The low thrum of the new 5.3-liter Ecotec3 V8 engine calls little attention to itself as we cruise alongside the Pacific Ocean in a brand-new 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 pickup. Our weekend target is El Capitan State Beach, just west of Santa Barbara, California, and our accommodations are latched on behind in the form of a 23-foot Airstream travel trailer.
Our usual reaction to equipment like this would spawn a full-blown tow test on the nearest sweltering desert grade. We'd treat the trailer like so much deadweight, never venturing inside unless we needed to shift ballast around. Actual camping wouldn't occur.
This outing is different: The coastal weather is too mild, the roads too flat. Besides, our previous 2009 pickup-truck comparison test proved that Chevrolet and GMC pickups tow well in conditions far more brutal than these. Strong as they were, those trucks felt old, tight and fidgety inside; no one on the test team looked forward to spending much time in them, towing or otherwise.
Camping done right is a stress-free pursuit. We intend to see if the redesigned 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 pickup can deliver us to the campsite primed and ready for some serious kicking back the moment we step from the cab.
More of a Good Thing
We're even less concerned about ultimate grade-climbing performance today because we've got one of three new Ecotec3 engines offered in the 2014 GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado. The "3" stands for a trio of engine technologies that greatly expand the performance envelope: direct injection, variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation.
With them our 5.3-liter V8 can deliver up to 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque, 40 and 48 more of each, respectively than the previous 5.3-liter. With a light foot (and no trailer) it'll drink less fuel, too. The EPA rates our 4x4 at 16 city/22 highway and 18 mpg combined: 1 mpg and some 6 percent better than last year's weaker 5.3-liter V8 could manage.
Backed with last year's likable six-speed automatic, the going is smooth. Our 4x4 accelerates smartly when asked and never struggles. With the trailer detached, it drops into V4 mode more readily than ever before, but the switchover is now undetectable.
Earlier, before we climbed into our tow rig, we took a spin in another Sierra fitted with the new base 4.3-liter V6 and found that it's no slouch either. Its fortified output of 285 hp and 305 lb-ft of torque (90 and 45 more than before) works equally well with the six-speed automatic.
It's a better drive than Ford's base V6, in fact, because the GMC's 27-lb-ft torque advantage keeps gear hunting at bay on the same roads that recently flummoxed our F-150. V6 fuel economy estimates are not yet available.
Beyond power and drivability, the most notable advances to the 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 have to do with the cabin itself.
Minimal engine noise enters the cabin, and the volume doesn't rise much when we prod the engine to work hard. Downshifts do not result in a ruckus or raised voices. And the 5.3-liter V8 and 4.3-liter V6 feel equally smooth.
Wind noise and road noise don't call attention to themselves, either. There's a faint whisper of each, but no more.
A newly engineered cab has everything to do with this. Outwardly, the doors are now inset into the body instead of wrapping over the top. The upper rear corner is now rounded, allowing continuous triple seals to run around the perimeter of the opening for tighter and more reliable sealing. Underneath, new cab mounts offer improved isolation from vibrations percolating up from a strengthened fully boxed frame.
Most Spacious Backseat
But the cab improvements don't just keep out noise. The backseat of the 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 Crew Cab we're driving has 2.2 inches more rear legroom than last year. There are now 40.9 inches of the stuff, up from 38.7 inches.
This is some trick because the Sierra's wheelbase and cab length dimensions are unchanged. Instead the rear seat has been set back a bit farther, while the front seatbacks have been reshaped to offer more knee and shin clearance to those behind.
It's also much easier to climb into the backseat because the center door pillar has been moved forward. The rear doors are now a couple inches longer, new hinges let them open wider and the combined result is much more foot clearance as we slip in and out.
These much-needed improvements finally bring GMC's Crew Cab — its most popular cab offering by far — up to snuff. Our tallest 6-foot-2-inch staffer could sit back there all day long.
Must Be in the Front Row
But the most visible changes of all greet those seated up front. The newly designed dash is quite handsome, and the look and feel of the materials has been raised a notch or two. Convincing brushed aluminum trim adorns the cabin in just-right amounts on the volume SLE and deluxe SLT grades.
This new interior is extremely functional, too, particularly the central audio and climate controls. Both are much easier to use thanks to a redesigned combination of knobs and simplified buttons.
Higher-level Intellilink audio functions, including Pandora, are easy to sort through on the 8-inch color touchscreen that comes in at the SLE level. At times there's a slight lag, but we're rarely bothered because the icons illuminate to acknowledge the request. Another $795 adds navigation to this interface.
A telescoping steering wheel is available at last, and we also like the available 4.2-inch color information screen between the gauges. The level of information it offers falls roughly between Ford F-150 and Ram 1500.
Other Mechanical Changes
In general, the 2014 GMC Sierra's ride comfort is smoother than before, owing to some fine-tuning. But rear leaf springs are still in play. Low-level jitters and jiggles are still part of the unladen experience. The coil-sprung Ram 1500 continues to rule this arena.
The move to electronic power steering, on the other hand, is a clear step forward because the calibration is spot-on. The new Sierra goes down the road confidently, with a well-defined, straight-ahead feel and proportional effort through the corners.
GMC now offers the base V6 in all cab, wheelbase and drive combinations, including a new 153-inch wheelbase that supports the Crew Cab and the 6-foot-6-inch midsize bed. This combination was previously restricted to 2500 and 3500 HD versions of the Sierra.
Late this year the third Ecotec3 engine, a 6.2-liter V8, will appear. No official power ratings have been released at this point, but the engineers say it'll make about 420 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque, more of each than any other engine in the class. The high-zoot Denali will arrive about the same time.
GM staffers tell us the Ecotec3 V6 engine earns a best-in-class tow rating of 7,200 pounds. Trouble is, that rating only applies to the four-wheel-drive model since it comes standard with a 3.42 axle ratio. The Double Cab 4x2 V6 model we would have used in our recent Ford F-150 vs. Ram 1500 V6 tow test would have topped out at 6,000 pounds.
The 5.3-liter V8 Crew Cab 4x4 we're sitting in can tow 9,600 pounds thanks to optional zero-cost 3.42 axles. An optional Max Trailering package with 3.73 axles and stiffer leaf springs will boost that to 11,200 pounds: The 11,500-pound advertised maximum tow rating requires the 4x2 Double Cab configuration. Add the mighty 6.2-liter V8 and it nudges to 12,000 pounds.
Of course GMC, like Chevrolet, has decided to ignore the new SAE tow rating procedure that would make these numbers relevant to the competition. As it stands, the ratings are only useful for comparison within the GM family.
Time for S'mores
At present, the Crew Cab is the only 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 configuration available. Lower-priced regular and double cab versions will come later in summer. The Max Trailering, Denali and 6.2-liter V8 engine options show up toward the end of the year.
The volume-selling SLE comes standard with the V6. Its least expensive configuration for now is the 4x2 crew cab short bed, which starts at $36,680. A 5.3-liter V8 comes standard in the SLT, which starts at $40,970. In either case add another $300 for the long wheelbase and 6-foot-6-inch bed and $3,150 for four-wheel drive.
Our particular 2104 GMC Sierra 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 short bed truck carries a base price of $44,120. With a load of options it comes to $50,485, including things like navigation, the trailer brake controller, Driver Alert package ($845), sunroof ($995), 20-inch wheels ($995), Z71 Off-Road package ($430), heated and cooled seats ($650) and a few others.
At the end of the day, we unhook our Airstream and unfurl its awning in a fantastic mood, ready for some serious inaction. The trip here was utterly painless.
This quick weekend getaway tells us that many of the grievances we've accumulated about the outgoing truck simply no longer apply. The 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 pickup is now a very pleasant place to pass the time on a long journey to nowhere in particular. Or to work, for that matter.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.