GMC was founded in 1901 as the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company inPontiac,Michigan, by the Grabowsky brothers, Max and Morris. In 1905 the brothers, sensing a good deal, sold up to the originators of thePontiacbrand. Both, or all three, were gobbled up in 1908 by Walter Durant and his burgeoning General Motors company, and the rest, as they say, is (GM) history. The car side retained its name ofPontiacand the truck side was renamed General Motors Commercial. It would be an exaggeration to say that it’s been a picnic for GMC ever since, but where’sPontiac now? Whereas 111 year-old GMC sails serenely on, making upscale Chevys and big profits for the parent General.
And very fine upscale Chevys they are, too. Marketing surveys suggest them to be preferable to the bowtie product for younger, more affluent types who don’t want to say, “I drive a Chevy.” That’s OK—the world is kept spinning by such absurdities. And, judging by the GMCs I’ve driven, their vehicles are quality products. This time around I spent a week with a 2012 Sierra Denali 2500 HD 4X4, a huge beast with an unexpectedly serene ride, which paradox no doubt defines the GMC aura. Inside, the Denali, loaded to the gills as it is, could pass muster as an old-school Cadillac of the chrome-and-fin era, all leather and mock wood and tinted windows and a nice elegant instrument cluster—and then some, because an old-school Caddy wouldn’t also have had rear parking sensors, antilock disc brakes, stability and hill-start control, power-adjustable pedals, heated/ventilated front seats, Bose premium surround audio system with 6CD/USB, and Bluetooth connectivity, all of which my Denali boasted, and more.
It’s a well-thought-out interior, for the most part. Almost everything is logically located, and there are numerous storage areas. If there’s a flaw inside the Sierra it’s the irritating small buttons that control audio functions and HVAC, all a bit too fidgety for normal use and quite useless for anyone wearing work gloves. But theDenali’s target market isn’t the grimy work-gloved set. It sets a higher standard, and succeeds. Sumptuous power-adjustable leather seats make cruising down the highway, even dreaded I-35 at peak hours, a pleasant, even desirable, experience. Plus, when you’re sitting that high, nearly eye-to-eye with interstate truckers and school-bus drivers, you feel insulated from the hoi polloi. (But you aren’t; they never let you forget that.)
Outside too, the Sierra 2500 is a good-looking truck, quite different from its sibling under the skin, the Silverado, with a purposeful stance and a heavily chromed grille that has something of the ravening shark about it, no doubt intentionally (get outta my way-GRRRR). The crew-cab configuration blends stylishly with the 20-in. polished alloy wheels and 6.6-ft. cargo bed, which on my truck came with a bedliner and tie-downs, very useful indeed for hauling heavy cast-iron objects like lawn tables and armchairs, as I ascertained on a visit to one of our myriad local home-improvement barns.
Apart from a faint jittering over rough surfaces, the Sierra rides like its sister in the GMC family, the Yukon SUV: stolidly, solidly, and smoothly. Quietly, too. I managed a comfortable 85 or so with hardly any wind and tire roar and very little other aural intrusions except the engine under hard acceleration, but that’s forgivable, especially when the engine noise thrills rather than irritates, and I must admit I enjoyed the fierce snarl of 397 diesel-fueled horses emitting 765 lb-ft.of twist as all concerned went about the business of hauling 7,294 pounds of truck from 0 to 60 in about 7.5 seconds, while elbowing lesser forms of life out of the way. That’s a Duramax turbodiesel I’m talking about, in case you wondered, yoked to a six-speed Allison 1000 automatic transmission, one of the best and most durable powertrain combos around, or so they tell me. It ought to be, at the price: Slapping that on your list of options will set you back $7500 over the standard gasoline-powered 6-liter 360-hp V8. (Base price for the 2500 series is around $33K, but that’s for the Work Truck trim, darling of the work-glove set.) You can, if so inclined, haul up to 3,704 lb. of payload and tow up to 13,000 lb. with the standard ball hitch, and on up to an awe-inspiring 17,800 lb. with a fifth-wheel connection. I never had the opportunity to tow a boat or a trailer, but I’m sure the truck wouldn’t break a sweat, with that kind of oomph under the hood.
Oomph that exacts a price at the pump. Just because you’re driving a diesel you’re not going to see dramatic savings in fuel economy, not with average mileage of about 18 mpg (observed) and a gallon of Herr Diesel’s finest going for over $4 here in south-central Texas. On the other hand—nice to always have another hand on hand, isn’t it?—the truck has a 36-gal. fuel tank, with a cruising range of 600+ miles. This almost offsets the mediocre fuel economy; you really only ever need to top it off now and then, unless you’re on a long road trip, with diesel pumps few and far between. But try as I might, I just couldn’t get the needle down far enough to justify a visit to the filling station, and over my week of driving I clocked up a good 500 highway miles that included my usual jaunts through the Texas Hill Country and a trip out to Bastrop State Park, where wildfires raged last summer, a bit of local news that caught the attention of the outside world. (Happily, new growth is budding amid the scarred remains of the disaster.) The big Sierra turns and maneuvers with aplomb, scooting up and down freshly-resurfaced trails and ducking nimbly past lumbering caravans of campers and their paraphernalia. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is smooth, responsive, and well-balanced, and the disc brakes return top-notch braking performance, stopping on a dime without grabbing, which is a nice thing for brakes to do. Another pleasant surprise: the silky-smooth Allison gearbox operates without the slightest hint of the abruptness common in other pickups. Even in manual mode, which I use only for fun (it isn’t, much), the gearbox works well.
The Sierra has the usual safety features, including 4-wheel ABS (as noted, with EBA), front and rear head airbags, dual front side-mounted airbags, remote anti-theft alarm system, engine immobilizer, passenger airbag occupant sensing deactivation, stability and traction control, etc. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has yet to crash-test the 2012 HD 2500, but results from the lighter 1500 series are mixed: Good for frontal-offset, Acceptable for side-impact. Of course, the weight difference and drivetrain design make this an almost completely different truck, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Certainly I never felt at risk in any way, except from college students taking high-speed short cuts through parking lots while I was backing the barge out. I was thankful then for the backup camera and shrill peeping of the proximity sensors.
All in all, with its extensive capabilities and ultra-plush interior, the Sierra is an exceedingly pleasant and useful vehicle. The version I drove was also exceedingly expensive: $62K, with all goodies on board. A bit too much bling for something that is, at bottom, utilitarian? Maybe. If I were interested, and I might well be (I’ve only ever owned one pickup truck, and reckon it’s time for another) I’d just seek out a lesser configuration, say a 1500 without the Denali make-up, and save a few grand. Or maybe I’d wait a couple years, let depreciation work its magic, and drive away in almost-new HD truck for thousands less. Either way, regardless of my personal preferences, GMC should have no problem finding a market niche for the Sierra. It’s a quality product that would make the Grabowsky brothers proud—and a little sad that they didn’t stick around longer.