Payne: GMC Sierra, the hot rod pickup
I often hustle down northern Ohio’s rural roads late at night on my way to Columbus, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course or my family home in West Virginia. The traffic is minimal. I can make good time. And the curvy roads — interrupted by long straightaways bordering flat farm fields — are a blast to drive. My motoring solitude is interrupted only by a paranoia of deer leaping in front of my car.
But not this night.
I’m flying along in a 5,559-pound, Corvette V8-powered GMC Sierra Denali pickup. If I hit a deer it would likely vaporize.
The Sierra Denali is a freak of nature. Like 6-foot-3, 250-pound Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller who, despite his bulk, can explode through a line and take down Cam Newton before he has time to scan his receivers. We’re talking a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash. Maybe Miller should change his nickname from “Karate Kid” to “Sierra Denali.” This pickup will go zero-60 mph in just 5.8 ticks.
GMC likes to refer to the 6.2-liter, 420-horse Sierra as “the hot rod pickup.” It’s the only pickup available with General Motors’ magnetic-ride shock technology. A quick primer on MagneRide: Developed by GM supplier Delphi, it mixes flecks of metal in the shock liquid. Run current through it and you can stiffen the suspension. It makes for a ride so road-hugging that Ferrari has adopted the technology. (Detroit? Maranello here. Can we, um, borrow your shocks for our 599 GTB?).
MagneRide is available in a variety of GM products including the Corvette C7 and all-new Camaro, but it is transformative in big beasts like the Denali.
Combine it with the ferocious power of the ’Vette-derived, small-block V-8 and eight-speed tranny, and the pickup feels like a vehicle half its size.
Down Ohio’s rural Route 68, I hurtle into tight sweepers, the big truck planting nicely into apexes. The steering feels grounded — like a sport coupe — as the nearly 3-ton beast actually rotates through the corner carrying momentum on exit. At which point I deploy the hammer: 393 cubes of piston jack-hammering the asphalt with 460 pound-feet of torque. The roar is addictive and I mash the pedal to take advantage of the truck’s four-wheel-drive grip.
Don’t get me wrong. Three-ton, leaf-sprung trucks still demand respect. With an empty bed, the hindquarters still flutter down the highway. Go too hard into a corner and the heavy front end will plow like a farm implement. But respect the big bull’s physics and it’s actually fun to drive.
Launching out of sweepers, I gained confidence to test the big truck’s high-speed limits as I would push a 155-mph Camaro SS. Which is how I discovered that pickups are governed at 100 mph. Dang. Seems GM wants to keep 3-ton rhinos on a short leash.
Of course, for $60,765 you get a lot more than an engine on wheels. At more civilized speeds, the hunky Sierra will turn heads. GMC’s sculpted “Body by Jake” exterior is the envy of the truck world. GMC’s signature bold, square, wheel arches look like they were made in the Kronk Gym. This thing should have a weightlifter’s belt tied around the middle. Is that car wax or body oil that made my Sierra glisten?
New for 2016, the muscled GMC’s LED headlights glow with menace. The Denali’s unique chrome mouth is Mike Tyson with a gold tooth.
The spectacle continues inside where the Denali is more comfortable than Boeing first class — and as well stocked. Heated seats, heated steering wheel, infotainment screen, Apple CarPlay, voice recognition, USB ports, wireless phone charger, 110-volt plug. Materials like stitched leather, aluminum trim and handsome wood inlays abound. The Denali’s stalk shifter opens a console as big as a side table — and as useful, too, if you want to nibble on lunch on the way to an appointment. Store keys and change in the ribbed tray atop the console box — or an iPad inside it.
Back home in Detroit, I made the rounds with Pickup Bob, my neighborhood truck expert and construction company boss. Married to an F-150, he was nevertheless impressed with the GMC’s style and muscle — though he wondered how practical an executive’s truck this luxurious would be on a worksite where its club décor would quickly get muddied. Like the rugged, $100K Range Rover I recently reviewed, the Denali’s luxury seems at odds with its utilitarian capabilities.
Consider this a pickup hot rod for enjoying the open road and hunting trips Up North rather than a dirt-hauling, throw-the-shovels-in-the-back, pull-stumps-out-of-the-ground backyard bruiser.
I’m puzzled why motorhead mags don’t spend more time on pickups’ box capability. I mean, if a truck chooses not to put a roof over half its length, I want some detail on how good it is at carrying stuff. Big Three pickup interiors are similarly roomy, tech-savvy family rooms. But their beds are very different sandboxes.
Pickup Bob likes the GMC’s corner step-up (shared with sibling Chevy Silverado) making for class-best accessibility. The standard eight tie-down points are handy, too — especially if you’re strapping down an ATV (and loading ramps).
The F-150’s interchangeable box cleats go the Sierra one better for bolting in ramps so they don’t clatter about. And Ram’s fender-mounted “Rambox” storage is ingenious for storing toolboxes, coolers, even shovels. Whatever your favorite pickup box, you can fill in the gaps with aftermarket options galore.
There is little gap between the Sierra and the F-150 when it comes to weight. Ford’s new all-aluminum diet may have saved it 600 pounds over the previous generation, but that only means it finally weighs as little as its steel-boned GM rivals. Indeed, the Sierra tips the scales 18 pounds lighter than a comparably priced F-150 Platinum.
Which is another reason the Sierra deserves its hot rod reputation. At the end of your Up North family adventure, unload the ATV, tuck the kiddies in bed, then head out on a twisty road for a late-night dance. Rotate the drive mode to 4WD, find yourself an abandoned country road, then let the big, 6.2-liter hot rod roar.
The deer will want to be warned you’re coming.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Reach him at email@example.com. Or Twitter: @HenryEPayne
2016 GMC Sierra Denali
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear or four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup
Price: $28,910 Sierra base ($60,765 Denali as tested)
Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8
Power: 420 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Performance: Zero-60: 5.8 seconds (Motor Trend); 2,010-pound payload capacity; 11,700-pound towing
Weight: 5,599 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway/17 combined
Highs: Sporty truck ride; bodybuilder good looks
Lows: Too pretty to get dirty?; more box capability, please