2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate Review: Handling Rugged Terrain in a Luxury SUV

2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate Review

It happens to the best of us. One day you’re a bro, cruising around in a convertible, hair blowing in the wind with a foxy lady riding shotgun. Then suddenly, you’re a dad, waking up at dawn to load up the car for the big family road trip. And when that happens, well, let’s just say you’ll be wishing that you have the 2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate ready on standby.

Having driven countless road trips cross country, up and down the coasts, and even around Europe, I know a thing or two about auto travel. There’s a certain dynamic to a successful road trip that usually involves ample space, both inside the cabin and when packing up the trunk. Comfort is key on long stretches, but so is preparation, especially when heading to the mountains for a few days on the slopes.

I’ve had this routine down for years, traveling with my wife all around the world. However, on this particular drive up to Lake Tahoe, we hit the road as a family, bringing along our baby, as well as my in-laws. And thanks to the Yukon Denali Ultimate, the whole thing went super smooth, even the part where we drove through the Pineapple Express Bomb Cyclone and a blizzard en route to 6,000-ft. elevation.

The Interior

A big thing on this road trip was cabin space.

It’s a much different prospect to pack for two people, rather than five, including a skier and a newborn. Not only did we need to allot extra space for baby essentials, but also skis, poles, and boots, along with an extra suitcase of vintage Descente ski wear to rock at Palisades Tahoe. Fortunately, the 2023 GMC Yukon Denali has an automatic 60/40 power fold split bench in the third row of seats, which allowed us to utilize part of the cabin for luggage and storage, while still providing 34.9 inches of legroom for my father-in-law to comfortably relax in the way, way back.

The second row, with its heated bucket seats, was the perfect spot for the car seat. It was also an ideal place for my mother-in-law to keep an eye on the baby, although she also took advantage of the rear seat media system, watching YouTube videos on the monitors built into the headrests of the front two seats. Using the Yukon’s WiFi hotspot, she was able to connect to the video streaming app, and the wireless Bose headphones were a nice touch to keep the volume down.

With my in-laws and baby comfortably nestled in the rear cabin, which has its own separate climate controls, along with numerous cup holders in the doors, USB ports for both iPhone and Android in each row, and even an AC electrical socket, I was free to lead the charge on this 1,100-mile roundtrip up Interstate-5 before heading east on I-80 towards Lake Tahoe. And, as is tradition, I made use of the Sirius XM radio package for the early portion of the road trip, listening to Phish and Bruce Springsteen radio, before eventually switching over to the Apple CarPlay feature for the remainder of the voyage, bumping David Bowie, Radiohead, The Beatles, Steely Dan, and a host of other classic bands through the 18-speaker Bose performance package.

There’s no doubt that this configuration really brings auto audio to a new level, and the first 8 hours of the 10-hour trek really flew by. We even had a chance to experiment with the massage feature on the heated 16-way power front seats.

And that’s when we hit the Bomb Cyclone.

2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate Review

Engine Details

Just north of Sacramento, we pulled over for a quick pitstop, which is when I decided to switch over from the Yukon Denali Ultimate’s 2 wheel drive option to the auto feature, which allows this 2023 GMC model to switch from 2WD to 4 wheel drive as the vehicle sees fit. This definitely came in handy as we ascended into the Sierra Nevada mountains, jamming past a dozen 18-wheelers in the pouring rain.

The road conditions weren’t particularly great. In fact, the roads were wet and icy, but the 2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate gripped the slick highway surface and made the drive up I-80 a rather easy one, especially given the circumstances. The 6.2L ECOTEC3 V8 engine, with its 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft torque easily scaled the stormy mountain range; that sort of might and power comes as a real comfort when you suddenly find yourself in the middle of an historic storm with your loved ones in tow.

I’ve driven these roads numerous times, occasionally in significantly smaller vehicles with significantly smaller engines, and there’s no doubt that the GMC Yukon was the smoothest ride I’ve ever had on this terrain.

Approaching Tahoe around sunset and exiting over to Highway 89, the rain turned to snow, prompting another switch, this time to the 4WD Hi setting, which is a true 4WD, ideal for higher speeds and RPMs.

Again, the Yukon Denali Ultimate seamlessly scampered towards the lake and Tahoe City.

2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate Review

More Interior Details

Now, while the drive to Lake Tahoe from Los Angeles is overall rather straightforward (I-5 N to I-80 E), once up in the mountains, it’s anyone’s guess how to find specific locations around the lake. In this case, there’s no way I would have been able to find our cabin rental (with a stunning panoramic view of Lake Tahoe) near Dollar Point without the use of a GPS system.

Sure, GPS is a rather standard feature in 2023, but the Yukon Denali Ultimate is equipped with an ample 10.2” color touchscreen and GMC’s premium infotainment system.

Details like this actually make the drive easier, and safer, allowing the driver to keep eyes on the road, while still following directions.

The multicolor head-up display, which projects current speed onto the windshield and alerts the driver to potential hazards, is also an excellent feature on less-than ideal drives. It’s an additional safety measure that keeps drivers aware of their surroundings and definitely came in handy while braving the elements. The heated steering wheel was also a nice touch in the colder climate, and the alpine umber interior accents fit perfectly with the mountain aesthetic.

2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate Review

The Exterior

With so much focus on the 2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate’s interior and engine, it’s important to mention the vehicle’s Titanium Rush Metallic exterior, which manages to not only be sleek and stylish, but also gives off rugged-yet-sophisticated vibes.

The 22” machine wheels and all-black GMC logo on the front grill, along with the dual exhaust with dual tips, look tough and masculine, and the LED headlamps, tail lamps, daytime running lamps, and fog lamps are not only functional, but add to the overall contours of the body design.

2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate Review

Because We Have to Mention It

It would be irresponsible to omit mention of fuel economy in such an auto review. The truth is, a 6.2L V8 engine guzzles a lot of gas, and the 2023 Yukon Denali only gets about 18 mpg on the highway (14 mpg in the city). Those numbers aren’t necessarily the best in an era of soaring gas prices, but these roads aren’t really ideal for EVs, and seriously, are you going to pull over to find a (likely crowded) charging station in the middle of a road trip? There’s no time for that kind of thing when you’re trying to keep the family on schedule.

So, while it costs a bit more to fuel the Yukon Denali Ultimate, it’s apparent that those costs go into fueling a massive engine that can handle all the elements, including more snow, which we encountered during a blizzard.

Considering that this was a ski trip, snow was actually what we were looking for on this adventure. And, for the occasion, I switched the Yukon Denali Ultimate over to the 4WD Lo mode, which is ideal for driving around Tahoe’s snowy terrain, especially on the small residential roads, where the plows had yet to clear the way.

Again, there was no hesitation from the vehicle. The GMC Yukon Denali easily steamrolled through a blizzard.

Things did get a little dicey on our way back to Los Angeles. The CalTrans road crew blocked off I-80 to check for chains and 4WD, which is standard in adverse conditions. In this case, the 2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate required no additional assistance, as I enabled the 4WD Hi mode for this most challenging part of the trip. And, once back down around sea level, near Stockton, CA, I was able to return to 2WD for the remainder of the drive.

In Summation

Having driven numerous SUVs around California and Europe, I have a rather vast perspective on this particular subject. And, after logging over 1,100 miles in the GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate, I have to place it in the highest class of sport utility vehicles, not only for style and comfort, but also for performance and safety.

Fully loaded, this particular model and trim runs $97,745, which is no small price tag. However, behind the wheel, you can feel that this is not only a powerful beast, but also a sleek luxury vehicle that is ideal for family road trips and driving on any terrain.

2023 GMC Yukon Denali Ultimate Review

More Car Reviews and Road Trip Tales From Dan Shapiro

Dan Shapiro is a writer, editor, musician, and producer currently based in Los Angeles. In addition to covering some of the biggest fights in combat sports history, he’s also hunted down the world’s best sushi, skied the northern hemisphere in July, and chronicled Chinese underground music for publications like CNN, the New York Daily News, VICE, and Time Out. Dan also conjured up a ghost at the Chateau Marmont while out on assignment for RoadTrippers. Follow him on Twitter here.

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