With its bulging rear fenders, GMC’s “sportside” Sierra pickup truck looks about as tough as a Harley-Davidson.
The “sportside” is one of two body styles available on this new truck. The “wideside,” with smooth sides, is the more typical look.
Since the “sportside” bed is some 11 inches narrower than the regular one, it would not be the best choice if maximum hauling capacity is your priority. Since most pickups are personal-use vehicles, hauling capacity is not much of an issue for most folks.
The Sierra is completely new this year, and it is significantly improved over the previous model, even though its styling is not a radical departure. Key elements of the new design are a bigger cab, longer wheelbase and tons of mechanical improvements. It is available in standard 1500 and heavy-duty 2500 series.
A number of items set the new Sierra apart from its predecessor. First is a new family of Vortec V8 engines that consists of 4.8-liter, 5.3-liter and 6.0-liter versions. This engine’s basic architecture shares its roots with the V8 from the Corvette, and as such it is quick-revving, powerful and gutsy.
Our test truck, a four-wheel-drive (4WD) extended-cab 1500, was equipped with the 5.3-liter engine, clearly the best of the bunch for all-around use. The 5.3 cranks out a muscular 270 horsepower as well as 315 lb.ft. of torque. This engine is smaller, yet more powerful and less polluting, than the 5.7-liter engine from last year.
It picks up revs like a sports car, and does so with a minimum of vibration. Even though our test truck weighed 4,645 pounds, its performance was impressive. A quick kickdown of the throttle made passing on two-lane roads quick and easy.
One reason people buy trucks is for towing trailers. Knowing that, GMC engineers wanted the Sierra to come already equipped for such a task. The automatic transmission has a Tow/Haul mode activated by a button on the end of the gear lever. Tow/Haul lengthens the time between shifts, yet shifts quicker for less loss of momentum.
Towing capacity is 8,000 pounds for a 4WD 1500 with a 5.3-liter V8 and 10,500 pounds for a heavy-duty 4WD 2500 with the 6.0-liter engine.
The second area that sets the new Sierra apart is a larger cab. The extended cab is 3.7 inches longer than last year, and the rear seat back is angled back 18 degrees for more comfortable seating.
Access to the second seat is through a third door on the passenger side. One major flaw is the lack of a fourth door, but that is being rectified on the 2000 model trucks out this fall.
The Sierra’s seats are extremely comfortable. I sampled them in both cloth and leather, and both have firm lumbar and lateral support. The leather is more luxurious, but the cloth is cooler in hot weather.
Seatbelts are built into the front seats and that has a couple of benefits. Getting into the back seat is simpler because the passenger doesn’t have to duck under belts, and the belts fit the same no matter how the front seats are adjusted. Seat travel is about one-third greater than the old truck.
The instrument panel has been thoroughly revised with highly legible gauges, updated heating/cooling controls and three power outlets. Cupholders big enough to hold any drink fold out from the center.
A Driver Message Center monitors 18 functions and warns if the transmission gets too hot, as it might during towing. A standard engine/hour use readout is welcome for those who know that time can be more important than mileage.
Heating and cooling capacity has been increased by 40 percent, yet the sound has been reduced. Heat ducts direct warm air to rear-seat passengers’ feet.
The forward view is panoramic. Side mirrors and side windows are both larger than the old truck.
The third way the Sierra differs from last year’s truck is its hydroformed frame composed of three distinct sections. It is 28 pounds lighter than the old one, is stronger and absorbs mor energy in a crash. A side benefit is that it should be easier and less costly to repair crash damage. The wheelbase is 1.5-inches longer.
Another area of significant improvement is the brakes. Larger, four-wheel discs come with standard anti-lock, and they do a much better job of stopping quickly. Their larger size was enabled in part by the standard 16-inch wheels.
The base price of our 4WD 1500 Series extended-cab test truck was $27,230. Options included power windows, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, chrome grille, cast aluminum wheels, AM/FM stereo with CD player, the 5.3-liter V8, 3.73 axle ratio, rear window defogger, limited-slip differential and trailer package.
The sticker price was $31,407.
Three years or 36,000 miles.
Point: More power, stronger brakes and a bigger cabin are Sierra highlights. The 5.3-liter Vortec V8 absolutely shines, ride quality is excellent and the back seat of extended-cab models is reasonably comfortable.
Counterpoint: The major letdown is the lack of a fourth door on the extended cab, but that is being fixed for 2000.
The styling is conservative, but I suspect truck buyers like that.
ENGINE: 5.3-liter V8
WHEELBASE: 143.5 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 4,645 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $27,230
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $31,407
MPG RATING: 15 city, 18 hwy.