Welcome to the era of the $70,000 half-ton pickup truck.
Once thought of only as work tools, luxurious pickup trucks have become a huge and profitable market for automakers. A fully-optioned 2018 GMC Sierra Denali reaches to more than $70,000. The redesigned 2019 model will go even higher.
Pickup truck buyers aren’t just about the function of their vehicle anymore. They want comfortable seats, plenty of interior space and intuitive technology. They want distinct premium styling. And they want it wrapped around a tough, capable truck that is as capable going off-road or towing a boat as it is on the highway.
GMC, the upscale truck and SUV division of General Motors, is attacking that market. Trucks.com caught up with Stu Pierce, senior marketing manager for GMC trucks and full-size SUVs, to talk about the marketplace and where the brand fits in. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
What’s happening at GMC these days?
We showed the new Sierra Denali in Detroit in early March, and the new Sierra AT4 debuted at the New York International Auto Show. The interesting thing about the AT4 is that it's not just a new model on Sierra, but it's actually an all new sub-brand that we're going to offer across the complete GMC portfolio. Within two years, we'll have an AT4 model across all GMC vehicle lines.
What's the main difference between the Sierra Denali and the Sierra AT4?
They're both targeted for the premium end of the segment — consumers who want a truck with all the high levels of comfort, luxury, refinement and technology. The Denali is targeted more toward that premium end. The buyer may be looking for a little bit more chrome, more of a mainstream vehicle.
The AT4 is targeted for the person looking for a premium vehicle but wants an off-road capable vehicle at the same time. It will also have darker finishes on the outside, so it's a bolder, stronger design. Then on the inside, it's got a specific interior trim as well. So again, darker aluminum trim and dark ebony seats with some Kalahari accents. [Kalahari is a shade of brown named for the Kalahari Desert.] It’s premium but executed differently.
GMC is a truck brand at heart, so this is certainly a space we are known for.
Is GMC targeting buyers who want trucks for work, or will they be used for play?
We certainly are selling to a lot of contractors or independent business people. Those guys would be using it every day. But a lot of them are not. They might have other kind of jobs, or use this as their family car, their luxury car, their vacation car. They look forward to [when] they can take their truck out and use it. Go off-road, go camping, go fishing, whatever their passion is. That's what differentiates these buyers. They want the capability that the box and the truck and the off-road capability has to offer.
How will the GMC Sierra be different from Chevrolet’s Silverado, which shares many components?
It all comes back to targeting this premium buyer. What we hear consistently is that they want all the features, they want all the luxury, they want all the technology that you could find on an expensive luxury car or crossover. But they don't want to drive a car or crossover. They very specifically want to drive a truck.
Our strategy is to bring those two things together. Bring all those high-level features and technologies and attention to detail to the truck space. That's something that we can do pretty uniquely, relative to any of the other truck brands that are really focused on the entire spectrum of market. That's why we now have two entries in the premium space — the AT4 and the Denali.
Do consumers and dealers tell you that the engines are too close to Silverado’s?
We don't really get that feedback much. If you go into a showroom to look at a Sierra Denali, we sell about 80 to 90 percent with the 6.2-liter V8, which is the biggest engine that we offer. It's got incredible capability and power. It's just a blast to drive.
If you go to our sister brand's store, you're going to find that they're more focused on the mid-level powertrains. We've worked with our dealers really carefully over the past few years, and I think they really get it, and our messaging, our targeting. I've had dealers that own both a Chevrolet store and a GMC store and they say they get a completely different customer when they shop one versus the other.
There was a time when we had quite a bit of commonality between the two, and now the exteriors are pretty much unique. We've got more unique wheel offerings, we’ve got a more unique interior, so we really do have some unique attributes. Things like the MultiPro gate and the CarbonPro box are also completely unique to GMC, so Chevrolet is not going to get those.
(The MultiPro tailgate is a new design that allows the tailgate to be used as a workstation, an easy-access step and a stopper for a long load. The CarbonPro box is a truck bed built with carbon fiber.)
Is GMC successful at grabbing crossover and SUV buyers?
As the GMC brand and the Denali brand become more differentiated and known for having the most premium vehicle in the segment, we are getting some conquest buyers from other brands.
But we're also pulling in people from crossovers and SUVs. There's something about the ability to carry your gear and go off-road and get out and do whatever your passion is. As long as I don't have to compromise. A few years ago it would have been a compromise to have driven the pickup because it wouldn't drive as well, would've been noisier, wouldn't have had the latest technology. Now these things have caught up with the best in the world.
What kind of safety tech has GMC put into the Sierra AT4 and the Sierra Denali?
We have pretty much the entire suite of safety features that are available anywhere in the market. You've got your side blind zones, rear cross traffic, the lane-keep assist, automatic braking.
We've got a surround vision camera on both the Denali and AT4 trims. That's a nice feature that operates up to 8 mph. If you're trying to crawl through a trail and there's some boulders or trees that you want to make sure you don't hit, you can make sure you've got the clearance that you need with the surround vision.
The head-up display is set up with the inclinometer included. First of all, nobody else in the truck segment offers a head-up display. If I want to go off-road I can put the inclinometer on and monitor my angles and grades, whether it's side to side, front to back. I don't have to take my eyes off the trail as I'm going down. I can keep my eyes right there and understand what's going on with the truck.