Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
Women dig men who drive pickups. I mean it. Ask any woman if she ever fantasized as a young girl about some tough-yet-sensitive, handsome cowboy-type sweeping her off her feet. Just ask any woman, okay? It's the same for everyone: Travis or Cody or Reid shows up one day on her front porch with a bunch of just-picked wildflowers in one hand and his rugged cowboy hat in the other, wearing wranglers and his best plaid shirt. He whispers something insanely poetic to her in his soft, gruff voice, gently kisses her, then carries the girl (who is now wearing the cowboy hat) down the porch steps, where they ramble off into the sunset-drenched countryside in his burly red pickup truck. It's like a scene from a movie. Actually, it is a scene from several movies, but that just proves my point.
GMC, with its brand-new 1999 Sierra, could really cash in on this American fantasy. Put that scene on a commercial and see what happens better yet, cast Robert Redford or Brad Pitt (he did make his acting debut as a cute young cowboy in Thelma and Louise, remember?) and watch those sales skyrocket. Although, after having had the opportunity to poke, prod and drive the Sierra across the beautiful southwestern landscape, kicking up dust and weaving between cacti, we've concluded that GMC may not have to resort to such manipulative advertising measures to sell its newest product. Most people who are in the market for a full-size pickup will be impressed by this new truck, not because of what it can do for their love life, but because of what it can do, period. And anyway, GMC is no longer going for that macho tough-guy image. They're leaving that to Chevy.
See, back in 1996, GMC decided to create a new image for itself by positioning the company as the premium truck division in the United States. Since then, GMC has been refinishing several of its existing rough-and-tough vehicles with a bit of powder and polish. Enter the 1999 Denali, which is a fancier version of the Yukon, and the new Envoy, which is a spiffed-up Jimmy. It only stands to reason that the company would enhance the Sierra pickup for 1999, too. But this time, they started pretty much from scratch. Carrying over certain styling elements, like the ruby red GMC logo and the large centerport grille, was important to designers, but it was equally important to branch out into new territory with stiffer, lighter frames, larger engines and roomier cabs.
The '99 Sierras have an all-new three-piece frame construction and each piece of the frame serves a unique function, from protecting the engine and suspension to accommodating various trailer hitches. The front end of the frame is the stiffest, for it must absorb the bumps and cradle the engine. The middle section is 27 percent lighter and houses a stiff cross section, while the rear section is designed to uphold the trailer hitches. The frame is made with the new hydroforming technique, which entails injecting fluid into steel tubes and shaping them into cross sections so that the frame can be thinner, lighter and stronger than if it were made the traditional way. This process also allows the frame to be engineered in a single piece instead of many pieces of welded steel. The result is a frame that absorbs 35 percent more energy than its predecessor, reduces vibrations, has better crash test results and is not as susceptible to corrosion from road salts.
Designers obviously thought that GMC's best-selling truck deserved several first-class engine choices, and we agree. Although the carryover Vortec 4.3-liter V6 is still standard on the trucks, the Sierras can also be equipped with three new powerful V8s under the hood. The Vortec 4.8-liter V8 makes 255 horsepower @ 5200 rpm and 285 foot-pounds of torque @ 4000 rpm. Replacing the Vortec 5000, this engine makes more horsepower than the old engine and reaches peak performance higher in the rpm range, which results in improved pulling and hauling power. There's also a 5.3-liter V8 with 270 ponies running at 5000 rpm and 315 foot-pounds of torque @ 4000 rpm. Like the 4800, the 5300 engine displays a long, fairly flat torque curve for sustained hauling performance. And finally, you can buy a 6.0-liter V8 with 300 horsepower @ 4800 rpm and 355 foot-pounds of torque @ 4000 rpm. These three new gasoline engines are based on the 5.7-liter LSI engine in the Corvette but use cast iron blocks and all three produce between 10 and 25 more horsepower than the engines they replace. A 6.5-liter Turbo-Diesel V8 that offers 215 horsepower and a whopping 440 foot-pounds of torque will be available after the first of the year. The engine is a revised version of the truck's previous diesel, but garners 20 more horsepower and 10 more foot-pounds of torque than the previous version. The 2500 Series truck with a 6.0-liter engine provides the Sierra with a trailer rating of 10,500 pounds.
Each truck is available with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission and rear- or four-wheel drive capability. As usual, there is a variety of configurations to choose from, including regular or extended cabs, shortbed or longbed, three trim levels and many options. While driving several different Sierras through the desert and mountain regions of northern New Mexico, we certainly came to prefer the trucks with the larger engines, but noted that the less powerful trucks kept up on all terrain just fine. The most noticeable difference in performance was between the two- and four-wheel drive V8s while off-roading on the banks of the Rio Grande. A four-wheel drive V8 clawed its way up a steep dirt trail without hesitation but our 5.3-liter two-wheel drive version made it only three quarters of the way up before the wheels began to spin and we slid back down in defeat.
But executives at GMC pointed out that they are now designing vehicles geared more toward on-road purposes. If you want a dirt-crunching, rock-hopping vehicle made by GM, Chevy is the place to shop. For the average Sierra buyer, however a 46-year-old male making about $65,000 a year GMC has produced a truck that is comfortable, rugged, stylish and fun. Execs at GMC believe that full-size pickups, which make up about 40 percent of the company's total sales, are appealing to buyers who want more room and more functionality with a lower cost of ownership.
Through market research, the company came up with four distinct types of full-size pickup buyers: 1) the Functionalists (read: mom and pop farmer/rancher down the lane) who want reliability and durability, 2) the Value Seekers (read: penny pinchers) who insist upon low cost, good resale value and low maintenance, 3) the Image and Fun Seekers (read: preppy cowboy wannabes) who crave refinements and family/personal-use amenities, and 4) the Image & Expertise Seekers who demand authenticity and honesty in a truck. Wait a minute, authenticity and honesty in a truck? What the heck is that? More importantly, who is that? According to GMC, that's the consumer who gets exactly what they want and need in a truck, namely more towing and hauling capability, a stiffer body, more cargo and passenger room and extra amenities. It's also their target audience.
Listening to its current customers, GMC designed a truck that looks like a truck. Though the corners are a bit rounder and the sheetmetal has some extra creases, it's still bulky and powerful in a conservative way. Headlights are larger and offer 15 percent more forward lighting and 120 percent more left-side lighting without increasing the glare. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard on the Sierra and, after allowing us to test this out against a Dodge Ram and a Ford F-150 at a dragway in Albuquerque, we came to the conclusion that the Sierra brakes outperform the other trucks by 38 feet and 56 feet, respectively. Large grip handles on the doors are ergonomically superior to the older models and the trucks get bigger chrome bumpers for better safety and a more powerful stance. Automatic four-wheel drive (which throws the vehicle into four-wheel drive whenever the tires detect slippage), a tow/haul mode button (which lengthens the time between gearshifts and makes the shift quicker) and a retooled rear axle have also been added.
Although the styling of the Sierra remains truck-like, the interior has been revamped for comfort and convenience. The extended cabs have an amazing amount of room 38.4 inches of headroom and 33.7 inches of legroom for backseat passengers. And, designers installed child-size seatbelt adjusters, two rear cupholders and two headrests for the rear riders. A larger third door allows for easy passenger access as well as quick cargo loading, and on cold days, rear passengers benefit from heating ducts on the backseat floor. The Sierra is not currently offered with four doors, although a GMC executive said that the company will probably roll out a four-door model within the next three years.
For the driver, more glass ensures better visibility, and the center armrest storage area is large enough for a laptop computer or a six pack of soda, depending on your priorities. Reduced-force airbags have been installed and the passenger gets an airbag on/off option. The glove compartment has separate sections so your sunglasses don't get lost under your maps, the foldout cupholders are large with a space for a mug handle and there are a total of three power outlets available in the front. All seatbelts are seat-mounted for convenience and safety and the SLT trim level gets you an armrest that doubles as a writing tray, and a rubber band across the bottom of the lid that can hold tablets or coloring books for the kiddies. In the bright desert sunshine, we noticed that there were no visor extenders and no double sunvisors, even on the highest trim level.
A low step-in height doesn't cut into the truck's 10 inches of ground clearance, though I wouldn't recommend wearing a tight skirt while trying to enter a Sierra. Another interesting gadget on the truck is the all-new driver message center, which relays up to 18 different messages from the on-board computers to the driver. The messages are displayed on the LCD screen on the left corner of the instrument cluster.
Although GMC has taken a kinder, gentler approach to pickup-ing, there are still some die-hards out there who will actually use this truck for hauling logs or boats or all the furniture that was once inside their apartment on a regular basis. And for those consumers, GMC has made some much-needed upgrades to the bed and towing features of the truck. For instance, after hearing too many complaints about stolen bedliners, they are now bolted into place. Then there's the tow/haul mode we mentioned before. Trailering capacity on the two-wheel drive 2500-series Sierra can go up to 11,000 pounds if it is equipped with the 6.5-liter turbo diesel V8 and a 3.42 or 4.10 axle ratio. The popular 1500-series trucks can pull up to 8,000 pounds when equipped with four-wheel drive, a 5300 Vortec V8 engine and a 4.10 axle ratio. Another improvement is an optional camper/trailer mirror, which telescopes out to provide additional visibility when towing a trailer or when the cargo box is topped with a camper unit.
Cargo boxes are also larger on the '99 Sierra sportside and wideside trucks than they were in the past. The sportside box gains 7.2 cubic feet while both the long and short boxes on the wideside trucks get an extra 1.1 cubic feet of room. The wideside and sportside boxes also feature stake pockets in all four corners, built-in tie-down brackets and pocket shelves for two-tier loading.
While most of the journalists who drove the Sierras spent a lot of time raving about the functionality of the trucks, many also couldn't stop gabbing about the spiffy new medium green color GMC is introducing. Maybe it had something to do with the green and brown desert landscape.
Overall, the Sierra seems to be a capable truck with enough variations to suit everyone's needs, whether you're a Functionalist crunching numbers or an Image & Expertise Seeker looking for that elusive notion of authenticity. With competing full-size trucks in this segment now at least two years old, the Sierra definitely has the new-kid-on-the-block edge. We're hoping, though, that upscale prices won't accompany the new truck with the new image. Since GMC is set on segmenting itself as the premium truck division that caters to upscale truck buyers, young cowboy types might be better off shopping elsewhere.
Still, Robert Redford would look awfully good leaning up against a brand-new Sierra on the back of some magazine ad just ask any woman.
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