2019 Chevrolet Silverado First Drive: The People's Chevy Picks Up Changes Big and Small
Chevrolet's all-new full-size pickup truck has a lot riding on its capable shoulders.
Considering it has dozens of cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs spread out across a handful of brands, General Motors doesn't really have a make-or-break vehicle. But the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado comes pretty damn close.
It—along with its twin, the GMC Sierra—is the Peter to the Church of GM, the rock upon which the company's fortunes are built. (Insert your own Bob Seger joke here.) In 2017, Chevy sold 575,864 Silverados in the United States, making up more than a quarter of Chevrolet's domestic volume and one-fifth of General Motors's total sales in the United States that year. The money generated by hundreds of thousands of Silverados rolling through dealerships every year help keep Corvettes and Camaros cranking out of the factories; it subsidizes the cost of futuristic electric vehicles like the Bolt and Volt; it keeps thousands of Americans in factories and showrooms and service centers gainfully employed, not to mention all the help the trucks lend the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on its capabilities for their own businesses.
Suffice it to say, GM does not take the creation of an all-new full-size pickup lightly. So, much like John Hammond building a saurian theme park, the company spared no expense in launching the 2019 Silverado for the American media, flying wave upon wave of journalists—including your humble scribe—out to preternaturally-scenic Jackson, Wyoming, where three dozen shiny new crew cab Chevys were waiting to be put through their paces on-road and off.
2019 Chevy Silverado's Exterior Steals Clint Eastwood's Visage
Buyers won't have any trouble telling the 2019 model from any last-gen Silverados kicking around the local Chevy dealership, especially when they look it square in the eyes. Its squinting-gaze headlights and high cheekbones give its front fascia the handsome masculine aggression of a young Clint Eastwood. (Or, arguably, a current-day Scott Eastwood.) It's a more coherent look in person than it comes across in pictures, where the various elements can seem disjointed; seen in the flesh, so to speak, the new truck comes across better, especially on trim levels that forgo the body colored-elements up front for acres of chrome that harken back to mighty American rides of the '50s and '60s or for blacked-out trim that lends it an element of what the nation's mall ninjas describe as "tacti-cool."
The side and rear views are more traditional in appearance, bearing the clean-cut blockiness that's characterized the brand's rigs, albeit with the occasional crease or kink added in for good measure. The larger foot-holes in the corners of the back bumper not only provide more room for steel-toed Red Wings, they look more proportionate to boot, and pair neatly with the look of the squared-off exhaust pipes on some models. And while every 2019 Silverado stands plenty tall, the two extra inches of lift and the 33-inch off-road tires of the Trail Boss give it an even taller, tougher stance.
More than any other passenger vehicle, trucks are defined not just by how their exteriors look, but by what they can do. This new Silverado 1500 is the 11th generation of what was once known as the half-ton truck category, on account of the payload said trucks could handle decades ago. (Like alligators and snakes, they've grown bigger and stronger over the decades; nowadays, 1500-series Chevys can take on close to 2,000 pounds of people and carho, so the company prefers the term "light-duty trucks" for them.)
The 2019 Silverado's back half benefits from what GM describes as the "Durabed," Chevy-speak for...well, a beefier bed. Engineers pushed the sheetmetal around to make an extra seven inches of width between the wheel wells, enough to easily slide a four-by-eight foot sheet of plywood between them. And while Ford may have gone to aluminum for the F-150's body, GM's commercials touting the advantages of steel over the non-ferrous metal to "real people, not actors" mean giving up on the classic material was out of the question. The new bed is pounded out of a higher grade of steel than before; a dozen fixed tie-down locations, each capable of withstanding a quarter-ton of force unmoved, stretch around the bed, along with nine movable tie-down spots. As in the Honda Ridgeline, there's even an available 120-volt power outlet back there, in case you need to live out a Jake Owen song and run an industrial-grade margarita machine on a Florida beach.
But perhaps the most controversial piece of bed engineering (bedgineering?) is the power-operated tailgate that comes on select higher trims. Don't bother looking for a physical handle on these trucks; the back flap goes without, it having been replaced by a small rubberized button. On some models, the button (which can also be triggered by the key fob) merely lowers the tailgate, leaving operators to fold it back up; the fanciest Silverados, however, offer power operation up and down, a fact as sure to wow soft-bodied soccer dads as it is to draw the ire of doomsday preppers who see the dangers of electromagnetic pulse attack in every new electronic doodad.
All-New Silverado's Interior Looks...Well, Pretty Familiar
Considering the difference between generations when it comes to the Silverado's exterior, the cabin seems...well, underwhelmingly familiar. That was very much in response to buyer demand, according to the company's representatives. “You don’t style this. We built this interior,” interior design manager Craig Sass said. “For this particular vehicle, it’s all about how it works.”
In focus group tests, he said, most people ranked the past-generation Silverado's interior highest among competitors—so the designers hewed close to what worked well in the previous model for the new truck. As such, anyone clambering into the 2019 version who's spent time in a recent Silverado is liable to find themselves feeling at home in no time flat. Indeed, you'd pretty much have to hop straight out of one and into the other to notice the differences. The dual glove boxes carry over, as do the vertically-oriented air vents, and while the design around them has shifted, the climate, radio, and other secondary controls are in the same places as the last version. Same goes for the buttons on the steering wheel.
If anything, the interior may look too familiar—at least, for anyone who's scoped out the likes of the all-new 2019 Ram 1500 and the ginormous Tesla-esque screen occuping the middle of its modernist dash. The 8.0-inch infotainment screen looks oddly small mounted atop the vaguely art deco tower of buttons, dials, and curving trim, while the instrument panel's even smaller screen looks letterboxed by plastic on all sides. it's all functional, sure—and sure to please those legacy Chevy buyers. But in an era when Fiat-Chrysler, Ford, and Honda are all pushing the boundaries of in-truck design and infotainment, the evolution-over-revolution mindset may prove risky in the long run.
That said, the truck's interior provides the sort of utility modern trucks are known for, and the Chevy does it better than most. The crew cab's stretched passenger compartment offers an extra three inches of legroom for back row occupants—43.4 inches, barely less than the front's 44.5—resulting in space that just might induce jealousy in those saps riding around in S-Classes and Lexus LS 500s.
A bevy of cubbyholes both obvious and hidden can be found throughout the truck, including a hidden lockable compartment in the ass cushion of the front-middle spot on bench seat-equipped models and available 10-liter hidey-holes in the rear seat backs. I'm not suggesting anyone conduct any illegal or immoral activities in their new Silverado, but I kind of doubt even the sharpest border patrol agents would find every little storage space in this truck, if you get my drift.
Big Chevy Jams Tech Under the Hood for a Better Drive
In the lead-up to the first drive event, Chevy made sure to play up all the configurations the new Silverado will be available—eight different trim levels, four engines, three transmissions, three different ways of driving the wheels (rear-wheel-drive,
all-four-wheel-drive, and four-wheel-drive with low range). Despite this, the selection of trucks lugged out to Wyoming was rather limited, consisting solely of higher-trim crew cabs packing either the 5.3- or 6.2-liter V8 engines. (Sorry, New Tripower fans. Assuming you exist.)
I spent time in the LTZ and LT Trail Boss trims, both packing the Z71 off-road package and the 5.3-liter eight pot with the new Dynamic Fuel Management cylinder deactivation system, which comes paired with GM's eight-speed automatic. (5.3s connected to the six-speed use the old cylinder deactivation setup; a Chevy engineer quietly mentioned that DFM doesn't play well with the older transmission's torque converter.) Unlike other such setups, the new DFM can utilize anywhere between two and eight cylinders at a time, constantly shuffling between 17 different programs depending on the engine load. In principle, the system sounds fantastically complex; in practice, it's seamless, leaving the driver completely unaware how much of the engine he or she is drawing upon. As Steve Jobs used to say, it just works. Chevy claims it bumps up fuel economy five percent versus the old version, and while I didn't have a chance to apples-to-apples things during my brief drive through the Rockies, the LTZ's trip computer did report figures between 22 and 24 miles per gallon over the course of roughly 50 miles of highway climbing—much of it straight up the side of a mountain.
A short blast up and down the highway with three tons of trailer hanging off the LTZ's hitch showed the 5.3-liter plenty capable of handling such a weight, even at 6,000-plus feet of altitude. Still, even though it amounted to barely more than half of the engine's claimed max towing load of 11,600 pounds, the weight clearly made itself known when hammering the gas and trying to charge up to mile-a-minute speeds; any towing noobs expecting to be able to waltz effortlessly up mountain with a sextet of Sea-Doos mounted astern is likely in for a scary shock or two.
Unburdened, however, the Silverado proved a shockingly enjoyable drive for an empty full-size pickup—even in Trail Boss form, with its off-road shoes and its proverbial skirts hiked up an extra couple of inches. The steering is far more direct and accurate than pickups of yore, which could feel like sailboats when hauling down the highway. (A new Sport mode calibration for the steering and throttle helps, adding weight to the former and sensitivity to the latter.) The redesigned front suspension not only helps keep the turning radius tight in spite of the new model's additional four inches of wheelbase, but helps point the front wheels with greater authority.
Hustling the Trail Boss along at 20 past the limit down both high-speed sweepers on two-lane highways and dusty, gravel-strewn dirt roads in the backcountry, an odd thought of the sort that rarely crosses my brain when driving a high-riding, body-on-frame vehicle hit me more than once: This is fun. Like the new Ford Expedition, it's more entertaining from behind the wheel than any vehicle of its type and capability has any business being. No one'll conflate this rig with a Miata from behind the wheel, but it's every bit as enjoyable to hustle down the road as a well-tuned unibody people mover. If Alfa Romeo and Porsche can build crossovers that drive like sports cars, there's no reason GM can't build pickups that drive like crossovers.
2019 Chevy Silverado Sure to Keep the Faithful—But Can It Conquer?
Certainly, General Motors doesn't need to worry much about using its legacy buyers. Truck customers tend to be as brand-loyal as the average American voter; most Chevy people will keep on buying Chevys, same way most Republicans or Democrats check the party-line boxes all the way down the ballot. These tried-and-true loyalists will find nothing to complain about here; the 2019 Silverado strips away the bad and builds upon the good of its predecessor.
But in truck buying, as in voting, there are still independents out there. Indeed, as Americans flock to big vehicles in greater and greater numbers, new people are sure to be finding themselves sitting in light-duty pickups on showroom floors for the first time, thinking long and hard about trading in their Accords and Siennas and Explorers for something bigger and more capable. These folks will no doubt appreciate the Silverado's if-it-ain't-broke interior, its secure handling, and its limo-rivaling roominess in crew cab form, on top of the obvious love for the tough-guy sheetmetal and the go-anywhere-do-anything capabilities.
That said, these new-to-Truck World buyers come from the Land of Cars—a place populated with hybrid options, big, fancy infotainment systems, and other high-tech usability features. The 2019 Silverado isn't lacking in tech—it can be jammed up with active safety features, offers more cameras than a TV studio, and performs party tricks with its cylinders—but much of it is aimed at the legacy truck buyer who's been driving a rig since he or she could see over the wheel. Whereas salespeople at the old Ram dealership can say, "Oh, you want a hybrid? A giant touchscreen? Step this way."
But hey, who am I kidding. As long as gas is cheap and America free, GM will sell as many Silverados as it can crank out.
[Ed. Note: An earlier version of this article suggested some Silverados offer AWD. They actually offer selectable 4WD without low range.]