Road Tests

First Drive: 2017 GMC Sierra 2500 and 3500 Denali HD Duramax

Updated high-end diesel pickup stakes out its territory

MOAB, Utah — As the market’s penchant for lux-level trucks keeps growing, ever-more-pricey pickups keep hitting the road. The latest entry? The 2017 GMC Sierra Denali HD diesel stable, which comes fitted with an all-new Duramax 6.6-liter V-8 turbodiesel.

The sixth-generation engine is the highlight of the 2017 Sierra HD Denali, which receives minor updates otherwise, pushing out an additional 48 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque compared to the old unit. Called LP5, General Motors says the new engine is 90-percent new. It is forged with a stronger cylinder block and rotating assembly, an updated camshaft profile, upgraded cylinder heads, and a new electronically controlled, variable-vane turbocharger. Thanks to all of the changes, the updated heavy-duty truck can scoot from 0-60 mph in 7.1 seconds, 0.7-second quicker than the previous model.

2017 GMC Sierra 2500 Denali HD front view in motion

Other practical benefits include improved exhaust-braking performance, reduced diesel noise, a diesel exhaust fluid tank that’s grown from 5.3 to 7.0 gallons, and the addition of first-in-class ceramic glow plugs, which provide faster cold starts and are service-free for the life of the vehicle. The six-speed Allison 1000 automatic transmission carries over but receives minor updates to mesh with the new engine.

The single exterior revision GMC made to the Sierra HD for 2017 — available exclusively with a Crew Cab cabin in RWD and AWD flavors, and a choice of a 6-foot-6-inch or 8-foot bed — is the addition of a large hood scoop, part of GM’s patent-pending cold-air intake system. The increased air volume brings improvements that foster faster acceleration, better performance when towing up grades, and stronger passing and merging performance.

GMC says these enhancements improve real-world towing targeted at “the heart of the HD market”, claiming that 89 percent of all HD customers purchase trucks rated at less than 25,000 pounds of towing capacity. That figure encompasses 100 percent of Sierra HD sales, as its tow rating maxes out at “only” at 23,300 pounds (max payload sits at 7,153 pounds). GMC also says the high-end Denali accounts for half of Sierra HD sales, nearly 90 percent of which are diesel-powered.

Given this mix, it’s no surprise GMC used the Sierra HD Denali to showcase the diesel engine.

GMC also wanted to provide a touch of the “Denali owner experience.” Given the 2500 HD Denali’s $56,690 starting price, it’s no surprise our drive started in the upscale ski village of Telluride, Colorado. Likewise, it ended some 160 miles later at a fashionable ranch along the Colorado River in the famous off-road playground that is Moab, Utah. Helping to justify the price are features like heated-and-cooled perforated leather seats, Bose premium audio, an 8.0-inch infotainment screen with navigation and support for Apple Car Play and Android Auto, heated steering wheel (although it does not telescope), LED lighting, and an extensive amount of chrome exterior trim that includes tubular chrome steps.

We first drove a 2017 Sierra Denali 2500 HD Crew Cab 4WD hauling a pair of snowmobiles perched on a platform above the bed that extended beyond the dimensions of the rear box. Climbing aboard via the side steps, we were able to quickly use power adjustments for seats and mirrors to make the cabin a perfect ergonomic fit and, despite the truck’s hefty dimensions, feel at home on the road.

Differences between the previous model and the new one appeared quickly. Diesel noise is now accentuated only at start-up and on hill climbs under load but is otherwise seldom perceptible. Motoring along narrow and twisty two-lanes, we began our drive cautiously given the high-centered load in the rear. However we quickly forgot we were hauling cargo — even in the corners.

The Sierra HD’s steering has just the right amount of weight and response to guide it easily through turns, but the heart and soul of the updated pickup isn’t the 445 hp on tap. Rather, it’s the 910 lb-ft of torque that comes on at just 1,600 rpm (power peaks at 2,800 rpm), making this a somewhat sprightly beast. We found ourselves repeatedly motoring at higher speeds than road signs suggested, simply driving the truck for its handling feedback.

2017 GMC Sierra 3500 Denali HD front three quarter 04

Next we sampled a 2017 GMC Sierra Denali 3500 HD Crew Cab 4WD dualie hitched to a 10,000-pound trailer. The truck felt faster and smoother off the starting line, as torque comes in quickly and the throttle pours it on in measured fashion. While navigating the big dualie up and down an 8-percent grade, we again quickly became comfortable with the truck’s talent. Designed to make towing more intuitive and less white-knuckle, the 3.73 rear-axle ratio helps the Sierra 3500 move its considerable 8,070-pound mass — and that’s to say nothing of the 10,000-pound trailer behind it — from 50 to 70 mph in close to 10 seconds. The good and bad news? It was once again easy to forget we were towing a heavy load.

One hundred and sixty miles divided up between two trucks does not provide for the most-extensive real-world experience, but it was enough to establish whether or not the 2017 GMC Sierra Denali HD diesel can satisfy its customers. The diesel V-8 certainly provides plenty of power and takes some of the sweat from hauling and towing loads, while the Denali trim offers levels of comfort and luxury buyers paying $70,000 or more expect. Our verdict? Mission accomplished.

2017 GMC Sierra 2500 HD Duramax Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $65,490
ENGINE 6.6L turbodiesel V-8/445 hp @ 2,800 rpm, 910 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine,  RWD/4WD truck
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 239.5 x 80.5 x 78.2 in
WHEELBASE 153.7 in
WEIGHT 6,242 lb
0-60 MPH N/A
TOP SPEED N/A

2017 GMC Sierra 3500 HD Duramax Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $65,270
ENGINE 6.6L turbodiesel V-8/445 hp @ 2,800 rpm, 910 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD/4WD truck
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 258.3 x 96.0 x 77.7-77.8 in
WHEELBASE 167.7 in
WEIGHT 8,070 lb
0-60 MPH N/A
TOP SPEED N/A

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Buying Guide
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2017 GMC Sierra 2500HD

2017 GMC Sierra 2500HD

MSRP $37,970 Base 2WD Long Bed Crew Cab

EPA MPG:

11 City / 16 Hwy

Towing (Max):

14,500 lbs.

Payload (Max):

4,068 lbs.