2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate Review: Surprisingly Subtle Luxury
If any three-ton SUV costing almost $100,000 can be considered understated, it's this one.
There's big money in big luxury these days. Pickup trucks — long America's best-selling passenger vehicles — have gone from utilitarian workhorses to livable family transports to full-on fancy machines. Customers love such trucks because they combine the fancy features of high-end cars with the capability and confidence of bedded, body-on-frame Brobdingnagians; auto manufacturers love them because they're insanely profitable.
But while the pickup truck market may not have much appetite for rigs wearing traditional luxury brand names — remember the Cadillac Escalade EXT, the Lincoln Mark LT, the Lincoln Blackwood with its fake wood-trimmed bed? — sport-utility vehicle buyers have shown no such issues. These days, there are as many luxury SUVs out there as there are mainstream ones, if not more.
Still, given the size of the potential market, there must be some percentage of buyers out there who want their SUV with the nice bits, but not the ostentatious badge. Hence the existence of High Country Chevys, Capstone Sequoias, Platinum Fords — and, perhaps most notably, GMC's Denali line of sport-utes and trucks. And since the automotive marketplace, like nature, abhors a vacuum, carmakers are constantly trying to find new ways to fill white spaces between existing models, no matter how small they might seem. Which brings us to the GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate.
It's about as fancy as an SUV can be without slapping on the sort of badge that will make a certain type of neighbor or relative offer up a snide remark. ("Oh, you bought a Mercedes? Must be nice.") In price and position, it's meant to slide between the regular Yukon Denali and the Cadillac Escalade.
Mechanically and electronically, the changes are few. The biggest is the arrival of General Motors's excellent Super Cruise semi-self-driving tech to the Yukon, which enables drivers on select divided highways to take their hands off the wheel and do all sorts of things the fuddy-duddies at Consumer Reports would rather you didn't, just so long as your eyes stay on the road and you're ready to spring into action if things turn FUBAR.
Outside, the tweaks are subtle. Dark-tinted chrome trim (GMC calls it "Vader Chrome," in an unexpectedly silly move) sits on the grille and other places traditional brightwork would on lesser models. Paired with the blue-gray Titanium Rush Metallic paint of my test car, it made for an unexpectedly classy treatment — at least as subtle as a three-ton SUV with a price tag smacking up against $100,000 can be.
Very nice. Also, very much like the GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Yukon Ultimate that first dropped the superlative-named sub-sub-brand on buyers last year, from the textured hot cocoa-brown "Alpine Umber" leather trim to the open-pore wood trim with a topographic map of Denali (the mountain) etched onto the dash. The 18-speaker Bose stereo packs four extra speakers versus the regular Yukon Denali's unit, and while I can't say for certain that it makes an appreciable difference in sound quality, I can say that you'll notice them — they're mounted in the front row headrests.
This rig also boasts the latest installment of GM's infotainment system with Google integrated right in, an upgrade big enough to make you actually use features like the on-board nav system. With Google Maps tied into the dash (and a surprisingly accurate Google voice assistant), there's less reason to fuddle with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto — thus, ideally, enabling you to place your phone truly out of sight and out of mind.
Space, of course, is one of the biggest reasons (no pun intended) people opt for giant-sized SUVs like this one, and the Yukon Denali Ultimate delivers there without question. The first row is NBA-player suitable, and the second row captain's chairs not far behind, though not quite as comfortable as the massaging thrones in Row 1. Even the third row is able to take 95th-percentile-height males, at least for short-to-moderate bursts of time.
Pretty much like every other GM SUV built on the company's latest GMT T1XX body-on-frame platform — which is to say, quite well, at least for the sort of vehicle. The standard combination of Magnetic Ride Control dampers and air suspension gives it an easy ride, but also an unexpected bit of directness and handling verve for such a massive vehicle — helped in part by a well-tuned steering rack.
My tester came with the 6.2-liter V8, which I assume most buyers will choose, unless they're bladder-stretching road-trippers or die-hard towing enthusiasts (towers? towists?) who prefer the easier torque delivery and improved fuel economy of the Duramax 3.0-liter turbodiesel. The smallblock eight-pot is an excellent fit for this beast, especially teamed as it is here with GM's 10-speed automatic; there's always plenty of power available to boot through traffic or devour an on-ramp. I never felt the need for more power while driving it — and after testing the Escalade-V, I feel comfortable I probably never would in this kind of SUV, period.
For many folks, choosing a vehicle with a six-figure window sticker is about making, well, a bold statement. They want to be loud-and-proud about what they have — to make people jealous, to show off their success. GM makes an SUV for those folks: it's called the Cadillac Escalade.
But here's the thing: the Escalade is actually cheaper. You can option it up past $100K quite easily, and many do – but if your demands are simply for a Cadillac badge and a giant OLED screen on a looming SUV, you can have it for $82,690 — $12,705 less than the GMC YDU. (That said, the Ultimate only comes in 4WD, so the apples-to-apples gap is closer to $10K — and the GMC packs plenty of options the Caddy doesn't at that price.)
The Yukon Denali Ultimate, then, is perhaps less about sliding into the gap between Denali and Escalade, and more about just offering a more subtle alternative to the Cadillac. Other folks may not know what you're rocking...but isn't that half the fun?
Base Price: $95,395
Powertrain: 6.2-liter V8 / 3.0-liter turbodiesel I-6; 10-speed automatic; two- or four-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 420 (gas) / 277 (diesel)
Torque: 460 lb-ft (both engines)
EPA Fuel Economy: 14–21 mpg city, 18–27 mpg highway
The SUV big enough for Honest Abe and his stovepipe hat, touched up for 2022.