Review: The GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate is a triumphant do-over

After inventing the entire segment in the early 2000s, GMC made an awkward discovery when it debuted its all-new Sierra full-size pickup truck for the 2020 model year: it had a major luxury-truck problem. After years of living off the reputation, strong sales and legacy of high-end equipment offered by its Sierra Denali sub-brand, GMC suddenly faced a market that had not only caught up to, but in many cases surpassed, what its workhorse had to offer.

With rivals Ford and Ram providing pickups with more opulent cabins and advanced features entirely missing from the Denali stable, it was the kind of wake-up call that presents an automaker with a dramatic—and expensive—crossroads. Do they stay the course and ride out the storm and risk damaging the brand while waiting for the planned update in four to five years, or do they crack the vault and spend unexpected millions to redo a truck beyond the enormous cost and effort it was just spent?

General Motors opted for the latter, pushing out a dramatically different version of the Sierra that has upgraded the truck across all trim levels while polishing the Denali-badged paint. The new GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate proves that it’s never too late to change direction, especially when billions of dollars in profits are at stake.

A bigger infotainment screen, yes, but also plenty of leather and artfully engraved wood.

GMC

The first class cabin returns

The 2022 editions of the GMC Sierra come with an extra layer of confusion for those already overwhelmed by the options presented by the deep field of full-size truck competitors. Due to supply chain restrictions and various other chip shortage-related ailments, there were two different, overlapping generations of Sierra on sale this past year: a carryover of the 2021 model labeled Classic, and then midway through the year the actual refresh, which is the focus of this review.

The difference between the older (and previously top-of-the-line) Denali and the new Denali Ultimate (which now has two trim levels above it) is startling. The most notable changes have been in the cabin, which goes from a wet, plastic-heavy design to an environment filled with engraved wood accents, really high-end leather on both the seats and door panels, and the kind of dashboard design befitting a truck whose price level has crept up to 83 000 dollars.

Topographic lines and GPS coordinates for Denali engraved in the wood dashboard of the GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

This cabin gets all the luxury touches.

GMC

That number represents a budget increase of nearly $25,000 for the Denali Ultimate over the previous Denali (which continues at around $65,000). Without getting lost in the weeds of why customers are willing to pay import prices for luxury-loaded pickups, it’s easy to pick out the details that make the Ultimate worthy of its new window sticker. Those lines etched into the dashboard and seatbacks? Those are the topographical lines associated with its namesake peak, whose coordinates are also spelled out to make it easier to program into hubs. You’ll see the same wavy highs and lows cut into the Ultimate’s exterior badging as well, where they’re matched with a more toothy grille and LED lighting that gives the truck a more appealing character than before.

Overall, the Sierra Denali Ultimate’s interior offers acres of allure, with a vastly improved gauge setup paired with a larger and more exclusive infotainment screen (along with an absurdly wide 15-inch head-up display) rounding out its thoughtful design cues. Still, with passenger space now easily on par with class leaders like the Ram 1500 Limited, it’s a little sad that for all its soft landing spots for arm, hand and leg, there were still rattles coming from under the dash and backseat area that intruded on top-ticket performance secreted everywhere else.

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The Super Cruise technology and head-up display displayed on the dashboard and windshield of the GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate pickup truck

Not all driver assistance systems are created equal. Super Cruise is ahead of the pack.

GMC

Go hands-free with Super Cruise

Shivers and rattles aside, the 2022 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate offers a special feature that not even the most spectacular Ram or Ford pickups can poach. Super Cruise, GM’s hands-free driving system, is gradually trickling down from Cadillac to a longer list of vehicles, and the Denali Ultimate (alongside the regular Denali) is one of the latest to benefit. It’s a genuinely useful option that surpasses competing products like Ford’s BlueCruise or even the limited self-driving provided by top-of-the-range Mercedes-Benz vehicles, which rely on hyper-accurate maps of US highways to complement its extensive array of sensors.

Of all the hands-in-lap offerings out there, Super Cruise stands out as the only one that has consistently impressed me with its reliability, its ability to keep drivers informed when it’s locked versus when it’s disengaged, and its smooth operation . All of this remained true during my time with the Denali Ultimate during a night drive back into town with a snowblower perched high in the (carbon) cargo bed. The only caveat when it comes to Super Cruise is whether you can actually hook it up at order time, as General Motors has so far been unable to secure a steady supply of the silicone required to install this feature for every GMC customer who wants it .

The truck bed for the GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate pickup truck

Performance, style and comfort, with a price tag to match.

GMC

Back in the mix with Ford and Ram

Much of the rest of what the Sierra Denali Ultimate has to offer will be familiar to GMC fans. Buyers can choose between the six-cylinder 3.0-liter turbodiesel or upgrade to a 6.2-liter V8 with 420 horsepower, with the latter fitted to the vehicle I drove. Suspension remains the latest generation of Magnetic Ride Control, a continuously variable shock setup that easily hides the fact that the rear of the Sierra sails on leaf springs, and of course you can engage in all kinds of tomfoolery with the truck’s MultiPro setup, which dares to ask the question, ” What if your tailgate was a boombox and also a Transformers action figure?”

The quick summary is not intended to downplay any of the above features. Each was offered with the previous Denali and carries over largely unchanged, which makes sense given that the powertrain and suspension were the best part of that truck’s incomplete effort. Now that they’ve been packaged with a truly quiet, comfortable, and world-class cabin, placed under the watchful electronic eye that is Super Cruise, GMC is once again making a meaningful statement with the brand that started the premium pickup gold rush so many years ago.

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