In 2015 luxury pickup trucks are mainstays of the American auto industry. Ford, Ram, and Chevrolet each put their own spin on “capable and comfortable” and frankly they’re all pretty impressive. The GMC Sierra Denali isn’t the fanciest of the field, but it is the original. And it’s still the best.
(Full disclosure: GM let me borrow a GMC Sierra Denali 1500 for a few days because I wanted to move a motorcycle that was a bit worse for the wear. I never could get my 500 pound GSX-R into the bed but I did get to spend a lotta miles getting to know this truck.)
The existence of “GMC” was an exercise in brand engineering basically from its beginning. “GMC Trucks” started showing up in the early 1900’s as pure commercial vehicles. But as early as the 1920’s, Americans were seeing the same pickup trucks badged as both GMCs and Chevys. The difference was marketing; GMCs were sold for vocational use and Chevrolet was the “civilian” brand so to speak.
Now you might think that would make Chevy the gentry’s choice for date night and grocery runs, since you’d see blue-collar types haulin’ hogs in a GMC. And for a while that might have been the case but if so, it didn’t stay that way.
Somewhere between GMC’s birth and the 1990’s it seems like “commercial” became synonymous with “capable.” And “capable” is sexy. Now feed the term “Commercial” back through the ol’ PR-O-Matic Buzzwordifier and you get Industrial. Professional. Sounds like “the good version,” right?
Say your wife sends you to the store to buy a replacement hairdryer. She says get the best one they got. You bumble into the beauty products aisle and see Brand A is a Hairdryer and Brand B is a Commercial-Grade Hair Dryer. Now quick, without standing there starring into search results on your phone like a big doofus, which one are you going to bring home?
This is why Viking Stoves and Snap-On Tools have so much cache. These brands make quality products but they also trade as “commercial” things. It’s also why GMC’s tagline is “We Are Professional Grade” while secretly selling a luxury product.
I’m sure somebody with a major in marketing could explain the timeline of this phenomenon a little more precisely; I’m just assigning it to the 90’s because that’s when the GMC Yukon came out and when I think the GMC brand really started running with the idea of “industrial as premium.”
Then in 1999 GM totally committed to GMC as an upmarket brand when they minted the Yukon Denali; their first modern fancypants SUV, to compete against the new-for-1998 Lincoln Navigator. The Cadillac Escalade, the vehicle on which GM would later pivot their entire Cadillac luxury brand, was a GMC Yukon derivative first. Not the other way around.
Soon after that Ford trotted out the cowboy-chic King Ranch F-150 pickup, GMC applied the Denali treatment to their Sierra pickup, and luxury trucks were officially A Thing.
Flash forward to the last twelve months and the segment is absolutely burning down the house, in whatever universe that means high-end pickups are printing money for automakers.
Ram elevated the competition to a whole new level with the Laramie Limited, with seats supple enough to sauté and serve at a five-star restaurant. Now there’s an F-150 Limited with more whiz-bang tech than a James Bond car and a price to match.
The GMC Denali has kept pace on segment’s primary selling points; big power, big infotainment screen, absurd capacity ratings. But interestingly GMC seems to have exercised more restraint in the competitive escalation we’ve been seeing in the luxury truck wars we’re in the throes of right now.
Ram gets belt buckles sewn into the seatbacks, GMC goes with smooth and angular surfaces. Ford gives you a 360º camera, GMC has parking sensors that work most of the time. Even Toyota is putting quilted leather in pickup trucks, while GMC sticks to straight-stitch and subtle embroidery.
Feels weird using the word “subtle” to describe something with a chrome grille with the road presence of a container ship, but in the context of current luxury trucks the GMC Denali feels downright reserved.
But more than that, it feels authoritative. Patriarchal. It’s the dad with tight lips, a mustache as impressive as his woodworking talents, and firm backhand you don’t want to get on the wrong side of.
Parked next to a GMC Sierra Denali, the other luxury trucks feel like your crazy uncle with the pet ferret and Hawaiian shirt. Dad might not be as much fun, but damn if he doesn’t get results.
Now just in case you came here for a slightly more specific evaluation on how the 2015 GMC Sierra Denali 1500 performs, your patience will be rewarded.
The full-four door short-bed version I tested is excellent for moving five large people in absolute comfort, but just alright at moving cargo. The bed’s 5’8” long, which means most motorcycles will have to be carried with the gate down and hauling a mattress is going to be all kinds of annoying.
I already mentioned being too much of a scrawnyboy to push my porker sport bike up a ramp and into the bed, but it swallowed up my bicycles completely. By which I mean; there was room for exactly two bikes lying on their sides, might fit two more without clearing the bed gunwales.
For accessibility, GM’s “bumper step” might not be as easy for an old man to mount as the extend-o-steps on Ram’s bumper and the one tucked into Ford’s tailgate, but it sure does look at lot cleaner.
The Sierra 1500 can be optioned-up to tow 12,000 or 11,000 pounds depending on which page of the spec sheet you read (seriously) and haul 2,210 pounds in the bed. That’s a lot of weight. Way too much weight. Please don’t try and move that kind of mass your first time towing, because no matter how well engineered the Sierra may be it’s going to drive a lot differently with the engine and brakes corralling twice its usual mass.
We drove one without any special towing options, which can still haul a substantial 1,740 pounds in the bed or 9,200 pounds on a trailer. Still plenty.
Whoever drew the GMC Sierra subscribes to the KISS school of design; Keep It Simple, Stupid. Square face, square wheel wells, lines on lines. The bulges on the hood add a nice sensation of superiority to whoever’s sitting behind them, as long as you don’t need to see what’s ten-feet-or-closer ahead of this thing at any given time.
And nothing says “WITNESS ME” like a shiny chrome grille the size of a movie theatre screen.
“Classic” continues with a lot of straight lines, a column shifter, nice slabs of real aluminum, and side-panel trim that feels like a football. The front passenger seat has an a-pillar grab handle and supplementary glove box that perfectly fits a clutch purse. It’s almost as though GM designed this truck to carry a 6’ man in the driver’s seat and a 5-something woman to his right.
They probably did, and while I think running board steps look awful and are a great way to invite damage while off-roading, my girlfriend was really happy she didn’t have to pole-vault to get into the truck.
The center console storage will swallow up a gallon jug of water, your DSLR camera, or the head of one to two vanquished enemies. I don’t understand why a luxury front bench isn’t an option, but nothing says “luxury” like a big box between front passengers.
But my favorite interior feature is the truck’s intelligent utilization of its large swaths of space. Seems like every surface has a little shelf cut into it for storage. Really comes in handy for tucking pens, phones, wallets, water bottles, whatever. Kind of a pain when you need to return the truck and find all your pens, phones, wallets, and water bottles but it’d be great for the actual owner.
As I should probably be on that godawful show Hoarders, I tend to love carrying crap around. I always keep the mangled, beaten, and somehow-still-running 4Runner I’m borrowing loaded with camping chairs, water, all manners of batteries, little tools, big tools, a flag, flashlights. Basically everything you’d need to become a wasteland traveling merchant, or commit nefarious crimes. Also, it’s just fun to be able to roll up somewhere and fix something or start a tailgate party on a whim, and the Sierra’s got plenty of pockets to squirrel away all your necessary toys.
For whatever game you’re playing.
But there’s something else about the GMC Sierra’s interior you might have heard. Something of a Loch-ness Monsteresque rumor: the steering wheels are cocked a little to the left.
Many of you commenters have told me, and I never listened. I even looked at a few trucks, and I never noticed. Until now, on this 2015 Sierra Denali. The steering column definitely did not look straight.
And it turns out, fellow truthers, this is a real thing. Here’s the explanation straight from GM Executive Chief Engineer Jeff Luke:
The steering column of the K2xx lineup is approximately 3 degrees off straight on center. Essentially, if you are sitting in the driver seat looking at the steering wheel, the column is rotated slightly (3 degrees) left. This results from carryover components from previous generation trucks.”
“However, The design of the steering wheel, IP hood and gage cluster and steering column shroud largely ‘wash out’ the effect but it is sometimes observed as per Mr. Collins’ comments.
So it is off! I’m pretty picky about that kind of thing, but eventually decided it was ignorable. Mostly because after a few minutes of having my hands on that perfect steering wheel; with its optimal girth and “just right” texture between hard and soft, I’d be ready to forgive almost anything.
Ram makes a good helm too, but it’s a little fat for my taste and I can’t get into the part-wood part-leather thing. Ford’s just feels like something they pulled off a playground pirate ship.
Engine performance, economy
The Sierra Denali comes with GM’s mid-level truck engine; the 5.3 V8. That can be optioned-up to the 420 horsepower, 460 lb-ft of torque-twistin’ 6.2 V8 for $2,495. Ours was, and it was wonderful.
Having grown up on half-pint import cars powered by leaf blowers, I never thought I’d be one of those rednecks shouting “no replacement for displacement” but gershdangit if that V8 doesn’t sound sweet and shoot-off sweeter.
I gave my father a ride. “Think it can still do a burnout with all those traction control computers?” he asked, preemptively disappointed.
For the record, “yes.” You can still do a burnout. You can burn out so hard your neighbors will call the cops because it sounds like somebody’s cutting the toes off a dinosaur with an oxy-acetylene torch outside. Ask me how I know.
While Ford is committing to the less-cylinders more-turbos school of efficiency, Chevy and GMC are sticking with big V8’s. Their trick is shutting down half of ‘em to get “V4 efficiency” whenever possible. It seems to be... working.
The Sierra’s V8 conjures the wrath of Odin when you stomp it, quadruple downshift, and charge toward triple-digit speeds at a rate that’s downright unsettling. And as for fuel economy, man, I was so blown away by the results I almost don’t want to talk about it until I can dedicate a whole post to breaking it down.
After about 700 miles of driving backroads, city traffic, and maybe 60 percent highway we ended up with an average of a little over 19 MPG. Granted, that was running with no cargo or trailer but it’s pretty darn spectacular for a vehicle with this much power and capability.
I kept the truck in 2WD for most of my run, except when a monsoon broke out between Boston and New York and forced me to switch it into “automatic 4WD” and let the traction control tech decide when it needed to add a pair of drive wheels. Whatever it takes to push those pussies driving 40 with their flashers on in the fast lane.
And about that new eight-speed automatic transmission...
Try it, you’ll like it. Which is good news, because it’s about to be GM’s go-to gearbox for pickup trucks.
It never felt like it was hunting for gears, hell, it hardly even let you feel it changing gears. Okay, that’s a lie- sometimes, under some circumstances I couldn’t isolate, the truck would lurch and sound like some kind of medieval clock with a broadsword wedged into its cogs. But I mean, that can’t be anything serious right?
The transmission’s performance for the vast majority of the miles I drove was seamless, and did I mention 19 MPG?
Unfortunately the brakes kind of suck
You know how a freight train has to start stopping about a mile before it actually wants to come to a halt? Yeah, you’re gonna want to keep that principle in mind when driving the Sierra.
The vehicle’s ready-to-drive weight is about 5,300 pounds, not overly porky by pickup standards, but the discs felt way too soft to confidently reel in this thing’s thunderous stride. I guess that’s why you can get that trick “radar cruise control” feature with a little picture of a car ahead of you that you can watch turn from green to orange to (presumably) red before the passengers of said car are splattered on your Professional Grade grille.
It’s not much of an issue at city speed, but coming from 50 to 0 at a yellow light that changed a little faster than I anticipated felt like trying to sliding into home plate wearing a space suit.
Toys, technology, and features
There are five USB charging slots, four traditional 12v slots, an SD card reader, and a 110 “house-style” plug. Plenty of power, but the “trick stuff” kind of ends there. Unfortunately the power inverter’s only up to the task of personal electronics, I tried to plug in our house vacuum to suck some leaves out of the bed and it just made a lot of terrible chirping noises.
There’s a backup camera, because you could run over a child or a Toyota Prius and not know it until you went ‘round back to drop the tailgate at the next Giants game. But the parking sensors are lazy enough to wake up at the most critical setting. You’re fine. You’re fine. YOU’RE ONE LINE AWAY FROM IMPACT, DAMN IT MAN STOP!
If I didn’t know my driveway so well, I would have most certainly rearranged its stone walls had I been depending on those dumb little beepers.
And I wouldn’t care too much except for the fact that you can not see over the bow of this beast. Until you get really comfortable with the dimensions, it’s a little nerve-wracking to maneuver.
Other than that, the Bose stereo cranks out The Very Best Of Winger like nobody’s business and the customizable center screen display is fine I guess. How excited can you get about a trip computer?
The 4G WiFi, however, is extremely exciting. And not just because it means you can maintain your filthy porn-consuming habits at full-on home internet streaming speeds whether you’re at a job site or camping. Actually, mostly that. Also it’s cool to be able to fire up your computer and work while somebody drives you around in the unlikely event you can do that without getting car sick.
This is probably something you could add to any car with a portable router or whatever, but I’d totally get addicted to the convenience after my three-month trial ran out on this.
Sunroof’s a little on the small size, and what the hell’s up with no one-touch roll-up on the windows? I don’t want to keep my finger on the button for ten whole seconds in this day and age.
The Sierra Denali has Magnetic Ride Control which sounds like a gimmick on a 1950’s appliance, but actually makes this truck the smoothest-sailing full-sized pickup I’ve ever driven.
Hey, hang on, I mean that. An empty pickup is pretty much always a little stiff, since it’s got to be up to lug around your grandma’s attic. But not the GMC Denali. Thanks to some wack-ass kinda shocks loaded with Goldschlager or whatever, the truck’s ride changes based on weight and road conditions. And you really feel it.
As GM’s engineers explained in a press release:
“The third-generation magnetic ride control’s sensors “read” the road every millisecond, triggering damping changes in as little as five milliseconds in electronically controlled shock absorbers that replace conventional mechanical-valve shocks.
They’re filled with a magneto-rheological fluid containing minute iron particles, and under the presence of a magnetic charge, the iron particles align to provide damping resistance. Changes in the magnetic charge alter the damping rate of the shocks almost instantly.”
So yeah, I guess it works! This is standard on the Denali and really is one of the most attractive features of the whole truck if you’re planning on using it as a daily driver. Shut up, I know you are.
Off-road and maneuverability
8.9” of ground clearance is enough to get through a construction site or a bumpy field, but you’re not going to make it too far off-road with 80” (!) of width. Just driving this thing down a one-lane dirt road and you might as well be in the evil forest-stomping machine from Avatar.
Also, air dams and road tires, because fuel economy, pretty much relegate this mammoth to the trailhead. Don’t bother lifting it because you’ll ruin that spectacular suspension. Just tow your Jeep and throw your bikes in the bed and have a comfy ride home.
As for close-quarters maneuverability, the learning curve is steep as per afore mentioned minimal driver aids mixed with maximal size. Of all the new full-sized trucks out there, this is probably the hardest to drive based on visibility alone.
I know half of the comments on this long, eloquent writeup about the GMC Sierra Denali are just going to be “$55,000 for a pickup?!” Yeah, it’s a lot of money. Maybe I’m just getting jaded after seeing so many insane list prices (this is only ten grand more than the Jeep Wrangler I drove last month after all).
But after a whole lot of time in the new Sierra, in the context of the many luxury cars and trucks I’ve driven, I say yes; this feels like a fifty thousand dollar vehicle. So if you’ve got the means... wait a couple years and buy one off-lease for forty-something. But do spring for the magnetic shocks, which were new for 2014 and definitely wait for the eight-speed, new for this year.
If you’re more into saving fuel than tearing out stumps, I’d hold out just a little longer for when GM pairs this new gearbox with their smaller engines. Based on what I saw with this truck, I think those will ring in an era of full-sized pickups with reasonable MPG performance.
The 2015 GMC Sierra Denali is my favorite luxury truck. It’s not the most ornate, and it doesn’t have the most features. It doesn’t even have the biggest bragging rights on towing. But no other pickup has made me feel like as much of a boss, while cranking out a perverse surplus of power and managing to pass the gas station without drinking it dry.
Now please excuse me, I’m gonna hop back in this thing and ride into the desert on the wings of its enormous V8. I am awaited in Valhalla.
Images by the author, GM
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