For decades, General Motors’ Chevrolet and GMC lines of pickups have been textbook examples of badge engineering. Although GMC in recent years has touted the Sierra 1500 using terms such as “luxury” and “premium,” the truck has been virtually identical to its Chevrolet sibling. But the brand finally branches out with the completely redesigned 2019 Sierra, which adds exclusive content to meaningfully separate itself from the also-all-new 2019 Chevy Silverado—and from the rest of the hugely popular and highly competitive full-size-pickup field.
The Sierra is now available with exclusive features such as adaptive dampers, a cargo box made of carbon fiber, and a versatile split-folding tailgate. Its bold styling is as imposing as ever, with distinct C-shaped lighting elements, LED headlights, and a towering grille that stands apart from the Silverado’s double-stacked front-end design.
Yet, beneath their renewed skins and within their restyled cabins, both GM pickups continue to share many components. This includes a fully boxed steel frame that is said to be 88 pounds lighter and 10 percent stiffer than before. The revised suspension also uses lighter components. GMC claims to have shaved up to 360 pounds by switching to an aluminum hood, tailgate, and doors. The crew cab’s longer wheelbase adds roughly three inches more rear-seat legroom than in last year’s version, and the cargo box’s floor sees its widest point stretched by nearly seven inches for increased volume.
As with its Chevy sibling, the Sierra offers a plethora of powertrains that include both new and updated options. While the 285-hp 4.3-liter V-6 and the 355-hp 5.3-liter V-8 continue with a six-speed automatic and cylinder deactivation, another version of the 5.3-liter is available with an eight-speed transmission and GM’s new Dynamic Fuel Management. Unlike traditional cylinder deactivation that shuts off specific cylinders, this more sophisticated fuel-saving system targets individual cylinders using an algorithm that increases efficiency and reduces vibrations. This technology also extends to the 420-hp 6.2-liter V-8, which connects to a 10-speed automatic for the first time in the Sierra. Eventually, the Sierra lineup will include a 310-hp turbocharged 2.7-liter inline-four paired with the eight-speed; an optional diesel 3.0-liter inline-six (accompanied by the 10-speed automatic) also has been confirmed, but full details have yet to be released.
Although the GMC Sierra will be available in a variety of configurations, our initial drive was limited to the top-of-the-line Denali and the new off-road-oriented AT4. All were crew cabs, which is the sole body style available initially, with either a 5.3- or 6.2-liter V-8. The SLT and the Denali are the first two trim levels to reach dealerships, with the AT4 set to arrive in about a month. Once the full lineup is available, Sierra 1500 prices will range from the base $31,095 rear-wheel-drive long-box regular cab to the $59,795 crew-cab standard-box Denali 4×4.
The top-spec Denali trim level has a familiar-looking interior design and is decked out with premium leather and real open-pore wood. While we appreciated its increased spaciousness and straightforward controls, the Denali’s cabin materials seemed less upscale than those of the last-gen Denali and certainly trailed the most luxurious of the new Ram 1500 models. Still, the GMC’s interior is an effective evolution, with a vertical center stack that houses the latest version of GMC’s infotainment system with an 8.0-inch touchscreen (a 7.0-inch unit is standard, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto).
The display showcased the Sierra’s newly available 360-degree camera system that significantly helps when hooking up and monitoring a trailer. The brand’s ProGrade Trailering System has a smartphone app that includes a pre-departure checklist as well as real-time vehicle and trailer information; the app also can be used to check the trailer lights remotely—a handy trick for solo operation. GMC engineers said their priority was to make the Sierra as user-friendly as possible, and this technology definitely helps with that. Bundled in the Technology package is a color head-up display and a Rear Camera Mirror (an evolution of the setup that Cadillac launched in the CT6) with multiple brightness and zoom settings. These new high-tech features—along with driver assists such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection—better fortify the Sierra against rivals that already have such features.
On the Road
On roads that ranged from smooth highways to cramped city streets, the Denali rode well and was easy to command. Its adaptive dampers were effectively flexible, although the live rear axle and giant 22-inch wheels still shuddered over sections of harsh pavement that the latest Ram 1500, with its rear coil springs or optional air springs, seems less upset by. The GMC, however, has sharper, more linear steering with more feedback than most big trucks, and the Denali actually felt poised when cornering at higher speeds.
The newly added drive modes enhance the driving experience. The settings include Tour (default), Sport, Tow/Haul, and Off-Road, with each altering throttle response, transmission shift points, steering effort, and stability-control programming. We found that Sport and Tow/Haul best optimized the 6.2-liter powertrain by holding gears longer and providing prompt acceleration. While we could hear the engine’s deep exhaust note under heavy throttle applications, wind and road noise were mostly isolated from the Denali’s cabin.
The Sierra AT4 swaps the Denali’s adaptive dampers for a 2.0-inch suspension lift and Rancho monotube shocks. Its standard equipment also includes skid plates, all-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case, and a locking rear differential (the last item is also on the Denali). The trail-ready truck has standard 18-inch wheels wrapped with all-terrain tires; Goodyear DuraTrac mud-terrain rubber is available for an extra $295. Alternately, buyers can opt for 20-inch wheels with less aggressive tires. We drove AT4s with the 6.2-liter V-8 and both optional tire packages—one tackling a mild section of unpaved roads and another towing a trailer loaded with four ATVs. While neither task challenged the truck, we can confirm that the lifted Sierra can tow about 5000 pounds without breaking a sweat and that its exhaust system sounds like it was sourced from the Chevy Camaro SS. Surprisingly, the AT4 also rode better than the Denali on back roads but exhibited more road noise when wearing the mud-terrain rubber. We also were impressed with the Sierra’s new electrohydraulically assisted braking system, which has a firm and responsive brake pedal and brings an electronic parking brake and increased functionality for hill-start assist.
Although it might seem gimmicky, the Sierra’s trick split-folding tailgate (the MultiPro Tailgate, in GMC speak) is actually useful and even fun to operate. It is best described as a mini tailgate within a larger tailgate. In particular, we like the configurable full-width step and also the retractable lip that flips up from inside the tailgate to keep long items inside the box. The MultiPro Tailgate is standard on the SLT trim level and above. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to test the durability of the Sierra’s class-exclusive carbon-fiber cargo box—which is said to weigh 62 pounds less than the normal steel box and have unrivaled dent, scratch, and corrosion resistance—as it won’t be available until sometime after launch.
While we look forward to driving additional Sierra variants and its two later-arriving powertrains, it’s clear from even our initial experience that GMC has built a full-size pickup with enough personality and functionality to distinguish itself from its Chevrolet sibling. This is no longer just a pricier Silverado.