California is painted with broken roads that don't really go anywhere. Some are escape roads for isolated mountain communities. Others are simply the narrow, twisty, cracked remainders of a time before interstates.
We're barreling toward one of these roads behind the wheel of the 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 4WD Crew Cab. We cross the line where the pavement starts to crumble and the sign says "End Maintained Road." On the navigation screen, it looks like a stream.
Within a few hundred feet, the pavement has dissolved into a slurry of heavy sand and steak-size rocks. We're still standing on the 5.3-liter V8 and the all-new Sierra doesn't mind a bit. It wasn't designed as a pre-runner, but the rooster tail of dust and debris says we might have underestimated exactly how big this truck's wheelhouse is.
We've been on this nameless stretch of road before in a handful of vehicles, most recently in one of those sport-tuned, lifestyle pickup trucks for guys with quads and flat-billed hats. That truck skittered and bounced down this glorified cart path like a puppy on ice. On the same road, the 2014 GMC Sierra feels completely in control while still keeping us isolated.
As is common these days, the new Sierra has swapped traditional hydraulic power steering for an electrical unit that gives the big truck a much-needed budge in fuel economy. Unlike most such systems, however, the feeling here is controllable and doesn't get bullied by road conditions, even damping some of the annoying kickback of older setups. And on a road like this, where the front tires are essentially just big rubber skis, the GMC's excellent tuning here gives us enough confidence to push faster and harder than we'd ever planned.
Go fast on any road with bumps and the Sierra is a gem: sturdy, secure, predictable and willing. Unless preceded by "Hey y'all, watch this!" there are few situations where the Sierra is caught off-guard.
Part of this has to do with the fact that the Sierra is simply an incredibly stiff truck bolted together by people who have built trucks for decades. Part of this also has to do with the $1,070 optional Off-Road Suspension package on our truck. It includes larger monotube shocks in place of the stock ones and a steering stabilizer up front. There's also a transfer case shield and big off-road bumpstops, too. Just in case.
The Strong, Silent Type
No matter what or where you're driving, after a few hours of off-roading, the first five miles of pavement feels like the smoothest, quietest road in existence. It's not quite the same in this Sierra. Off-road, the strongest sensation we feel is the slight thump-thump of the 20-inch Goodyear Wrangler SR-A tires massacring sedimentary stones. On pavement there's even less.
All of the normal "trucky" noises are reduced to auditory shadows of their former selves. You'll hear your mouth-breathing passengers before you hear any wind noise and in cruising mode, you'd never know there was a 355-horsepower Gen V small-block V8 tucked under the giant, squared-off hood. Without the indicator, you wouldn't even know that this thing sometimes operates as a V4.
The old Sierra did this as well, but it was a more obvious affair, as if four men on an eight-man crew simply left their oars to drag in the water. Here, however, the operation is seamless. During prolonged, steady-state drives, a small icon near the bottom of the high-res, IP-mounted display switches from "V8" to "V4" and, well, that's it. It's nearly undetectable.
Our best tank of fuel in this 5,616-pound, 4WD crew cab made ample use of half its cylinders en route to a 20.7 mpg tank during mixed driving. The EPA rates the 2014 Sierra with the 5.3, these gears and the six-speed automatic transmission at 18 mpg combined and 16 city/22 highway.
Not Always Ready
If there's a downside to this powertrain, it's the throttle response. When equipped with the 3.08 rear end, non-full-throttle acceleration was sluggish and required more pedal than we expected. If you drive in work boots while towing crystal figurines, this setup might work out. Step up to the no-cost 3.42 axles and the tow rating jumps from 8,600 on our truck to 9,600 as on the truck Dan used to tow an Airstream. There's a fuel economy hit, but that truck didn't exhibit the throttle issues we had.
The easiest way to get beyond the throttle issue is to simply stomp the gas. It's more fun, too. Doing this at the track resulted in a 0-60 sprint of 8.0 seconds (7.7 with 1 foot of rollout, as on a drag strip) and a quarter-mile time of 15.9 seconds at 87.7 mph. It's not fast, but it'll do.
Bringing things down from those speeds is a breeze, too, thanks to big 13-inch front rotors (13.6 inches out back). The pedal travel is very long and progressive, as you expect and want from something you tow with, and they're effective, too. At full stop, the Sierra came down to a halt from 60 mph in only 133 feet.
If the Sierra's driving dynamics are a step ahead of the outgoing truck, the interior is an Olympic triple-jump forward. Gone are the acres of industrial-grade plastics and leather from someone's boot. The 2014 Sierra is awash with nicely textured, soft-touch materials that wouldn't be out of place in an Escalade. The seats in particular deserve recognition for their soft but sturdy leather and excellent bolstering.
The 2014 GMC Sierra also leads the pack when it comes to the latest in connectivity and infotainment. Our fully loaded $50,185 SLT model has five USB inputs up front alone. Controlling up to five devices is actually possible through an 8-inch touchscreen with a host of apps that GMC calls Intellilink. It's pretty and simple to use, but can get bogged down easily, slowing inputs and actions to a crawl.
The other missteps regarding the interior involve some optional features. This truck is equipped with the $845 Driver Alert package that includes forward collision alert, rear park assist and lane departure warning. In a truck that measures 229.5 inches long, the park assist is handy and reliable, but the other systems aren't as useful. Frequently triggered by shadows, road imperfections and even rain grooves, both the lane departure warning system and the forward collision systems were a constant source of frustration. In this application, the systems simply aren't ready for prime time.
Like a Sturdy Middle Reliever
The team behind the 2014 GMC Sierra had a hugely important job to do. It had to keep current GM customers happy, completely revamp the interior, build a truck that would survive real work, increase fuel economy, provide monster towing capability and, in GMC fashion, provide a premium spot for the foreman to sit. All at the same time.
GMC's truck team accomplished this Herculean task in the most obvious way: evolution. The old truck, after all, is still quite good. Like a good reliever coming into the game with a healthy lead, all GMC had to do with the 2014 truck was to keep the momentum and not blow it.
It hasn't. The 2014 GMC Sierra is better in every way than the truck it replaces and, through a healthy combination of fuel efficiency, ride control and a truly special interior, it's better than just about every truck on the road today. That's the right way to handle evolution.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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