by Jim McCraw

Looks familiar, like an old friend who's grown up.

Base Price $16,580
As Tested $25,364

GMC has completely redesigned its line of Sierra pickup trucks. The new Sierra has smoother ride, better handling, better brakes and new, more powerful engines. It's quieter and more comfortable than just about any pickup truck out there.

At first glance, it looks almost exactly like the 1998 Sierra. But park a '99 and a '98 alongside one another and the differences are quite apparent. GMC changed every panel, every angle, every square inch of sheet metal on the Sierra. But compared to what Ford and Dodge have done with truck design, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch.

The Sierra will come in 1500 and 2500 series models, in regular cab, extended cab, and cab-and-chassis versions. They come in both Wideside and Sportside bed styles (with and without fenders), with short or long beds, in both two- and four-wheel drive, and in SL, SLE, and SLT trim levels. Extended cab trucks come standard with a third door that adds tremendously to convenience.

Walkaround

The 1999 GMC Sierra is built on the stiffest and lightest truck frame that GMC has ever designed. The front frame rails are hydroformed, using high-pressure hydraulic presses and fixtures to shape steel tubing. Tubular crossmembers and roll-formed mid-rails are used to increase rigidity further. From the strong foundation of the new frame and crossmembers, the engineers get much better handling and ride quality, with greatly improved structural strength in collision situations.

There are three new V8 engines, in 4.8-, 5.3- and 6.0-liter displacements. All three are based on the small-block V8 design that was introduced on the Corvette two years ago and used in the Camaro and Firebird last year. A 4.3-liter V6 is the base engine and it, too, comes into 1999 with a number of improvements. And then there's the 6.5-liter turbo diesel monster engine for the 2500 series only. A 5-speed manual gearbox is standard in the base truck, but the 4L60 and 4L65 4-speed automatics, with a delayed-upshift feature for towing will be chosen by 95 percent of buyers.

The Sierra has an aluminum-intensive short- and long-arm front suspension, with coil springs on two-wheel-drive models and torsion bars on four-wheel-drive models. Heavy-duty disc brakes come on all four corners as standard and ABS is standard on all models.

The Inside Story

The Sierra's all-new interior is as conservative and traditional as the exterior design, but every single piece has been redesigned. The instrument package is a hybrid design, part Corvette and part traditional C/K trucks. There is a large speedometer and tachometer, flanked by four smaller gauges, all using traditional white-on-black graphics. The sound system controls are located above the climate controls, and the climate controls use triple rotary dials that worked perfectly during our test drive.

Sierra has not one, not two, but three 12-volt outlets at the center of the instrument panel for radar detectors, cellular telephones, laptop computers, and other accessories. The doors and door openings of the new Sierra cab are the largest in the industry, and GMC says its cab is the roomiest.

Our test truck was a 2500 SLT. The SLT package comes with a lockable floor console. Large enough to hold a picnic lunch for a family of four, it comes with a reversible, removable cup holder tray and a storage nook in front of the lid. Air conditioning outlets and a set of drop-down cup holders are built in for rear-seat passengers. A compass is incorporated into the SLT model's overhead console, along with three storage areas for sunglasses, garage door opener, and small items. The door trim is a nice combination of vinyl panels and dotted velour that is soft and warm to the touch.

We were pleasantly surprised when we climbed through the third door of the extended-cab Sierra and into the back seat, which has been redesigned and remounted for far greater room and comfort. At 6-foot 4-inches, I'm often uncomfortable in the back seats of extended-cab pickup trucks, but not in this one. When cargo capacity is more important than hauling passengers, the entire rear seat assembly can be removed through the side door with a wrench and a heave-ho.

About the only thing we didn't like was the design of the interior door handles, which operate in an up-and-in arc and felt loose whenever we used them. We think they need more resistance and a more positive feel.

Ride & Drive

The Sierra SLT is kind of like a tall, long-wheelbase limousine. It's as quiet as a luxury car, supremely smooth, and well behaved, mostly because of the new chassis, which offers a 23-percent increase in stiffness, and the strong new cab design. New mounting and isolation hardware reduces noise and vibration, and there's a cast magnesium beam behind the instrument panel and a lateral steel beam to further reinforce the body. Squeaks and rattles have been virtually vanquished. This strong truck lets its suspension soak up all the road irregularities so well that its behavior is near-luxury. Its 133-inch wheelbase improves the ride further and enhances high-speed stability.

Sierra's four-spoke steering wheel connects to a new rack-and-pinion steering system that has a big dead spot on center, which GMC says is designed to minimize steering corrections. The steering feels a bit too light, but we found it tracks straight and handles well on pavement.

Our Sierra SLT test truck carried the 5.3-liter (324 cubic-inch) engine, rated at 270 horsepower and 315 foot-pounds of torque. This engine has a tall torque curve, which makes it useful for light towing and hauling, but it's also excellent for commuting and touring.

The Tow/Haul shift mode that comes as part of the optional towing package does a great job of keeping the automatic transmission in a lower gear, improving response and reducing wear on the transmission. Overall, we found the Sierra provides a stable platform for towing and the 5.3-liter engine had enough torque to pull a 3,800-pound trailer through the mountains.

Sierra's brakes have been greatly improved compared to the previous model. The four-wheel disc brakes are huge and powerful and come standard with ABS. Braking force comes into play only an inch into the pedal travel, a major improvement over the clunky pedal action on the previous C/K pickup. Dynamic Rear Proportioning improves stability under heavy braking whether the truck is loaded or empty. GMC promises huge improvements in fade resistance, pad life and heat dissipation, and after our desert test drive, we believe it.

Final Word

After having driven them both, we can say with some authority that the GMC Sierra and its Chevrolet Silverado sibling are the best all-around trucks among the newest generation of full-size pickups from Detroit. The Sierra SLT is smooth, quiet, well behaved and well equipped, among the most capable pickup trucks we've ever driven.

Pricing is always a factor in these things, and GMC, like everyone else in Detroit, is holding prices to the absolute limit in order to attract customers. The base Sierra starts at $16,580 (including the $625 destination charge); that's a 2WD regular cab, short bed, Wideside with the 4.3-liter V6 in SL trim.

Our test truck was $23,644 plus $1,720 for the SLT upgrade. If you're looking for a pickup truck this year you owe it to yourself and your family to test-drive the Sierra. After a couple of miles, pull up to a stop light, close your eyes, and tell yourself you're in an American pickup truck.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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