2010 has been a banner year for heavy-duty pickup truck fans, with revamped entries from all three U.S. automakers making their debut this year. Of those, the HD pickups from both Chevrolet and GMC received the most subtle exterior updates, but virtually everything under their skins is new, including a heavily revamped version of the company's 6.6-liter Duramax diesel V8.
When it comes to full-size pickup trucks, the old Burger King tag-line of "Have It Your Way" still rings true. Regardless of where your brand loyalty lies, these types of trucks are available with either gas or diesel engines; as regular, extended or crew-cab and with regular or long beds. All you have to do is figure out what you need the truck for and then check the appropriate boxes on the dealer's order sheet. Somewhere in the middle of this cacophony of choice lies the 2011 GMC Sierra 3500HD.
Photos copyright ©2010 Sam Abuelsamid / AOL
For 2011, the only notable visual changes to the heavy-duty Sierra are a slightly re-shaped front bumper with a larger air intake slot and a new grille. The grille on non-Denali Sierras like our tester receives a black, three-bar treatment with similar perforations to the chromed, four-bar version found on the premium truck. The rest of the sheetmetal is carried over from the GMT900HD styling that's been around since its debut in 2008, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
The overall appearance of the Sierra is more subdued and mature than the big rig look of the Dodge Ram HD or the Tonka motif of the Ford Super Duty. This is, after all, the "Professional Grade" choice. While we like the in-your-face designs of the Ram and Ford, customers choose heavy-duty trucks because of their capability; aesthetic decisions tend to be secondary. Thankfully, every heavy-duty truck on the market offers tremendous capability, including the HD Sierra, which we got to evaluate first-hand during the official launch event a few months ago, including payload hauling and towing.
There are two main types of customers for full-size trucks: commercial operators who buy them to haul tools and equipment, and personal use customers who are usually interested in towing. For the latter crowd, GM offers an interior with two front seats and a large center console to go with a more upscale looking (if not feeling) dashboard. In contrast, our mid-level SLE crew-cab example had what GMC calls its work truck interior, which features a simpler and decidedly cheaper design made entirely of hard but not shiny plastics with plenty of seams and large gaps.
The underside of the work truck dash goes straight across, freeing up plenty of room for a third pair legs in the middle position. In order to accommodate the central passenger, the Sierra HD uses a 40/20/40 split-bench seat up front. Our tester's seats were covered in durable-looking beige fabric, and we actually found the front outboard seats to be more comfortable and supportive than the seats in the Ford F-450 we recently reviewed. The second row bench seat also offers plenty of leg, head and shoulder room for three adult passengers. Despite the low-rent dash and seating configuration, the model we reviewed was actually better equipped than most trucks that are sold to fleet operators, which often have manual crank windows and door locks.
Our Sierra HD tester also included automatic dual zone climate control, four-wheel drive, power adjustable pedals, redundant steering wheel controls and a USB port to plug in an iPod or phone. While there was no on-board map-based navigation system, every new GM vehicle has a GPS receiver and cellular radio as part of the standard OnStar system. Subscribers can press the button on the rear-view mirror to call an OnStar operator and have turn-by-turn directions for a destination downloaded to the vehicle and then displayed in the instrument cluster. That rear-view mirror also contains an embedded LCD to display the output from the rear-mounted camera, something that should be standard on any vehicle this large.
Our one-ton Sierra 3500HD came equipped with GM's highly respected 6.6-liter Duramax diesel V8, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary of production. The 2011 edition of the Duramax diesel has undergone its most extensive update since it debuted, and like other contemporary oil-burners, it's now vastly more refined. In order to meet the latest federal emissions requirements, the Duramax now uses a high-pressure common rail injection system, particulate filter and urea-injection system. Thanks to its ability to execute multiple fuel delivery pulses per cycle, the new injection system eliminates most of the clatter people have come to associate with diesel engines, leaving just an aggressive V8 exhaust roar emanating from the huge tailpipe when you step on the go-pedal. Power numbers are pegged at 397 horsepower at 3,000 rpm and 765 pound-feet of torque at 1,600 rpm. That's a 32 hp and 105 lb-ft improvement over last year's model – enough to initially best the Super Duty's Power Stroke diesel, though Ford has since rolled out a software reflash that ups its diesel to a nice round 400 hp and 800 lb-ft of torque. Buyers probably won't notice the difference in power between the two engines and are likely better served judging each on its demeanor in real world driving situations.
We didn't get a chance to tow anything during our week with the Sierra, but like all of the big trucks it has a tow-haul mode to manage vehicle speed when descending a grade. Diesel-powered GM trucks incorporate a unique smart exhaust gas braking system when the cruise control is engaged to adjust the variable vanes in the turbocharger, thus managing the exhaust back pressure so that vehicle speed is maintained without having to use the brakes at all. If you are planning to do some heavy lifting, the diesel Sierra 3500HD with a single-wheel rear axle has a payload capacity that maxes out at 4,165 pounds, and towing with a ball hitch tops out at 13,000 lbs.
The Sierra 3500HD, as well as its Silverado counterpart, is available in two bed lengths: a 97.8-inch box that's only offered with a dual rear-wheel axle and a standard 78.8-inch box with a single-wheel rear axle like our tester. Compared to the duallie F-450 we recently tested, the single-wheel Sierra is much easier to drive around town, leaving some space within the lane on either side of the truck and dramatically reducing the risk of running over curbs while turning (Ford also offers a single-wheel rear axle F-350). Despite weighing 6,573-pound, our Sierra HD can also accelerate to 60 miles per hour in under eight seconds. One feature unique to Ford trucks that GM should incorporate is a tailgate step. These are big machines and having a step that slides out of the the tailgate makes climbing into the bed a less back-breaking affair.
When we first drove the Sierra a few months ago in Maryland, we were impressed with its ride quality on the state's relatively smooth roads. However, the real torture test for any vehicle comes when it hits southeast Michigan, and the Sierra HD lived up to our earlier impressions. The ride certainly isn't Buick smooth when driving around unloaded, but it's far better than we expect of a truck with a two-ton payload capacity. During one particular hard launch with no load in the bed, the Sierra HD's new asymmetrical rear leaf spring suspension ensured there was no axle tramp, even when accelerating out of a bumpy corner. However, the biggest dynamic advantage over similar Ford models is the Sierra's steering. Where the Dearborn truck feels both over-boosted and slow with its five turns from lock to lock, the GMC tiller has a bit of heft even if there isn't much feedback, and turning lock to lock takes only 3.5 turns.
The EPA doesn't publish fuel economy estimates for vehicles with a gross weight rating over 8,500 pounds, but we managed to achieve impressive results with the Sierra HD: 13 miles per gallon during our week of mostly city driving, while our 120-mile drive across the highways of Maryland in June with 3,000 pounds of ballast returned nearly 20 mpg. The single-wheel, crew-cab, four-wheel-drive Sierra 3500HD SLE starts at $40,485 and the options list on our test truck brought the total tab to $53,495 delivered.
Despite its newfound refinement, the 2011 GMC Sierra 3500HD still isn't a truck we recommend as an everyday personal-use vehicle unless you live on a ranch. It's just too big and clumsy to maneuver for that, like the proverbial bull in a suburban china shop. That said, the single-wheel axle Sierra 3500HD is a much more manageable beast to maneuver than any duallie HD pickup. And for those who need a heavy-duty ride, it's just one of the many excellent flavors that's new this year.
Photos copyright ©2010 Sam Abuelsamid / AOL