However, revised federal emissions rules for diesel engines, favored by about 40 percent of the market, pushed the reset button so all three manufacturers have fresh entries in the dealerships now. The Silverado and Sierra, sisters under the skin targeted at different buyers, boast segment-leading diesel power output and, in most trim levels, the industry’s top ratings for towing and cargo capacity. We drove both models, in both gasoline- and diesel-fueled configurations, hauling simulated loads and real trailers over the challenging mountain roads of western Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Chevy revealed its Silverado 2500 and 3500 HD trucks at the Chicago Auto Show and we told you about the hardware at that time. Final power figures on the 6.6-liter Duramax V8 diesel came in at 397 hp at 3000 rpm and a massive 765 lb-ft at 1500 rpm. That’s 50 hp and 115 lb-ft more than advertised for the 2010 Dodge Ram with its 6.7-liter Cummins inline six-cylinder, first of the new breed to arrive. It’s also 7 hp/30 lb-ft over Ford’s claims for its all-new 6.7-liter Power Stroke V8 as used in the recently introduced F250 and F350 Super Duty models. Although GM marketers wanted to round their figure up to 400 hp, GM has committed to publishing the actual SAE measurements. “It came in at 397, and that’s what we’re using,” says Duramax chief engineer Gary Arvan.
GM says its revamped Duramax is not only more powerful than last year’s 365-hp model and cleaner-burning (with DEF injection), but 11 percent more fuel efficient and up to 50 percent quieter at the most common operating speed of 1500 to 1600 rpm. The claim of 680 miles range on a 36-gallon tank of diesel equates to 18.8 mpg. The engine also will run on B20 biodiesel with a slight decrease in range. GM couples its diesel to a six-speed Allison automatic transmission. (Bare chassis and box-delete models use a version of the diesel that meets certification standards for “incomplete vehicles,” incorporating an EGR system. Output is rated at 335 hp at 3100 rpm and 685 lb-ft of torque at 1600 rpm). It also boasts an exhaust-brake system that creates added backpressure using the variable vanes in the turbocharger, to help manage heavy loads on steep grades.
While attention centers on the redesigned diesel, the standard 6-liter small-block V8 hasn’t been ignored, with its power output up to 360 hp and 380 lb-ft (322 hp and 380 lb-ft in box-delete models or in chassis rated for GVWR over 10,000 lbs)—strong enough to demand that engineers beef up the six-speed Hydramatic 6L90 to take the extra strain.
There’s a lot more than powertrain upgrades going on for 2011, despite the shortage of evidence on the outside. While the HD models share most sheetmetal aside from hood and grille with the light-duty 1500s, and those exterior stampings are unchanged from a year ago, there’s a whole new truck underneath, starting with a fully boxed frame that’s five times stiffer, in terms of torsion, than before. This allowed chassis engineers to improve ride quality even as they upgrade hauling capacity. Unique to the segment is GM’s decision to stay with a fully independent front suspension, albeit a really beefy setup, rather than the solid axle found on competitive trucks. Axle rating on the front end is up 25 percent, and, unlike in previous years, all of GM’s 4×4 HD pickups can now carry a snowplow. Torsion-bar adjustments allow quick changes in the ride height for plow on/off uses.
On the creature-comfort side, GMC has added the upscale Denali trim level to the HD range for the first time. GMC product marketing director Lisa Hutchinson says the Denali version will match up against Ford’s King Ranch models to compete for the handful of personal-use buyers who use such trucks to pull horse trailers or the like. As with King Ranch, a working Denali is likely to be driven by the owner of a construction or agricultural operation. With HD ability, now the boss’s truck can be pressed into duty moving equipment to and from the worksite. Many such trucks are also used as mobile offices, and you don’t need to step up to Denali’s plush accoutrements to opt for the rolling WiFi hotspot abilities offered through GM partner Autonet Mobile.
Specs, shmecs—what are these beasts like on the road? For one, they’re surprisingly civilized, especially for anyone with experience in similar rough-and-ready trucks as recent as two generations ago. Jumping in on the cushy end, we started in a GMC Denali with the gas V8, 4WD and the 2500HD rating (3/4-ton in trucker parlance). Sharing driving and navigating duties on the two-plus-hour drive from the airport in Baltimore to Rocky Gap State Park in mountainous western Maryland—mostly on interstate freeways—we found the ride compliant despite lacking any load in the bed (there were four people in the cab and a couple roll-aboard bags out back under the tonneau, but nothing serious).
“An improved sense of control was a top priority for our customers,” said Rick Spina, a GM vehicle line executive, and the truck delivered that loud and clear on our first drive.
Even rough pavement didn’t jostle the occupants, and when at the wheel, we found the feel of the steering a marked improvement over every HD pickup we’ve ever driven. Later, in back-to-back comparisons with the latest Ford and Dodge competitors, both the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado HD trucks provided the best sense of full control of steering and also brake modulation on winding roads through the mountains. During our stints in the back seat both from and, a couple days later, back to the airport, we employed the mobile hotspot to handle email and even Facebook while on the roll. On our return trip, we were in a Silverado pulling a fifth-wheel travel trailer, no less comfortably. Simply managing a laptop keyboard in the backseat of earlier heavy-duty trucks while in motion would be unimaginable—too much banging around to do more than cursory typing, let alone negotiating a touchpad to browse the web. In the 2011 models, however, we were connected and productive on all but the roughest roads.
On the day between airport journeys we went to work in a couple of Silverados, a 2500 and a 3500, the first with ballast representing a near full-capacity load in the bed, and then in the dually with a ton of ballast in the bed and a trailer—a flatbed carrying a compact skid-steer loader that together weighed over 12,500 lbs. Aside from the seriously quiet-running diesel and the relatively soft ride compared to our earlier experiences in heavy-duty trucks, the real revelation was the sense of control offered.
Especially on downgrades, the integration of the exhaust braking effect, the tow/haul mode in the Allison transmission and the engine ECU and—in some circumstances—even the cruise control, we never broke a sweat. This despite navigating roads better suited to lightweight sports cars and on 13 percent grades. The scariest bit came when towing down a steep grade on a slight curve: A semi-tractor with an empty flatbed pulled into our path without so much as a wave of thanks. A single tap on the brake elicited a double downshift from the transmission and a lot of help from the engine (revved up to 3500 rpm, it was plenty audible but not annoyingly loud) to slow the vehicle. The trailer sway control didn’t even step in—to our knowledge, anyway.
A rookie could tow a heavy load in this rig and—if he paid attention to the road and let the phone take messages—arrive safely most anywhere. What’s more, he wouldn’t be worn out from the drive and could get to work right away. Which is really the point of making such trucks easier and more comfortable to drive: a less-fatigued driver is a safer driver and a more useful employee.
The Bottom Line
GM’s weakest link is styling, at least for those customers who put priority on freshness. These are handsome trucks, but if you really want folks to notice you have the latest and greatest, the modest grille/hood changes aren’t likely to do that job (though the louvered GMC hood certainly makes the occupants know it’s there all the time). The Denali is particularly good-looking while avoiding gaudiness, but some folks would want more glitz for the outlay. More significantly, the interiors are essentially the same as those introduced on GM’s trucks four years ago. While functionality is roughly equal, the other guys—most notably Ford—have moved ahead on the cabin environment. The previously unavailable Denali trim helps, but only at the top price.
Still, GM is putting up some strong numbers on the functional side of the game, including 17,000 pounds of conventional towing capacity, 21,700 pounds with a fifth-wheel rig and 6635 pounds payload in a 3500HD or 4192 pounds in a 2500HD. All those are best-in-class.
Note, however, that cargo and towing capacity figures aren’t standardized or regulated—manufacturers set their limits based on internal standards for durability and performance, with the marketing side’s drive to inflate the figures offset by the need to satisfy the customer and maintain reasonable costs on warranty claims. Tow ratings, at least, will be standardized to an SAE-established regime by agreement of the makers beginning in 2014. For today, though, variations of 100 pounds or so in payload or tow rating probably aren’t very meaningful—the margins GM will advertise heavily are mostly bigger than that.
As for the bottom, bottom line, the gas-engine GMC Denali 4×4 crew cab 2500HD we drove had an MSRP of $51,855, with a starting base price at $45,865. The $5000 in options included $2250 for a navigation package, $850 for the 20-inch wheels, $650 for heated and cooled seats, another $150 for a heated steering wheel, $395 for side-impact airbags in the front seating positions and $250 for a power sliding rear window. A base rear-drive Silverado 2500HD with the 6-liter gas-burning V8 and six-speed automatic starts at just under $29,000, including the $995 destination fee. The diesel engine and the required Allison transmission upgrade together cost $8395, an option cost unchanged from 2010. We saw a dually diesel 3500HD with many options that pushed the sticker to just under $60,000. That’s a pretty expensive tool, but when you need it to get the job done, you need it.
So who needs it? Not your mortgage banker anymore, not even if he’s commuting to that office in Dallas, though such folks used to style at the wheel of such trucks as often as they wore cowboy boots and big hats. Genuine oil rig, farming and construction workers all keep America moving from behind the wheel of trucks like these though, and they’ll want new ones long after the profilers have disappeared. Hutchinson and Spina both told us today’s market for new heavy-duty trucks is still soft but rebounding with the economy. As the housing and construction segments recover, pent-up demand for replacements and the improved abilities of the new model will drive sales. “We’re poised to pick up market share as the economy rebounds,” Hutchinson says. As GM emerges from bankruptcy and cash flow loosens up, expect it to invest in some fresh exterior sheetmetal and updated interiors in the years ahead—Chevy and GMC have the hardware underneath handled.