Pros: Upper trim levels make credible argument for a luxury pickup
Cons: At lower trim levels, too similar to Chevrolet Silverado, its corporate sibling
When most of General Motors was crumbling around it, GMC just kept keeping on, bolstering its traditional mix of pickups and SUVs with two new crossover entries, the Acadia and the Terrain. They've met with sales success, and for 2012 they are refined with technology add-ons, Active Fuel Management on the XFE model, the availability of a hybrid drivetrain and - on the top-of-the-line Denali - the option of full-time all-wheel drive.
Although the differentiation from its stablemate the Chevrolet Silverado is subtle, the Sierra starts with the bold grille and extends throughout the chassis and cab. With a choice of three cabs, five trim levels plus the top-end Denali, three V8s and the aforementioned hybrid, the Sierra can fit most budgets. Should you hard load a Denali, it might even bust a budget, with an all-wheel-drive Denali starting at roughly $48,000.
To the truck division's credit, however, no one in the business has made the credible case for a luxury-oriented truck better than GMC. Lincoln has tried twice (with the Blackwood and Mark LT), but gave up on the category. And Cadillac's Escalade EXT remains only because it's little more than a trim level upgrade to Chevrolet's Avalanche. For those wanting to combine uptown appointments with down-and-dirty capability, few will fill the bill quite as well as the GMC Sierra.
Comfort & Utility
Virtually any full-size pickup will provide you with adequate room, and the 2012 Sierra is no different. Where GMC's pickup stands out is in the upper trim levels, where more attention is paid to materials and quality of workmanship. The WT (Work Truck) and SL are more appropriate to your dirty jeans and muddy boots, while the SLE, SLT and Denali provide available front buckets with adjustability (SLE), heated and cooled perforated leather (SLT and Denali) or "nuance" leather, which is Denali specific.
Utility, of course, is standard. Extended and crew cabs provide secure storage, a choice of standard or long boxes on regular and extended cabs and a wide range of options and accessories for both towing and cargo. Bedliners and toolboxes are a given, but the Sierra's bed also features two-tier loading capability and a cargo management system. For those thinking in more workaday terms, there's an optional On the Job package that includes bed protection and tie-downs.Opt for a two-wheel-drive crew cab, and the 2012 Sierra will handle almost one ton of payload. With the enhanced towing package and available 6.2-liter V8, the Sierra can tow up to 10,700 pounds.
We've found the ride comfort of Sierra 1500s comparable to other half-ton trucks in the category. A fully boxed frame aids rigidity, and a rigid structure allows for more subtle tuning of springs and shocks. What GMC terms a heavy-duty handling/trailering suspension is standard on SL, SLE and SLT trims and available on the Work Truck. For those going off-roading, the Z71 off-road package is optional on SLE and SLT. And a high performance suspension package is available on the SLT and standard on Denali.
As an older platform, the Sierra doesn't support the wide array of technology available in some of its competition, particularly Ford. That said, a range of CD/MP3-capable audio systems is available on all Sierra models. Touchscreen navigation is offered on the SLT and Denali. Or you can opt for navigation radio with USB port on those same two top models. OnStar is standard on all Sierras except the WT (where it's optional) and has been expanded with a mobile app allowing remote starting of your engine. NavTraffic updates can update you on traffic conditions in your area (available only with touchscreen navigation). And dealer-installed WiFi can keep you updated on everything else.
Performance and Fuel Economy
GMC provides almost as many drivetrain options as there are exterior colors or interior trims. The base engine for regular cab and extended cab Sierras is a 4.3-liter V6, delivering an adequate 195 horsepower and middling torque of 260 lb-ft. The V6 shares a four-speed automatic with the entry-level V8, a 4.8-liter offering more respectability with 302 hp and 305 lb-ft of torque. Much better are the optional 315-hp 5.3-liter and 403-hp 6.2 liter V8s paired with the six-speed Hydra-Matic transmission. Regardless of drivetrain, expect a Sierra to deliver between 12 and 15 mpg in town and 18 to 21 mpg on the highway.
GMC and Chevrolet are the only pickup makers to offer a hybrid drivetrain, allowing the Sierra to launch and drive up to 30 mph on electricity alone. And in combination with the truck's Active Fuel Management cylinder cutoff system, the Sierra Hybrid with 6.0-liter V8 and two integral electric motors delivers a 20/23 mpg EPA estimate. The hybrid drivetrain does reduce towing capability, however, as it offers only 6,100 pounds. This is some 3,000 pounds less than most of the engine/chassis combinations in the Sierra 1500 lineup.
GMC offers a full menu of active safety components, including four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, rack-and-pinion steering for more precise control, StabiliTrak electronic stability control and an available integrated trailer brake controller. Standard head curtain side air bags with rollover protection are provided to all seating rows, and standard seat-mounted side impact air bags for driver and right front passenger provide thorax and pelvic protection. Pretensioners on the front safety belts minimize forward movement in case of a collision.
Given the wide array of choices available in a GMC showroom, a Sierra's ride, handling and performance are essentially what you want them to be. The base Z83 suspension is described as delivering a solid, smooth ride, while the Z85's spec is for improved handling and trailer towing. On the SLE and SLT, there are enhanced suspension choices: if you're going off-road, the Z71 is tuned for that capability. For towing, you can opt for the NHT suspension, featuring 17-inch wheels, off-road tires and high-capacity rear springs. And should you want maximum street performance, check the Z60 box, which is delivered with 20-inch wheels and tires.
We've always found GMC's Sierra to be relatively composed and genuinely comfortable. If there is a differentiation between the Sierra and the Chevrolet Silverado, it's in the interior appointment and perceived isolation. The basic architecture of the Sierra, however, is beginning to show its age; we anticipate the next Sierra should offer significant improvements in both on-road dynamics and off-road capability.
Other Trucks to Consider
The Sierra competes against the Silverado, the Ford F-150 and (to a growing extent) Chrysler's Ram 1500. Both Ford and Ram offer newer designs, capable powertrains and more expansive technology. But neither currently offer a hybrid powertrain or a similar selection of available V8 engines. If a truck buyer truly wants to configure a pickup to his or her specific need, no other maker provides the range of choices available in the GMC Sierra-except, of course, the Chevrolet Silverado.
In our playbook, the best way to justify a GMC purchase is with the top-of-the-line Denali. We'd opt for the all-wheel-drive crew cab model, with its high level of standard equipment, and get 6.2 liters of V8 power, 20-inch aluminum wheels and the dealer-installed On the Job package for an MSRP of just over $48,000. That would be one way luxe truck, with all-season capability, plenty of comfort and a bed full of utility.