At a construction site where workers have an affinity for General Motors trucks, those doing the work will be driving Chevrolet Silverado pickups and those supervising the work will have a GMC Sierra.
Such conventional wisdom overstates class distinction expressed by pickup truck choice but still has an element of truth. How else can GM offer a fully loaded GMC Sierra Denali 1500 four-wheel-drive crew cab with a price tag just a few dollars shy of $61,000?
That was the sticker price on the Sierra Denali we tested for more than 1,100 miles on California’s interstates and fittingly on curvy mountain roads in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The verdict is pretty simple. The truck drives with a firm grip on the road and tight steering control. The 6.2-liter V-8 gasoline engine packs 420 horsepower, providing more than adequate power for passing a big rig on Interstate 5 near Santa Nella or getting by slower vehicles climbing on Highway 50 above Lake Tahoe. GM says it is the most powerful engine available in a light-duty pickup. The powertrain is rated at 460 pound-feet of torque.
The 8-speed automatic transmission performs accurate, imperceptible shifts.
Fuel economy logged in at 20.3 miles per gallon over an average speed of 50 mph — mostly highway driving. That compares to an Environmental Protection Agency fuel rating of 21 mpg for highway driving and 17 in combined highway and city driving.
At times the body-on-frame truck construction expressed itself in the form of a bumpy ride.
We loaded the 5-foot-8-inch bed with bicycles, coolers and other gear. We didn’t tax it with construction supplies or landscape equipment, and we didn’t test towing. The truck has a payload rating of 2,100 pounds and can tow 11,700 pounds.
The seating is comfortable and spacious for five adults. The cabin is quiet, shutting out road and wind noise. This is typical of other GM vehicles I have driven lately, including the 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe, Malibu and Cruze, and is something other automakers should emulate. The isolated cabin made the most of the premium Bose audio system.
The dashboard controls make up another feature for which the Sierra and other recent GM vehicles have made dramatic improvements. The dash offers a combination of dials and touch-screen buttons that are intuitive and not distracting. You don’t need to be a coder to figure out how to sync your phone or to dial in the desired climate control settings.
Better yet, the Sierra Denali comes equipped with nice tech features. There’s an 8-inch diagonal touch screen equipped with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Just plug an Apple or Android phone in with a USB cord, and with one button on the screen you are able to make phone calls, have text messages read to you, tap into Apple’s map program, and get your music and podcasts. No need to sync Bluetooth, no need for passwords. It really is just plug and play.
There’s a small tray in the center console for wireless phone charging. But it doesn’t work seamlessly with an iPhone. If you need it, and subscribe, internet access is easy. The truck can double as a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot.
GMC makes charging devices easy, as long as you are in the front seat.
There are nine places to charge in the truck. This includes two 12-volt accessory power outlets, (formerly cigarette lighter outlets), one 110-volt three-prong outlet and two USB ports on the dash. There are one 12-volt outlet and two USB ports in the center console. But there is only one 12-volt outlet in the rear seating area.
Not including a couple of USB ports for teenagers riding in the back seat is a needless shortcoming in a $60,000 vehicle.
There is a way to get a single USB port in the back — buy the $2,095 rear entertainment system option. It probably makes more sense to purchase a $7.99 portable cellphone charger.
A lack of air conditioning vents for rear passengers is another Sierra fail. As we drove in the hot California weather, my passengers in the rear seats were too warm. But front passengers became too cold when we cranked up the air conditioning. An extra set of vents would solve this problem. This should be no great technical challenge.
GMC says that the front center vents are optimized to send more air to the rear. The automaker says that provides better cooling performance in the second row. That wasn’t the experience of our passengers.
GMC also underspent on the interior. Of course, there is leather seating. But for what is supposed to be a luxury truck, there is way too much plastic, including chintzy-looking faux wood accent panels seen in vehicles at one-third the price. This was a surprise, because GM generally has made great strides in improving the quality of its interiors.
The automaker said there was a strategy to how it designed the interior.
“For the Sierra we chose to upgrade the leather and focus on the real aluminum accents on touch points that focus on precision,” spokeswoman Kelly Wysocki said. “Denali also signifies comfort with unique seat trims and French stitching throughout. We believe some of these areas are more important to this customer.”
I don’t see it. Yes, the seats are comfortable. But for your top-of-the-line truck, and one that’s supposed to capture the upscale customer, plastic is not the image you are trying to convey.
This is a big vehicle, with a curb weight of 5,559 pounds. The length is 229.3 inches and the width is 74 inches. Getting in and out was helped by the automatic running board that pops out when a door is opened.
The Sierra is a sibling to the Chevrolet Silverado, sharing the same platform and much of the same components. Our vehicle was assembled at the GM factory in Silao, Mexico. The engine and transmission were manufactured in the U.S.
GMC is gaining ground in the truck market. Through the first half of this year, Sierra’s U.S. sales have risen almost 6 percent, to more than 106,000, according to Autodata Corp. The growth has come during a period when Silverado sales have been flat at about 274,000.
But GM’s main truck rivals, the Ford F-Series and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Ram brand, are growing at a faster rate. F-Series sales are up almost 11 percent in the first half of the year, to an industry-leading 395,244. Ram sales have risen 8.8 percent compared to the same period a year earlier, to more than 231,000.
While Sierra owners do differ from customers who purchase Silverados, the idea that GMCs go to management isn’t a strict rule, although hints do show up in sales research, said Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, a consulting firm.
Strategic Vision research finds that Sierra owners are more likely than Silverado drivers to be college graduates. They are more likely to use the truck as a mobile office, more likely to haul bicycles and other large items, and more likely to use the truck off road. Certainly that is an upscale market.
This highlights the changing nature of the truck market.
Automakers sold almost 1.3 million pickups in the U.S. during the first half of this year because the vehicles have become as much a lifestyle choice as a work tool. With parents driving carpools in pickups and office workers using them for daily commuting, it’s not enough to provide a high torque rating and great towing capability. Just about every full-size pickup on the market offers that. Increasingly, it will be the creature comforts, including the infotainment technology and the quality of the cabin, that differentiate the vehicles.
Our conclusion is that with its 2016 GMC Sierra Denali Crew Cab, General Motors has produced a smart-driving, comfortable pickup truck that needs a touch more luxury to justify the price tag.