I spent a gentle, cool weekend in the Colorado mountains fleeing reality and, at the same time, admiring the most compound-modifier-heavy automobile I’ve ever driven, the Everything bagel of vehicular grandiosity.
It turns out that the GMC Sierra Denali 2500 HD Crew Cab 4×4 Duramax Diesel, retailing at nearly $63,000, does not even top the food chain of options available in General Motors’ colossal full-size truck range – the trucks get even larger, in 3500 format, and can also be further toughened up with the Z71 offroad package.
As outlandish as that may seem, it’s just part of the ongoing truck arms race, as the one-time Big Three continue to respond to a market that many of us thought might begin to wane with high fuel prices and the general political incorrectness of driving a private vehicle as large as an aircraft carrier.
Nope – people love their big trucks, and with so many drivers still inexplicably capable of making payments on ultra-luxurious SUVs like the as-much-as-$90,000 Cadillac Escalade ESV, GMC sensed a market for an upscale redo of their best-selling Sierra line.
The result is a tough-luxe mix that’s quite appealing for those hoping to do double duty in the rugged but comfort-laden end of the pool. >From a snarling, Metal Mulisha-inspired, almost barbed-wire styled chrome grille – useful for scaring the wits out of slowpokes in Geo Metros – to the enormous 20-inch deep-dish chrome wheels and mile-long, gleaming chrome running boards (the last two are options), Sierra Denali is one pretty, brutal, 7,456-pound machine. Extra chrome trim on the doors, a subtle black plastic cap/breather vent on the hood for the diesel engine and a bazooka-sized exhaust pipe in the rear also set it apart.
In crew cab guise and 4×4 kit, it’s also one of the longest and tallest vehicles I’ve ever driven, this side of a Budget cube van, with a perch so high (the thing’s 78 inches tall) you literally look down on Excursions when stopped in traffic. The 240-inch long truck will turn you into the reluctant master of 19-point turns when you need to find a mooring spot in a crowded parking garage; the large side mirrors, the ultrasonic parking sensors and a back-up camera were very helpful for an absolute beginner such as myself.
But you roll along fully aware of (and hopefully requiring) all of the truck’s mondo-gigantic towing, payload-hauling, off-road-worthy and neo-industrial functionality. It can haul a remarkable 14,700 pounds of fifth-wheel trailer or more than 2,500 pounds of gravel in the lined bed. And with 397 horsepower and a rocket engine-styled 765 lb.-ft. of torque from that low-revving 6.6-liter Duramax turbodiesel V8, you can do all of that with great ease. Or pass semi-trailers while heading uphill. Or pull a nasty neighbor’s house off its foundations with a chain.
The diesel, a $7,195 option – you see how a $49,000 base price tag suddenly jumps with the add-ons – is one of the smoothest running yet gigantically powerful pieces of machinery I’ve ever dealt with. It’s a little cranky on first start-up but it thrums and roars rather than rattling, and when you nail it, it sounds like an Airbus on a short runway. There’s no smoke, whatsoever, and little of that big-diesel-truck smell.
The heavy duty Allison six-speed automatic transmission is also ready for hauling action but seamless for the most part, and can be very easily manually downshifted using a toggle button on the shift lever, allowing downhill descents using an exhaust brake system that won’t necessarily set your actual brakes on fire. Best of all, I got better than 18 miles per gallon during mixed use, which beats the mileage I used to get in my Ford Ranger. Quite amazing, except for the cost involved in filling the 36-gallon tank. It is biodiesel capable, however.
The standard 4×4 setup and its utterly cavernous articulation spaces under the wheel wells also mean the Sierra Denali is capable of some aggressive off-highway adventuring, though the truck’s bridge-like span meant I dragged the still-very-high rear differential while trying to climb up a chunky berm. In most circumstances, you’ll be fine.
Because, despite the absolute irony in doing so, many who purchase the Sierra Denali will do so to get the biggest daily driver they can find, and won’t ever touch anything more rugged than a gravel parking lot. For them, the roomy interior and a comfortably capacious rear cab will be the main selling points.
And they won’t find much to complain about. The driving experience is, for the most part, as easy going as a passenger car, albeit a super-gigantic passenger car. Broad, supportive leather seating is indeed very car-like, and it’s also heated and/or ventilated and infinitely electrically adjustable. There’s stitched leather surfaces throughout the cabin and an abundance of glossy, hardwood-inspired paneling. Order it as such and you can also enjoy GM’s much-improved touchscreen navigation system and an XM satellite radio-equipped Bose audio system. The other bits and pieces start to add up like the credits at the end of a CGI-heavy movie: OnStar, Bluetooth, electrically heated steering wheel, in-cab trailer brake controls, adjustable pedals and infinite power outlets.
Your biggest issue might be mounting the beast, especially if you’re of Danny DeVito’s stature. The seat of the Sierra 4×4 is a long reach and requires a delicate and acrobatic combination of running board, steering wheel and kinetic motion to get on board; your kids might just need a stepladder. Even the barn-door-sized tailgate came up to my shoulder. I realized I was not limber enough to be able to reach inside the box and retrieve objects. It’s a big, big truck.
Among the dozens of variants available, Sierra can be ordered up as a hybrid (good for 20 MPG city, 23 highway) or with an engine capable of running on compressed natural gas and gasoline.