I finally did it: I'm a dad. The funny thing is, I've always owned dad cars, even before I needed to. Owning anything with less than four doors never made much sense, which is how I ended up with a stable of souped-up grandpa cars from the Sixties and Seventies. Now that I'm a father, the '74 Oldsmobile sedan I brought my wife and son home from the hospital in seems a bit dated. And that, my friends, is how I found myself on this quest to find the perfect new dad car. The latest contender: the new 2019 GMC Sierra AT4.
The 2019 GMC Sierra AT4, By the Numbers
- Base Price (Price as Tested): $53,200 ($65,475)
- Powertrain: 6.2-liter V8, 420 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque; 10-speed automatic transmission; four-wheel-drive
- Fuel Economy: 15 mpg city, 19 mpg highway
- Towing Capacity: 9,300 pounds
- Random dad fact: According to the US Department of Energy, each gallon of gasoline produces about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide when it's burned (the heavy weight has to do with carbon molecules in the fuel combining with oxygen in the atmosphere). Assuming you drove a 6.2-liter-equipped AT4 13,500 miles in a year—the average annual mileage in the US—your truck would produce more than 15,800 pounds of CO2.
The first vehicle I ever bought with my own money was a 1980 GMC four-by-four. It had an eight-foot-long bed, a six-inch suspension lift, 35-inch TSL Super Swampers (those are big, knobby tires, if you're not familiar with them), and a fairly half-assed coat of red primer on it. It was perfect. Of course, the truck lacked creature comforts; there was no air conditioning, the heat was either off or unbearably hot, and the suspension was so stiff that every time I hit a bump, my fillings came close to rattling out. But man, could it chew through deep mud, sand, and snow.
Needless to say, I didn't have a child when I owned that extremely tall GMC. You didn't climb into as much as you mounted it; giving rides to parents and grandparents was always accompanied by comments about the utter absurdity surrounding its monumental stature and abysmal fuel economy. Still, it felt good to drive it.
GMC's newest off-road truck model, the Sierra AT4, has the same general "I'm more badass than yewww" attitude my old truck possessed, but is a) more powerful, b) more comfortable, and c) costs about $63,000 more to purchase. The AT4 puts forward an old school renegade vibe, but buttresses its bad boy fortitude with plush leather seats that are heated and cooled, a quiet interior, and (marginally) better fuel economy.
Now that I'm a father, interior and cargo volume eclipse most other factors when I'm considering a vehicle's worthiness for family duty. While pickup trucks are generally not ideal in terms of price tag and fuel consumption, they absolutely rule where space is concerned. In most vehicles, two car seats really put a pinch on space in the back seat. Not so in a full-size pickup. You could fit three child safety seats on the Sierra's rear couch without much issue. Cargo? Same deal. In addition to the short bed's 62-plus-cubic feet of volume (that rises to 89 cubes for the long bed, and you can add even more by adding a bed cap), there's a 24-liter storage tray beneath the rear seat that's perfect for storing/losing pacifiers, diapers and other assorted odds and ends. I could carry a year's supply or more of diapers and powdered formula in this thing, and tow a rusted-out 1975 GMC K20 I might have picked up from a trailer park in Coinjock, North Carolina. [It's a real place. We checked.—Ed.]
Shifting our focus to the interior: GM has at last updated its instrument panel gauges to include modern screens, although I can't for the life of me figure out why the company's engineers didn't choose a new gauge layout. But perhaps that, like the column-mounted shifter, is a 1990s holdout dear to GMC's core customers. More likely, it's a cost-cutting scheme. Either way, I love the throwback aesthetic—even if most in the $65,000 truck market likely won't. Some people may take issue with the materials GMC uses for its dash and door panels; unlike the leather seats, they're a bit plasticky. But to a father, who should realize that everything nice will either be destroyed or perennially covered with fingerprints and dried chunks of food, that doesn't matter so much.
The AT4 drives like a dream. It's smooth, but not bouncy. The 6.2-liter V8 roars with a primal authority familiar to anyone who has had anything to do with GM's performance-oriented small block V8s over the past 50 years. For a truck, the AT4 is fast, with no problem hurtling up to speed, both on beach sand and on the highway. The tall driving position imbues the driver with confidence, and keeps that person convinced—and rightfully so—that he or she looks like a complete badass driving this sinister truck.
But the height—so great for off-roading and feeling tough—was a bit of a challenge when it came time to load the niño into the back seat. Being an off-road model, there's no fancy electric step that extends to assist you into the lofty environs of the cab. You have to sort of chuck the baby up in there, then figure out a way to keep the as-yet-unsecured child steady as you hurl yourself upwards after him or her. (It'll counts towards at least a few minutes of your daily exercise regimen, I'll give it that.)
Fortunately for accessibility, the Sierra AT4 comes with GMC's handy in-bumper steps, and the version I tested came with an ingenious multi-configuration tailgate that was as good for stepping into the back of the truck as it was for lowering part of the tailgate just a little bit to accommodate long, light items. (In my case, surfboards.) Hoisting heavy, rain-soaked bags of yard waste into the truck was much easier with the tailgate step than it would have been if I had been compelled to fling them up into the bed like we did in the olden days (when, admittedly trucks usually sat at a much more reasonable height).
Until I considered the physics of a 5,400-pound truck with giant, ever-humming all-terrain tires, I was a little surprised at the AT4's voracious fuel consumption. Here we are in 2019, and I was scarcely able to reach 18 mpg on a four-hour highway trip. Around town, it was closer to 14 mpg. But a big truck is a big truck, no matter how modern the fuel delivery system, so this one sucks down plenty of fossil juice.
I'm a lifelong fan of antiquated GM products, and this truck struck me as an extremely well-executed modern version of the GMC I once owned. It's tough, it looks and drives great, and my family loved it. For someone who has the ducats to buy one of these for the odd camping trip, creek bed romp or beach excursion, the Sierra AT4 is perfect. But for the average family man, buying one as a daily driver would be plain silly. As much as I liked this truck, having a kid means thinking about the future, a time when I will be trying to tell my son to act like a responsible adult. A truck like this—any big truck, really—would make me look like a complete hypocrite. After all, I don't tow a horse trailer back and forth to work or anything like that; lugging around around all that excess capability day in and day out would just be burning through a not-insignificant amount of otherwise college-bound dollars.
So in the meantime, I'll keep plowing my little 85-hp Subaru wagon through the sand if I want to drive on the beach. It's not big or tough or handsome, but it's got enough space inside, and it gets decent fuel economy. At the very least, it helps silence the inner echoes of my forebears' puzzlement over my past adventures with impractical vehicles.