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The GMC Sierra delivers serious towing and hauling capability. The Sierra is built on the same platform and shares mechanicals with the Chevrolet Silverado but exterior styling is quite different.
Sierra offers a choice of 4.8-liter, 5.3-liter, and 6.2-liter V8 engines, plus a hybrid gas-electric. It comes in Regular, Extended, and Crew Cab versions with long and short beds, long and short wheelbases, two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive.
All the V8 engines benefit from variable valve timing and Flex Fuel capability (meaning they will run on E85 ethanol). Active Fuel Management is standard with the 5.3-liter V8. The 5.3-liter and 6.2-liter V8s come with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The 6.2-liter V8 is available for Sierra Extended Cab and Crew Cab models, and is useful for towing heavier loads. A 3.08:1 axle ratio is standard with both transmissions and offers better fuel economy, but it's not recommended for towing.
The Sierra Hybrid uses GM's Two-Mode Hybrid system. It's available only as a Crew Cab model with a specially tuned 332-horsepower 6.0-liter V8 working in conjunction with a battery pack and a 4-speed automatic transmission that houses two electric motors. The Hybrid is EPA-rated at 20 mpg City/23 mpg Highway, while compromising payload and towing capacity (maximum around 6000 pounds).
A choice of interior styles is available. The traditional layout, called pure pickup, has a driver-oriented dash layout with large switchgear and door handles designed for work gloves. The pure pickup interior includes a 40/20/40 split front bench seat with the center section folding down to provide a large storage compartment and wide armrest.
The luxurious Sierra SLT has a cabin similar to that of a luxury SUV, with two front bucket seats separated by a fixed center console. This design places audio and ventilation system controls more easily within reach of the front-seat passenger, who may or may not be a spouse, and it offers space for a navigation system and storage compartments.
The Sierra Denali makes for a comfortable, luxurious pickup with the emphasis on performance rather than payload and towing capacity. The Sierra Denali offers the same sort of high-line content as the upscale GMC Yukon Denali sport utility, and it's available with all-wheel drive. Denali comes with a 6.2-liter V8.
Side-curtain airbags and seat-mounted side airbags are standard on all Sierras, while StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover mitigation is standard on 1500 models. A rearview camera is available and we recommend it. Changes for 2011 are minor and include subtle refinements to reduce wind noise. All 2011 Sierra models except the basic Work Truck come with OnStar 9.0.
The Regular Cab is designed for fleet buyers and others who want a basic truck for work, budget play, or a clean slate for customization. It can be equipped with a standard bed (6-foot, 6-inch) or a long bed (8-foot), two bucket seats or a three-person bench seat, V6 or V8 engines.
The Extended Cab has two rows of seats with rear-hinged rear access doors that open 170 degrees and have roll-down windows. The Extended Cab can also be equipped with a standard or long cargo bed, and with seating for five or six people.
The Crew Cab has two rows of seats and four front-hinged doors. It can be equipped with seating for five or six and comes with a short (5-foot, 8-inch) bed.
Standard equipment on the basic Work Truck ($20,850) includes vinyl seating surfaces, air conditioning, AM/FM radio, daytime running lights, tire pressure monitoring system, Smooth Ride suspension, 17-inch wheels, and chrome bumpers. The 4.6-liter V6 engine is standard.
Sierra SL is available in Extended Cab and Crew Cab models, and adds a CD player with MP3 capability, XM Satellite Radio, deep tinted glass, OnStar, carpeting, chrome grille surround, body-side moldings, styled steel wheels, cruise control, remote keyless entry, cloth upholstery, and power mirrors, windows and door locks. The 4.8-liter V8 is standard. Extended Cabs get a handling/trailering suspension.
Sierra SLE adds premium cloth upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, handling/trailering suspension (for all cabs), and illuminated visor vanity mirrors. Crew Cab XFE (Extra Fuel Economy) models get alloy wheels. Options include dual-zone air conditioning, a floor console, power driver and front passenger seats, leather seat trim, audio controls on the steering wheel, and machined aluminum wheels.
Sierra SLT adds leather seat trim, a unique instrument panel, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and outside temperatures, upgraded audio system with Bose premium speakers, Bluetooth, front bucket seats with 10-way power adjustment and heat, fog lamps, dual-zone climate control, rear window defogger, remote start, 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels, and the 5.3-liter V8 engine. Crew Cab models also get a rear-seat audio system.
Sierra Denali includes a top-flight interior with leather, unique woodgrain console, park assist and the standard luxury and convenience features from the preceding trim levels. The options include a heated steering wheel, heated/cooled front seats, sunroof, and rear-seat entertainment. The Denali comes only as a Crew Cab with the 6.2-liter V8 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission and rear or all-wheel drive.
Sierra Hybrid, available as a Crew Cab only, uses a 332-horsepower 6.0-liter V8 in conjunction with a battery pack and four-speed automatic transmission that houses two electric motor units. With an EPA rating of 20 mpg, its urban economy is the best of the Sierras, the compromises being price, payload (maximum in the mid-1500-pound range) and maximum towing capacity around 6000 pounds. A towing package is standard, however. Options include a locking rear differential and a power sunroof.
Safety features include dual front airbags, head-curtain airbags that automatically inflate when sensors sense a severe impact to provide extra protection in the event of a rollover or secondary collision, driver and front-seat passenger side-impact air bags, anti-lock brakes, StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover mitigation technology, and tire-pressure monitoring. The optional Autotrac active transfer case, ultrasonic rear park assist, and OnStar emergency notification can further enhance safety, as can the all-wheel-drive system on the Denali.
The front of the GMC Sierra emphasizes the truck's wide stance. The GMC emblem is set amid dark horizontal bars in the middle of an upright and chrome-surrounded grille. The headlamps are a pair of stacked, jeweled lenses. The front bumper features round fog lamps and a wide air intake and wraps around the sides of the truck to the front lower edge of the front wheel wells.
Top trim levels get some distinguishing features. The Denali gets its own chromed grilles, both the upper section and the air vent below the front bumper, and the bumpers are painted to match. Hybrid models are festooned with odd-looking H badges.
The Sierra hood has a pair of long, narrow V-shaped power bulges and leads back to a steeply raked windshield. The windshield is tilted back for improved aerodynamics and enhanced highway fuel economy.
The side view features slightly bulging and elongated fender flares that sweep down behind the headlamps. The sides of the cargo bed are higher than on previous models, and the exterior of the tailgate is sculpted, enhancing the rear view of the truck. Stacked tail lamps are on either side of the tailgate.
A cargo management system is available for the bed with side rails and various cargo-carrying and cargo-controlling boxes and dividers and tie-downs.
The GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado are built on the GMT900 platform that debuted in 2007 and shares many underpinnings with the Yukon, Suburban, and Tahoe SUVs. The pickups get a unique rear suspension and stiffer rear frame section. The Sierra and Silverado share mechanical components, with the exception of the unique features found on the Sierra Denali.
Compared with the previous-generation models, the current frame is much stiffer in all directions. This stiffness contributes to a smoother ride and better handling. It also allowed the engineers to reduce the gap between the truck bed and passenger compartment as well as the gaps between fenders and bumpers, all of which enhances aerodynamics and fuel efficiency.
The front suspension uses a coil-over-shock setup and the rack-and-pinion steering gear is mounted to the engine cross-member frame. The truck also has a rear axle design with shock absorbers mounted outboard and more upright for better dynamic control.
Fuel economy ratings, except for Hybrids, run 12-15 mpg City, 18-21 mpg Highway. When using E85 those numbers drop dramatically. The XFE (Xtra Fuel Economy) models with a 5.3-liter V8, 6-speed automatic and axle ratio of 3.08:1 increase EPA ratings from 15/21 to 15/22 mpg City/Highway. Proprietary XFE pieces include aerodynamic upgrades in the form of a soft bed cover and extended front air dam, plus aluminum wheels (including the spare) and lower front suspension arms, locking rear differential, and low rolling resistance tires. A trailering package is standard so XFE models can tow up to 7000 pounds.
Two types of interiors are available. The GMC Sierra SLT boasts interior features popularized by the Yukon sport utility, providing a much more upscale environment for the driver and passengers. GMC hasn't forgotten about owners who use their trucks for work, however. So the other Sierra models use a pure pickup interior with more function, like dual glove boxes, and less luxury.
The pure pickup, as it's called, has a unique dashboard that is more driver-oriented and has large switchgear and door handles that are designed to be easily manipulated by those wearing work gloves. The pure pickup interior includes a 40/20/40 split front bench seat with the center section folding down to provide a large storage compartment and wide armrest.
The SLT's SUV-style luxury-oriented interior puts audio and ventilation system controls more easily within reach of the front-seat passenger and has two front bucket seats with a fixed center console with assorted storage compartments.
Either dashboard sports full analog instrumentation, and may have more information available through digital display. Operating controls are GM simple, especially on the pure pickup, while on the top-line models the central dash has many small white-on-black buttons that may require a short learning curve. Some drivers report peculiar ergonomic details as the steering wheel is slightly offset from the seat centerline (which is not uncommon).
Rear seating is provided for three people in the Extended and Crew Cab versions. With 34.3 inches of rear legroom in the Extended Cab, space is comparable to the competitions'; but the Sierra Crew Cab, with only 39.0 inches of rear legroom, comes up 1.4 to 5.5 inches short of the largest cabs offered by the Ford F-150, Nissan Titan, Dodge Ram and Toyota Tundra. The Sierra Crew Cab's rear seat is split 60/40 and can folded up individually for a flat load floor; this arrangement is also standard on some extended cabs and optional on others, depending on trim level.
Access to the rear seating area of the Extended Cab is eased by rear-hinged doors that open to nearly flush with the bed sides. Sitting in the back seat of the Extended Cab is made more pleasant thanks to the fact that the windows in the rear access doors power fully down.
We've driven multiple versions of the GMC Sierra and found all of them to be comfortable.
The 5.3-liter V8 provided plenty of power for the extended cab SLE models we drove. All engines need to be revved up (by truck standards) for best performance. Generally, the Sierra models match competitors for smoothness.
Of the suspensions, the Z83 is claimed the smoothest ride. The Z85 is slightly stiffer and for those who often tow moderate trailers, a good choice for towing. The Z71 is set up to enhance off-pavement driving yet works very well on the road. In fact, we think the Z71 is the best suspension setup for comfort on the widest range of surfaces. The Z60 configuration is for street performance and includes big 20-inch wheels; we like performance but think trucks should be trucks, so the Z60 is not our first choice. The NHT Max Trailering Package is designed for Sierra owners who need to tow and carry the heaviest loads.
With NHT, the SLT Crew Cab 4x2 is equipped with the 6.2-liter V8 engine. The SLT with NHT suspension is designed for maximum capacity trailer towing, with a special steering gear, shock absorbers, rear axle and tires. We found the NHT suspension compliant relative to its carrying capacity. Isolation and control are both very good. By virtue of its fairly stiff spring and shock rates, the NHT suspension can be driven aggressively on winding roads with tire squeal the primary indication you're approaching the cornering limits. Steering is direct by truck standards and nicely weighted, providing good feedback about how hard everything is working, though the assist can fall behind during repeated full-lock maneuvering as when backing a trailer. However, if you mostly use the truck with it empty and don't often tow, we don't recommend the NHT package, due to its harsher ride. If you do tow, however, this is the hot setup among light-duty pickups.
The integrated brake controller should find favor with drivers who tow RV or box trailers. However, be sure your trailer brakes are compatible with it before choosing the option, as some electro-hydraulic disc conversions do not work with the integrated controller. If it is compatible, it's a great feature, eliminating the mess of installing an aftermarket unit and offering more precise braking. We've found it's much easier to modulate the brakes with the integrated brake controllers than with aftermarket units. With aftermarket units, we find we stop a few feet sooner than intended when braking from a high speed with a trailer attached. With the aftermarket unit, we could stop more precisely and more smoothly.
The highest tow rating for a Sierra is 10,700 pounds on Extended Cab (not long bed) models; top Crew Cab rating is 10,600 and for Regular Cabs it's 10,000 pounds. Note these figures typically apply to a truck with just a driver on board, and vary substantially based on a variety of equipment and options.
The GMC Sierra is an excellent choice among full-size pickups. Those who plan to use their trucks for commuting to work, carrying lots of family members and towing boats, may prefer the SUV-style interior, while those who use their trucks primarily as working tools likely will opt for the more utilitarian-oriented pure pickup design. We like the Sierra SLT Crew Cab for towing car trailers.
G.R. Whale reported from Los Angeles after his test drive of several Sierra models; with Larry Edsall reporting from Phoenix.