In the General Motors scheme of things, GMC is the brand to shop for premium trucks. Pay no attention to the ultra-luxurious Cadillac Escalade version of the Yukon Denali. That's the exception that proves the rule. When it comes to real trucks (a.k.a., open-bed pickups) GMC rules as king.
With this year's redesign of Chevrolet's full-sized C/K pickups, GMC also received a much-needed overhaul of its Sierra. The C/K was renamed "Silverado" in honor of Chevy's popular trim package, yet GMC kept the Sierra name, despite having an all-new truck from the inside out. As far as the distinction between the two brands, well, mechanically, they're nearly identical. The "premium" parts are highly visible, however, because the Sierra receives more sculpted sheetmetal than does its Chevrolet brethren; Sierra carries forth a muscular fascia reminiscent of the luxurious Denali SUV.
If vehicles were living creatures, you could say that the Sierra has been reincarnated. Anatomically speaking, the Sierra's skeletal structure was strengthened throughout. The front frame section is hydroformed, allowing for better alignment with the suspension. According to factory claims, the cab is 64-percentstronger than it used to be, which sounds like a notable achievement to us. Combined with a stiffer floorpan and strengthened A-, B- and C-pillars, the Sierra's ride is much quieter. Think of these improvements as akin to curing the arthritic joints of the old frame. Because it's not so wobbly, this truck should prove more durable over long periods of time.
It's easy to be impressed by the tight, capable feel of the cabin. Off the road, even harsh bumps could not bring out any squeaks. Our test truck came with the optional Z71 suspension, a hard-tuned ride for those buyers who plan to use their vehicle for more strenuous activity than cruising the boulevards. In fact, driving the Z71 you may want to avoid pavement altogether; it's a tight, bumpy ride. Off the road, however, this suspension soaks up bumps and keeps the truck from bottoming on hard rocks. Steering feel is excellent both on and off road, something that's rare for big trucks. The old on-center dead spot has been narrowed down to provide exceptional response in a vehicle of this size, yet on freeways at high speeds the truck tracks straight with little need for correction.
Perhaps the most enticing of the Sierra's next-generation features is its host of powerful engines. Though the Sierra comes standard with the carryover 4.3-liter V6, there are several powerplants from which to choose, including a family of three V8s that displace your choice of 4.8, 5.3 or 6.0 liters. The Vortec 4800 replaces the 5000, yet puts out an extra 25 horsepower, up to its current 255.
Fitted with the same bore yet longer stroke as the smaller V8, the Vortec 5300 (which takes the place of the 5700) generates 270 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 315 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 rpm. Our tester came with the largest motor available in the 1500-series, and we were never left wanting for more power. The torque curve, up to 5000 rpm, looks like a slight frown, which should make you smile whenever you need to accelerate. Incredibly, the new engines manage better power and better mileage than the ones they replace, all the while weighing less and taking up less space.
The four-speed automatic transmission matches gears well, even while climbing and descending steep grades. We didn't try to tow anything, but the gears have been reworked to keep up with the added power. For anyone who demands even more power in daily life, there are larger engines that we haven't yet tested. The 6.0-liter engine of the Sierra 2500-series provides 300 horses and 355 ft-lbs. of torque. A 6.5-liter turbodiesel V8 is also available, with 440 foot-pounds of torque, which is sure to help you pull some stumps out of the ground.
The increased engine power is met with what can only be described as an astonishing increase in braking capability. A four-wheel antilock brake system is standard. Brake rotors and pads are larger than before, providing shorter stopping distances. According to GMC, the brakes were tested "on the torturous, serpentine roads of Pikes Peak, a route which drops 4,600 feet in just 12 miles." To recreate these conditions, well, we drove the Pikes Peak route ourselves. But our imagination isn't altogether limited, because we first drove up and over Mt. Herman, took a service road to Woodland Park, and then drove up and down Pikes Peak. And after all that, the brakes were still providing excellent stopping power as well as excellent feedback and pedal feel, with very little evidence of fade. We can't wait for the Sierra's brake pedal feel to make its way into the rest of the GM line of trucks.
On the Sierra's interior how shall we say this nicely? - they've left room for future updates. We were dismayed to find the same multi-function control stalk that plagues so many GM products. That single stalk includes the cruise control, programmable windshield wiper, turn signal and foglight controls. The mist function, also included on this stalk, was not working on our test vehicle, though there was plenty of fluid in the reservoir. Luckily, the windshield sits far enough above the road so that normal road spray didn't smear our view.
The rest of the interior is nicely laid out, but plastics are exceedingly cheap for a vehicle of this price. On the bright side, at least you know where they're cutting costssince you can see it. Hopefully, the important engine and suspension parts are not as comparatively low rent as the interior materials. Even the Sierra's leather seats were too glossy in appearance and feel for our liking, and the driver's-side armrest did not provide enough surface area on which to rest the right arm.
Our quibbles are almost done. Here's one more: The standard third door is wide, offering rear passengers easy ingress and egress. But it's located on the passenger's side, not the driver's side. Since we never used the big truck to carry more than two people, we'd prefer it if the door were on the side where it could be used to load and unload groceries or sporting goods. Nevertheless, the interior does boast the most room in its class. Rear seating is improved, thanks to extra rear legroom (almost 34 inches, total), and even people over six-feet tall won't mind riding in the back.
The final word has yet to be spoken regarding how well the new Sierra will stack up against the competition - we'll have to assemble a comparison test for that. Facing impressive trucks like the Ford F-Series, Dodge Ram and newcomer Toyota Tundra is no small task, but this GMC is no small truck, either. The Sierra and Silverado are in an increasingly important and highly profitable market segment, though, and for the time being, it looks like GM has the lead dog in the pack, if not yet the sales lead. The sales lead may well come with time and a full commitment by GM to improve continually their full-sized trucks. We honestly believe that the Sierra's interior can eventually be made more hospitable without sticking a Cadillac badge on the hood. GMC is a premium brand in itself, after all, and premium means more than just a pretty face.