2021 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Review: An Aging Luxury Car in a New Pickup Truck Wrapper

The Sierra Denali sorely needs a new interior, but it's still a competent, capable, and super-comfortable full-size truck.

Rob Stumpf

America loves its pickup trucks. They're big, powerful, and really fit the bill for what a true workhorse of a vehicle should be. Fortunately, there's no shortage of options to choose from when walking onto a dealer lot in any suburban town, including either of General Motors' own sub-brands. But what pickup truck do you buy when you value luxury over play, or the highway over the unpaved trail? For your consideration today is the 2021 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali.

Leaning more toward luxury than ruggedness is a tall order in a market that caters to sheer ability. But nevertheless, the Sierra 1500 Denali mostly delivers, as long as you can overlook the dated dashboard and some other compromises inside. You just have to be willing to pay for it.

Rob Stumpf

2021 GMC Sierra 1500 4WD Crew Cab Denali: By the Numbers

  • Base Price (as Tested): $31,795 ($71,460)
  • Powertrain: 6.2-liter V8 | 10-speed automatic transmission | four-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 420 @ 5,600 rpm 
  • Torque: 460 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm 
  • Curb Weight: 5,180 pounds
  • Max Payload: 2,000 pounds
  • Max Towing: 12,000 pounds
  • Bed length: 69.9 inches 
  • Seating: 5
  • EPA Fuel Economy: 16 mpg city | 20 highway | 17 mpg combined
  • Quick take: It’s not the best off-road or the most logical choice on-road, but it sure as hell will make towing your big boy toys to the playground a lot more enjoyable.

What's the Deal?

The fifth-generation GMC Sierra has been available on dealer lots for three years. In that time, the truck has remained a healthy top-pick for American consumers looking for an alternative to the class-leading Ford F-150 and its runner-up, the Chevrolet Silverado.

The current model is largely a carryover from last year with new features being mainly technological in nature. New this year is the truck's camera trailering technology. Using controls on the infotainment screen, the truck can now display a trailer-length indicator, warn drivers of a potential jackknife event, and show several other camera angles that are immensely useful for towing.

Buyers of lower-trim Sierras will likely appreciate the 2021 changes more as higher-end features like an off-road package, the MultiPro tailgate, and an increased towing capacity trickle down the model lineup. The Sierra also gets wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and four new paint colors. Oh, and the top-trim Denali? Well, it gets optional premium floormats. 

The Denali is GMC's black-tie answer to the Sierra lineup. The flagship offering meant to separate play from drudgery, despite still being capable of hard work, and all while offering life's little luxuries a driver didn't necessarily know that they needed until now. Informally, GMC's always considered itself the "boss' truck," and the Denali is supposed to be the ultimate expression of that ethos.

The Sierra 1500 is available with four gas engines and one turbo-diesel powerplant. The Denali, which is the trim GMC loaned me, receives the most boisterous of the bunch: a 6.2-liter V8 that delivers 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. In case you were wondering, the V8 rumble sounds damn good too.

Rob Stumpf

On (and Off) the Road

The most enjoyment to be had with this truck doesn't come from flooring it between stop lights. It comes from cruising on the highway. Few things match a fancy full-size pickup for road trip comfort, and the Sierra Denali is no exception.

It is insanely comfortable when driving on a straightaway. Mild bumps in the pavement are gobbled up by the Sierra's suspension with ease, almost unnoticeable, while smooth roads are more like sailing on a calm sea—collected, cushioned, and congenial. And if you're in for the long haul, optional safety features like adaptive cruise and lane-keep assist make the drive a bit more laid back.

Underneath its wool, though, this sheep is really a wolf. The Sierra has gobs of power available any any given time thanks to its large-displacement V8. It's muscular powerplant can propel the truck from zero to 60 mph in the mid-six second range—right around the same time as the Ford Focus ST, despite the truck weighing nearly a ton more. While this is surely meant to handle heavy payloads in the bed or trailer, it's intoxicating to open up the throttle a bit when entering the passing lane. Though it should be mentioned that the quiet cabin and rather relaxed ride doesn't exactly translate the sensation of speed well, meaning you'll hit the speed limit and then some before noticing you've gone over. (Maybe consider a radar detector as your first accessory after leaving the dealership.)

Floor it, and the sound of GM's tried-and-true 6.2-liter V8 bellowing from under the hood and the steady rise in speed are welcome. Its tame 10-speed transmission transforms with a crisp downshift into the powerband; upshifts also feel well-placed. Even when dropping back to normal driving, the gearbox doesn't feel clumsy or overly bothersome.

That's what this truck is really good at: road trips. In particular, long-haul road trips that can make use of the factory-equipped towing tech baked into the Sierra. In fact, the Sierra 1500 Denali with a crew cab, standard bed, 6.2-liter V8, and Max Towing package can haul up to 12,000 pounds.

Rob Stumpf

Take your exit off the highway, however, and the ride stops being luxurious and certainly starts to feel more truck-like. The gearbox becomes a tad busier with traditional around-town driving while MPGs drop precipitously. The massive footprint of the vehicle also becomes noticeable, especially if you hit a patch of particular curvy roadway. The truck's weight influences the steering, turning it into a more ungainly experience at speed due to weight transfer. Thankfully, the Denali's adaptive suspension keeps the bulk of the movement in-check and it never becomes quite crude enough to call sloppy. Wheels stay planted on the ground and small road undulations are predictably controlled by the automatically adjusted damping.

Off the beaten path is another story for the Denali. Uneven terrain bested the truck's adaptive suspension, delivering a harsh ride that simply couldn't adjust quickly enough in unpredictable topography. Even the plush seats weren't enough to save the day here. Loosely packed earth didn't do the truck any favors, either. The Bridgestone Alenza all-seasons, wrapped around the 22-inch wheels, were clearly meant to stay on finished ground, as moderate throttle would break the tires loose even with four-wheel drive.

Between the hash ride and lack of sustained traction, it just confirmed to me this particular Sierra is being better-suited to the pavement. I'm sure the Onyx Black paint job agrees. It definitely looks better clean.

The Good

Driving limitations aside, the Sierra 1500 Denali does a lot of other things well, even into its third year as GMC's flagship premium pickup. That includes the snazzy exterior.

Looks are subjective, but it's hard to deny it is a handsome truck. It's almost as if the pickup rolled off of the Fort Wayne assembly line wearing a classic fitted suit. Dignified chrome accents boldly line the front end as if they were a high-dollar tie tucked behind a folded fascia, while sharp body lines accentuate a timeless GM pickup profile like a breathable set of slacks.

Crisp white LED lighting provides additional modern shaping around the headlights, while splashes of color from the GMC badge, turn signal reflectors, and CarbonPro badging break up the monochrome monotony.

And then we come to the business end of the pickup: the bed.

This particular Sierra is equipped with GM's CarbonPro package. As the name might suggest, it's built from a lightweight carbon fiber composite GM claims is resistant to dents, scratches, and corrosion. Equipping the pickup with this particular package increased the bed volume by around one cubic foot and decreases the overall weight by around 60 pounds. It also negates the need for an additional bed liner, which not only saves some weight, but is a cool talking point when trying to one-up your pickup-driving friends. GM torture-tested the hell out of this bed and is quite proud of it, so the next time you decide you want to load a studded snowmobile, drop 1,800 pounds of gravel, or run a generator in the bed all day, just remember that GM's engineers already did that and it survived. Do your best.

The bed was clearly an area of focus to make it as utilitarian as possible. Climbing in is easy thanks to a convenient corner step and grab-handle mounted inside of the bed. More crisp LED lighting will also offer a bit of brightness inside, should you need it, and a 400-watt, 110-volt easily accessible outlet at the rear makes powering electronics and small power tools a cinch.

But the real party in the back is the MultiPro tailgate. In case you somehow missed the full-fledged marketing assault that promoted these a couple of years ago, here's the scoop. From the rear, it almost looks like two separate tailgates stacked on top of one another (and it a way, it kind of is). In addition to the power tailgate, GM also stuffed this tiny, multi-purpose flap into the mix. You can use the Sierra's key fob to remotely lower the main tailgate and then, after setting the payload in the bed, simply flip the MultiPro to act like a load stop, effectively extending the usable area of the bed.

It's also possible to leave the main tailgate up and just lower the MultiPro to create an angled area to rest lumber or whatever might stick out past the already generous 6.62-foot bed. It can also act a step to access the bed more easily or a workbench surface if needed.

Rob Stumpf

Being the utmost premium trim offered on the Sierra, the Denali is peppered with all of the tiny luxury features one might expect. A heated steering wheel, remote start, bright white LED lighting throughout the vehicle, and powered... well, everything: running boards, tailgate, and folding mirrors, to name just a few).

A few minutes before commuting, the truck can be brought to life from its gigantic fob. This turns on the HVAC controls and will also enable the heated seats if outside temps are below 55 degrees, or the ventilated feature if above 75—rather handy in almost any month of the year. Stepping into the truck is almost like being greeted by it as it drops the power running boards for you to step in, and then retracts them after the door shuts. The cabin is extremely wide at shoulder level, so rest assured there's enough room to have your own personal bubble, even if there are a few extra passengers tagging along for the ride.

Now, my days of towing trailers and hauling cars are over, but I can certainly appreciate all of the work that GM put into giving the Sierra a knack for towing. Built-in cameras help guide the truck into position so hooking up a trailer can be a one-person job. Switching into trailering mode immediately toggles additional towing-oriented information like transmission temperature and braking pressure in the centrally screen-mounted gauge cluster. The infotainment screen also becomes a useful tool, displaying additional camera angles, a trailer-length indicator when merging lanes, and even an invisible trailer view. The truck warns you of any potential jackknife events to help thwart any unwanted accidents.

Controls and informative displays are intelligently placed around the cabin. Towing mode can be engaged at the turn of a dial, the trailer brake adjusted without navigating through complex menus, and a plethora of digital nannies can be toggled by your right hand. USB, USB-C, 12-volt, and a 110-volt are available in the center console as well. And as an added bonus, the climate control knobs also have small digital displays for the desired temperature setting.

The steering wheel is also designed with ergonomics in mind. Most notably, the space at the bottom of the wheel is wide enough to comfortably fit your hand while turning. Remember column shifters? Well, the Sierra still has one, but I'm on the fence on whether or not it's a good thing. The placement feels natural and significantly better than a dial shifter in the Ram 1500 or the fold-flat shift lever in the new Ford F-150, though it does feel a bit antiquated for 2021.

I'm also a huge fan of head-up displays, so it was a gigantic plus when I saw GM actually had worked one into the Sierra. The 15-inch multicolor HUD is placed perfectly with lots of room for adjustment for different drivers. It can display speed, tach, audio, navigation, various notifications, and includes an inclinometer. Useful is an understatement.

Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto pair perfectly with the Denali's wireless phone charger on the center console. The Bose sound system with dealer-installed kicker subwoofer sounds pretty great too.

The rear of the cab is roomy as well, though significantly less exciting than the front. The seats are still plush with a comfortable angle and enough room to comfortably fit two adults or three teens across the bench.

Traditional pickup trucks suffer from a lack of storage. Unlike a car, you can’t just stuff your groceries in the trunk—because there isn’t one. And putting it all in your bed might mean trying to figure out where that box of cereal went by the time you got home. Fortunately, GM’s engineers thought of this and added storage compartments in as many places as possible. The front center console is gigantic and includes an optional lockable vault and two glove boxes are embedded in the dashboard. Larger items can sit underneath the rear seats in a carefully molded tray. But the real kicker? Two storage compartments that are cleverly hidden in the rear seatbacks.

While these aren’t exactly huge, they do make a great addition for smaller items that would otherwise clutter up the floor or get forgotten about in the in-door storage.

The Not So Good

I covered some of the ride quality issues that were immediately noticeable behind the wheel of the Sierra, but those weren't all that were problematic.

From a powertrain perspective, there's not much to complain about other than fuel economy. But while I have the podium, I'd like to air the largest complaint of the Sierra's fuel management: the auto start-stop engine feature. It's clumsy and annoying in traffic. Thankfully, it became second nature to simply disable it before taking off—it's one of the those easy-to-reach buttons I talked about earlier.

At first glance (and on paper) the experience from the driver's seat seems like it it has all the small creature comforts to spoil the ownership of pretty much any other high-end truck on the market. That even extends to the towing capabilities, even though its enhanced camera angles and alerts are more safety features than luxury. But the longer you spend behind the wheel, the easier it is to spot small things that really prove the Denali is just a Sierra in a tailored suit. 

Looking around the interior, you'll notice that the styling may feature some premium materials like aluminum and open pore wood, but it's also is flush with the expanses of black plastic GM is well-known for. It cheapens the feel of a vehicle that otherwise oozes premium.

The overall design is also a concern. Despite this generation Denali being just three years old, it doesn't exactly scream state-of-the-art, which is probably fine for most Sierra owners who buy a truck for utility. But remember—this is a Denali. It's supposed to feel upscale, and one of the easiest ways to accomplish that is a more refined interior with modern design cues that match up better with the price tag. Instead, it feels very much like GM simply rushed to re-styled the previous generation interior in order to have a new interior for a next-generation tuck around the same time as its competitors. Instead of risking a drastic change, the Sierra now has an interior that feels several years behind the competition. Meanwhile, the newly refreshed 2021 GMC Yukon and Yukon XL has undergone a major interior overhaul to modernize the aging platform. Perhaps a mid-cycle refresh for the Sierra will do the same.

Rob Stumpf

Even the eight-inch infotainment screen feels blocky and out of place, and it really isn't positioned towards the driver in a meaningful way. This becomes especially bothersome when the sunlight washes out the display. Normally, I'd scold you for spending time fiddling around with a touchscreen when you should have your eyes on the road, but when useful features like the 360-degree surround view cameras require you to actually be able to see the screen in order to use them, it just doesn't work out to anybody's advantage.

And that 400-watt power outlet we talked about earlier? Well, if you were planning to use it to power your coffee maker while camping, I've got some bad news for you. Power is only supplied when the truck is actually running, so don't expect performance akin to Ford's Pro Power Onboard.

The Competition

The Ford F-150 may be America's best-selling pickup, but GM isn't far behind. The Chevrolet Silverado comes in second place directly behind the Blue Oval, while the GMC Sierra is positioned slightly further down the ladder. Combine the sales figures of the Silverado and Sierra and it's a much closer race to the top than one might think.

But who needs quantity when you can have quality? GMC is positioned as a premium alternative to the Chevrolet brand, meaning the automaker has essentially created a bit of sibling rivalry across its child brands. But it falls in line with that old GM adage: a car for every purse and purpose. The Chevy Silverado 1500 High Country is the closely related cousin of the Sierra 1500 Denali. The High Country sits at the top of the Silverado lineup, meaning it possesses the same premium presentation and prowess as GMC's offering, plus it's nearly mechanically identical. If you're comparing the two highest possible trims of GM's two best-selling, light-duty, full-size trucks, you're probably not counting pennies—though you probably should. 

Despite the Denali being the premium offering, an identically configured, "barebones" High Country will cost a buyer the exact same amount. Stepping up from something simple like a short bed to a standard-length bed will cost $1,900 more on the Sierra than it will the Silverado. Move up from the standard 5.3-liter V8 to the rowdier 6.2-liter V8 and the price difference stretches to $2,395. You can see where I'm going with this. But the Sierra comes standard with adaptive suspension and has nicer leather and more upscale interior trim materials (aluminum and open-pore ashwood, versus the Silverado's plastic). Up until 2021, the MultiPro tailgate was exclusive to the Sierra, though the Silverado now has its own.

Meanwhile, Ford just launched a new F-150 that's winning rave reviews for its design, comfort and convenience features, plus an advanced hybrid option and an upcoming full-electric version. The number of truck buyers who will switch sides on a whim is never that high to begin with, but it's hard to argue that the Sierra Denali is a better buy than a new F-150 outside brand appeal and maybe the towing cameras here. And, of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Ram 1500. Stellantis' offering has its own unique features and creature comforts, which feel significantly more updated than GM's offerings.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Here's the thing. The Sierra doesn't do a bad job when it comes to typical truck activities. It has a bed you can fill with whatever your heart desires (and then some thanks to the MultiPro tail gate), but you might be afraid of nicking the paint job on your $71,000 truck. And sure, you can take it off-road, but then comes the fear of stones and branches marring the finish of your $71,000 truck.

Rob Stumpf

If you need a pickup today, the GMC Sierra 1500 Denali is a solid choice with luxuries at its core. But if you can afford to wait a few months before your next purchase, you could catch the Sierra's upcoming mid-cycle update for the 2022 model year. It's hard to imagine paying more than $70,000 for any pickup, but especially when a much-needed overhaul is on the horizon. Plus, GM's advanced driver-assistance system, Super Cruise, is confirmed to be making its way to the updated model and will make what this truck is best at—trailering—a significantly richer experience.

Make no mistake: The 2021 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali is very much a tow rig meant to spend its life on the highway. Because of how much it costs, you'd be almost afraid to subject it to typical utility truck stuff. Rather, it's an expensive truck to tow your expensive toys (like boats and track cars) to the playground with—a luxury vehicle in a pickup truck wrapper.

Got a tip or question for the author? Contact them directly: rob@thedrive.com