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First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Silverado HD

The only way you could have avoided the massive pickup truck war that has been raging in Detroit for the past few years is if you happened to be living under a rock. If one automaker unveils a new truck, the other two must respond immediately. Last year Dodge, er, Ram unveiled new heavy duty trucks and only held the spotlight for a few months before Ford showed off a revised Super Duty. Now the truck world has come full circle as GM's revised Sierra and Silverado HD twins are starting to arrive at dealerships.

Same old face
While Ram performed a pretty comprehensive facelift on its trucks, Ford and GM's makeovers were much more subtle. The Super Duty received fairly minor changes to the front sheetmetal, but Chevy and GMC hardly changed a thing on the outside of their trucks. The hood stampings are somewhat different (and the GMC gains a fake louver), the front bumper now sports a bigger opening for cooling, and the bow tie (or GMC logo) grows accordingly, but that's about the only way to tell the trucks apart from the early GMT 900 HDs. We love the look of GMC's Sierra Denali (currently only available as a 3/4-ton truck, although soon to be offered in more configurations) because of the body-color bumpers. It's amazing how much cleaner these big trucks look with a little less chrome up front.

Familiar interior
If you're underwhelmed by the minor exterior changes, don't get your hopes up for the interior. This is the same basic interior we've seen since GM's full-size light duty trucks launched in 2007. We loved the current interior a few years ago, but now even the HD truck market is evolving at an incredible rate. Some other members of the media likened the truck's interior to day-old doughnuts. We just want to point out something is askew in the world when Dodge has the nicest interior in the segment. To be clear, GM offers virtually all the same equipment as the other two big trucks -- navigation, Bluetooth, leather seating, and upgraded stereos are all on the options list, but the material qualities and fit and finish are lacking in comparison.

So what's new?
At this point you're probably wondering what Chevy and GMC did to these trucks that warrants a new review. As it happens, these trucks are virtually all-new below the skin: A revised Duramax 6.6-liter twin-turbocharged diesel V-8 now produces 397 hp and 765 lb-ft of torque. There's a totally new frame and suspension that increase capability in every measurable way. And the whole package works much, much better than last year's truck. The 6.0-liter gasoline V-8 is essentially carried over from 2010, but it has a new camshaft and remains a very solid engine choice for those who don't need (or can't afford) a diesel.

Money where it matters
You may recall GM's slight financial problems that were in the news at this time last year. Obviously, the heavy duty truck program was given a finite budget, but what's important is that entire budget was used to make the trucks work harder and become more capable. Yes, the engineering team would have loved to roll out an all-new design and a plush interior, but reality says none of that would have increased sales or benefitted the customer like an all-new chassis and upgraded powertrains can.

Duramax conquers all
The heart of any modern heavy duty truck is the optional diesel engine. Although costly to order, diesel engines offer incredible power and better fuel economy than the standard gas engines in this segment. For 2011, GM's 6.6-liter Duramax twin-turbocharged diesel V-8 trumps the competition with 397 hp and 765 lb-ft of torque. For reference, Ford coaxes 390 hp and 735 lb-ft of torque from the new turbocharged 6.7 Power Stroke V-8, and Ram lags behind with a mere 350 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque offered by its Cummins-sourced 6.7-liter turbo-diesel I-6.

GM engineers tell us the increased power does not compromise longevity since a variety of changes to the Duramax keep internal stress at the same level of last year's engine, which produced only 365 hp and 660 lb-ft of torque. Better yet, the 2011 Duramax is estimated to be 11-percent more fuel efficient than before, and can now run on B20 biodiesel. We also noticed the Duramax was quieter and more refined than ever during our drive.

All of the new diesel engines offer integrated exhaust brakes, but they don't hold a candle to the "smart" exhaust brake that is standard on all Duramax-equipped trucks. A variety of sensors and computer programming allow the Silverado to use cruise control while trailering, even when more than 10,000 pounds are in tow thanks to the exhaust brake. We typically saw downhill speeds within 4 mph of where we set cruise during our test drive and it never felt like the trailer was pushing us out of control. The exhaust brake isn't loud like the jake brake you've heard semis use on the highway, and it does shorten the engine's life expectancy one bit.

Chassis improvements
Literally every aspect of the Silverado and Sierra HD's chassis has been upgraded. Only the two front swaybar end links are shared between the 2010 and 2011 trucks. When looking at a model of the 2011 frame and suspension, it's impossible not to be impressed. The beefy, fully-boxed frame and suspension upgrades make these trucks the reigning champions of payload (up to 6635 lbs) and maximum trailer towing (up to 21,700 lbs 5th-wheel and 17,000 lbs conventional) -- a fact the marketing department certainly won't let Ford forget. It's worth noting Sierra and Silverado owners can pull the maximum conventional trailer weights with the same hitch that's installed at the factory. Ram and Ford require weight-distributing hitches to be installed before towing the maximum conventional trailer weights.

Increased towing and payloads are great, but one of the most significant upgrades for 2011 is the ability for all four-wheel-drive trucks to have a snowplow installed -- a glaring omission in the previous trucks. Though the front suspension can now carry more weight than ever before, the ride quality is surprisingly good. Credit the torsion-beam independent front suspension, a unique feature in the heavy duty segment, for both the ride quality and the improved steering feel during trailering.

How does it all work?
Before we climbed behind the wheel of the 2011 Chevrolet Silverado HD and the 2011 GMC Sierra HD, we knew these trucks were capable of towing huge trailers and hauling impressive loads, but that didn't mean they would be inspiring or civilized. After only a few minutes behind the wheel of a 1-ton dually with 2000 lbs in the bed and another 10,500 lbs in tow, we were incredibly comfortable. That level of comfort only grew as we switched among a half dozen different truck, trailer, and payload configurations available to sample.

We particularly enjoyed pulling an identical pair of camper trailers behind a 2011 Ford F-250 and 2011 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 on a back-to-back basis. The biggest differences between the trucks were steering feel and how well the exhaust brake worked. In both respects, the Chevy felt better and more predictable. We could never tell when the Ford's exhaust brake would kick in, or how much it would slow down the rig. There was also a more disconnected feeling between the Super Duty's steering wheel and the pavement than in the Chevy. Both trucks pulled the campers with ease and were fully capable of stopping them, but the Ford took more effort and attention.

Do I want one?
Right now Silverado and Sierra are the best choices for extreme towing and hauling in the heavy duty segment. If you are happy with GM's interior, you'll love the rest of the truck. That said, Ford isn't very far behind in terms of capabilities, and even Ram's (on-paper) disadvantages are minor in the real world if your towing needs are within its capabilities. The entire heavy duty segment is extremely capable and continues to evolve at an incredible pace. It's a tough decision between the three manufacturers because the trucks are so similar in real world feel. Isn't competition great?

  • Pricing
  • Base Price (2500 HD std. cab 4x2): $28960
  • Overview
  • Body Style: 4-door pickup truck
  • Accommodation: 5-passenger
  • Construction: Steel, body on frame
  • Powertrain
  • Base Engine: Naturally aspirated 16-valve V-8
  • Displacement: 6.0 liters
  • Power: 360 hp @5400 rpm
  • Torque: 380 lb-ft @4200 rpm
  • Transmission: 6L90 6-speed automatic
  • Optional Engine: Twin-turbocharged 32 -valve diesel V-8
  • Displacement: 6.6 liters
  • Power: 397 hp @ 3000 rpm
  • Torque: 765 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
  • Transmission: Allison 1000 6-speed auto
  • Drive: Four wheel, vacuum-actuated hubs
  • Chassis
  • Steering: Power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Turns lock-to-lock: 3.57
  • Turning Circle: 50.5 ft
  • Suspension, Front: independent, torsion bar design
  • Suspension, Rear: Live axle, two-stage multi-leaf springs
  • Brakes F/R: Power assisted vented discs, 13.97/14.17
  • Wheels: 20-inch
  • Tire Size: 275/60R20
  • Measurements
  • Headroom F/R: 41.2/40.5 in
  • Legroom F/R: 41.3/39.0 in
  • Shoulder F/R: 65.2/65.1 in
  • Wheelbase: 153.7 in
  • L x W x H: 240.1 x 80 x 78.3 in
  • gvwr:

    • 9500 lb
  • Payload Capacity: 3222 lb
  • Weight: 6278 lb (est)
  • Fuel Capacity: 36 gal
  • Towing Capacity: 13,000 lbs