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A black 2019 GMC Yukon Denali is shown parked after leaving a used GMC dealer.

The Rise of GMC’s Mount Denali

GMC’s Denali trim line started back in the 1990s with the Yukon, and since then, it has become a bastion of the GMC brand. Without any direct advertising of the Denali line, the premium status of the Denali simply sold itself and has become responsible for as much as 40 percent of the profits GMC rakes in each year. GMC sold the Denali trim as the utmost in luxury for its vehicle offerings, then raised the stakes of premium desirability with its new Denali Ultimate option to deliver exactly that: the ultimate Denali. If you wish you could get your hands on a Denali but can’t handle the high price, head to a used GMC dealer to grab a previously-owned model. It will still be a pinnacle of opulent style that will probably rival new cars with its exclusive features.

Denali in the Beginning

It’s intriguing that the Denali line actually began in an effort to stave off losing too many customers to the new Lincoln Navigator after it hit the market in 1998. GMC didn’t take long to try to puncture those Navigator sales with the Yukon Denali in 1999. At the same time, unbeknownst to the average buyer, Cadillac was scrounging for a means to stay relevant as SUV sales began to take off, and the brand really needed a luxury SUV. GM was busy developing the new GMT820 platform, but in order to stay afloat in the SUV game, it was necessary for Cadillac to have a more immediate answer until the new platform was ready. That led to Cadillac borrowing the Yukon platform, giving it unique exterior panels and some extra features.

Meanwhile, the new Denali trim for the Yukon drove GMC’s efforts into making it a line of select features unavailable in other trims. Exclusivity drew buyers to the polished aluminum wheels, “Nuance” leather upholstery, and numerous powered and tech accessories that made the interior feel superior to the rest of the lineup. Right from the earliest models, the Denali trademark wood grain trim became a signature feature of its luxurious appeal in contrast to the plastic and vinyl of the lesser trims, and that feature remains a part of the Denali design to this day. Though GMC now says the line was named after the mountain, it was only during Obama’s presidency that the mountain was renamed from McKinley to Denali. More likely, the Yukon inspired the name as another nod to Alaska, but only GMC execs really know.

A red 2019 GMC Canyon Denali is shown in the mountains after leaving a used GMC dealer.

Denali Models Over the Years

Once the Yukon Denali took off, GMC saw the wisdom in creating new Denali trims for its other vehicles, starting with the full-sized Sierra in 2001. At first, GMC played it safe by simply renaming the C3 trim as the Denali, but then in 2002, the Sierra Denali received more attentive treatment with an upgraded powertrain and a feature called “Quadrasteer” which allowed for all four wheels to be steered, rather than just the front axle. That feature was nixed from the line by 2005, at which time the Sierra Denali was refreshed with a new body. As the new Sierra Denali was being introduced, GMC scurried to shift the look of the Yukon Denali and give it a more unique design, which is when the honeycomb pattern chrome grille became another feature to delineate the branding.

Again GMC built on its former efforts with the Sierra Denali and kept the momentum of sales rolling with a new vehicle ushered into premium territory: the Envoy… at the same time, it was refreshing the Sierra. Though the upper-level SLT trim of the Envoy already offered a number of luxuries, GMC took it farther with the Denali to give the Envoy signature wood trim, upscale leather upholstery, and lots of chrome accents. Between 2005 and 2008, the Envoy Denali came with extra tech options like a rear-seat entertainment system and the built-in navigation we all still see as a premium feature today (despite every smartphone being capable of navigation).

As one date seems to blend with another, the year 2008 brought the end of the Envoy’s production, but it was the same year GMC revealed a prototype for a new concept hybrid truck called the Denali XT. Designed in Australia, the XT was meant to run on E85 fuel and would have meager capabilities as a truck with only 3,500 pounds of towing capacity. Though GMC trotted out this prototype at the Chicago Auto Show in 2008, it never went into production due to design flaws relating to the unibody platform. So, with the Envoy gone, GMC was back to the Yukon and the Sierra as the only members of the exclusive Denali club until the Acadia was brought into the fold in 2011.

Like the rest of the club members, the Acadia was dressed in GMC’s finest attire for the Denali party, finally receiving the wood grain and chrome of its brethren. Two years later, the Terrain also received its formal invitation to the club, at which point driver-assist tech was made a standard feature for the Terrain Denali trim. Blind-spot warning and cross-traffic detection were part of the long list of features in the Denali trim in 2013 models for the Terrain. In the following year, GMC redesigned the Sierra, and by 2016 the brand reported that the Denali line of vehicles was largely responsible for raising their percentage of sales in the full-size truck segment to more than 15 percent. What GMC released in a media statement in 2016 was to say they once had a “zero percent premium full-size truck segment,” but the “Sierra Denali has helped GMC earn a higher share of the premium portion” of the market.

Just a year before that announcement in 2016, spy shots of a Canyon Denali were posted. When the Canyon Denali came out for the 2017 model year, GMC once again announced its sales record, crediting the Denali line for “about 25 percent of all GMC retail sales in 2015 and more than 850,000 have been sold since the nameplate was introduced on the 1999 Yukon.” Since then, the Denali line has only continued to grow sales revenue for GMC, and the introduction of the Denali Ultimate trim in 2016 seems to be increasing the fervor of purchases. People can’t seem to get enough of the premium trim. GMC found its Yukon gold, and the brand keeps digging.

A black 2022 GMC Sierra 2500HD Denali Black Diamond is shown parked near rocks.

The Denali Line for 2022

When the Denali Ultimate line was introduced in 2016, it was exclusive to the Sierra 1500. In that model year, GMC gave the Denali Ultimate its own signature design that took the already luxurious Denali to a more custom luxury line that included features like tri-mode power steps, 22-inch wheels in a custom chrome design, and loads of standard tech. Fast forward to the announcement of the 2022 models, and the new Denali Ultimate line is now being aligned with the AT4X as another luxury trim for the Sierra, this time crossing over into the luxury off-road segment. Such a move will compete with other luxury style off-road vehicles like Land Rover and Wagoneer, but the Denali Ultimate might be aiming at its own GM siblings like the Escalade with its high-class demeanor.

The new Denali Ultimate line makes premium look old and worn out with its laser-etched topographical maps of Denali State Park scattered around the cabin, the standard CarbonPro bed liner, and the new “Vader” chrome that calms down the shininess with a low-gloss black sheen. The new Sierra Denali Ultimate gets its own grille pattern, and now it has Super Cruiser hands-free driving tech standard, a feature that’s borrowed from the Escalade. With a new focus on “bespoke” details, the Denali Ultimate line may be GMC’s answer to all those critics of the Denali not being premium enough to stand up to its claims. Now with the new fully electric Hummer picking up the old Quadrasteer (although renaming it Crabwalk), it’s clear GMC keeps its old tricks for new trucks. Will the Denali line go all-electric next? If we follow the pattern of the past, we should give GMC two years to up their game.

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