GMC launched the new 2019 Sierra 1500 at the very edge of North America in St. John’s, Newfoundland, at the easternmost tip of Canada — a way of conveying that the new Sierra is a very different truck from the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado 1500, 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 exterior styling, there isn’t much different between the Silverado and the Sierra, inside or underneath. All 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 body, bed and chassis; all six of the powertrain options; the slick new trailering app; and much more. Because we will detail these engineering improvements in the upcoming Silverado review, we won’t go into them in this review at great length, but you can read about them here. Suffice it to say, GM spent a lot of the development money on the systems and components that make the trucks perform better and make them easier to own and use. But the company did save a few goodies for the Sierra exclusively.
Mechanicals: Where All the Money Was Spent
GMC brought the assembled media to the pine-covered hills of Newfoundland, a remote, lightly populated Canadian province full of amazing scenery and endless ways to prepare codfish (per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its airfare and lodging at such automaker-hosted events). 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, 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. That steering feel can be adjusted, as well: Just twist the knob at the upper left part of the dashboard into Sport mode, and steering assist decreases while feedback increases. 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. The brake pedal operates with an excellent initial bite and continues to build progressive pressure throughout its travel, which gave me a feeling of confidence and solidity. Some of our editors found the feel and controllability of this by-wire braking system too numb, though less objectionable when the truck was fully loaded.
Ride quality is mixed depending on the version you sample — the SLT with its taller sidewall tires on smaller 18-inch wheels combined with a nonadjustable suspension actually rode more smoothly than the Denali, this despite the model’s adaptive drive control suspension and adaptive dampers. The shock absorbing qualities of the SLT’s tall sidewalls actually led to a more comfortable ride on the midrange trim than the more expensive, electronically controlled suspension filtered out on the Denali. Keep in mind that this is not the fancy Magnetic Ride Control system we’ve seen on GM SUVs like the GMC Yukon, Chevrolet Tahoe or Cadillac Escalade, but a more conventional system with electronically adjustable valves that vary firmness. 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 at all between the V-8 engines when you’ve got 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 is 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 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 (it should be noted that you can also opt for the 6.2-liter V-8 in the SLT trim if you so choose). In fact, it was a 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 SLT with the 6.2-liter that won our recent 2018 Best Half-Ton Truck Challenge. Both engines feature active fuel management (cylinder deactivation) 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 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 bigger V-8 handling the well-set-up trailer without any issues or drama.
GMC says that its goal in creating the new truck was not to go for “best-in-class” tow ratings because research shows its customers rarely tow more than 5,000 pounds. Instead, GMC optimized its truck to be the easiest to set up for towing rather than chasing an advertising number that doesn’t have much real-world utility. We weren’t able to tow with the 5.3-liter engine, but we will do so in the coming months, so stay tuned for a more thorough towing comparison in the not too distant future. If towing or hauling is not something you do frequently, shelling out more money for the 6.2-liter engine seems unnecessary — the 5.3-liter engine is perfectly acceptable on its own.
Interiors: Where Too Little Money Was Spent
Mechanically, the Sierra and Silverado are almost identical, save for the optional adaptive drive 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. While the Chevy has a wild-child, dramatic-fendered look meant to draw direct familial connections to the 2019 Chevrolet Camaro, the Sierra is much more traditionally trucklike in its look, with a big front collar grille, smooth fenders and bodyside scalloping that eschews distinct fenders for a sleeker look. Styling is a subjective topic, but I prefer the look of the GMC to 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 standard 2-inch factory lift.
However, I expected more from the Sierra inside, 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 quite as important on the Silverado, it is a key selling 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 a $70,000 pickup billed as a premium model has to deliver the goods.
These may be the most different the two GM trucks have ever looked — only the roof, rear doors and back bumpers are shared.
Sadly, the Sierra Denali barely improves upon the previous generation’s interior appointments. GMC describes the Denali’s trim-exclusive leather hides as both luxurious and durable instead of soft and supple; “Professional Grade” is 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’s seat (unlike the previous generation). But in what is surely a cost-cutting move, GM has removed height-adjustable shoulder belts and adjustable pedals from the interior. When it comes to premium feel and luxuriousness, the new Sierra simply doesn’t hold a candle to the top interior in the new 2019 Ram 1500 Limited or the latest 2019 Ford F-150 Limited, both of which feature cabin environments that are far plusher 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 provides a clear view behind the truck as if the backseat passengers weren’t there, when activated. 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 Unique
Aside from the styling, there are really only two items on the features list that make the Sierra more special than the Silverado, and they’re both cargo-related. First is the magical MultiPro Tailgate, a new rethink of the pickup truck tailgate that genuinely proves its worth in versatility and utility. Configurable 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 from the mid-level trims (AT4 and SLT) on up and can be outfitted with an accessory Bluetooth-connected speaker setup for tailgate parties.
Second is the CarbonPro bed in which the inner surfaces of the Sierra’s bed are made of molded carbon fiber instead of steel or aluminum (or both). It still has all the tie-downs you need in a functional bed and features all the increased width and space of the new Sierra’s standard bed, but it’s reportedly nigh indestructible, according to GMC. The nature of resin-impregnated carbon fiber is that you can’t actually dent it; it can crack and splinter, but denting it by 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.
The almost-loaded Sierra Denali I sampled rang in at $67,595 (all prices include delivery fee), while the “lesser” SLT I drove came in at $59,495. Denalis are selling well for GMC, making up 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 baked into both trucks but with more conventional styling and the slick MultiPro Tailgate, the new Sierra is a robust choice — but for my money, the SLT would be the preferred pick. It’s clear that GM spent all the development money on these new trucks’ abilities and not their amenities. If function is more important to you than form, then the Sierra will definitely appeal as its abilities are impressive. But if you think that a luxury-brand truck should have some actual luxury in it, you’re going to want to shop elsewhere.
Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.