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St. John’s, Newfoundland – With the all-new, 2019 Sierra pickup, GMC is moving uptown, putting significant room between itself and working-class sibling Chevrolet Silverado.

Boasting unique features, a flashy wardrobe and transaction prices that would make Mercedes green with envy, GMC is effectively establishing itself as America’s only premium truck brand. At a time when fat truck profits are crucial to Detroit Three investments in autonomous and electric vehicles, GMC is complementing its deluxe Denali and SLT menu with an expensive, off-road offering called the AT4.

“We’re finding customers stepping out of Mercedes and BMW sedans and wanting to get into this beautiful, premium, high-powered truck,” said GMC design chief Matt Noone in Newfoundland's port of St. John's where the Sierra was introduced to media. “The success for Denali has outstripped all our expectations. The (market) appetite for premium trucks is something we’re focusing on.”

General Motors' success in promoting GMC and its Denali badge, say analysts, is a shrewd reading of a market where truck customers demand luxury – but still value the ruggedness of trucks.

GMC is succeeding where Cadillac and Lincoln failed in the early 21st century by providing a pickup truck that rivals German luxury automakers in profit margin.

Named after the largest mountain peak in the United States (also known as Mt. McKinley), the Denali trim was introduced on the GMC Yukon SUV in 1999 to compliment the palatial Cadillac Escalade SUV launched a year prior. The badge was added to the Sierra lineup in 2001.

As the market has moved to SUVs after the Great Recession, the General positioned GMC — and Denali — to catch the wave with its midsize Acadia and compact Terrain utes.

Denali growth has been meteoric.

Since 2013, sales have nearly doubled from 74,795 units to 140,403 last year. The average Denali transaction price in 2017 was a stratospheric $55,656 — higher than Mercedes, BMW and Audi.

“Coming out of the recession, people have been willing to pay for technology,” says Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS Market, after a drive in the new Sierra. “They have opened up their checkbooks to buy content and that’s benefited GMC and Denali.”

Ford and Ram compete against the Sierra with successful, premium trims like the F-150 Platinum and Ram 1500 Limited

So coveted is GMC’s premium image that it has transformed the brand. Where the standard, $40,000 SLE retail trim was once 40 percent of sales, it has shrunk to just 9 percent of Sierra volume. Meanwhile, the posh SLT and Denali trims now account for 75 percent of sales, says marketing boss Phil Brook. Denali alone – which starts at an eye-watering $59,495 – accounts for 20 percent of Sierra sales.

Noone says the clean-sheet, 2019 Sierra gave the truckmaker the chance to push the envelope over its Chevy kin.

“Customers told us – you have this great brand, you need to do more with it. We would like the truck to look different, feel different. It has features you can’t get on a Chevy – or any other truck.”

GMC is following a path familiar to luxury carmakers like Lincoln, Acura, and Lexus: It shares a base architecture with the mainstream Chevy Silverado pickup – then enhances its with styling and unique features. 

"This is the biggest separation between GMC and Chevy we’ve seen," says analyst Brinley. "The only sheet metal they share is a rear door, roof and rear bumper — and GMC is getting technology ahead of Chevrolet."

The Sierra's exclusive MultiPro tailgate is an engineering marvel – essentially two tailgates in one that can be configured into a stand-up desk, lumber load stop, or entry staircase into the pickup bed.

The new AT4 off-road trim gains a 6.2-liter V-8 over its 5.3-liter V-8 Chevy Trail Boss cousin. It will also be optioned with a carbon-fiber bed, a light, durable material usually found on exotic performance cars.

"With Denali, we have focused on premium, on luxury," said Noone. "But we also have 100 years of delivering ruggedness, so we’re bringing an AT4 that focuses on capability. The carbon-fiber bed is the strongest box we’ve ever done. "

While Cadillac has struggled to gain traction against German lux-makers, GMC is racking up luxury-like sales. Denali sales alone were just 14,000 units shy of the entire Caddy division. According to Bloomberg News figures, the average GMC vehicle sells for about $44,000, almost 40 percent higher than the average US transaction.

The Sierra Denali pickup will top out at over $67,000. But while the Cadillac Escalade SUV can push $100,000, don't expect luxury makers to move into the pickup space anytime soon.

Both Cadillac (the Escalade-based  EXT) and Lincoln (the Blackwood and Mark LT) introduced pickups in 2002. They were discontinued earlier this decade after poor sales.

"When it's been a luxury brand trying to deliver on a pickup truck, it hasn’t been successful," said IHS Market's Brinley. "Pickup buyers want to have faith in their capabilities, but they don’t want a Cadillac truck. They want their truck brand, and then they want to reward themselves."

Even Mercedes, which sells its mid-size X-Class pickup truck in Europe and Latin America, has no plans to compete against Detroit's premium titans in the US market.

"I think Mercedes would struggle here," says Brinley.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

 

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