Road Test: GMC Sierra Denali HD

Since GMC took their truck brand more upscale in 1999 with the advent of the luxurious Denali version, we have looked forward to driving these plush pickups, SUVs and crossovers.? Denali was created to compete with vehicles like the popular Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade and as a result, created a significant new market for GMC.

The Denali models were always trimmed out in trendy exteriors with large chrome wheels and custom-looking chrome grills.? Interiors were filled with soft leather seating and an abundance of luxury appointments.

We recently drove the 2011 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 4WD Crew Cab and were able to see how the model has evolved through the last few years of industry upheaval.

A few months ago we tested the GMC Acadia Denali and were impressed by the style and comfort of the crossover.? On the other hand, we thought the Denali d?cor applied to a big heavy duty truck so it didn?t have the same stylish impact we saw on the Acadia.? The distinctive grille with sparkly headlights and optional 20-inch polished aluminum wheels almost get lost on the bulk of this pickup?it just didn?t have the same head-turning appeal.

Bigger trucks are often challenging to get into, so this one was equipped with an optional six-inch chrome assist step that made access much easier.? The interior did lack an overhead passenger assist handle for the front seat passenger and instead offered an assist handle on the ?A? pillar which only helped interior access; it did nothing to provide a place for the front seat passenger to grab on to.

The Denali interior is fitted with comfy leather bucket seats in front and a 60/40 split rear seat that folded to expand interior cargo space when needed.? The rear seat is a little snug for long-legged passengers, however.? Our well optioned test truck included heated and cooled front seats, a premium Bose audio system and some nice features like adjustable pedals, rear vision camera and power rear sliding window.? It also had the power and comfort features we expect to find on a top level sedan or entry luxury model car.

The interior looked impressive at first glance, but it lacked the authenticity of luxury because of the large expanses of hard black plastic on the dash and glossy plastic faux wood.? We think a premium vehicle like this should at least use the higher-quality soft touch materials and more real looking wood, if not real wood.? Cadillac had this problem a few years ago with early models of the CTS and they came back with a more elegant looking hand-stitched trim.

The standard Sierra HD powerplant is a 360-hp, 380-lb.ft. 6.0-liter gas V-8 with a six-speed Hydra-Matic transmission, but anyone buying the truck to pull a large boat, travel trailer or horse trailer will want the diesel option.

Our heavy-duty four-wheel drive test truck had the diesel and it was a powerhouse boasting not only big numbers but a major feeling of muscle when the accelerator was pushed. ?The optional 397-hp, 6.6-liter Duramax turbo diesel engine really ?hauls? with 765-lb.ft. of torque at 1,600 rpms and delivers a maximum 17,200-pound towing capacity.? The optional six-speed Allison automatic transmission is smooth and positive; it is probably the best automatic transmission in the segment.? We appreciated that the transmission could be shifted manually using the toggle switch on the front side of the long, steering column-mounted shifter.

Like the competitor?s diesel options, the Duramax is pricy adding $7,195 to the sticker plus $1,200 extra for the Allison transmission.? But for anyone planning to pull a trailer, the pair is a must. ?The EPA doesn?t do fuel economy ratings on the heavy-duty trucks; however we did record 16.3 mpg during our week of mixed driving.

The Sierra pickup has a smooth and quiet road manner.? On freeways and well-paved roads the ride pampers the occupants.? Nevertheless, the HD label means it?s underpinned with all the heavy duty springs, shocks and other components, so when the roads get rough, so does the ride.? Loading several hundred pounds of cargo will tend to smooth out the ride, but unloaded it can be somewhat unforgiving.

The steering feels precise like a sport sedan and not like a big truck.? The same goes for the brakes ? the pedal is firm and the truck responds quickly for its size.? The new standard brakes with the Duramax engine are a ?Smart? exhaust brake system.? It?s a driver-selectable feature that uses the turbine control of the turbocharger and engine compression to generate backpressure, slowing the vehicle without applying the brakes.? It works in conjunction with the cruise control and varies braking to correspond with the grade and load.

A couple of other important features for owners planning to tow are the trailer sway control system and the hill start assist that holds the brakes for about 1.5 seconds or until the gas pedal is pressed, preventing rollback.

If you?re not a truck person, you might want to consider buying a Chevrolet Corvette Convertible or possibly three new Chevrolet Cruze Eco sedans for the about the same money as the Sierra Denali.? Our 2011 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 4WD Crew Cab tester has a sticker price of $58,144 but it buys a lot of power and a very cool big truck.