The GMC Sierra, along with its Chevrolet Silverado brother, last met with a proper redesign way back in 1999. Since then, there's been an onslaught of new products in the full-size pickup market from both domestic and, more recently, Japanese competitors. During the last six years of the current Sierra's model run, GMC has continued to make minor tweaks, but the truck has been passed by in terms of refinement and safety. Grabbing attention in 2002, the Sierra offered an innovative all-wheel-steering system dubbed Quadrasteer. This exclusive feature legitimately made managing a trailer easier by using all four wheels to maneuver, but its significant cost limited Quadrasteer's popularity and led to its discontinuation. The Sierra is offered in standard-, extended-, and crew-cab configurations in 2WD, 4WD, and AWD, with a full range of powerful engines. The 1500HD crew-cab truck returns for 2005 with a massive 6.0-liter V-8. Topping the line is the luxurious Denali, also offered in strictly crew-cab form.
The Sierra's bodywork is understated and trimmed to be more upscale than that of its more mainstream competitors. Continuous work on styling details has kept the front end looking fresh, but the Sierra is really showing its age in its dated taillamps, fussy body-side moldings, and soft body lines. The base trim levels use chrome throughout the front fascia and bumper; the Denali gets the best-looking nose, with a more premium grille, a unique fascia design with foglamps, chrome running boards, and body-colored details. Most trim levels come standard with decent-looking 17-inch wheels, though the Denali can be had with 20-inch rims. Buyers can choose from three cab configurations and two bed lengths--5.8 or eight feet. The crew cab is available only with the short box.
Efforts to keep exterior styling contemporary have been more successful than the nominal attempts inside. The Sierra uses the same oft-criticized interior bits employed across GM's full-size truck and SUV portfolio, including toy-like radio and climate controls buried in a puzzle-piece dashboard. The seam-riddled interior feels more confined than those of competitors, and its sheer presentation is overshadowed by all others'. That said, the layout of the controls is straightforward and easy to use, especially with winter gloves on. Ample, well-placed storage nooks hold travel and work essentials. And large, soft seats are quite comfortable on short trips, but firmer buckets would serve better on long-distance treks.
The Denali version touts a slightly better-dressed cabin with supportive two-tone leather seats, but the few upscale touches can't mask 1990s basic design. Options in the Denali include an in-dash six-disc CD changer, Bose speakers, and a flip-down DVD monitor for rear passengers, making it one of the most feature-packed trucks on the market. All trim levels of Sierra feature more than adequate space for the driver and front passenger. The extended cab offers better-than-average room and can seat four passengers--six if you squeeze. The crew cab has more appropriate seating for six, with ample legroom for adults.
Front driver and passenger airbags are standard equipment for all trim levels. Unlike some other trucks in the full-size class, the Sierra doesn't offer side-impact or curtain airbags. Disc brakes at all four wheels are standard on the Denali and 1500HD, but front discs and rear drums provide stopping power on other trim levels. All models feature four-wheel ABS, but stability and traction control don't make the options list. The optional OnStar system uses satellite and wireless technology to alert help in the event of an emergency and also offers concierge-type services--providing directions, making reservations, and so on--depending on the service package selected. New for 2005, OnStar gets an upgrade with better voice recognition ability and both digital and analog wireless coverage. An available hands-free mobile phone with voice dialing allows the driver to keep his eyes focused on the road.
The Sierra 1500 offers an unmatched number of powertrains--six, to be exact. A limited-production "mild hybrid" system debuted in 2004; other than using a beefed-up alternator, the system is essentially a conventional gasoline engine that automatically shuts off when the vehicle isn't moving, such as at a stoplight, and fires back up when its time to go. Fuel economy is claimed to rise by 10 percent, but when you're barely getting 16 mpg in the city, that's not much. The gain isn't worth the hassle of the engine shutting down at inopportune times--like when you're about to take off at a green light. The most legitimate use for this option is as a mobile power generator, as it provides four 120-volt outlets, but even then, for the money, a conventional generator is a more efficient way to achieve the same end. For now, the Sierra "hybrid" is available for fleet and commercial use, mostly on the West Coast. Rather than this hybrid solution, we'd prefer to see the heralded Displacement on Demand cylinder-deactivation system propagate through the GM powertrain ranks.
Other highlights of the powertrain lineup include a 6.0-liter V-8 in the 1500HD (300 hp) and the Denali (345 hp), and a 5.3-liter V-8 (295 to 310 hp), the top-spec engine for the light-duty trim levels. Both provide more than adequate power and torque. When properly equipped, the 1500HD has a tow rating of more than 10,000 pounds, making it one of the best in its class, although it has a pricetag to match its power. Unique to this segment, the Denali's torque is fed through full-time all-wheel-drive rather than traditional part-time four-wheel-drive. The full-time system can dynamically shift power from one axle to another, depending on which has more grip at a given time. A small-displacement 4.8-liter V-8 is offered with a still impressive 285 horsepower, though it concedes 40 lb-ft of torque to the 5.3L. The budget choice is the serviceable 4.3-liter/195-horse V-6, which provides only a minor advantage in fuel economy over the eight-cylinder powertrains'.
The Sierra's solid ride quality is impressive. At highway speeds, the chassis stays buttoned down, with limited float, feeling better connected than the Chevrolet Silverado. Steering response is equally good, and certainly better than that of some of the Sierra's competition. The downside to this relatively good body control is that the ride can be harsh over really rough pavement, especially with an empty bed. The Nissan Titan and Ford F-150, both significantly newer designs, manage to combine good body control with a more compliant ride. Torque is plentiful in the larger V-8s, but the four-speed's ratios are too widely spaced for rocket-grade acceleration. Many competitors have moved to five-speed automatics to put down the power better and help fuel economy, and we think the GMCs would benefit from the same change.
The Sierra 1500 appeals most to the active, hands-on owner or contractor who needs passenger space and utility, but also favors creature comforts. The Denali version is an enigma because it's quite costly yet lacks the overall refinement that luxury customers demand. The 1500HD is a capable utility machine with a "get it done" attitude and plenty of available power and torque. As with all pickup trucks, the value story varies between body styles and drivetrains, making it important to compare the IntelliChoice Ownership Cost Value Ratings to ensure your function and financial needs align. A brand-new Sierra model will arrive for 2006, so buyers, depending on their needs and desires, can either wait for the improved truck or seek a close-out deal on current model.
A well-dressed, if aging, workhorse, the GMC Sierra offers a wide range of body configurations and powertrains to get the job done.
Solid body control and steering 1500HD model with 6.0-liter V-8 Available all-wheel drive
Limited benefit to Hybrid Dated, puzzle-piece interior Only four-speeds for automatic
The crew cab Denali joins the Sierra 1500, adding a wide variety of creature comforts and all-wheel drive. Sierra 1500HD returns with 6.0 liters of displacement for excellent towing power.
The larger V-8s are essential for towing, and given the lack of available stability control, four-wheel drive is highly desirable in snowy climates.