If GMC is going to expand the premium Denali brand to its Sierra pickup, why is the company being so stingy with the truly advanced equipment it has developed? Is GMC afraid of the dreaded $50,000 price point for half-ton pickups? Or is the truckmaker saving a little something special for 2006 when the Sierra Denali will be going heads up with the new Lincoln Mark LT? It's not like GMC can't afford to splurge now.

GMC Sierra sales for 2004 were up almost nine percent over the previous year, according to data from Automotive News. (All GMC was up 3.2 percent while all General Motors was down 1.2 percent.) Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram sales were down while Ford posted a record year with the F-Series line, mostly due to the success of the new F-150.

Why is GMC doing better than Chevy when the two General Motors siblings sell pickups off the same GMT800 platform? First, we have to acknowledge that GMC sells only about one-third as many Sierras as Chevy does Silverados (213,756 vs. 680,768 in 2004), so Bow Tie dealers aren't exactly applying for food stamps. But GMC continues to work a little stronger magic with consumers. Could it be a more satisfying dealer experience? Is the "Professional Grade" campaign more in tune with the truck audience than the "American Revolution" theme that must also appeal to car and minivan shoppers in Chevrolet's marketing plans?

Mechanically, the majority of GMC pickups aren't that different than their Chevy brethren. The obvious contrasts are wheels, grille treatment and some equipment combinations. The trim lines are similar as are the cab/bed choices. But GMC has the new Sierra Denali, a model that Chevy has no equal.

The 2005 Sierra Denali is a continuation of the upscale Denali treatment first seen on the 1999 Yukon and later adapted to the Yukon XL. It first appeared on the Sierra in 2004 but only as an Extended Cab model. The Denali advantage over a fully loaded Sierra is availability of the most powerful engine combined with all-wheel-drive, distinctive front-end styling and a boatload of standard equipment.

Hold on, you say! Doesn't the Chevy Silverado SS have the most powerful engine, all-wheel-drive and distinctive front-end styling? Yes, but the Silverado SS is available only in Extended Cab. The new 2005 GMC Sierra Denali comes in the more desirable Crew Cab configuration with the 68-inch bed. And the 2005 Sierra Denali succeeds in its mission of offering a high degree of luxury to the pickup owner when compared to the competition. The Silverado SS fails in its mission of offering a high degree of performance when compared to the competition.

But when we picked up our Sierra Denali test model, we were struck by what was missing from what could have been the most full-featured pickup on the market. Where was the multi-link, coil spring rear suspension? Where was the StabiliTrak? Where was the Autoride suspension system? This equipment is standard on the Yukon Denali. It all fits on the GMT800 platform and can be built on the same assembly line as the SUV.

Also, where was Quadrasteer, a feature that makes driving fullsize trucks in urban settings so much easier? It was standard on the first Sierra Denali, and we miss it.

Such an advanced, high-tech pickup with all these goodies would promote GMC as an industry innovator and undisputed truck leader. But GMC chose to play it safe, and guess who is now coming out with a pickup that offers multi-link rear suspension and electronic stability control? Honda.

Our test truck had a base price of just under $42,000. Only two options-XM satellite radio and DVD rear-seat entertainment-and a $850 destination charge brought the final MSRP up to $44,205. That's the same range as the Dodge Ram SRT-10. Add the specialty suspension hardware and Quadrasteer, and the Sierra Denali price could approach $50,000. Truckmakers are probably afraid of trying to market a half-ton pickup at that price. They even get nervous when fully loaded, diesel-powered 1-ton trucks tread near the mark. Remember the last time a pickup cost 50 grand? It was the Lincoln Blackwood, and it didn't last very long.

Despite the timid approach on the high-tech suspension, GMC has built a truly wonderful pickup to drive on the highway. I took my test truck up the Pacific coast for a long weekend. The standard Z71 suspension does not disappoint in delivering a balanced ride that is very firm in the canyons and mostly well-behaved on rough surfaces. Much of the pleasure comes from the comfy leather seats and commanding driving position. Long treks are completed with hardly any backache or cramped legs. The Sierra Denali comes with power recirculating ball steering, not the rack-and-pinion setup on 2-wheel-drive 1500 models. Still, we found the steering to be responsive enough for our relaxed cruising assignment. While other 2005 Sierra models switched to a front disc/rear drum brake arrangement, the Sierra Denali retains 4-wheel antilock disc brakes. GMC employs Dynamic Rear Proportioning to maintain stability under heavy braking, regardless of the cargo load in the bed. The brake boost system was also upgraded to improve pedal feel, a longtime complaint from GM truck owners.

What would the high-tech suspension equipment do for the Sierra Denali? Enhance driver confidence and improve towing. StabiliTrak helps the driver maintain control of the vehicle in sudden maneuvers, especially in low-traction situations or during avoidance moves such as quick lane changes. StabiliTrak can reduce engine power and automatically apply pressure at either of the front brakes to slow the vehicle and help the driver bring the truck back to its intended path. The Autoride system regulates shock dampening and includes an air-assisted load-leveling system in the rear to adjust ride height as weight is added or removed. As mentioned before, these features are already available on the Yukon and could easily be adapted to the pickup. It's just a matter of judging consumer demand. There might some engineering challenges in mating Quadrasteer to the coil suspension, but it's a full-featured truck worth considering.

The Sierra Denali is already arguably the most luxurious pickup on the market. The Ford F-150 King Ranch special edition can compete in terms of comfort, and it beats the Sierra Denali in ride, quietness and interior style. But it doesn't offer the same engine power and smooth-acting all-wheel-drive options. The Sierra Denali comes with the 345-horsepower 6.0-liter LQ9 V8 engine. It's also rated at 375 lb-ft of peak torque. The Sierra Denali weighs in at just under 5500 pounds and carries a 7000-pound GVWR, so it needs and uses every available pony under the hood. Payload rating is an impressive 1722 pounds, and max tow capacity is 8100 pounds. The fulltime all-wheel-drive system includes a rear locking differential and splits the front/rear torque at a 40/60 ratio. There is no low-range for severe off-roading, but the AWD works well in most slippery conditions, such as a wet boat ramp.

The overall interior layout has been around since the current Sierra was introduced as a 1999 model. The dash/center console is often criticized as being out of date but I am of the minority that truly appreciates this design; not so much for the appearance as the function. This is a cockpit that is easy to bond with. Hand flow between the steering wheel and audio/climate controls is precise. The 6-CD changer and audio head should be one unit, and I wish the storage was more versatile on the console, but otherwise it's a competent arrangement.

I appreciate a full array of analog gauges, and the Denali's are particularly easy to read with blue backlighting and white pointers. Ford has raised the bar with its beautiful upscale interior in the new F-150, especially with the center console-mounted shifter. We know that the next generation Sierra is coming as a 2008 model, so it will be a few years before a major change is seen. Still, the current interior is spacious and inviting. Automatic climate control, 7-speaker sound system, heated bucket seats, OnStar and XM radio contribute to the comfort level. The DVD system can be operated by rear-seat passengers and enjoyed using the wireless headphones, leaving the driver undisturbed.

On the outside, the Sierra Denali is distinguished by the chrome honeycomb-style grille, projector-beam headlights and smooth front fascia. The truck also features side steps and 17-inch polished alloy wheels. A new 20-inch wheel package with touring tires should be available later in 2005, but it's expected to cost close to $3,000. Also soon to be offered is a power sunroof. Now we are getting closer to $50,000.

The Sierra Denali is more than just a rebadged Sierra SLT. The combination of powertrain enhancements and luxury amenities sets the Sierra Denali apart from any other half-ton pickup made by GM or Dodge. Ford comes close in comfort and ride but not powertrain engineering. GMC certainly has the tools to improve the Denali package even more for the Sierra. Let's hope that pressure from the new F-150 and Honda Ridgeline will spur GMC to take a few more risks and strive to be the undisputed leader in pickup truck innovation.