2019 GMC Sierra First Drive Review: GM's New Truck in Expensive Guise, With Unique Exclusive Options

If a Chevy Silverado is too pedestrian, the GMC Sierra has the goodies—a trick tailgate, a carbon-fiber truck bed—as long as you've got the scratch.

2019 GMC Sierra Denali
2019 GMC Sierra Denali

In late August, we drove the all-new 2019 GMC Sierra in Newfoundland, Canada. The testing included extended drives through the country, trailering demonstrations, and short (and very light) off-roading. Also, we witnessed a Newfoundlander initiation ritual called "Screeching in," which involves kissing a dead cod, shots of rum, and the phrase "Deed I is, me ol' cock! And long may yer big jib draw!"

Upfront:

What is it? GMC's new entrant in the all-important, money-printing full-size pickup truck category. Also, aside from a few key differentiators, it's a 2019 Chevy Silverado.
Powertrain: 6.2-liter V-8; 10-speed automatic transmission; RWD or 4WD / 5.3-liter V-8; 8-speed automatic transmission (SLT trim)
Weight: 4,531 to 5,015 pounds, depending on configuration
Max towing: 12,100 pounds
Fuel Economy (EPA): 15 mpg city / 20 mpg highway; 17 mpg combined (6.2-liter V-8)
Price: Starting at $46,700—upper-limit testers ran to around $67,000, according to GMC reps

Quick take: Like all new full-size pickups, the Sierra has an impressive mix of capability and comfort, and plenty of high-dollar options for the truck buyer who wants to spend. But the brand messaging is muddled; is GMC "Professional Grade," or best known for making more upscale, luxurious pickup trucks than its downmarket sibling, Chevy? Of course, truck loyalists tend not to be bothered by such philosophical questions, and those who already have their hearts set on a new Sierra will find a lot to like.

Josh Condon / The Drive

The GMC Sierra Denali

One Big Question: How does the Sierra differentiate itself from its mechanical twin, the Chevy Silverado?
Aside from a more palatable grille than the new Silverado's overwrought maw, the GMC offers three optional features you can't get on a Chevy: the MultiPro tailgate, CarbonPro cargo box, and adaptive ride control. In typical GMC fashion, you'll be expected to pay quite a bit to get them—the MultiPro tailgate requires at least the SLT trim, while the last two are only available on the extra-fancy Denali vehicles.

Of the three, adaptive ride control might be the sleeper hit among those who actually use their trucks to haul stuff. While ostensibly used to improve handling in the truck's "Sport" setting, the feature also works in conjunction with a weight sensor for the truck bed: if there's more than 500 pounds back there—say, a pair of dirt bikes—the adjustable dampers stiffen up to add stability, making it easier and safer to haul unwieldy loads.

The MultiPro tailgate is easily the most trick of the bunch, a clever re-think of a mostly overlooked component. It's essentially a tailgate-within-the-tailgate, which allows for six different configurations, including a load-stop for longer items, a drop-down step, and a work station. The MultiPro construction felt robust and solid, with heavy-duty hinges and lever arms, which suggests GMC realized the first rule of improving things that are not necessarily broken: if you're going to add features and complication, it had better last. 

Then there's the CarbonPro cargo box, very much a solution looking for a problem (unless I've simply been deaf to years of complaints that a steel truck bed is somehow not sturdy or durable enough). This features the same sort of shapable forged carbon fiber found on the Lamborghini Huracán Performante; it reduces weight by 62 pounds—about how much the MuliPro tailgate adds, incidentally—and is, according to GMC, very durable. "Best-in-class dent, scratch and corrosion resistance," they say. It will also be, according to GMC, very expensive: while final pricing wasn't announced for the late-availability option, it was suggested the CarbonPro bed would cost several thousands of dollars. There's no way that "extra" capability tracks with the price, but in terms of truck-guy bragging rights, GMC has clearly pegged a significant number of owners willing to pay exorbitantly to be able to say, "Check out my carbon-fiber truck bed!" But if you want one, you'll need to get your hand raised early: the carbon-fiber is labor-intensive and time-consuming to make, and there is a hard production limit per year from the lone supplier.

(One wonders if the carbon-fiber cargo bed is also a test bed for larger production goals—as another journalist pointed out to me, Ford quietly made the hood of the F-150 from aluminum for years before copping to it, at which point they had just rolled out an entire truck made out of the stuff; whether CarbonPro presages a full carbon-fiber-framed truck—somehow, some way—is an interesting question.)

Ride and Handling:

The most amazing thing about the modern truck is how un-truck-like its road manners have become even while overall capability has gone through the roof (as well as size, because this thing is massive) and the GMC is no exception. The ride is stable and quiet and prodigiously powered—a voracious consumer of highway commuting miles, even, I was assured, with a 6,000-pound trailer hitched to the back. (This is especially true of the models equipped with the adaptive suspension.)

The larger 6.2-liter V-8 comes with 10-speeds for a larger sweet spot of max torque, and both the extra punch and the extra twist made it slightly smoother to drive than the SLT trim's 5.2-liter V-8 with eight gears. 

On a short and admittedly wimpy off-road section—the original location was unexpectedly graded smooth ahead of the trip—the AT4 barely broke a sweat, especially with the Traction Select System doing its thing. A suite of cameras showed the truck's surroundings on the infotainment screen—very handy when you've nosed your way up a crest and can only see sky out the windshield, because the camera shows you what's on the other side—including a birds-eye view for narrow trails.

Exterior:

The Sierra is arguable handsomer than the Silverado, mostly thanks to its more elegant grill, but the truck's overall profile is likewise pleasing—athletic and imposing, if ridiculously massive. This, of course, is indicative of the out-of-control bloat in the pickup space in general; this generation's full-size truck looks like a heavy-duty pickup from just a couple generations ago. This was acknowledged during the quick design briefing: that big blockish grille, we were told, was explicitly designed for "more of a heavy-duty look" because that's what customers wanted. Looks like we're just about back to the ridiculousness that is the International CXT and the children who love it

Also, chrome is back, and it's apparently a completely polarizing concept, like so much else in this country at the moment: either you hate chrome and want none of it, or you love chrome so much you want all of it, everywhere, until you look like you've just rolled out of a 90's Cam'ron video.

Which is to say you can also get the Sierra without all the shiny stuff, which I cannot recommend highly enough. The best-looking of the bunch is the lifted, blacked-out AT4 on the optional 20-inch wheels. There are also a number of interesting exterior paint options, from bright blues to rootbeer browns and an elegant gray called "Smokey Quartz Metallic."

Interior:

GMC reps kept insisting that they are the company known for upscale, luxury trucks. I was unaware of that reputation, so I asked around, and sure enough, most people agreed: Yes, GMC is known for making luxury trucks. When I pointed out that the interior was not particularly luxurious even with the Denali niceties, they amended the answer to something along the lines of, Yes, well, GMC makes trucks that are more upscale compared to Chevrolet

Considering the main difference between the Sierra and the Silverado are all expensive options—advanced materials, suspension technology, and a gimmicky but undeniably clever tailgate—I expected more of a differentiation inside; I wanted something that felt elevated from a "regular" truck. The new 3x7" multicolor head-up display and rearview camera mirror are nice tech touches, but don't quite do the trick. It's not quite there.

Yes, the well-equipped Denali interior is a very nice place to sit—the cab size is larger than ever and filled with decent leather, open-pore wood, and a bunch of integrated storage; it's comfortable and hedonistically spacious, like one of those Barcalounger reclining movie theater seats—but doesn't feel luxurious in the true sense of the word. The lesser-equipped models didn't even reach that bar. It made one think, if you're not going to spring for the fancy options like a carbon-fiber bed, why not buy the same machine in less-expensive Silverado guise, which can also be had with a nice interior? But it's a moot point, I was made to understand: the Sierra buyer is always going to want the extra goodies, the Denali trim in particular, because otherwise he wouldn't be a Sierra buyer—such is the loyalty of the modern truck owner. I can't pretend to understand the thinking.

Extras:

GMC's AT4 Sierra—for "All Terrain 4"—comes with a factory-installed two-inch lift kit and more off-road oriented tires. If you're familiar with Chevy's "Trail Boss" package, you're looking at the same thing here. Any trim level Sierra, including the Denali's, can be ordered with the lift kit from the factory.

The trailering package, with an included app, has all sorts of functionality. You can add a custom profile for each trailer; perform a lighting test as you inspect the vehicle from outside as part of the included Pre-Departure Checklist; hardwire a camera to the back—as well as see down the sides of the trailer, and use the aforementioned birds-eye view—and check the trailer tire pressure. (Considering the many available camera angles, it raised the question as to why the front view disappeared when a rear camera was added; the answer was short and sheepish: because the truck was made with only four available camera inputs, instead of five.) You'll also receive an alert on your smartphone if someone's tampering with the vehicle or trailer. 

The Takeaway:

I kept hearing the same thing, over and over, when talking about the full-size pickup truck market: Loyalty is king and there is no such thing as a conquest in the truck space—if you owned a Ford you're going to buy another Ford; a Ram owner will buy another Ram; a GMC owner doesn't want to drive the same Chevy Silverado as his employees, so he's going GMC—again.

It's the type of loyalty a sports-car maker would kill for, and an odd sentiment for a vehicle that's ostensibly made for work, and therefore as a purchase should be subjected to a flinty sort of cost-benefit analysis. 

But with three unique (if optional) upgrades over a Bowtie-badged truck, there's an argument to be made that the GMC is a truck targeted to the well-known and well-understood return buyer: someone willing to spend on the finer things. Still, one wonders how long it will take for the trick MultiPro tailgate to trickle down to the volume model Silverado—and, further, how long this kind of badge-engineering can work for GM. Though the GMC engineers would be loathe to consider it (the pride they all take in this truck was obvious) from a buyer's perspective the GMC Sierra is already a sort of upmarket trim level from the Silverado—making the popular Denali option a trim-within-a-trim. Why not make the Sierra a tech-focused trim option, and Denali a luxury package, and let the big spenders tick both boxes? 

The answer, I've been told, is because that's not what truck buyer's want; truck buyers want the same thing they bought before—but new. And certainly Sierra buyers will be pleased with not only the capability and comfort of the new truck, but the myriad ways it can be put together and the option for some cool and unique (if pricey) features.

Massive, expensive, content-rich and thirsty: so it goes in the full-size truck market, on and on forever—until gas hits five bucks a gallon, anyway.

Josh Condon / The Drive