Quick Drive: 2011 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 4WD Crew Cab

By Winding Road Staff

September 28, 2010

Ode To Torque

Oh Torque, how do I love thee?
Let me count the ways.
765 pound-feet rampant do through
Thine six-speed Allison transmission
Make my heart (and tires) burn most brightly…
OK, here ends our little literary excursion, but we hope it made a point. The optional 6.6-liter Duramax turbo-diesel V-8 that powered our Sierra Denali HD put out 390 horsepower and an absolutely mind-bending 765 pound-feet of torque at an ultra-accessible 1600 rpm. Can you say “stump-pulling thrust” from just above idle? Sure you can. And if you press the accelerator pedal like you mean business, the big GMC will respond with an astonishingly firm shove in the small of your back and a downright authoritative burst of acceleration. Who knew that such a massive vehicle could be made to, um, jump forward with such alacrity? Such are the joys of surfing massive waves of turbo-diesel torque big enough to hurl you down Main Street, or up the nearest highway entrance ramp, and without ever breaking a sweat. But sweet though this drivetrain is—and it is very sweet—there’s more to the big Sierra Denali than its stout powerplant and smooth-shifting Allison automatic transmission.
With many three-quarter-ton trucks (e.g., the Dodge 2500 Laramie 4x4) one has the sense that the vehicles are so stiffly sprung and have so little steering feel (at least in a car enthusiast’s sense of the term) that the best one can do is to point, shoot, and do one’s level best to keep the rig approximately centered in its lane. And believe me, “approximately” really is the operative word. In fact, with typical full-size trucks one often winds up bounding and lurching from bump to bump, hoping to guess accurately which direction the truck will be pointed when it lands.
Frankly, it’s my great pleasure to tell you the Sierra Denali is nothing like this, first because it offers a modicum of actual, honest-to-gosh steering feel (complete with centering forces that actually build up as cornering loads do), but also because it offers an impressive ability to track straight even when driven over rippled pavement surfaces. The result is a big, burly truck that—make no mistake—is plenty firmly sprung in order to handle massive payloads, yet that offers a level of steering/handling sophistication I’ve never experienced in a full-size truck before. The only kvetch I would offer is that there is a small on-center “dead zone” in the steering that mysteriously seems to get larger with speed. Even so, I felt the big GMC offered better overall steering feel and path accuracy than any other full-size truck I’ve driven thus far, which is doubly impressive when you consider that this is one of the beefiest GMC pickups that money can buy.
Oh yes, there’s the money thing. Our GMC tester stickered for a wallet-crushing $58,144 (base price for the model is $45,865, but the Duramax turbo-diesel and Allison transmission will set you back another $8395), which will seem like crazy money to spend on a truck to some, but will make good sense to others. My thought is that for owners who will keep their trucks for well over 100,000 miles and who need and will use the superior towing power on offer, the Duramax/Allison combo is potentially money well spent. Let me put it this way. When pickup truck aficionados in my neighborhood, most of whom drive gasoline-powered rigs, spotted the Allison/Duramax badge on the hood of the Denali HD, many commented that, funds permitting, they would wish to own diesels such as the one found in our test truck.
The interior of the Sierra Denali HD was roomy, comfortable, and surprisingly quiet. Seating surfaces were well done and controls intelligently arranged, though a fair number of surfaces used hard and therefore somewhat cheap-feeling plastics. GMC’s only misstep, as near as I could tell, involved the use of faux wood surfaces on the dash, console, door panels, and even the steering wheel. To a man, truck lovers told me they frowned on the fake wood treatment, arguing that it had no place in a serious truck and that it was executed poorly enough to detract from the otherwise self-evident quality of the Denali HD. But even so, the GMC seemed much more tasteful and upscale (conveying less of a “trailer park” vibe, if you will) than the Dodge Laramie 2500 we tested a few months back. Plainly, the Sierra Denali HD would make a great working partner for truck enthusiasts who are in it for the long haul (yes, pun intended).
—Chris Martens, Contributing Editor
Periodically, we test a vehicle that seems to be in a sort of “Goldilocks Zone” where several things come together to make the drive “just right.” Such was the case with this giant GMC. The Dodge Ram 2500 we had a month or so ago was a similar three-quarter-ton diesel machine, but I have to admit I didn’t bond with that one the way I did with the GMC.
Much of this comes down to steering. At urban speeds, the Denali steering is nicely hooked up on center and gives you a needed confidence boost when wheeling around in a truck the size of a small building. It also simply makes the urban grind more enjoyable because you can interact with the car. Oddly, at highway speeds (over 70 miles per hour) the steering takes on a dead zone around twelve o’clock, which reduces the fun and returns the GMC to a more normal sloppy truck feeling.
The other element of the GMC I liked was the sense of reasonable willingness to turn. This comment has to be taken in the context of a 7200-pound vehicle that can tow 13,000 pounds with a ball hitch (16,700 with a gooseneck). Still, wending my way through twisty urban streets, I really felt I could accurately aim and place this truck. “Wander” just wasn’t a word that came to mind.
While the GMC has ample power, the throttle linkage design on diesels makes them seem tepid when you jump in from a car. But, once you’re well past halfway to the floor, the Denali starts to get up and go with a modicum of alacrity. Having learned this and the length of the truck (240 inches) you can shoot the gaps in traffic with impunity. I wish I could say that this was done while returning impressive fuel economy, but we seemed stuck at fifteen miles per gallon no matter what we did. For a big truck I guess that’s decent, but I never felt the urge to interrupt my wife’s gardening club meeting to report the news.
While I didn’t think the interior design of the Denali (and other current generation GM trucks) really fit the hulky nature of this beast, at least the design is attractive, which is more than can be said for the tasteless pastiche that dominates truck interior design. It just seems like this sort of low-key and refined setup should be in a Cadillac. I don’t, for instance, completely understand fake wood in an HD truck. And some of the controls meet the definition of tiny, which suggests the triumph of form over function in a place where that isn’t wanted. Surely there is a mid-point between fiddly buttons all in a row (GMC) and giant plastic knobs scaled up from Tonka or Mattel (Toyota)? But, you’d learn to live with the controls, I suspect, and you’d be happy every day climbing into the inviting cabin, grabbing the communicative wheel and moving out with the marvelous Duramax diesel banging away under hood.
—Tom Martin, Editorial Director
6.6-liter Duramax diesel and Allison transmission make a winning team
Exterior design looks good without looking like it belongs in a trailer park
Few full-size trucks have better steering
Nearly $60,000 for a pickup seems like a bit much
Interior’s fake wood trim looks and feels cheap
Despite the diesel, fuel economy is pretty abysmal