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2019 GMC Sierra Denali and AT4 First Test: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 9/11/2018 Motor Trend Staff
2019-GMC-Sierra-Denali-rear-three-quarter.jpg

There are two things GMC would very much like you to know about the new Sierra. The first it's shouting from the rooftops: The Sierra is no longer a photocopy of the Chevrolet Silverado. The second it's showing rather than telling: There's a 2-inch lift and an "AT4" badge, which loosely translated from marketing-speak means "Denali for country folk."

a car parked on the side of a road© Motor Trend Staff

GMC has been saying for some time it would distance itself from Chevrolet to bolster its unique selling proposition. We've seen baby steps in the past, but this new Sierra is a noteworthy milestone, all the more so with Chevy rolling out a comparable High Country luxury trim level. The Sierra, though, not only doesn't look like a Chevy, but it also has its own technologies that are substantially different and worth paying for. The top two: a six-position tailgate called MultiPro and a nylon-reinforced carbon-fiber bed called CarbonPro.

Scout's honor, I thought the tailgate was silly and gimmicky, an overcompensation for Chevrolet's ribbing of Ford over the "man step," made complicated just to prove it was better and/or different. Having used it now, I'll eat my crow however it's served. Two years ago, my wife and I re-landscaped our front- and backyards ourselves. Between that and other home projects since then, I would've found a use for every position of that tailgate. I particularly like the big, wide step it creates and the ability to drop the inner gate when the full gate is down and get closer to the bed for better leverage on heavy or bulky items. That you still get the standard bumper steps, which still work when the tailgate is up, is a cherry on top.

The composite bed seems harder to justify when metal beds, particularly when sprayed with a polyurethane liner, do the job just fine, but there's good cause for it. GMC claims the CarbonPro box is stronger than steel yet 62 pounds lighter. Lighter is better, both for fuel economy and for towing and hauling applications where it counts toward gross vehicle weight and gross vehicle combined weight. Naturally rust proof and dent proof, it's got a lot going for it. That you still get the extra tie-downs and optional 110-volt power outlet the steel beds do is even better.

There's other equipment here to like, too, even if it's shared with Chevy. Dynamic Fuel Management, which can shut down any combination of cylinders depending on the situation to improve fuel economy, is completely seamless. I'm a fan of head-up displays when they're done right, so I like this big, full-color unit. I'm far less enamored with the video camera rearview mirror, which I find distracting due to the forced perspective shift, but I'll grant it's useful if you have cargo that a traditional mirror can't see over in the rear cab or bed.

If you tow, though, the real hot ticket is in the ProGrade trailering package. The trailer light test is a godsend when you don't have a helper. It even diagnosed a reverse light problem for us (the trailer didn't have them). I like it a little better than Ford's solution because I'm out there visually verifying that the lights all work rather than trusting a graphic on the screen to tell me. The ability of the backup camera to recognize a trailer and automatically bring up guidelines, not to mention automatically setting the parking brake while you connect, is handy, too. We weren't able to test the trailer tire pressure and temperature monitoring system or the remote trailer camera, but they're solid ideas.

Like these tech differences, the driving differences, too, are limited, and before long you're wondering again if they're worth the upcharge over a Chevy. When I drove the AT4 and Denali back to back with a Silverado High Country, which shares the 6.2-liter V-8 and 10-speed automatic, I did feel a difference. The GMCs—even the taller AT4 with its knobbier tires—ride and handle better. The ride is less busy than that of a Silverado High Country and particularly good over big bumps, and the GMCs handle flatter than any other truck on the market. I couldn't feel a difference in ride quality between the two GMCs, nor did I notice much of a difference when I put them in their Sport driving mode beyond a sharper throttle pedal and slightly heavier steering. I did notice the auto engine stop/start system, which seemed to take ages to restart compared to the competition. The lane keeping system is inconsistent and only seemed to work on straight roads, but even then it didn't always stop me from wandering out of my lane.

a car parked on the side of a road© Motor Trend Staff

Numbers-wise, it falls right in line with the competition. Its 0.77 average g on the skidpad and a 27.8-second figure-eight lap at 0.63 average g put the Denali right in between a comparable F-150 Limited (0.78 g and 27.2 seconds at 0.63 g) and Ram 1500 Limited (0.74 g and 28.3 seconds at 0.60 g). The AT4's off-road tires naturally hurt its on-road grip, putting up 0.76 g on the skidpad and a 27.7-second lap at 0.73 g—dead even with a Ram 1500 Rebel and well ahead of a Silverado Trail Boss. (I'm not including the F-150 Raptor here because it's much more a dedicated off-roader than the Ram, GMC, or Chevy.)

Let's talk a bit more about the AT4 since you already know what a Denali is (expensive). All 2019 Sierras (and Silverados) can be fitted with a GM-produced 2-inch lift kit, but the AT4 makes it standard. It also picks up a set of Bridgestone Dueler A/Ts on 20-inch wheels, a mild off-road tire that'll certainly get you farther than the Denali's Bridgestone Alenza A/Ss but not nearly as far as a Silverado Trail Boss' Goodyear Wrangler DuraTracs. The remaining exterior changes include blacked-out chrome and red-painted tow hooks. Inside, it's effectively identical to the Denali.

As equipped, our AT4 was 129 pounds lighter than our Denali, which helps explain why the AT4 was 0.2 second quicker to 60 mph at 5.8 seconds versus 6.0 flat. It carried that advantage to the quarter mile, trapping in 14.2 seconds at 98.9 mph versus 14.4 seconds at 98.6 mph. Here again, the Denali falls between an EcoBoosted F-150 Limited and an eTorqued Ram 1500 Limited, though the AT4 handily smokes the Rebel and Trail Boss. Either way, the big 6.2-liter V-8 feels powerful at all times. It's got a lot more torque off the line and much better throttle response than the 5.3-liter V-8 that comes standard on these trucks, and the 10-speed auto shifts smoother and smarter than the old eight-speed.

a car parked in a parking lot© Motor Trend Staff

We especially noticed this when towing. With nearly 8,000 pounds of trailer on the hitch in 100-degree weather, the Sierras barely noticed. They've got so much torque, they still felt reasonably quick passing uphill on a 12 percent grade at freeway speed. On the way down the other side, they executed flawless downshifts to keep the speed in check. I'm still shocked I couldn't feel those downshifts even going downhill with a trailer.

The Denali, equipped with street tires, can hang its hat on braking, where it stopped slightly shorter than the AT4 at 123 feet versus 126. Once again, both trucks split the difference between the Ford and Ram for the Denali and between the Ram and Chevy for the AT4.

The GMCs may split the Fords, Rams, and Chevys numerically, but it's a different story when you talk value. These GMCs ring in at $65,330 for the AT4 and $67,200 for the Denali*. That's a little less than the new Ram 1500 Limited we tested ($68,340) and right on top of the last Ford F-150 Limited we tested ($67,560). It's also slightly more than a Sierra Denali 2500HD diesel we tested just three years ago ($65,235) and a few grand more than a new Chevrolet Silverado High Country we tested ($64,030).

Sure, that's right in the middle of things dollar-wise, but not when you consider content. The Ram and Ford offer more standard and optional equipment than the GMC, and even these full-boat Sierras were missing features the competitors included for the same as-tested price. Here's the real kicker: Neither of our GMCs had the carbon bed or adaptive cruise control, both of which won't be available until mid-2019 at the earliest.

As different as the Chevys and GMCs might look on the outside, you can barely tell them apart inside. Different graphics on the infotainment screen, slightly different instrument cluster, different badge on the steering wheel (which is finally centered with the seat, thank providence) and that's it. The quality and selection of materials is identical to the Silverado High Country and behind that of an F-150 Limited. It's not even in the same time zone as the Ram 1500 Limited, which could teach Cadillac a few lessons in luxury interiors.

What's wrong? The design is an evolution of the old truck at best, whereas the competition went all-new. The leather, on the dash and seats and doors and armrests, has a plasticky sheen that looks cheap and feels half as thick as the competition's. (GMC claims it's more durable.) The infotainment screen is comparatively small and looks smaller thanks to its massive frame. The truck's gone backward on the number of USB ports and doesn't offer half the power seat adjustments of the competition. Where the Ram's rear seats are heated, cooled, and recline, the GMCs' are only heated. The functionality and ergonomics of the center console and center stack are below par, as well.

I've heard recently there's some concern within GMC that it hasn't gone far enough to maintain its market dominance in the luxury truck segment it created, particularly with the Denali trim. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it's true. Ram is way out in front, and Ford's comfortably in second. Meanwhile, Chevy is muscling in with a High Country model that's a suspension tune away from being as good as a Denali for less money. Truck buyers are some of the most brand loyal out there, but sooner or later they're going to notice what they're getting and what their friends are getting.

GMC, it seems, has brought a handgun to a machine gun fight. It's effective, but it's short on firepower. Don't get me wrong, the new Sierra is a much better truck across the board than the one it replaces, and I'm genuinely happy to see it offering exclusive, attractive new features. More than that, the functionality of the truck is greatly improved whether you're commuting, hauling, or towing. All the good stuff, though, is counterbalanced by the inadequate differentiation from Chevy, the lack of advancement in the cab where you spend all your time, and the value proposition.

a car parked on a dirt road© Motor Trend Staff

*An earlier version of this story misstated the base and as-tested prices of each GMC. It has been updated with accurate pricing.

All trucks were tested in extreme-heat conditions, and performance was adversely affected. We will attempt to retest and update these results at a later date.

2019 GMC Sierra AT4 (Crew)2019 GMC Sierra Denali (Crew)
BASE PRICE $54,695$59,495
PRICE AS TESTED $65,330$67,200
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truckFront-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck
ENGINE 6.2L/420-hp/460-lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-86.2L/420-hp/460-lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic10-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 5,466 lb (57/43%)5,595 lb (57/43%)
WHEELBASE 147.5 in147.4 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 231.7 x 81.2 x 78.4 in231.7 x 81.2 x 75.5 in
0-60 MPH 5.8 sec6.0 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.2 sec @ 98.9 mph14.4 sec @ 98.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 126 ft123 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.76 g (avg)0.77 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.7 sec @ 0.73 g (avg)27.8 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)
REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB 15.3/23.5/18.2 mpg14.9/22.5/17.5 mpg
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 15/19/17 mpg15/20/17 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 225/177 kW-hrs/100 miles225/169 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 1.17 lb/mile1.15 lb/mile

2019 GMC Sierra AT4 front three quarter in motion 2© Motor Trend Staff 2019 GMC Sierra AT4 front three quarter in motion 2
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