After inventing the entire segment in the early 2000s, GMC made an awkward discovery when it debuted its all-new Sierra full-size pickup for the 2020 model year: it had a major luxury truck problem. Having coasted for years on the reputation, strong sales and legacy of upscale accoutrements offered by its Sierra Denali sub-brand, GMC suddenly faced a market that had not only caught up with but in many cases surpassed what its workhorse had to offer.
With competitors Ford and Ram providing pickups with more opulent cabins and advanced features entirely absent from the Denali stable, it was the kind of wake-up call that presents an automaker with a dramatic — and expensive — fork in the road. Do they stay the course and ride out the storm, risking damage to the badge while awaiting the planned refresh in four to five years time, or do they crack open the vault and spend unexpected millions retooling a truck over and above the enormous cost and effort that was just expended?
General Motors chose the latter, pushing out a dramatically different version of the Sierra that has upgraded the truck across all trim levels while polishing the tarnish off of the Denali badge. The new GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate proves that it’s never too late to change direction, especially when there are billions of dollars in profits at stake.
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 ills, there were two different, overlapping generations of the Sierra on-sale over the course of the past year: a carryover of the 2021 model labeled the Classic, and then midway through the year the actual update, which is the focus of this review.
The difference between the older (and formerly range-topping) Denali and the new Denali Ultimate (which now sits two trim levels above) is startling. The most remarkable changes have occurred in the cabin, which moves from a dour, plastic-heavy design to an environment replete with engraved wood trim, truly upscale leather on both the seats and the door panels, and the kind of dashboard design befitting a truck whose price point has crept up to the $83,000 mark.
That figure represents a nearly $25,000 budget boost for the Denali Ultimate over the previous Denali (which carries on at around $65,000). Without getting too lost in the weeds of why customers are willing to pay import pricing for luxury-laden pickups, it’s easy to pick out the details that make the Ultimate worthy of its new window sticker. Those lines etched into the dash wood 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 the nav. You’ll see the same wavy peaks and valleys cut into the Ultimate’s exterior badge as well, where they’re matched with a toothier grille and LED lighting that gives the truck a more appealing character than before.
Overall, the Sierra Denali Ultimate’s interior provides acres of enticement, with a vastly improved gauge setup paired with a larger and more upscale infotainment screen (along with an absurdly wide 15-inch head-up display) rounding out its well-thought-out design cues. Still, with a passenger compartment that’s now easily on the same level as class leaders like the Ram 1500 Limited, it’s a bit disappointing that for all of its soft-touch landing spots for arm, hand and leg, there were still rattles emanating from under the dashboard and the rear seat area that intruded on the top-ticket performance exuded everywhere else.
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Go Hands-Free With Super Cruise
Squeaks and rattles aside, the 2022 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate does offer one particular 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 into a longer list of vehicles, and the Denali Ultimate (alongside the regular Denali) is one of the latest to benefit. It’s a truly useful option that outperforms rival products like Ford’s BlueCruise or even the limited self-driving provided by top-tier Mercedes-Benz vehicles, relying on hyper-accurate maps of American highways to complement its extensive array of sensors.
Of all the “hands-in-lap” offerings out there, Super Cruise stands as the only one that has regularly impressed me with its reliability, its ability to keep drivers informed of when it’s locked in versus when it’s disengaged, and its smooth operation. All of that remained true during my time with the Denali Ultimate during a nighttime run back into the city with a snowblower standing tall in the (carbon fiber) cargo bed. The only caveat when it comes to Super Cruise is whether you can actually snag it at ordering time, as General Motors has thus far been unable to secure a steady supply of the silicone required to install this feature for every GMC customer who wants it.
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 base 3.0-liter turbodiesel six-cylinder or upgrade to a 6.2-liter, 420-horsepower V8, with the latter outfitted to the vehicle I drove. Suspension remains the latest generation of Magnetic Ride Control, a continuously-variable shock setup that easily obscures the fact that the rear of the Sierra is sailing on leaf springs, and of course you can engage in all sorts of tomfoolery with truck’s MultiPro setup, which dares to ask the question, “What if your tailgate was a boombox and also a Transformers action figure?”
That quick round-up isn’t meant to downplay any of the above features. Each was offered with the preceding Denali and largely carry over unchanged, which is logical given that the drivetrain and suspension were the best part of that truck’s incomplete effort. Now that they’ve been bundled with a truly quiet, comfortable and world-class cabin, set under the watchful electronic eye that is Super Cruise, GMC is once again making a meaningful statement with the badge that started the premium pickup gold rush so many years ago.
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