We’ve driven a lot of GMCs recently, from multiple versions of the Yukon to the Sierra 1500 Denali Ultimate, but until recently we hadn’t driven the new-for-2023 Yukon Denali Ultimate. The SUV’s now top trim is a demonstration of subtle ostentatiousness, with Ultimate bringing the Yukon’s luxury to new heights. That goes for price too, with an as-tested MSRP of $97,745, spitting distance of the $106,865 Cadillac Escalade Sport we tested last year. Is the 2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate another solid addition to GM’s SUV triplets, or inter-manufacturer cannibalism?
Climbing up the ladder
From Tahoe to Escalade, it’s a matter of details that set the trio of GM’s full-size, body-on-frame SUVs apart. All three share on-road characteristics more identical than their fraternal bodywork, so it comes down to the interior and exterior design plus the accouterments that come with them to help create brand preference.
The new top-trim ‘Yuk tries to distinguish itself with goodies like the “Alpine Umber” interior, etched metal speaker covers, plaited seats, open pore wood accents, 18-speaker Bose stereo, Vader Chrome abound, and topographical maps of Denali itself embossed everywhere you look. Then there’s the Magnetic Ride Control, adaptive air ride suspension, 22-inch wheels, multicolor heads up display, 10.2-inch center screen, panoramic sunroof, 16-way power front seats with massage function, rear seat media, and an enormous round of safety equipment.
Luxury comes at a price
Of course, the pricing reflects the opulence. Our tester’s only options were the $495 Titanium Rush paint and $2,200 for GM’s hands-free driving Super Cruise kit. It also had the 6.2-liter V8 for an additional $1,055 over the 3.0-liter Duramax inline six-cylinder engine (which we do prefer to the 5.3L and 6.2L V8s available in the SUV trio). Total price: $97,745 on the provided Monroney, or $99,145 as per the configurator (Note: The “standard,” optionless price seems to have risen since our week-long loan).
Here’s some other numbers to consider: The base-trim 2023 Yukon SLE starts at $57,400, and the “normal” Denali at $74,805. The Ultimate will run you $96,775 just to get in the door. For reference, the Escalade starts at $79,795 and the Sport starts at $91,595. Overlap, indeed.
Road manners to admire
On the road, the Yukon is a pleasure to drive and spend time in. Everything about it is effortless, from the steering to the ride quality to the way it corners. You cover ground and don’t notice that sections of road have passed. The main pitfalls are the Bose stereo, which pales in comparison to Cadillac’s AKG unit, and the 10-speed automatic which gets shift-happy in driving circumstances that entail regular shifts between low and mid-speeds. Otherwise, the Yukon is great. Supremely comfortable, easy to pilot, and familiar. There’s no learning curve; GM SUVs have all driven largely the same since the GMT800. Better with each iteration, but still easily identifiable. You either like it or you don’t, and, well, we like it.
That said, it’s a shame that the Yukon doesn’t really have its own on-road character. The Tahoe serves as the more family-oriented, rough-and-tumble option of the three despite its ever-skyrocketing price; the Escalade is the ultra-luxo icon that stands on its own name and now serves up truly world-class niceties. This leaves the Yukon lurking in the middleground, the second of GM’s three family-hauling children. With Ultimate, GMC is trying to carve out its own niche within its own niche. The package here doesn’t do much to distinguish it from the Denali itself, though to certain buyers it will sell them on staying with a Yukon or simply being upsold on a nicer one.
GM has to be careful to not step on its own toes
You really have to love the Denali line or really appreciate the details that GMC worked into the Ultimate to justify this vehicle’s price. Otherwise, you get an almost-identical experience in the “normal” Denali without any of the tidbits that you’ll have to explain to everyone who gets in the front seat. The “regular” Denali really is a great vehicle, and if you’re going to spend $100k on a GM SUV, don’t you want it to have a Cadillac badge?
We called the Escalade “the king” in our aforementioned review, and it might not be in the grander world of SUVs. But even in the face of competition from the brand’s own mid-tier counterpart, it still holds its place at the top of the podium. Those looking for similar luxury with less showiness have a place to look in the GMC Yukon Denali. The Ultimate trim, though, is best left for those die-hard faithfuls of the brand and the trim. There might not be many of them, but they will sure love the details in this near-Escalade SUV.
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