2019 GMC Sierra 1500 First Drive: Nice as It Needs to Be?


By now, you've hopefully read our First Drive review of the new 2019 Chevrolet Silverado 1500. Editor Mark Williams took GM's new truck through the hills and dales of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and delivered a great write-up of the all-new rig. Just a few weeks after the new Silverado was introduced to the automotive media, GMC followed up by launching the new 2019 Sierra 1500 at the other end of the continent, in St. John's, Newfoundland, at the easternmost tip of Canada.

Why all the way out there? Well, GMC wanted somewhere different, somewhere the media hadn't experienced driving before. It was a way of trying to convey that the new Sierra is a very different truck from the Silverado, finally, after years of badge engineering and shared body panels. With GMC's mission to be a "professional grade" of trucks and SUVs, doing something unconventional should be expected. Creating a nicer truck than the Silverado should also be expected.

But aside from a few exclusive features and some distinctively different styling, there isn't really much different between the Silverado and the Sierra, inside or underneath. All of the impressive improvements we've seen for the 2019 Silverado carry through to the Sierra, too — the new, fully boxed frame; the mix of optimized lighter-weight materials in the body, bed and chassis; all six of the powertrain options; the slick new trailering app; and much more.

Given how thoroughly we've talked about the engineering improvements for the new Silverado in that truck's review, we won't go into them here in great length, but you can read about them here. Suffice it to say, GM spent a lot of development money on the systems and components that make its trucks perform better and make them easier to own and use — but GM did keep a few goodies for the GMC Sierra exclusively.

How It Drives

GMC brought the media to the pine-covered hills of Newfoundland, a remotely populated Canadian province full of amazing scenery (and endless ways to prepare codfish). Our route in the new Sierra covered a variety of terrain, from smooth, slow-speed roads interspersed with occasional potholes to higher-speed freeways. I sampled two of the Sierra trim levels — the mid-range SLT equipped with the 5.3-liter V-8 engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission, and the range-topping Denali that included the beefy 6.2-liter V-8 and 10-speed transmission.

Both models performed impressively out on the road, with much sharper steering than in previous trucks. Directional stability is greatly improved over the prior-generation truck, as is body control — there's very little wallowing or dive when changing directions on a curvy road or rounding bends onto a highway on-ramp. The steering feel can be adjusted as well: Just twist the knob sitting at the upper left part of the dashboard into Sport mode, and both effort and feedback increase. The throttle response and transmission shift points also adjust to a more sporting nature, and in the Denali's case, the electronic suspension also adjusts the damping for a firmer ride. Braking feel and performance is nothing short of outstanding — the pedal operates with an excellent initial bite and continues to build progressive pressure throughout its travel, granting the driver a feeling of confidence and solidity.

But ride quality is mixed depending on the version you sample — the SLT with its smaller 18-inch wheels, taller tire sidewalls and non-adjustable suspension actually rode more smoothly than the Denali despite the latter trim level's Adaptive Ride Control suspension and shock absorbers. Keep in mind that this is not the fancy Magnetic Ride Control system we've seen on GM's SUVs like the GMC Yukon, Chevrolet Tahoe or Cadillac Escalade, but a different electronically adjustable system. It seems counterintuitive that the less expensive SLT should have a more luxurious ride than the big-bucks Denali, but the seat-of-the-pants-o-meter doesn't lie: I preferred driving the SLT to the Denali over the occasionally broken pavement we encountered.

Two of the Six Possible Powertrains

The difference in powertrains is also rather shocking in that there doesn't seem to be much of a performance difference between the V-8 engines when you have an empty truck. The 5.3-liter V-8 in the SLT was punchy, smooth and never lacked for grunt. It makes 355 horsepower and 383 pounds-feet of torque, and it's mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission driving all four wheels through an optional automatic four-wheel-drive system with low range. This is also the standard powertrain for the Denali, but you can option up to something bigger if you want: the 6.2-liter V-8 pumping out 420 hp and 460 pounds-feet of torque. It's mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission, again driving all four wheels through an optional four-wheel-drive system (though it should be noted that you can also opt for the 6.2-liter V-8 in the SLT trim if you so choose). Both of these engines feature active fuel management and automatic stop-start to optimize gas mileage, and both systems operate quite unobtrusively; automatic stop-start can, however, be deactivated, unlike on some other GM vehicles.

Throw a load into the truck's bed or hook up a trailer and things smooth out, naturally. We loaded up the 6.2-liter Denali's bed with what I estimated to be about 500 pounds of gear (lobster pots, a hay bale, a cooler, various logs and boards), and the Sierra didn't bat an eye. Even more impressive, a towing demonstration that involved four ride-on all-terrain vehicles on a flatbed trailer totaling about 5,000 pounds was equally uneventful, with the big V-8 handling the well-set-up trailer without any issues or drama.

GMC says its goal in creating the new truck was not to go for "best-in-class" tow ratings because research showed that its customers rarely tow more than 5,000 pounds with its trucks. Instead, GMC optimized the Sierra 1500 to be the easiest truck to set up for towing instead of chasing an advertising number that doesn't have much real-world utility. We weren't able to do any towing with the smaller 5.3-liter engine, but we will in the coming months, so stay tuned for a more thorough towing comparison in the not-too-distant future. But if towing or hauling is not something you do frequently, shelling out more money for the 6.2-liter engine seems like an expense you simply don't need to take on — the 5.3-liter engine is perfectly acceptable on its own.

Luxing It Up

Mechanically, the Sierra and Silverado are almost identical, save for the optional Adaptive Ride Control you can get only on the Sierra. Style-wise, however, they couldn't be more different. These may be the most different the two GM trucks have ever looked — only the roof, rear doors and back bumpers are shared between the trucks. While the Chevy has a wild-child, dramatic-fendered look to it meant to draw direct familial connections between it and the 2019 Chevrolet Camaro, the Sierra is much more traditionally trucklike in its look, with a big front collar grille, smooth fenders and body-side scalloping that eschews distinct fenders for a sleeker look. Styling is a subjective topic, but I prefer the look of the GMC over the Chevrolet with its cleaner, more cohesive overall design front to back. It looks especially good de-chromed in the off-road AT4 model thanks to monochromatic paint, more aggressive, chunkier all-terrain tires and a 2-inch suspension lift.

Inside, however, I expected more from the Sierra, especially in the expensive Denali trim. The latest Sierra does little to move the bar for interior quality or luxury, and while luxury may not be terribly important on the Silverado, it's a key factor for the GMC Sierra. For many pickup owners, the quality of the leather or the fluidity of the switches or the gaps and fitment of the doors and panels on the interior are secondary to the truck's capabilities and durability — but when we're now talking about a $70,000 pickup billed as a premium model, you have to deliver the goods.

Sadly, the Sierra Denali doesn't move the needle at all from the previous-generation truck's interior appointments or choice of materials. GMC describes the Denali's trim-exclusive leather hides as both luxurious and durable instead of soft and supple — "professional grade," which is frankly not an appealing descriptor of an expensive leather interior. We can rejoice in the fact that the steering wheel is now centered on the driver seat (unlike the previous generation). But in what is most likely a cost-cutting move, GM has removed height-adjustable shoulder belts from the interior. When it comes to premium feel and luxuriousness, the new Sierra simply doesn't meet the bar set by the new 2019 Ram 1500 Limited or the latest Ford F-150 Limited, both of which feature cabin environments that are far more plush, with much nicer quality wood, authentic-looking metal trim and overall designs that look more up-to-date.

In fact, plant yourself in the lesser-trim SLT and you'll be hard-pressed to realize much difference from the Denali interior at all. There may be a few things missing, such as the digital information cluster in the gauges, the head-up display and the second-generation rear camera mirror that, when activated, provides a clear view behind the truck as if the backseat passengers weren't there. But in terms of trim quality, design, color choice and material luxuriousness, the new Denali isn't a big enough bump up from the SLT to make it worth the extra cost.

What Makes the Sierra Special

Aside from the styling, there are really only two items on the features list that make the GMC Sierra more special than the Chevrolet Silverado, and they're both cargo-related. First is the magical , a new rethink of the pickup truck tailgate that genuinely proves its worth in versatility and utility. Able to be configured into one of six different positions, it gives the Sierra owner more options for hauling cargo than the Silverado owner gets. We stuffed the aforementioned cargo, a mishmash of odd shapes and sizes, into the bed and easily secured it, something that would've been much more challenging in the Silverado — or really any other pickup without the Sierra's novel adaptable tailgate. Even better: The MultiPro Tailgate is standard on both the Denali and on the mid-level trims (AT4 and SLT), and can even be outfitted with an accessory Bluetooth-connected speaker setup for tailgate parties.

Second is the CarbonPro bed, in which the inner wall of the Sierra's bed is made out of molded carbon fiber instead of steel or aluminum (or both). It still has all the tie-downs you need in a functional bed, features all the width and space of the new Sierra's standard bed, but is nigh indestructible, according to GMC. The nature of resin-impregnated carbon fiber is that you can't actually dent it; it cracks and splinters, but dents from banging it or dropping something onto it just isn't possible. We may need to test this durability versus the Ford F-150's all-aluminum box and the standard steel bed of the other GM pickups in the near future.

Arriving Now

Full pricing is not yet published for the new 2019 Sierra, which is odd given that the as you read this. If you check out the 2019 Sierra on the brand's website, you'll actually see the old-model truck, which is being kept in production concurrently with the new one, but labeled the "2019 Sierra 1500 Limited" with very few options. Some pricing info is available, however, I was able to discover that the almost-loaded Sierra Denali I sampled rang in at $67,595 including destination fees, while the "lesser" SLT I drove came in at $59,495. Denalis are selling well for GMC, making up nearly a third of the total volume throughout the brand's entire lineup, so folks aren't afraid to spend some bucks on their trucks here.

If you're looking for a more premium take on the Silverado, or simply something that enjoys all the under-hood improvements that are baked into both trucks but with more conventional styling and the slick MultiPro Tailgate, the new 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 is a robust choice — but for my money, the SLT would be the preferred pick. photos by Aaron Bragman

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Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman has had over 25 years of experience in the auto industry as a journalist, analyst, purchasing agent and program manager. Bragman grew up around his father’s classic Triumph sports cars (which were all sold and gone when he turned 16, much to his frustration) and comes from a Detroit family where cars put food on tables as much as smiles on faces. Today, he’s a member of the Automotive Press Association and the Midwest Automotive Media Association. His pronouns are he/him, but his adjectives are fat/sassy. Email Aaron Bragman

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