• Jun 14th 2010 at 11:58AM
  • 57
2011 GM HD Trucks - Click above for high-res image gallery

Usually whenever we head out to a new vehicle press launch, we have to sit through exhaustive technical and marketing presentations before we get a chance to climb behind the wheel. However, General Motors put us straight into a dual-rear wheel GMC Sierra 3500 crew-cab diesel upon our arrival in Baltimore. On the docket? A 130-mile trek from Baltimore airport to Rocky Gap Lodge in the Allegheny mountains of western Maryland with Vehicle Line Executive Rick Spina sitting shotgun.

We actually appreciated this 'backwards' approach, because it gave us the opportunity to develop some 'gut' impressions of these new trucks even before we got the attendant sales pitch. For a two-hour, mostly highway jaunt, the duallie SLT proved to be a surprisingly amiable companion, but it was just the first of seven different trucks we would drive over the next couple of days. Read on past the jump find out what GM's new heavy duty trucks are like when sampled in a range of real-world conditions.

Photos by Sam Abuelsamid, Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

The SLT trim level on our first Sierra brought with it leather seats and steering wheel, navigation, power-adjustable pedals and just about everything else you can think of. The first thing we noticed is how quiet the Duramax diesel has become. The true degree of that silence wouldn't become fully apparent until the next day when we drove the Vortec-powered GMC Denali, but this certainly isn't the kind of bucket-of-bolts diesel we've become accustomed to when sitting next to them at traffic lights.

It wasn't just the engine that was quiet, everything about the cabin was very subdued. Of course, it's no Lexus LS, but especially considering how high up we were sitting on big truck tires, it was very impressive. Even with the barn-door sized towing mirrors, wind noise was kept to a minimum, and at highway speeds, conversations without raised voices were never a problem. Beyond the quiet, the crew cab was exactly that – with second-row seat room big enough to accommodate three adults in comfort. And for those times when extra protected storage was required, the rear seat cushions flipped up to provide a flat load floor.

The single most impressive aspect of the Sierra 3500 on that first drive was its ride quality. This one-ton truck had no load in the back, which in the past would have meant bouncing around on every expansion joint and bump. The roads in Maryland are certainly smoother than what we have to deal with back in Michigan, but the GMC was nonetheless a serene operator. With a curb weight of 7,387 pounds, the Sierra was also surprisingly quick, thanks to its 397 horsepower and 765 pound-feet of diesel torque. Past criticisms we've leveled at GM HD pickups with Allison transmissions included rough shifts and noisy gears, both of which have been addressed in this latest iteration. Seamless gear changes even under hard acceleration are now part of the HD's MO.

The next day, the skies opened up as we started off in a Vortec-powered single-rear-wheel crew-cab Denali heading further west into the Allegheny mountains where we we would dip into West Virginia. Like other Denali models, the HD gets the usual perforated chrome grille, chrome bumpers and door handles and brushed aluminum interior trim for a little added flash. The Vortec was decidedly louder than the diesel, although actually in a very good way. The small-block V8 engine has the roar that we've come to know and love since time immemorial. Considering how quiet the rest of the truck is, the engine sound actually seems almost of out place, but we're not going to complain.

Like the duallie we drove the day before, the Denali was unloaded, and as we got further up into the mountains, the road surface quality worsened considerably even as it became more serpentine. Nonetheless, the GMC handled anything we threw at it with genuine pluck. We managed to trigger the ABS and stability control on wet pavement several times, and unlike past experiences with, say, the Toyota Tundra, the Sierra just tracked right where we pointed it. Even when we hit some mid-corner rough stuff, the rear end never once stepped out on us. Who would have thought a big truck could handle so well?

In addition to a bouncy ride and spongy brakes, the bad old days of heavy duty pickup dynamics had us expecting sloppy, overboosted steering. Thankfully, the days of being able to wiggle the steering wheel 5-10 degrees off-center with no real response are over at GM and Ford. The Generals have a new larger recirculating ball steering gear, which, in tandem with the improved contact patch control of the revised front suspension, results in steering response that's better than some cars we've driven. The GM trucks offered no disconcerting slack zones in the steering and actually provided pretty decent feedback as the cornering forces built while driving through the mountains. Our only complaint was that the effort felt a bit light at low speeds, but it firmed up nicely at higher velocities.

At our first vehicle swap point, we grabbed a Sierra 2500 crew cab, with a 35-foot-long, 9,000 pound (empty) travel trailer hanging off the hitch. After a quick primer from engineer Brent Deep on how to maneuver nearly 60 feet and over 16,000 pounds of truck and trailer, we headed out. Our tow truck was again powered by the diesel, and even with all that mass to drag around, the engine never felt strained, even though our drive route contained several extended grades of seven to eight percent. After getting used to checking the spotter mirrors to make sure we didn't clip any curbs or cross center lines, we set the cruise control at the 55-mile-per-hour limit and let the truck go to see how well the new smart exhaust brake worked. In short, it was brilliant.

As the truck crested a hill and headed down, the speed would creep up by about 2 mph, which triggered the transmission to downshift and the turbo control to kick in. From there, our velocity was held in check with our set speed all the way down the hill without any intervention on our part. The first couple of times we used the system, we hovered our foot over the brake pedal just in case, but once we were confident the system worked, we just put our foot down and let the truck do the work. The beauty of this system is that it works entirely without applying the brakes. Now, if GM would just add radar-based adaptive cruise control and integrate the turbo and transmission control to provide primary deceleration in addition to braking, this system would be near perfect. You could follow traffic, maintaining a safe distance without using the brakes most of the time.

Even when you do have to use the brakes, the newly solid pedal feel makes modulation a breeze. The most important benefit of all this is the confidence it inspires while driving with either a payload or a trailer. Towing in hilly terrain is now possible with much less concern about using up all of the brakes prematurely, leaving drivers to focus more on where the truck and trailer are on the road.

After lunch, we switched to a crew cab Chevy Silverado 2500 with 3,000 pounds of ballast in the bed. Frankly, the big Duramax barely noticed the 1.5 tons worth of steel, seemingly accelerating just as effortlessly as the unloaded trucks did. Going around corners, the extra mass manifested itself as added inertia resisting directional changes, but it did help to dampen vertical motions even more than the unloaded truck. Another factor contributing to the comfortable ride, even in the work-truck variants like this one, is the use of two hydraulic body mounts at the rear of the cab. The front end is tied down with traditional rubber mounts, but the hydraulic units out back give the engineers more latitude to tune motions in several directions and focus on specific frequencies that are annoying to passengers.

After our return to Rocky Gap, the trucks were available with their Ford and Ram rivals for back-to-back comparisons over a shorter loop. Only one Ram 3500 was available, and it was unloaded. Our gut reaction? If you prefer old-fashioned, sloppy truck steering, this is your ride, as it has plenty of free play just off-center and it's overboosted effort everywhere.

Of the two Super Duty F-350s, one was loaded with 3,000 pounds of ballast and the other was towing a trailer identical to the one hooked to the GM truck we sampled earlier. The first thing we immediately noticed was that the new 6.7-liter Scorpion diesel is simply not as refined as the Duramax. It produces plenty of power and torque, but at light accelerator applications, it still exhibits some of the traditional clatter traditionally associated with diesels. Put your foot into it at more than about 35-40 percent throttle (yes, we know a diesel has no throttle) and it settles down nicely into a similar growl to the Duramax. Since this is an all-new engine, perhaps the Blue Oval's engineers are still coming to grips with tuning it.

The other big difference we noticed with the Ford was in the area of ride comfort, which is clearly inferior to the Sierrado twins. Parts of the drive loop included some small, medium frequency waves that were noticeable but not intrusive in the Sierra. The Ford, on the other hand, felt jiggly over these same surfaces, even with 3,000 pounds of ballast in the bed. The Ford's steering was just as slop-free as the GM trucks, but on the demerit side, it felt distinctly overboosted.

We took out the Sierra and F-350 with identical trailers for some side-by-side testing on the short loop. While the Ford has exhaust-gas braking, it is of the traditional on-off variety rather than the variable control setup used by GM. Ford confirmed to us that there is no turbocharger control currently implemented in its tow-haul mode. The result is that while the system slows the vehicle on downhill grades, speeds can creep up unless you apply the brakes.

When accelerating, the Scorpion doesn't feel as brawny as the Duramax, even though the GM diesel only has a 7-horsepower and 30 pound-feet of torque advantage. Seizing the opportunity, we grabbed some of our colleagues and lined up the Sierra and F-350 (both with 9,000-pound trailers) for an informal drag race. The Ford did get an initial jump on the GMC, but then the Sierra quickly caught up and pulled away. Some seemed to think that Ford might be doing some torque limiting with its engine, perhaps to protect the transmission. Whatever the case, the GMC offered better performance both uphill and down.

For our final drive stint, we returned to a single-rear-wheel Sierra 3500 crew-cab with a 3,000-pound payload for the return run to Baltimore's airport. This time, we reset the fuel economy readout in the trip computer, and in deference to the large population of eagle-eyed Maryland state troopers, we set the cruise control to the state mandated limit of 65 mph. Over the next 133 miles through the Allegheny mountains and then into the flatter area near the city, we rarely touched the accelerator or brake except when stuck behind a semi. The cruise control maintained a steady speed over hill and dale and we made no attempt to optimize our mileage. As we rolled into our destination, the readout in the instrument cluster read a very impressive 19.8-mpg average for the diesel V8 – not bad for nearly 11,000 pounds of truck.

As you might expect, these GM heavy-duty trucks are not inexpensive, with pricing starting at about $28,000 and easily running over $60,000 when loaded up with all the toys. Of course, we've been in some gussied-up half-ton pickups whose Monroneys breech 50k, and given all that these HDs are capable of, we don't find the bottom line off-putting. Besides, people generally buy HD trucks because they need them – very few are purchased as lifestyle vehicles. As Chevy truck marketing manager Tony Truelove tells it, this is the "most expensive tool" in an operator's kit.

In terms of raw capabilities, these new GM trucks edge the Fords in most categories, but not by any amount big enough to be truly meaningful. For example a towing capacity of 21,700 pounds vs 21,600 for the Ford is not likely to sway a buyer one way or the other. What may tilt the scales toward GM, however, is its superior ride quality, engine refinement and features like smart exhaust braking. We suspect anyone who needs this kind of truck is unlikely to be disappointed by either of these leaders, but they might find themselves feeling a bit more refreshed after an extended stint in a Sierra or Silverado HD. In the gritty world of long distance heavy hauling, that's perhaps a luxury worth more than any other.

Photos by Sam Abuelsamid, Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      Can we please increase gas guzzler?
        • 5 Years Ago
        jjpg2000: indeed. 19 mpg is pretty darn impressive. I seldom get 19 mpg out of my 2003 V8 4Runner, which has a curb weight 2000 to 3000 lbs less than one of these beasts.
        • 5 Years Ago
        For the love of God - read the article:

        Besides, people generally buy HD trucks because they need them – very few are purchased as lifestyle vehicles. As Chevy truck marketing manager Tony Truelove tells it, this is the "most expensive tool" in an operator's kit.

        So duh, people do NOT buy them for lifestyle choices. People do not buy them just to go to IKEA.

        I know everyone just love to be hatin' (they see the Silverado HD rollin' - they hatin'), but you ignore the article just so you can be hatin'. You must be a real party.
        • 5 Years Ago
        ~19mpg loaded with 3000lbs is really quite good.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Can we please increase fees on complaints
        • 5 Years Ago
        Seriously...10% of the people that buy these behemoths actually need these things. Most of the HD duallies I see on the road are pristine and have only the driver aboard, being used as daily drivers.

        That having been said, it is a handsome beast, and the level of refinement is impressive.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I just bought a 2011 Chevy HD 2500 Diesel. Almost finished with the first tank of Diesel and the MPG says I am getting 13 MPG. WTF is this 19 sh-t
      • 5 Years Ago
      I have a truck..and I drive it all the time. I pull a trailer and when I am not, I get 24 MPG with gas, to better benefit our economy I buy E85, produced here in the US and still get 20 MPG. Does everyone that has a truck need one? Who really knows, but who is anyone to tell anyone what they can and cannot drive. Last I checked the same freedom that allows you to shoot off your mouth Urchin is the same freedom that allows us to buy what we want. If you don't like seeing it stay in your house. What do you drive? You talk about wanting the economy here in the United States to benefit...are you buying a car from a Domestic car company? For the record I drive my truck 10k a year...I also have a car that I commute with to save money on fuel. Not everyone is afforded that benefit. I drive my truck when I need to, hauling, towing or going on a longer trip that is just more comfortable and SAFER. Maybe you should consider the needs of other people and their opinions...I heard somewhere once that opinions are like rectums...everyone has one.
      • 5 Years Ago
      why does nobody need these in Urope?

      just asking
        • 5 Years Ago
        Because they are smarter. North Americans are just acting stupid. Only a small number of people who buy these things NEED them. Most are for going to the mall.
        • 5 Years Ago
        No one in Europe drives them because Europe is geared for tiny cars. Take your F-150 across the "pond" and see how many parking spaces it will fit in.

        Europe has always done things with their cars differently. They're not huge V-8 fans, everything is either diesel or turbocharged, and 90% of all European vehicles are manual shift (I don't really have a problem with stick shifts. I prefer them over automatics myself).

        Oh, BTW: Sea Urchin? If you're afraid of the trucks folks drive here, there's always room in England for one more. Tell Mum I said "hi"! Ha!
      • 5 Years Ago
      I own a pick-up (Lincoln Mark LT) and seldom use it as a truck. I like the ride, comfort, capability and mass of metal around the occupants. I'm an American who enjoys the freedom of personal choice and couldn't care less why others drive what they drive. And, no, Iran won't make me give-up my truck. I'll convert it over to propane (which is 99% US-produced) before surrendering to the politics of terror or midget motor mentality.
      • 5 Years Ago
      GM & Chrysler should have been allowed to go under, along with the rest of the "too big to fail" companies the nitwits in D.C. bailed out.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I think Sea Urchin meant increase gas guzzler tax.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Sea Urchin: Face it, if someone can afford a $40000+ truck (and trucks like that easily exceed such a value), they aren't going to care much about a gas guzzler tax or how much it costs to fuel them.

        Now, on a personal note, I'm amazed that trucks are continuing to get bigger and bigger. At my work place there are a couple of managers who part next to one another. One has a 90s f-150 and the other a 2009 f-350 super duty. The difference in size is staggering! Even half ton to half ton anymore is beyond that I think is ridiculous. I've been shopping for a mid size truck before and had salesmen try to work me into a full size. Sorry guys, the bus is for public transport.
        • 5 Years Ago
        To Sea Urchin:

        Is that how you look at everyone who drives a truck ? Some people NEED these types of vehicles to EARN A LIVING. They don't need your dirty sneers when they drive by you. You're such an Urch-hole.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Many people buy these trucks because they NEED them. And even if they don't need them, so what? People can choose to buy whatever they want. If you don't like it move to a communist county.

        That said, these trucks, at least the diesel ones, get fair gas mileage. A friend of mine has a 96 F-350 and gets 19 mpg. The truck also has 275,000 miles on the original engine.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @ Mr. Clickerson

        If you don't want to treat these trucks as commercial vehicles (CDL, weigh stations, etc.) then treat them as passenger vehicles. Currently they are in a loophole created by lobbyists where they do not have to conform to all the rules of either. If you don't want them to be treated as full commercial vehicles, then they should have to submit to NHSTA crash testing, bumper standards, CAFE, gas guzzler's tax... all of which they are currently exempt.

        If you want to consider them commercial vehicles, treat them as commercial vehicles. If not, treat them like all the other passenger vehicles.

        Personally, I want people driving vehicles that weigh twice as much as the typical passenger car to know what they are doing and to be be tested at a higher level to show it. People who spout "defensive driving" excuse tend not to have had people close to them who were killed by an irresponsible driver.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Right. People shouldn't be able to buy what Sea Urchin says they should not.
        • 5 Years Ago
        God, Sea Urchin... Sometimes you're just such a goon.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Agree with Sea Urchin and Ine937s .
        • 5 Years Ago
        @ amnigo, that's one way of looking at it, another way is that these people are ruining the environment, sending US dollars outside of USA be it Canada or Saudi Arabia, all that money brings prosperity to them, not Americans. But the best part is that we as a nation have to suffer because MOST who buy these trucks are buying them for Costco shopping, not because they are plumbers or other trades people.

        Look at wars in ME, last wars were Gaza war and Lebanon war, both are supported by Iran, Iran gets its money from oil and nothing else. USA may not be buying Iranian oil, but because we consume so much others can not buy oil from states that more humane, like saudi arabia where they love cutting heads off, and these other countries end up buying oil from Iran, where they cut your head..........and than poke your eyes out.

        I am sure once Iran goes nucler people will realize that they do not need a huge pick up truck to get a bag of 100 chicken wings.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Oh come on Coolio, of course i do not have anything against people who buy these trucks to make a living. What i am trying to say is that MOST of the Pick Ups i see are not used for work, they are used as an every day commuter car, or weekend shopping car. That's just wrong. Again i may sound like a Urchole now, but once Iran will go nuclear you will change your tune, of course one would have thought tune would change after Sept 11, but it did not.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Agree with Sea Urchin 1000000%. These trucks are mainly purchased by insecure jackasses that just want to one up their friends in the size/towing ability department. They don't have the actual NEED to tow 15,000lbs... but when their friends truck is only rated at 9,000lbs, this gives them bragging rights (and allows them to feel better about having a tiny wang).

        It's pathetic. My mother lives in a rural WI suburb, and a lot of houses have huge, jacked up trucks. Know how many tow something? Almost none. And most of them are babied, washed all the time, never getting dirty.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Sea Urchin said, "What i am trying to say is that MOST of the Pick Ups i see are not used for work, they are used as an every day commuter car, or weekend shopping car."

        I agree. We cannot keep sending our money to governments that are hostile to us and our way of life. I take back the "Urch-hole" comment. Some do need these big trucks to earn a living, some are just making up for umm,umm physical shortcomings.

        Bottom line, we need to burn less fuel, but these trucks seem to get great mpg figures for what they are and what they can do.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @ Maxzillian, not if it's 5K-6K, that will force the person to at the very least consider a smaller engine.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Exactly. I am tired of fools buying these trucks because they think going to IKEA, Costco, BJ and Home Depot requires a huge truck.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I guess truck preferences are not too unlike preferences for the male
      water-spout. Most of the time it is used for light-duty off-loading,
      with only an occasional need for heavy lifting. Well, I can't have
      two of them (at least, I don't think that I can), so I guess I will go
      for the heavy-duty model, and pay the price for carrying around
      the added weight in added fuel consumption.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Still a terrible Interior, GM hasn't touched it 1 bit.

      I've seen what these interiors become on Tahoe's & Suburban with 70k on the clock.

      The Plastic Dashboard will eventually crack around the 4 corners of the Passenger Side Airbag. It will also crack on the hump ( On top of the Instrument Cluster.

      If GM hasn't switched to Metal Interior Door Handles yet, they will be in problems if they still use those Plastic Chrome handles. The Chrome will eventually peel upwards on the top edges of the handle making them feel like razor blades. Possible recall coming on that already.

      I can see it still using the 2007 Style Climate & Radio Controls. Those Buttons are painted with a ultra light coat of black paint. If you are a heavy button presser, you will fade those buttons out by the 60,000 mile mark.

      I feel they should've upped their game by now with this interior which they haven't touched since 2007. It still the Cheap GM interior we've known from the GM of the Past. C'mon GM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
        • 5 Years Ago
        @ Wiggy

        What year CR-V?

        My uncle has owned all three generations in Phoenix parked outside without a garage or a sunshade. I'd say the sun is a lot more intense there, and he hasn't had a single problem with any of his. He has owned each of his 5+ years, excluding his current 2008.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Sorry, I mean @ Wiggy
        • 5 Years Ago
        The radio button problem has existed since the early 90s. My dad owns a lot of stock in GM, and constantly sends them letters pointing out flaws like that. Unfortunately, the refuse to change, and now that they cannot possibly fail due to government intervention, there is even less of a reason to change.
        • 5 Years Ago
        2003-2005 Infinity FX35-FX45's are a joke too. Theirs actually melts and bubbles up.

        You remember at the end of Gremlins when Spike the Gremlin Melts into that bubbly goop??
        Thats how the the Infinity's Dash turn into and it's quite funny. It becomes Bubbly looking. Cracking is the norm but not bubbling.

        Makes the Dash in my 96 Ford Explorer V8 look like new. Well, it actually does.

      • 5 Years Ago
      I've always had a preference to GM over Ford for some unexplained and irrational reason (perhaps the Aerostar my family used when I was a child is to blame) but while I've been more or less blown away from Ford's cars lately and always had a lot of respect for their Ranger, the end result is I still have a "thing" against Ford F-series. Maybe it's their owners, maybe it's the way it looks, I don't know. That said, however, this review feels unfairly biased against Ford. Perhaps this truck is that great, but it still just feels like it reads "Ya know those improvements Ford did? Well compared to this truck, they're inferior. Yeah the Ford may put down better numbers, but these are just numbers better." Not that it really matters much to me, my idea of a "work truck" is a mid 80s Toyota or a late 60s/early 70s 1/2 ton. These impressive bad boys are way out of my league.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I love these stories about huge gas guzzlers, it brings the hollier than thou, i know best, im going to save the planet, my piece of sh it hybrid gets 50mpg idiots out,, my full size H1 gets about 12 mpg around town, i can and will drive it even if gas is 20$ a gallon,, why? because i can afford to! and i love pissing off the above named wussies of the world
      • 5 Years Ago
      I hate when people buy basketball sneakers with bouncing technology babied them keeping them looking new thinking they are basketball players....Same goes to the folks buying running shoes.

      sarcasm for all the haters....
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