A Silverado on Saville Row.
by Jim McCraw
Base Price (MSRP) $16,525
As Tested (MSRP) $28,389
The GMC Sierra represents the latest in full-size pickup engineering, along with its mechanical twin, the Chevrolet Silverado. Both trucks do everything better than pickups did even a few years ago. They ride, handle, and stop more like cars. Yet they can pull more and haul more than ever before. Updated engines have made them fast and powerful. Inside, the Sierra is one of the most luxurious pickups we've ever driven, setting new standards for quietness, plush appointments, and solid construction.
But while GMC pickups of the recent past have been virtual Chevrolet clones, the GMC Sierra breaks away, in style at least, from Chevy's understated Silverado. Sierra sports a unique grille, hood, fenders, fascia, bumpers and headlamps. Like the best GMC designs of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, this one is bolder than the contemporary Chevy, a sharper-dressed cousin with more attitude.
Like all big American-made pickups, the Sierra comes in two and four-wheel-drive, in light-duty (1500) and medium-duty (2500) loading and towing capacities, with short and long-bed bodies, and with fendered or full-width beds. There are standard-length two-door cabs and extended-length cabs with two more auxiliary doors in the rear.
Engine choices for 1500 models range from a basic 4.3-liter V6, up through a 4.8-liter V8 (standard in extended cabs), and a 5.3-liter V8. Hard-working 2500s come with a 300-horsepower, 6.0-liter V8.
As before, Sierras come in SL, SLE and SLT trim levels. SL-trim trucks with the 4.3-liter, 4.8-liter, or 6.0-liter engines can be ordered with a five-speed manual transmission; all SLE and SLT models, and even SL-trimmed 5.3-liter models, come with a four-speed automatic.
New for 2001 is the fully equipped Sierra C3, a separate model packing a 325-horsepower version of the 6.0-liter V8, along with automatic transmission and an exclusive, sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system. The C3 offers more towing capacity and a greater payload capacity than the 1500 models. A black-painted machine-textured grille and body-colored mirrors, door handles, and moldings distinguish the C3 from other Sierras. GMC plans to sell about 15,000 a year.
Gone for 2001 is the three-door version of the extended cab, with its single rear-opening door on the curbside; GMC began offering a four-door version last year, and now all extended cabs have four doors.
Prices cover a broad range, starting at $16,525 for a six-cylinder 1500 SL 2WD, and more than doubling to $38,305 for the C3. (The C3 price sounds high until you remember that it includes virtually every conceivable option.) A short-box, 4WD extended-cab SLE would include the 4.8-liter V8 for $28,266; and many popular 2WD models list in the $22,000-$26,000 range.
For even heavier-duty hauling, GMC builds the three-quarter-ton Sierra 2500HD and 3500; look for a separate nctd.com review of the all-new heavy-duty trucks.
Last year, GMC upgraded horsepower and torque for the 4.8-liter and 5.3-liter V8s. For 2001, the V6 and all three V8s have received further refinements, enhancing economy and durability while reducing maintenance requirements. But you can bet that the V8s will be sold in much higher volumes than the V6s.
Similarly, while a five-speed manual is available in basic SLs, we expect the automatic option will be far more popular. The 4L60 and 4L65 four-speed automatics feature a delayed upshift when switched into the tow/haul mode, improving performance while helping the gearbox keep its cool.
All 2WD models with V8s and automatic transmissions can now be ordered with electronic traction assist.
Optional Autotrac four-wheel-drive combines a conventional, truck-style two-speed transfer case with electronic controls. This system allows the driver to lock the axle speeds together in low range for maximum off-road traction; or to select an automatic mode that sends power to the wheels with the best grip whenever the system detects wheel slip.
All Sierras are built on the stiffest and lightest truck frame General Motors has ever produced. The frame rails are hydroformed, a process that uses high-pressure hydraulics to shape steel. Tubular crossmembers and roll-formed mid-rails increase rigidity further. This stiff structure enhances handling and ride quality immensely, while improving crashworthiness. Brakes are large, heavy-duty discs on all four corners; ABS is standard on all models.
The GMC Sierra's interior is one of the most inviting and comfortable in the pickup business. The door openings are the largest in the industry, and the cab is the roomiest. The instrument package comprises a large speedometer and tachometer flanked by four smaller gauges. All use pleasant graphics in white on black. The sound system control panel is located above the climate controls. The climate control system uses a rotary dial layout that works perfectly. There are three 12-volt outlets at the bottom center of the dash for radar detectors, cellular telephones, laptop computers, and other accessories. The electric door locks (standard on SLE and SLT) are programmable.
By the summer of 2001, SLT models will have the GM OnStar satellite-based communications and security system; expect a price increase of $340 when that happens.
The maximum-zoot C3 comes with OnStar, tone-on-tone leather, extra sound deadening, a premium audio system with steering-wheel controls for the driver and separate controls for rear-seat passengers, a unique console with a driver information center (we used to call it a trip computer) and other exclusive amenities.
Our SLE extended cab was equipped with optional heated bucket seats that provided good support in hard corners. A lockable floor console (standard on SLT, optional on extended-cab SLE) is 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 SLE'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 a reverse-opening rear door and found that the rear seat in the extended cab is reasonably comfortable. When cargo capacity is more important than hauling passengers, the entire rear seat assembly can be loosened from the floor with a wrench and removed through one of the side doors.
On the road, the Sierra SLE is so quiet and well behaved that it could be mistaken for a luxury car. That's largely due to the new-for-1999 chassis, whose frame is 23 percent stiffer than the previous generation's. New mounting and isolation hardware reduces noise and vibration. A cast magnesium beam behind the instrument panel and a lateral steel beam between the magnesium beam and the right side of the dash further reinforce the stiff body. This is a very strong truck, and its strength lets the suspension soak up and manage all the bumps and ruts and tar strips. The Extended Cab model's 143.5-inch wheelbase improves the ride and enhances high-speed stability.
A four-spoke steering wheel connects to rack-and-pinion steering; unfortunately there is still a fairly wide dead spot in the center when cruising. (GMC says this is intentional, to minimize steering corrections on the highway.) The steering feels a bit light, but the truck tracks beautifully and handles well on pavement, loose dirt, deep dirt and even off-road.
The 4.8-liter small-block V8 is the most popular engine for this truck. Our Sierra came with the optional 5.3-liter (327-cubic-inch) engine, rated at 285 horsepower. Its torque peaks at 325 pound-feet, but the torque curve is plenty fat for light towing and hauling. The 5.3-liter engine is also fun for commuting and touring, and we recommend it over the smaller 4.8-liter engine.
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 welcome improvement over the mushy pedal on GM's pre-1999 C/K pickups. A feature called 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 beating these brakes hard we believe them.
The C3 features its own full-time four-wheel drive system. A planetary center differential provides a permanent 38/62 front/rear torque split; while a silicone viscous coupling locks up progressively if one axle or the other starts to slip. C3 also comes with a uniquely tuned suspension designed to limit body roll (or lean). It also comes with the Z82 towing package, and the high-capacity disc brakes from the Sierra 2500HD/3500.
It's easy and fun to drive the C3 quickly on winding mountain roads. It handles well, it's very responsive for a truck, and it delivers strong acceleration performance. With its superior towing capability, it might be just the ticket for someone who wants a luxury sports sedan, but has a boat to tow; the all-wheel-drive system will help pull the boat up slippery ramps, while the interior comfort, handling and performance make it an enjoyable and luxurious vehicle around town and on the highway.
The GMC Sierra offers a great deal of essential pickup truck goodness. If you're looking for more style than the Chevy Silverado offers and a bit of exclusivity, then by all means go with the GMC Sierra.
Our Sierra SLE was among the smoothest, quietest, most civilized, best equipped, and most enjoyable pickup trucks we've ever driven. The GMC Sierra is a must-see if you're buying a new full-size pickup.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.