Walking up to the 2019 GMC Sierra Denali 1500, it's hard not to muse about GMC's very identity. On the one hand, its historical roots as the General Motors Truck Co. give it a distinct commercial truck bent. Many people know it as "GMC Truck," a dedicated truck-only brand that's never sold cars.
2019 GMC Sierra 1500 Pickup First Drive
Can the New Sierra Shake Off the Silverado Comparisons?
But over time, the brand has skewed toward the premium end of the market in order to distinguish GMC pickups from the mechanically identical trucks sold at Chevrolet dealers. This strategy led to the development of the wildly popular Denali trim level, which is practically a brand unto itself.
All the while, there has been a lingering sense that it's all just a surface veneer, a case of GMC-versus-Chevy "badge engineering." GMC has always bristled at that notion. The all-new 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 pickup is designed to chart a new course, with greater differentiation from the Silverado 1500 in terms of styling, feature content, and even variations in powertrain availability.
Same Frames, Different Bodywork
Of course, significant mechanical commonalities are inevitable. Here the basic cab dimensions are shared, with the 2019 GMC Sierra crew cab enjoying the same 3-inch increase in rear legroom as the Silverado. The stronger frame and all the benefits that come with it are here in force.
But the bodywork is quite different. This has been the case for a number of years, but now the differences go deeper. Changes made to the underlying support structures gave GMC and Chevrolet designers greater freedom to go their separate ways, enabling more divergence in headlight size, shape and placement.
Visibility over the Sierra's hood is notably better because its headlights are a bit lower and set farther back, but the bigger point is the two trucks now give off distinctly different vibes. The GMC Sierra sports a handsome and more traditional front end that we find far less polarizing than that of the Silverado. It's now possible to love the Sierra and hate the Silverado — or vice versa — while it's far less likely that a prospective buyer won't have a clear favorite.
A Look Inside
Inside, however, the differences are subtle. Indeed, the contours of the dash and the location of its various controls are virtually the same between the trucks. Both interiors frankly look a generation old right out of the gate, though we suppose that owners trading in old for new might welcome the familiarity.
The Sierra Denali does have a little more going for it, though. The knobs have a different look and a pleasing texture, and the heated and ventilated leather seats are attractive and supportive. Additionally, the Sierra's instrument panel has a much larger and more comprehensive data display between the tach and the speedometer, and you can get a massive 3-by-7-inch head-up display as part of the Denali Ultimate package.
But the everyday negatives are many, ranging from a too-small center console to a stodgy column shifter. The screen-printed effects on our truck's touchscreen surround looked pretty unconvincing, too. A midlevel Ram Laramie with a few options serves up a more interesting and attractive interior laden with more thoughtful features, even compared to the Sierra 1500 Denali.
GMC's Sierra 1500 powertrain lineup consists of five offerings as of this writing, with a diesel engine on the way. Not surprisingly, it's the same roster that Chevrolet offers. The base model gets the legacy 4.3-liter V6 and 5.3-liter V8 engines bolted to last year's six-speed transmission, while the next two rungs up get the 2.7-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and eight-speed automatic combination we sampled earlier this year.
There's also a second 5.3-liter engine in the lineup, as well as the 6.2-liter V8 engine in the Denali we drove for this review. Both have a new Dynamic Fuel Management system (DFM) that can shut off any of the eight cylinders in 17 different skip-fire patterns. But their outputs are unchanged: 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque for the DFM 5.3-liter V8 and 420 hp and 460 lb-ft for the DFM 6.2-liter V8. The 5.3-liter V8 is mated to an eight-speed automatic we've seen before, while the larger 6.2-liter V8 is bolted to a new 10-speed automatic.
The DFM 5.3-liter combination is standard in the top three trim levels: the SLT, the new AT4 off-road model, and the Denali. You can get the 6.2-liter as an option in any of them, but only if you buy a four-wheel-drive model. There's no such thing as a two-wheel-drive Sierra with the 6.2-liter V8 this year.
New AT4 Model
Did you catch that? You can get the 6.2-liter V8 in the AT4 as an option. This is huge, because the AT4 is the GMC Sierra version of the Chevrolet Trail Boss, and the Trail Boss definitely does not offer the 6.2-liter V8 as an option. Score one for GMC. A big one.
Like the Trail Boss, the Sierra AT4 rides on a factory-developed 2-inch suspension lift and off-road-tuned Rancho monotube shocks. It rolls on the same knobby 18-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires that have a useful bit of sidewall, but they come mounted on different GMC-designed wheels that look sharp. There's also a locking rear differential, hill descent control and extra skid plates.
The GMC version's interior is more nicely dressed, with standard leather seating and a front console — items that are two rungs up the option ladder in the LT Trail Boss. The AT4 looks less like a DIY aftermarket job on the outside with its cohesive front-end styling and body-color grille.
A Magic Tailgate
The GMC Sierra scores well on the pickup-box front, with generous internal dimensions and 12 standard tie-downs. This year the corner steps built into the ends of its rear bumper have been enlarged to accommodate boots. A spray-in bedliner is standard on the SLT, AT4 and Denali, with an optional carbon-fiber box to come later. The Denali can be equipped with GMC's clever MultiPro retractable side steps that can pivot forward to offer bed access at the tap of a foot.
And then there's the new MultiPro six-position tailgate. Standard on the SLT, AT4 and Denali, the MultiPro tailgate has a second hinge in the middle — a tailgate within a tailgate, if you will — and a flip-up panel. The flip-up panel is a load stop that keeps stuff from sliding out in two of the positions, and it becomes a nearly full-width stairstep when deployed with both tailgates down. We could not stop playing with it. This genius bit of truck origami alone will sell some Sierras.
The GMC Sierra's standard tow rating hovers in the 9,500-pound range with standard 3.23 gearing and either of the DFM V8 engines. The Max Trailering package (3.42 gears, stiffer rear suspension, extra cooling, more alternator capacity) raises that to about 11,500 pounds for the 5.3-liter V8, and as much as 12,200 pounds for the 6.2-liter V8 4x4.
GMC's ProGrade Trailering System comes standard on the SLT, AT4 and Denali, and that includes an enhanced backup camera to ease hookups and an in-vehicle suite of trailer diagnostics and checklists. Also available is an optional tire pressure monitoring system that can monitor the trailer's tires. An enhanced trailer camera option not only adds two cameras that look down the length of the trailer from the truck's mirrors, but the ability to mount a compatible GMC accessory camera to the back of the trailer and display its image in the cab.
Both of these are welcome offerings, but the remote trailer camera system's image — crystal-clear though it may be — can only be viewed for a handful of seconds before it winks out. What's more, that fleeting image appears on the 8-inch touchscreen, not the rear camera mirror display. The latter is a separate video rearview mirror system that can display a continuous image of what's behind the truck using a camera on the back of the cab. Also absent is a blind-spot monitoring system that can account for the length of the trailer.
The Driving Experience
There's no doubt that the 6.2-liter V8 can do the business. It's a stout motor, and the 10-speed transmission felt flawless on our drive. This power team gets with the program when pushed, but it thankfully lacks the sort of overeager throttle jumpiness that can annoy when your aim is to take it easy. For its part, the Dynamic Fuel Management system goes about its business without letting on.
We're less convinced by the adaptive ride control suspension, a Denali exclusive. Our truck's ride was sometimes jittery and uneven, even in the less aggressive Touring mode. The weather-beaten local roads may have had something to do with it, but we're not ready to assign all blame to the road department. The 22-inch wheels probably weren't helping either. Additional driving on familiar pavement around Edmunds HQ will reveal more.
We didn't drive the Denali 6.2 long enough to get a good sense of its fuel economy over varied terrain, but a look at the EPA fuel economy ratings tells a disappointing story. You'd think the needle would have moved significantly after all the talk about weight-reduction efforts, the fancy DFM system and the 10-speed gearbox's extra cogs. But the EPA rating of our 6.2-liter 4x4 is no different than it was for the year preceding those changes. It was 17 mpg combined (15 city/20 highway) last year, and so it is today. What happened? The 5.3-liter DFM V8 two-wheel-drive truck manages a single-mpg increase, but that's as good as it gets.
The Bottom Line
Our 2019 GMC Sierra Denali 1500 crew-cab 4x4 test truck carried a base price of $58,000, and the 6.2-liter V8 engine added on another $2,495. The only other option was the $5,710 Denali Ultimate package. That got us a surround-view camera, the rear camera mirror display, a head-up display, a power sunroof, 22-inch wheels, and the pivoting GMC MultiPro power side steps. It also included safety gear such as automatic high beams, low-speed automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, forward collision warning and lane keeping assist. Oddly, adaptive cruise control is not available. All told, our loaded truck cost $67,200 with destination charges included.
We see a lot to like about the GMC Sierra compared to the Chevrolet Silverado, but neither one is a segment leader. Like the Silverado, the 2019 GMC Sierra is incrementally better than the truck it replaces. Current owners looking to trade in will probably be happy, and GMC may steal some sales from Chevy on the strength of its trick tailgate and maybe the 6.2-liter V8 availability in the AT4. But from where we sit, it seems unlikely the 2019 GMC Sierra will earn a raft of new converts from outside. No new high bars have been set here.