February 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

2015 GM Heavy Duty pickups: Refined monsters

Cave Creek, Ariz.

At Hogs N’ Horses rodeo, they know tough. Every Friday evening, metro Phoenix’s fearless strap on chaps and lower themselves onto bucking broncos with names like “Satan’s Wish.” It’s a ride to hell and back, and the good ones last more than eight seconds before the possessed animal flings them to the dirt.

These ain’t armchair cowboys.

And when they dust themselves off and head home, they want a ride that’s reliable, rugged, yet comfortable. It’s no surprise then that the parking lot is stuffed with heavy-duty pickups, the behemoths that make up one in every four truck sales in America.

It’s a market that demands towing capability over 10,000 pounds. That demands diesel engines that could pull Excalibur from stone. That demands the solitude of an airport limousine.

It’s a market that the Big Three has dominated. So this is where General Motors brought a herd of auto writers this winter to show off its new, totally redesigned 2015 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra HD pickup trucks.

Arizona has all the trappings of the Old West with its Stetsons, Saguaro cactus, and rocky landscape. But this is also the New West of high tech, immigrants ... and Asian and German-made vehicles. I walked through Cave Creek’s parking lots filled with Chevy, Ford, and Dodge pickups parked cheek to jowl with Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai sedans and SUVs. Dependability cuts both ways, and far from Motown, westerners decided long ago that foreign makes were more reliable.

GM truck engineers are well aware of this dichotomy. They know Detroit fell behind in the sedan market and they vow the same fate won’t befall their pickups.

“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned,” says Jeff Luke, GM honcho for full-size and midsize trucks.

Good thing. Full-size pickups are Motown’s primary breadwinners. GM sold 600,000 units last year with GMC alone selling more pickups than Porsche sold automobiles. Loyalty towards Chevy, GMC, Ford, and Ram trucks is fierce and no wonder. These bruisers are massive, purpose-built tools that quote engine torque and payload numbers like super sports cars boast 0-60 mph and Nurburgring lap times.

On our test runs through the Tonto National Forest north of Phoenix, we were routinely approached by pickup truck owners asking if that was the new Chevy HD were testing. “Yes,” we would say.

“I like it,” an F-250 driver would reply. “But I’m a Ford guy.”

Big 3 pickups are so close in performance that each new generation model leapfrogs the standard set by a competitor before. Chevy’s 2014 Silverado won North American Truck of the Year in 2013. The 2013 Dodge RAM was Motor Trend Truck of the Year in 2012 (and 2013), the 2010 F-150 won NACTOY in 2009, and so on. You can write the 2014 headline today: 2015 Ford F-150, Truck of the Year.

Detroit’s stranglehold on the U.S. market is best illustrated when comparing heavy duty trucks where performance is at a premium.

While Toyota’s Tundra and Nissan’s Titan battle Motown makers in the pickup segment, neither bothers to saddle up against the Big 3 HDs. Here, politics is less of a distraction. Recognizing that HDs must pull massive loads, Washington doesn’t mandate fuel economy rules that put U.S. cars at a disadvantage against foreign small-car makers in the 1980s. Turbo direct-injection diesel engines make up two-thirds of sales in the HD market — not because they get marginally better mpg but because customers covet their torque-on-demand. If the EPA doesn’t force HDs to meet arbitrary fuel efficiency targets, it does require that diesels go on an expensive emissions diet. There are no less than three devices in each GM pickup exhaust to scrub particulates – but owners still pay the $8,000 diesel premium.

I’m a witness. I tow my race car to the track each weekend behind a 2007 Ram 3500.

Weighing in at over 7000 pounds and capable of trailering up to 19,600 pounds, heavy duties are the offensive lineman of vehicles. They are the biggest things bodies on the field, but quickness and technique matter too. Like comparing a 325-pound linemen and a 290-pound lineman, the bigger number doesn’t always predict effectiveness.

Take the new Chevy Silverado 2500 HD. In a drag race between a Silverado, F250, and Ram — each towing 10,000 pounds — the 765 lb.-ft. torque Silverado (the Corvette “Big Nasty” Z06 has 625 lb-feet of torque? Weakling) won despite a nearly five percent torque deficit with its crosstown rivals.

I know what you’re thinking: Dude, you drag-raced pickups?

Being one of the planet’s biggest truck makers gains you some clout in pickup country, and GM made arrangements with highway patrol on Route 87 outside Payson (north of Phoenix) to allow our team of ink-slingers to test towing capability - side-by-side, dragster-style – on the four-lane’s uphill grades. Eat your heart out, John Force.

Boaters pulling Up North in Michigan take heart: These trucks have been tested against Up North Arizona’s most formidable grades.

From 35 mph, the Silverado HD gradually pulled away from both the F250 and RAM 2500 despite its lower torque numbers. Engineers attribute this to a number of factors, primarily the happy marriage between the big diesel and GM’s Allison transmission, available only with the oil-burning engine.

The diesel also shines on the other side of the mountain. Set cruise control and the diesel’s “exhaust braking” takes over, managing the heavy load downhill without pilot ever having to touch the pedals – or the dash for that matter. No more white knuckle rides through brake fade. No more dug in fingernail scratches on the interior.

And that interior is refiiiined.

If refined and heavy duty seem an oxymoron, you don’t know today’s pickups. Like their light-duty kin, HDs are as nice within as they are tough without. Sure, the Silverado’s chassis is all-new with more high strength steel and more reinforced cross-braces than a rodeo cowboy has bruises. Belying their bold, rectangular faces, the Chevys and GMCs have undergone extensive aero work to help their big engines breath – but also to quiet the cab. Together with inlaid doors and triple door seals, these monsters are remarkably quiet even when under load. After his harrying rodeo ride, our cowboy can ease his behind into full leather seats in the LTZ trim Crew Cab with five USB outlets and an 8-inch touchscreen in the center console alone. Where the previous generation Silverado was pooh-poohed for its cheap interior, the 2015 cab earns a blue ribbon.

After a tough night on Satan’s Wish, broncobusters have a decidedly friendlier hoss waiting in the parking lot. Call it heavy duty, but it has the demeanor of Buttercup.

2015 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 HD

Vehicle type: Front-engine, 4WD, five-passenger, heavy duty, four-door pickup truck
Price: $48,925 (base), $64,200 (as tested)
Power plant: Duramax 6.6-liter, V-8 turbo diesel
Power: 397 horsepower, 765 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Allison 6-speed automatic
Performance: Payload capacity, 2,628-3,501 pounds; towing capacity, 10,000 pounds
Weight: 7,549 pounds
Fuel economy: NA
Report card

Highs: Quiet interior, better looking than Chevy kin
Lows: With diesel costing $3.80 a gallon, gotta carry around a box-full of cash

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. or Twitter @HenryEPayne

2015 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD / Vanderkaay / Chevrolet
The 2015 Silverado 2500 features an all-new exterior designed to reduce ... (Vanderkaay / Chevrolet)
2015 GMC Sierra Denali HD (Vanderkaay / GMC)
The 2015 Sierra 3500 features an all-new exterior designed to reduce wind ... (Vanderkaay / GMC)