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2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate: As big and rugged as its name suggests

John Berg


The big, bold Yukon Denali moves further upmarket with an exclusive “Ultimate” package. It’s a tall, handsome full-sized sport utility vehicle that stands out. The Denali Ultimate delivers Cadillac-level luxury but with more muscular styling than stablemates from Chevrolet and Cadillac.

The Ultimate package provides the already-rugged Yukon with an elevated look. An enormous black-faceted grille trimmed in dark-tinted chrome that GM calls “Vader Black” gives the Yukon a formidable, distinctive appearance. The 22-inch wheels look appropriate and attract attention. Presented in striking “Titanium Rush Metallic” exterior paint, the Denali Ultimate is the automotive equivalent of a bodybuilder dressed in a finely tailored suit.

2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate: As big and rugged as its name suggests 1
The 2023 Yukon Denali Ultimate offers luxury, power and value. Image © John Berg/2023.

Prepare to Be Seen

The Yukon Denali Ultimate has a commanding highway presence. The SUV gets constant approving looks and nods. Traffic tends to move out of the way. Riding in the Ultimate evokes a sense of occasion. I enjoyed driving the Yukon, but I liked being seen in it just as much.

Badge Engineering Done Right

Critics have questioned General Motors’ decision to re-badge the same vehicle for several different brands. The Chevy Cavalier, rebadged as the Cadillac Cimarron, was a notorious example. The Cadillac version had upgraded seats, soft leather upholstery and wore a big, bold Cadillac grille. But that wasn’t enough to differentiate the Cadillac from its penalty box underpinnings.

I thought the GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate might be another example of badge engineering gone wrong. The profile and rear view of the Yukon look nearly identical to the $30,000 cheaper Chevy Tahoe LS. What could possibly be so special about the Yukon Denali Ultimate to differentiate it from the Tahoe, or for that matter the more expensive Cadillac Escalade? All three SUVs ride on the same chassis and share much of the same sheet metal.

The Yukon Denali Ultimate provides a standard 10.2-inch-diagonal premium with GMC infotainment system Google built-in.
The Yukon Denali Ultimate provides a standard 10.2-inch-diagonal premium GMC infotainment system. Image courtesy of GMC.

A Solid Foundation

The Yukon is a spacious, full-sized body-on-frame SUV that shares the same chassis with the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks. Redesigned in 2021, the live axle is gone; the Yukon now rides on a multi-link independent rear suspension. That translates to more interior room, a better ride and improved road manners. Thanks to the new suspension, the third row of seating is no longer relegated to just children; adults fit comfortably. The Yukon has the versatility of a mini-van and the capability of a half-ton pickup.

Comfort and Convenience

The Yukon has high-tech animated perimeter lighting. Open the door and a lighted power side step extends. Peering inside is a delight, with theatre lighting, animated displays and wood and aluminum accents. The rich, two-toned leather smells as good as it looks. Even the floormats are trimmed in stainless steel.

The 16-way power seats are heated and cooled and feature several massage settings. They’re all day comfortable, too. The seats are nice but they sound like noise generators when the cooling feature is on. Taller occupants will find the seat bottoms could have better thigh support. The neck massage feature doesn’t quite reach up high enough to massage your neck. Luckily, the feature can be tuned off.

The infotainment system worked well. Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay integrated with my phone flawlessly. The 18-speaker Bose Performance Series audio system was disappointing. I expected better accuracy and a more bass response. I adjusted the tone settings ad nauseam, but the audio always sounded muddy. I’m speculating the audio system was faulty because I have heard better-performing Bose systems in less expensive vehicles.

Suspension

The Yukon Denali Ultimate comes standard with Magnetic Ride Control and standard air ride adaptive suspension. This gives the Yukon a variable ride height that adjusts for different terrains and drive modes. When parking, the Yukon even lowers itself to allow easier ingress and egress. The feature enhanced the Yukon’s already robust gotta-have-it factor.

On some vehicles, airbag suspensions have a tendency to “float.” The Yukon handles competently; the suspension is well controlled, and it simultaneously feels like you’re riding on air. This is a great road trip vehicle. In touring mode, it slightly rocks from side to side but the SUV plays it off as a swagger. Switch to sport mode and the Yukon tightens up and hunkers down, ready to charge through twisty roads.

Behind the Wheel

The Yukon is for people who like big cars. It’s substantial and well-planted. The SUV has a normally aspirated 420 horsepower 6.2L V8 engine, and it feels as powerful as it sounds.

A 3.0L Duramax turbo-diesel is also available. The engine makes beautifully muscular sounds that while muted and subtle are just enough to reiterate what’s under the hood. The V8 is equipped with cylinder deactivation (aka Active Fuel Management) and is coupled to a 10-speed automatic transmission that helps the Yukon get respectable fuel economy. The combination works well with brisk acceleration and ample power for passing.

As expected from a truck-based 4×4 utility, performance is just as satisfying when the pavement ends. If headed for the mountains, the Yukon has a standard Active Response 4WD system with an electronic limited-slip differential and an Auto Track two-speed transfer case. The system worked perfectly when I drove the Yukon off-road.

The power isn’t enough to overshadow the Yukon’s almost 5,800-pound curb weight. I repeatedly thought about how much better the Yukon would perform with another 100 horsepower. There wasn’t enough grunt to make me smile, but I was satisfied. In certain conditions, the automatic transmissions “hunted” for gears, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker.

Super Cruise

GM calls Super Cruise “Driver Assistance Technology” but it essentially drives itself. Super Cruise is cruise control on steroids. It takes adaptive cruise control, emergency braking and lane departure assistance to another level. Once the system is engaged the Yukon maintains its speed, maintains a safe distance from traffic ahead, steers, stays in its lane, signals, changes lanes and completely stops by itself. The driver just has to keep their eyes on the road and maintain readiness to assume control should the system disengage.

Super Cruise worked surprisingly well. The feature didn’t remain engaged on only two construction-related occasions. The first was when traffic lanes had been shifted to accommodate construction along the center divider. The second instance was when the system unsuccessfully detected the presence of safety cones closing off my lane. I was skeptical about Super Cruise, but driving is believing. It’s invaluable on long trips, reducing driver fatigue and enhancing driver enjoyment. The miles melt away.

Watch my Super Cruise demonstration video here

The Verdict

The Yukon Denali Ultimate is the right combination of 21st-century technology and old-school brute. It’s a capable, handsome, comfortable and luxurious SUV immensely satisfying to drive, and feels good to be seen in. It’s the ultimate long-distance cruiser, albeit thirsty. I maintained a consistent 16 miles per gallon over 1,500 miles of mostly highway cruising. I suspect I could’ve achieved about 17 mpg if I were lighter on the throttle. That’s impressive fuel economy for the Yukon’s size and capability. Price as tested: $99,145 including destination. The Yukon Denali Ultimate with Super Cruise is a compelling SUV value, and I recommend it.

Article Last Updated: November 15, 2023.

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