The GMC Sierra is nearly identical to the Chevy Silverado but features more mature, restrained styling. It's a look that reflects GMC's history of building trucks, and only trucks, that dates back to 1902, nearly a decade before Louis Chevrolet produced his first car.
GMC also offers more options than Chevrolet, including the luxurious Sierra Denali, a suave, uniquely styled, ultra-luxury pickup whose exclusive features include a high-performance 6.0-liter V8 and full-time all-wheel drive. Denali appeared in 2002 as an Extended Cab pickup; for 2005, GMC has transformed Denali into a Crew Cab with four full-size doors.
GMC continues to offer light-duty 1500 Crew Cab models in SLE and SLT trim. With their 5-foot, 8-inch cargo box, Sierra Crew Cabs are no longer than standard-bed, extended-cab models for easier parking and maneuverability. Crew Cab models offer a rear-seat DVD entertainment center as an option, making these pickups an attractive alternative to a full-size SUV.
At any trim level, and with any cab configuration, Sierra offers first-class hauling and towing capabilities. Extended Cabs, with their standard 143-inch wheelbase and optional Quadrasteer four-wheel steering and heavy-duty brakes, make supremely stable tow vehicles, with towing capacities up to 9,000 pounds. The 1500HD Crew Cab, which returns for 2005 after a one-year hiatus, can tow up to 10,200 pounds. Even the plush Denali tows 8,100 pounds.
Yet all Sierras deliver a smooth, comfortable ride among the full-size pickups. Even compared to more recently introduced or re-engineered pickups from Ford, Dodge, and Nissan, the Sierra rides and handles very well. Sierra's current design dates from 1999, but it was significantly refined and updated for 2003, with cleaner engines, a bolder exterior appearance and more comfortable interiors.
The front styling of the GMC Sierra ties it closely to the mid-size GMC Envoy, and to some of the great GMC pickups of the past. The chrome-framed grille consists of three black horizontal bars that prominently display a big red GMC emblem. Chromed front bumpers include two airflow cutouts. Up-level models have a body-colored lower front fascia; base models have a light-charcoal fascia. An optional grille/brush guard adds front-end protection. A single OnStar roof antenna combines the GPS and cell-phone functions.
Compared with the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC's styling is more conservative, more mature, with smoother, more sophisticated lines. Overall, it's a look that a lot of truck buyers like: more upscale than the Chevrolet pickup, more conservative than the Dodge or Ford pickups.
Like the Denali versions of the Yukon and Envoy, Sierra Denali features a distinctive front-end appearance. Its chromed mesh grille looks like something from a hot-rod shop. Projector-beam headlamps and unique front fascia and fog lamps add up-market distinction, along with body color on the door handles, side moldings, tailgate handle, outside mirrors, rear bumper and tonneau cover. Chrome running boards with integral mud guards further distinguish the Denali from other Sierras.
For 2005, nearly all Sierras come with 17-inch wheels: painted steel on work trucks, chromed steel on base and SLE, aluminum on SLT and polished aluminum on Denali. The only exceptions are the 1500HD and the Hybrid, which make do with 16-inch rims. Denali models are available with 20-inch wheels for a stronger styling statement.
The load height (the distance from the ground to the bed) for 2WD Sierra models is just 31.6 inches. For 4WD models, it's 33.7 inches. Those numbers start to look a lot more important when you have to lift something heavy into the pickup bed.
All GMC Sierras are built on the stiffest and lightest truck frame General Motors has ever produced. The frame rails are hydroformed, a process that uses high-pressure hydraulics to shape relatively large steel components. Tubular crossmembers and roll-formed mid-rails increase rigidity further. This stiff structure enhances handling and ride quality immensely, while improving crashworthiness.
The GMC Sierra cab remains among the roomiest in the industry, with large door openings to aid entry and exit. The seats are big and cushy. Whether you like them depends to some extent on how you're built and how you like your seats. I don't find them as comfortable as those in other pickups, which use firmer, more contoured, more supportive seats. Other pickup owners find the GM seats more to their liking. Also, the interior door handles are ropey and awkward.
The instrument cluster features highly legible gauges with white backlighting and orange pointers. The Denali's gauges are unique and feature blue backlighting and white pointers. A driver information center reports on as many as 27 vehicle functions with an easy-to-read, single-line LCD display. A compass is incorporated into the overhead console, along with three storage areas for sunglasses, garage door opener, and small items.
Audio and climate controls are sophisticated, yet easy to operate. XM Satellite Radio is available as an option ($325), great for traveling because the stations don't change as you drive across the country, allowing you to keep up on news and weather or listen to your favorite types of music. You still get ads, but XM Satellite seems less commercial than FM. The system comes with AM, FM1, FM2, XM1, and XM2 bands. Steering wheel-mounted audio controls (on SLT and Denali) make it easy to switch among station presets and modes. Set your stations carefully and you can quickly zip to favorite stations scattered among AM, FM, and XM Satellite without taking your hands off the wheel.
New Gen 6 OnStar is easier to use hands-free, thanks to more intuitive dialing and improved voice recognition. OnStar is the leading provider of in-vehicle safety, security and information services in the United States and Canada. Using the GPS satellite network and wireless technology, OnStar features core safety services and OnStar Personal Calling that allows drivers to make and receive hands-free, voice-activated phone calls. If you crash and set the airbags off, an OnStar operator will direct emergency crews to your truck, unless you respond. OnStar operators can direct you to the nearest ATM or the best Mexican restaurant in the area, and they can unlock the doors if you lock the keys inside.
Optional bucket seats come with an extended center console that flows into the instrument panel. It includes a storage compartment and a 12-volt power outlet at the rear. All Sierras come with two 12-volt power outlets at the bottom center of the dash. Vents and HVAC controls for rear-seat passengers are mounted on the rear of the center console on Crew Cabs and Extended Cabs.
Extended-cab models offer surprisingly good back seat accommodations. Climb through the reverse-opening rear door and find a seat that's reasonably comfortable. Rear-seat passengers get their own air-conditioning outlets and a set of drop-down cup holders. When cargo capacity is more important than hauling passengers, the entire rear seat assembly can be loosened from the floor with a wrench and removed through one of the side doors. Not exactly a quick release, but a useful feature.
The rear seats in the Crew Cab models are as roomy as the second-row of seats in a Suburban. Sierra Crew Cabs are capable of carrying six passengers and are very roomy with four. With optional leather, a Crew Cab feels truly luxurious. Rear seats are split 60/40 and fold down, providing a large protected cargo area inside the cab.
A Panasonic DVD system ($1,295) is available for Denali and Crew Cab models, turning them into real family vehicles. The system comes with a seven-inch flip-down screen for watching DVD movies and cartoons, a CD player, two sets of wireless headphones with independent volume control, a wireless remote control and three sets of auxiliary video and audio inputs.
Safety is enhanced with dual-stage airbags (1500 only), which deploy with less force in less-s
On the road, the Sierra is quiet and well behaved, more so than other full-size pickups. It's stable at high speeds, particularly the longer wheelbase (143.5-inch) models. It rides well and handles well.
The optional 5.3-liter V8 (327 cubic inches) delivers pleasurable performance around town and on the Interstate. Called the Vortec 5300 by GM, it's rated 295 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque, plenty for light towing and hauling. For 2005, an aluminum-block version of this engine produces 310 horsepower, but is available in Extended Cab, standard-box 4WD models only. The base V6 produces 195 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, but most Sierra buyers opt for a V8 and automatic transmission. With 285 horsepower and 295 pound-feet, the 4.8-liter Vortec 4800 V8 is the most popular engine for this truck. With its 6.0-liter, 345-horsepower V8, the Denali really gets with the program.
All of these Vortec small-block V8s are based on the SB-2 architecture introduced on the Corvette and extended to the Camaro and Firebird in 1999. Since 2003, they have featured Electronic Throttle Control for more precise, consistent throttle operation; new oxygen sensors offer improved reliability and reduced emissions during warm-up. All of GM's Vortec engines come with 100,000-mile platinum-tip spark plugs, sequential fuel injection, and 150,000-mile anti-freeze.
A Tow/Haul mode helps the four-speed automatic transmission keep its cool when towing. Press the Tow/Haul button on the end of the shifter, and the transmission holds gears longer before shifting up or down, reducing the annoying tendency to hunt between third and fourth gears in hilly terrain. Shifts are harder and quicker in Tow mode, reducing heat buildup in the transmission. We find it improves the performance of the truck when pulling a trailer and reduces the driver's annoyance level.
Two-wheel-drive 1500s have rack-and-pinion steering, but there is still a fairly wide dead spot in the center when cruising. GMC says this is intentional, to minimize steering corrections on the highway. The steering feels a bit light, but the truck tracks beautifully and handles well on pavement, loose dirt, deep dirt and even off-road. Recirculating-ball steering comes on four-wheel-drive, 2500HD, 3500 and Quadrasteer models.
Quadrasteer makes driving these big pickups so much nicer in tight, crowded parking lots. Available on Extended Cab, standard-box models with 4WD; 1500HD Crew Cabs with 2WD or 4WD; and on 2500HD Crew Cabs; it reduces the turning circle by 10 feet on an Extended Cab standard-box model (from 47.3 to 37.4). We tried towing with a Quadrasteer-equipped truck, and it felt more stable, especially on winding roads, where it was easier to drive, and where the trailer tracked better behind it. If you tow frequently, you really owe it to yourself to test a truck with Quadrasteer. Backing a long trailer into a parking space at a 90 degree angle is much easier with Quadrasteer than without it. The system shortens turning circles with trailers and makes backing up more intuitive.
Brakes are large, 13-inch discs up front with 11.65-inch drums in the rear; 1500HDs, Quadrasteer models and Denali have discs on all four corners. ABS is standard on all models. Dynamic Rear Proportioning (called Electronic Brake Distribution, or EBD, by other manufacturers) improves stability under heavy braking, whether the truck is loaded or empty, and can reduce stopping distances. Jam on the brakes, and most vehicles without ABS will lock up the rear tires, because most of the weight is being transferred to the front wheels. ABS keeps the rear wheels from locking, but you still lose braking effectiveness as most of the weight is transferred to the front tires. With Dynamic Rear Proportioning, brake pressure is transferred to the tires with the best grip, thereby reducing stopping distances.
Two-wheel-drive models can be ordered with traction control ($225). Four w
Sierra Denali delivers unique styling and sumptuous luxury, along with an exclusive high-performance V8 and full-time all-wheel drive. By upgrading Denali from an Extended Cab to a Crew Cab, GMC has made its flagship pickup more family friendly as well. All GMC Sierras deliver lots of power, big payload capacities, and plenty of towing capability. They look classy and distinctive, more upscale than the Chevy Silverado. The Sierra pickups are among the smoothest, quietest, most civilized, best equipped, and most enjoyable trucks we've driven. The GMC Sierra is a must-see if you're buying a new full-size pickup.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough is based in Los Angeles.
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