State-of-the-art technology. Authentic wood accents. Premium leather seats — both heated and cooled. Such amenities of luxury sedans are now a hallmark of high-end pickup trucks.
The 2017 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 HD is the latest embodiment of this trend.
Despite a rugged body-on-frame construction, high center of gravity and maximum tow rate just under 15,000 pounds, the Denali offers interior comfort and quality that rival many traditional luxury vehicles. Its 6.6-liter turbo-diesel engine combines workman-like strength with quiet and smooth operation – once unthinkable for a heavy-duty truck accustomed to construction sites.
Denali is the highest trim level in GMC’s stable. The 2017 Sierra Denali HD lives up to its name. Just a few miles behind the wheel makes it clear this truck is suited up and ready for the spotlight.
Even when stuck in six inches of mud.
On a recent 150-mile test drive, we pushed the limits of the gentle giant trekking from the snow-covered peaks of Telluride, Colo., to the vibrant desert of Moab, Utah, sweeping through majestic red rock canyons carved by millennia of wind and running rivers.
Somewhere in western Colorado, lost in a conversation about sediments, we took a wrong turn. The pavement gave way to dirt and headed uphill. It seemed innocent enough – four-wheel drive and traction control kept the Sierra Denali HD climbing, drama-free.
Before long, we found ourselves high atop a country road. The previous night’s snow was bathed in sunlight, slowly turning into a soupy trail in the middle of a nondescript plateau.
The 3-ton truck sank into its own tracks. All-season tires begged for grip but were soon caked in mud. No one knew we were up there.
Tom Dye, lead development engineer for the 2017 Sierra HD and a 39-year veteran of General Motors Co., hopped out and assessed the situation. “Grab some of those rocks and we’ll make a path to get some traction,” he said.
Careful to tip-toe around deer and sheep droppings, we gathered as many large, flat rocks as we could and laid down an impromptu 15-foot road through the worst of the muck. The Sierra backed up and stormed forward with more momentum, triumphantly scrambling up the crest to reach solid rock at the top.
After the initial jam, the truck fought its way out of three more sticky situations: an even muddier incline; a sharp leaning turn that drifted the truck on top of a worrisome jagged rock; and a stretch of completely submerged swamp that required a 200-yard mad dash to escape.
Finally, after 10 miles of strenuous off-roading, we finished the trail. The would-be bright light from the high-intensity discharge headlamps was shielded with brown mist, the luster of the chrome “Denali HD” accents had dulled and the floor mats were toast. We were exhausted. But we weren’t stuck.
Eric Stanczak, chief engineer of full-size trucks at GM, said that’s what the automaker expects from the Denali.
“As pretty as the thing is, as technologically advanced as it is and as quiet as it is, it is definitely a truck at its heart and soul,” Stanczak said.
New Duramax Sets the Tone
Leading the charge inside the 2017 Sierra HD is the new 6.6-liter turbo-diesel V-8 engine. Code-named L5P, it is the latest update to GM’s Duramax line of diesel V-8 engines in production since 2001. While the L5P shares the same basic architecture as its predecessor, 90 percent of its parts – including the pistons, turbocharger and cylinder heads – are new.
The result is an increase in horsepower, from 397 to 445, and torque, from 765 to 910 pound-feet. Max torque from the Duramax is available at just 1,600 rpm, providing thrust even at gentle pressure to the accelerator.
A 6.0-liter gasoline V-8 is also offered, but GMC says 90 percent of Sierra HD customers choose the diesel.
“In the heavy-duty, full-size pickup segment, there is absolutely a prestige factor with the diesels,” said Ed Kim, a vice president at AutoPacific, an industry consulting firm. “There are bragging rights to having the same hardware that a real commercial truck would use.”
The Sierra HD faces stiff competition. Its diesel-powered rivals, the Ford F-250 Super Duty and Ram 2500 Cummins, were quicker to market with 900 pound-feet of torque. Both have a higher maximum towing rating than the Sierra HD capacity of 14,500 pounds. The Ford is capable of 15,000 pounds while the Ram tops 17,980.
Other changes to the 2017 Sierra 2500 HD are incremental. The traction control, integrated exhaust brake and six-speed Allison A1000 automatic transmission were upgraded to handle the additional torque. An all-new hood scoop funnels air directly into the turbocharger to assist with demanding cooling needs.
The improved components work in tandem to make the Sierra HD’s power easily manageable. At cruising speed, the diesel hums along rather than rumbling, and the heavy-duty truck delivers a comfortable ride with little outside noise. Only the wind rushing through Colorado canyons was noticeable – even then, it didn’t disturb conversation.
The improved overall civility of the Duramax and intense brand loyalty among pickup truck buyers could help customers look past the Sierra’s competitors, Kim said.
“Even though Ram and Ford got [to 900 pound-feet of torque] first, it’s not like the Duramax was that far behind,” he said. “As they’ve fed more power and torque into the thing, the drivability has only gotten better.”
An Ultra-Luxe Truck
One week before driving the GMC, I tested the 2017 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD High Country. The trucks are fraternal twins with different badging and identical mechanicals, including the frame, suspension, engine and transmission.
Since the Sierra drive highlighted more niche, off-roading capabilities, I was able to contrast the performance of the high-end pickup in a more mainstream setting. Packed with safety and entertainment technology, the truck proved perfectly usable in dense urban traffic.
An array of cameras and Parking Assist sensors on the front and rear bumpers allowed for tight maneuverability in downtown garages. Buzzes and chimes from Lane Departure Warning and Forward Collision Alert eased the immense size of the Silverado 2500HD in tight city lanes. The 8-inch display screen integrates with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and provides clear and simple access to apps and navigation. Sound from the Bose audio system floods the insulated cabin.
These features are standard in both the Silverado 2500HD High Country and the Sierra Denali HD. Automakers have raced to equip pickup trucks with a level of refinement comparable to traditional luxury cars, said Thomas King, a vice president at J.D. Power.
“It makes trucks perhaps an even more compelling proposition than you might’ve seen 10 years ago,” King said.
The 2017 GMC Sierra 2500 HD is priced from $33,890. Denali models with additional standard features are only available in Crew Cab configurations, and the starting price increases to $52,872. The diesel engine package costs another $9,550.
With options such as power sunroof, slate metallic paint and an off-road suspension package, the 2017 Sierra Denali 2500 4WD Crew Cab I drove came to a giant $70,540 with destination fee – about the same price as the highest trim levels for the Audi S6 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
From 2012 to 2016, annual sales of full-size pickups grew by 37 percent to more than 2.2 million last year, according to Autodata Corp. During that same time, the average transaction price for heavy-duty trucks rose to more than $50,000, a 14.4 percent increase, according to J.D. Power.
“For a lot of consumers, if they’re coming out of a vehicle that’s somewhere between 6-10 years old, they really are seeing a very significant improvement when they come into a new vehicle,” King said.
I recalled the civilized demeanor that the Silverado HD had shown on city streets as I bounced along in the dirt in the Sierra Denali HD. Not many vehicles on the market can tackle the challenges of both urban gridlock and slippery off-roading.
After several hours on the trails, the grimy truck made its descent from the plateau and returned to flat ground. Dye explained that the tire tracks we’d seen crisscrossing the underwater road earlier were laid down by a herd of Polaris four-wheelers better accustomed to kicking up mud.
“We’ll be able to say, ‘Oh yeah? We did it in a truck,’” he said.