Review: 2011 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 4WD

By Chris Haak

Lots of people drive heavy duty pickups.  Many contractors, businesses, and folks who have to do a lot of towing flock to these brutes because they are among the most capable vehicles on the planet as far as towing and hauling while still moving a family of five – at least among vehicles that don’t require a CDL to operate on public roads.

This is the third HD pickup that I’ve reviewed (see the Ford F-350 here, and the Ram 2500 here), and in my world – an office job in front of a computer, not owning a trailer, and rarely needing a pickup bed, I’m challenged each time to find a way to test these trucks’s capabilities.  Instead, I typically lean on the spec sheet and live with them for a week, enjoy the high seating position and commanding view of the road, and pretend I’ve permanently traded my business casual for Dickies and a flannel shirt.  I didn’t ask the Ram to haul anything in its bed, and the F-350 carried only a bookshelf from IKEA.  But for this GMC, I had something else for it to do.

Not that this did any more than scratch the surface of this truck’s capabilities, but I did fill its bed with mulch.  It held just one and a half cubic yards of the stuff, and as the skid steer operator carefully dropped it over the bedsides, the rear suspension compressed almost imperceptibly.  I have no clue how much a short bed truck’s bed full of mulch weighs, but it’s probably several hundred pounds (if the hours it took me to unload it were any indicator).  The skid steer operator then hopped out of his vehicle, handed me the receipt, and said, “nice truck!”

“Thanks – I’m just borrowing it for the week.”

But he’s right.  It is a nice truck.  When GM redesigned its full-size pickups for the 2007 model year, I didn’t embrace their conservative design initially, but as time has passed (the GMT900s are now five years old), the design has aged reasonably well to look conservatively handsome.  In 2007, the HD trucks received new bodies and interiors, but curiously, were attached to the previous generation truck’s frame.  For 2011, however, the new body is slightly facelifted in the grille and bumper area, but most importantly, attached to an all-new fully-boxed frame.

In addition, 2011 Sierra HDs and Silverado HDs received an upgraded 6.6 liter Duramax diesel engine, producing what were briefly segment-topping numbers of 397 horsepower and 765 lb-ft of torque.  Shortly after GM announced its Duramax output numbers, Ford reflashed its 6.7 liter PowerStroke’s engine management computer to leapfrog GM, producing 400 horsepower and a staggering 800 lb-ft of torque.

Also new for 2011 is a Denali HD model.  The Sierra Denali has been available for about a decade (and before that, was briefly – and oddly – called the Sierra C3 in 2001), but 2011 is the first year the upgraded Denali trim is available in the 2500 and 3500-series Sierra pickups.  The Denali HD (whose name is emblazoned in large letters on each door in case you forget it) has a grille and bumper design unique to the HD model.  It’s bordering on obnoxious with the foot long GMC logo in the center and chrome everywhere, but it’s slightly less obnoxious than the cartoonish grille and billboard-sized Blue Oval on the Ford Super Duty trucks.

The Denali package on the Sierra HD is actually a fairly modest upgrade, and nearly all of the Denali package of it has to do with appearance and comfort.  Some items that are optional on the Sierra SLT are now standard on the Denali.  The Denali HD gets a Bose Centerpoint 5.1 audio system, skid plate package, 12-way power adjustable front bucket seats, Nuance leather-appointed front seating, power adjustable pedals, universal home remote, body color bumpers front and rear, locking tailgate, heated power-adjustable/power-folding mirrors, and 20×5 inch aluminum wheels.  Notably absent on new Denalis – HD or not – are features like Quadrasteer (well-reviewed, rarely purchased four wheel steering) and xenon HID headlamps, both of which were available in the previous-generation Sierra Denali.

As a tall person, I’m much more accustomed to hitting my head on things than needing to use running boards or pull straps to enter a vehicle.  Big, high-riding trucks like the Denali HD are certainly the exception to that norm.  I didn’t have to use the running boards, but I did from time to time to make my ingress/egress simpler.  The Denali HD doesn’t have power folding running boards as are found in some other premium large vehicles like the Ford F-150 Lariat Limited or the Cadillac Escalade, so the tubular chrome assist steps are always hanging out there, ready to dirty your pants cuffs.  There’s no grab handle on the driver’s side to ease entry, unless you count the big round thing with a horn button in its center.

Once settled into the seat, though, it feels very much as if you’re driving any large GM SUV.  After all, they basically share the same interior.  The only difference between the Sierra Denali’s interior and that of the Chevrolet Suburban LTZ that I reviewed a few weeks ago is that the Denali’s steering wheel is heated and covered in fake wood, and the Denali has slightly different fake wood on its dash (and more potential adjustments on its front seats).

This brings us to another omission on this truck present on past Denalis:  they used to have a leather-wrapped passenger grab handle on the dash.  The handle itself is not necessary, but at least it gave a bit of an exclusive, premium feel to the Denali that wasn’t available in any old GMC truck.  That flavor of exclusivity – aside from the minor enhancements and body-color bumpers – for the Denali is a thing of the past.  Instead, there are large quantities of hard plastic around the interior.  Particularly annoying is the hard plastic atop the door panels, where you may someday want to rest your elbow.  A piece of advice:  keep your elbows on the padded door panel armrest instead.  At least the wide center console is a soft elbow-resting spot.

Another interior frustration in the Denali HD is the old-fashioned, too-low navigation display.  The navigation system would be much safer and easier to use if it were positioned at least six inches higher on the truck’s center stack.  Where it is, it’s too low to quickly glance at a map to see where you are or where you’re going.  Also, the navigation system is frustratingly slow in calculating routes (dangerously slow when re-routing after a wrong turn), and suffers from maps that lack much street-level detail and have very poor graphics with large pictures.  These complaints should come as a surprise to no one; it’s the same navigation system that GM has used in its trucks since the 2007 model year kicked off in early 2006.  Imagine how far technology has come in five and a half years; heck, don’t imagine it, just look at the system offered in the Ford F-Series with a large, clear, high-resolution display.  Though the truck has iPod connectivity, you can only browse the first five songs in a playlist while the vehicle is in motion.  Safer, perhaps, but not very intuitive.

Tiny climate control mode selection buttons are another ergonomic mystery.  They’re placed near the bottom of the center stack, and they’re very small buttons that would require quite a bit of aiming you’re wearing gloves and want to change a setting.  Below the climate control mode buttons are controls like traction control on/off, exhaust brake, power pedal adjustment, and parking sonar on/off.  These four aren’t exactly buttons you’d use every day, yet they’re four times larger than the climate mode buttons.

The seats are comfortable for long stints behind the wheel; they’re well-cushioned and wide, and although they don’t offer much lateral support, the truck is not capable of many abrupt lateral moves anyway without eliciting understeer and madly-howling tires.  Plus, the fronts are both heated and cooled, with three different levels of each, and the fronts are able to heat just the seatback, or the seatback and cushion together.

While Ford and Ram don’t have to fit an SUV onto their pickup truck platforms (and more importantly, don’t have an SUV that shares body panels with their trucks), GM does not have such a luxury.  The Sierra Denali shares its front and rear doors with the Yukon XL, and they’re shorter than the Ram’s or F-Series’ doors, which means that there’s less rear seat legroom.  In fact, considering the size and weight of the truck, rear seat room is a full-fledged disappointment.  Taller rear-seat passengers will find their knees against the front seatbacks if the driver and front passenger are on the tall side, while the Ram Crew Cab (and certainly the Mega Cab) has enough room that one can barely even kick the front seat in some positions.  The rear seat bottoms quickly fold upright to allow a large, flat load floor for things that you don’t want to put in the unsecured bed.

Not disappointing is the Duramax/Allison powertrain.  It’s a gem.  It doesn’t exactly have the same soundtrack of the Cummins inline six in the Ram, nor does it have the power and torque numbers of the Ford, but it has outstanding refinement, very good numbers, and turned in some nearly unbelievable fuel economy numbers.  We used the truck for a day trip to Bear Mountain State Park in NY, which is about a 350-mile trip, taking over six hours on the road.  Despite some bumper-to-bumper traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, we saw an average of 18.5 MPG on the day.  Now, at $4.25 per gallon of ultra low sulfur diesel fuel (what we paid at the time; it’s now cheaper here), that’s still an expensive way to travel, but considering the size and weight of the Denali HD, and its enormous capabilities, it’s impressive.  That number was attained without babying the truck whatsoever; in fact, on the contrary: we hammered the gas whenever we had the chance, and kept it around 75 MPH on the open road.

The Allison transmission has six forward ratios, and is quick to kick down when necessary.  Frankly, that’s not necessary very often because of the Duramax’s 765 lb-ft of torque, which tends to really flatten hills and make you forget about any load in the cargo box.  There is a manual shift capability via buttons on the column-mounted shift lever, but the manual ratio selection with the buttons is only possible when shifting the lever to M, and the lever isn’t the most accurate way to find the detent you’re looking for.  There’s a detent just for first gear below the manual choice, or you can pick first gear with the pushbuttons.  The truck will hit its [less than 4,000 RPM] rev limiter and will not force an upshift.

Unsurprisingly, “ride” and “handling” don’t really compute with an unladen HD pickup.  The springs are necessarily firm to accommodate the truck’s 3,000 pound maximum payload, and with most of the truck’s weight on its front axle, the result is a bumpy ride that rattles your teeth and is generally not very forgiving.  I’m not mentioning that as a problem – Fords and Rams ride the same way – but be aware that if you buy a truck like this for mostly unloaded driving, it may be a bit bumpy inside.  However, with just a few hundred pounds of mulch in the bed, the truck settled down and seemed to ride much more smoothly.  The engine – which is capable of towing 16,600 pounds when the truck is properly equipped and with a fifth wheel – didn’t seem to notice the load, so maybe that’s the answer.

Getting into the bed to unload it wasn’t easy.  The Denali HD rides tall – I was nearly eye-to-eye with school buses – and the tailgate doesn’t have the handy step and handle that you can get with a Ford.  The upside is that the wheelbarrow fit easily beneath the tailgate.  I found that the easiest way to climb into the bed was to either close the tailgate and use the step bumper’s step and the closed tailgate as a handle, or step on top of the rear tire over the side of the bed.  The third choice was to get to the corner of the bumper, since it was lower than the tailgate.  Climbing directly to the tailgate from the ground is not easy to do, even for someone who’s over six feet tall.  The truck’s GM bedliner did an admirable job of protecting the bed from scratches.

Then there’s the matter of price.  The Sierra Denali 2500 4WD starts at $46,450, but that comes with a lot of standard equipment – but not the Duramax/Allison combination.  The Duramax diesel is a $7,195 option, and the required Allison transmission tacks another $1,200 to the price.  This test vehicle also had the $2,250 navigation system, $895 power sunroof, $850 20″ forged polished aluminum wheels, $689 tubular chromed assist steps, $650 front heated/cooled seats, $450 rear vision camera system, and $150 heated steering wheel.  That’s $14,329 in options; throw on $995 for its destination charge, and you are looking at a $61,774 pickup truck.  That’s within spitting distance of the F-350 Super Duty that I reviewed last year (that truck’s price was $59,850, and was similarly equipped, but was a one-ton rather than a three quarter ton.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the equipment or needs to test these big trucks the way they deserve to be tested.  The Sierra didn’t break a sweat during its week with me.  I enjoyed the engine’s massive torque, enjoyed the commanding driving position, and enjoyed the way the diesel sounded.  My kids (ages three and five) absolutely loved riding in the “big black truck.”  Were GM to trot out an improved interior for its truck line, the Sierra Denali would get an interior that’s as good as its drivetrain.  Sadly, with the next-generation trucks just a few years away and sales still fairly strong, what you see may be what you get until then.

When I was younger, my dad used to joke with me about trucks being so strong they could “pull down a house.”  I really believe that this truck could do that, and then you wouldn’t look half bad pulling up to the valet for an evening on the town.  Plus, then parking it would be someone else’s problem.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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