on the road,” said Ed Welburn, vice president, Global Design. “It has the youthful look of a custom automobile that incorporates the capability customers expect from a truck.”

The Denali XT’s design includes a new take on GMC’s iconic grille, with a prominent, four-bar element in addition to the large, red GMC logo and signature Denali background. Flared fenders accentuate the wide road stance. The stance is also enhanced when the Denali XT is lowered on its air-adjustable suspension, which creates a sleeker appearance that simultaneously improves aerodynamics. Large, bold 23-inch wheels and custom Kuhmo tires complement the Denali XT’s stance.

Inside, the Denali XT blends mechanical functionality with leather-trimmed comfort.
Billet-metal surrounds, controls and instruments convey the cold precision of an aircraft cockpit. This is balanced by the warmth of bespoke saddle-leather trimmed seats and other contact surfaces.

“The form language is smooth and structured to characterize GMC’s power. The details have a deliberately contrasting mechanical aesthetic to mark GMC’s engineering sophistication,” said Warrack Leach, lead designer.

The interior features innovative instrumentation with “floating” red-illuminated numerals backed by surface chaplets in the clusters and a large integrated vehicle interface screen. The interior illumination was supplied by Osram.

The Denali XT seats four. The high-cowl vehicle architecture enables higher seating positions, allowing the couple distance between front and rear occupants to be reduced without compromising knee room. This packaging efficiency creates generous interior and cargo bed dimensions within a more compact package.

Truck capability
With stiffness that is greater than most conventional, body-on-frame trucks, the Denali XT’s unibody structure supports a very capable truck platform. It also serves as the mounting point for a four-wheel independent suspension that gives the vehicle its performance feel on the road. The multilink front suspension features a forward-mounted steering rack and dual lower links with ball joints at the outer ends, providing sharp responses to driver input. At the rear, a four-link suspension design uses coil-over shocks and a decoupled stabilizer bar to enhance cornering control, reduce body roll and optimize longitudinal compliance. In short, it’s a truck that hauls more than cargo on twisting roads.

The rear cargo area is wide, deep and flat, with no suspension or wheelhouse protrusions; the cargo floor measures 55 inches long (1,397 mm) by 47.5 inches wide (1,206 mm). It all adds up to the space to haul a wide variety of lifestyle accessories.

The easy-to-operate Midgate can be lowered to extend the cargo-carrying capacity inside the vehicle. The rear seats fold flat to provide a longer floor for carrying items such as skis, surfboards or wood from the home improvement store. A fixed rear window allowed engineers to retain the vehicle’s structure, reducing mass and complexity.

The Denali XT has an estimated payload capacity of 1,100 pounds (499 kg) and a towing capacity of an estimated 3,500 pounds (1,587 kg). This capability is delivered through unique vehicle and powertrain integration, where the multiple modes of GM’s two-mode hybrid system provide towing capability.

New 4.9L SIDI V-8 and two-mode hybrid system
For the first time, GM’s rear-wheel-drive two-mode hybrid transmission is paired with a smaller-displacement version of the small-block engine. The new V-8 4.9L E85-capable engine powers the Denali XT with an estimated 326 horsepower (243 kW). It uses direct-injection technology to produce the power of a larger engine, but consumes less fuel and produces lower emissions.

Also, the functionality of GM’s Active Fuel Management system has been expanded through the use of hybrid technologies, enhancing the cylinder-deactivating feature to further improve fuel efficiency.

The Denali XT’s two-mode hybrid system is partnered with the 4.9L engine and uses an electrically variable transmission to enhance fuel efficiency in city and highway driving. In city driving, all-electric propulsion is used at low speeds; on the highway, fixed-gear operation enables efficient performance even when towing a trailer.

The specific characteristics of the Denali XT allowed the synergistic evolution of GM’s small-block V-8 and two-mode hybrid beyond the recently introduced in GM two-mode hybrid products, such as the GMC Yukon Hybrid and Sierra Hybrid. During this optimization process, additional powertrain technologies have been integrated, including Active Thermal Management, which transfers thermal energy from one driveline component to another to improve efficiency; and a high-efficiency axle configuration, which fundamentally reduces the losses normally associated with conventional axle configurations.

The integration of the advanced internal combustion engine technologies and two-mode hybrid system on the Denali XT reinforces GMC’s Professional Grade position as a brand that continues to exceed customer expectations.


Body style / driveline: four-door, four-seat; rear-wheel drive sport-utility truck
Construction: body-frame integral
Engine type: 4.9L SIDI V-8 with Active Fuel Management
Horsepower (hp / kW): 326 / 243 (est)
Fuel type: unleaded regular or E85 ethanol
Transmission: two-mode hybrid
Suspension: front: independent SLA; rear: independent SLA
Brakes four-wheel disc
Wheel size & type: 23-inch aluminum; split 5-spoke
Tires: front: Kuhmo 255/35/R23
rear: Kuhmo 285/35/R23
Wheelbase (in / mm): 125.4 / 3134
Overall length: 205 / 5207
Overall width (in / mm): 76.3 / 1938
Overall height (in / mm): 62.5 / 1587
Track (in / mm): 65 / 1651
Cargo floor length (in / mm): 55 / 1397
Cargo floor width (in / mm): 47.5 / 1206
Payload (lb / kg): 1100 / 499 (est)
Towing capacity (lb / kg): 3500 / 1587 (est)

COPYRIGHT – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. Very interesting. I agree that there is some market for mid-size trucks. More importantly, a mid-size truck in the United States is a large truck in the rest of the world, so maybe some international market space exists for a mid-size truck as well. Full-size pickups are pretty much a no-go in the rest of the world, but you might be able to sell some mid-size trucks in other places, thereby reducing your costs per unit.

  2. Limited market or not, I’m interested in one. I don’t need a big-butt truck. My hauling needs are pretty frequent but of low tonnage.

  3. The Crewman was the longest Holden ever sold in Oz….with the emphasis on ‘was’ because it has been deleted. Mainly because it didn’t sell enough to justify the cost of updating it to the new version. Didn’t help that it was too big, too ugly and the back seat was too small to be useful for anyone bar small children. So if the US wants the Denali then I think you can have it…Holden won’t want it back. They’ll just want the design & engineering kudos.

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