• 2019 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

First Drive: 2019 GMC Sierra Denali

While no truck will ever actually manage to drive car-like, GMC is getting impressively close.

Evan Williams By: Evan Williams August 27, 2018


    • What's Best: Massive space, in front, in back, and in the box
    • What's Worst: Even on Denali Ultimate, no adaptive cruise
    • What's Interesting: That Multipro jigsaw tailgate, first truck HUD, and available carbon bed.

The new Sierra is probably the most important single model for GMC. And the Denali might be the most important trim. So this truck is a big deal. Which is why I’m trying to watch the sun rise over North America – and that new Sierra Denali – at 6 am on Cape Spear. The easternmost tip of Newfoundland.

Like the sunrise that’s hidden in a layer of fog, the decision to keep GMC when Pontiac and Saturn were left by the wayside seemed shrouded in mystery. But it’s one that’s paid off for General Motors. The brand has doubled North American sales in the last eight years, and the Sierra trades places back and forth with the Chevrolet Silverado as the General’s best selling truck.

The Denali brand represents 29 percent of GMC’s sales right now, about double the figure five years ago. And with an average transaction price higher than BMW or Mercedes-Benz, there is clearly a big demand for big dollar trucks.

The luxury pickup market, though, is not an easy place to plie your wares. Ford has just upped the game with their Limited trim and Ram has a new Limited of its own. With two trucks called Limited, Denali already has a better ring to it. But upping the game means a new name. Denali Ultimate, which is what we’re driving today.

The new truck is bigger than before. In length, width, and height. That means more interior space for passengers, especially in the back where the legroom should be enough for anyone who isn’t topping seven-feet. The 1,102 mm back there is 63 mm more than the old truck.

This is a bolder truck, too. The higher hood helps frame that massive chrome grille, flanked by the C-shape running lights. The chamfered edge theme of the front door is repeated on the wheel arches, the front and rear lamps, window frames, and even the big chrome badge that tells everyone there’s a 6.2L V8 lurking inside. You won’t be mistaking this one for the Silverado, either.

2019 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

Inside, the Denali is well appointed. The large seats are heated and cooled up front, and heated in the back. They’re finished with a Denali-exclusive perforated Forge leather that is luxury soft without feeling too delicate for truck use. This cab feels lower and easier to climb in than other trucks. Step-in is low enough that tall drivers won’t bother with the running boards, though shorter occupants will appreciate the fancy power steps. Inside, the cab’s still tall inside so driver and passenger will have generous headroom. Even with the sunroof option and the seat all the way up, my head didn’t touch the headliner. At six-foot three, some other full-size pickups put my head into the roof even with the seat as low as it can go.

There are dark aluminum trim pieces, no chrome or piano black to reflect in your eyes. It looks warm, despite the metal finish. The Denali also offers up wood trim. Real, luxury-car, open pore ash wood trim. The GMC engineers groaned about the difficulty of getting it through GM’s truck durability testing, but their efforts pay off.

New for the 2019 truck, and a first for a full-size pickup, the Sierra Denali can have a full-colour head-up display. It’s adjustable for height and brightness and drivers can pick the info they want displayed. A good HUD means you can keep your eyes on the road more of the time, and with a fully-loaded trailer, it improves safety.

It uses the latest version of GMC’s infotainment system, offering an interface that will feel familiar to most smartphone users. It runs smoothly, intuitively, and quickly. And while they might not look as sharp and stylish as the tiny buttons and on-screen controls of a German luxury sedan, the Denali’s large buttons are massively easier to use. Especially when you’re wearing gloves or just waiting to warm up your fingers with the heated wheel.

2019 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

Our test trucks boasted the optional 6.2L V8 and 10-speed automatic. It’s a 420 hp, 460 lb-ft engine that can move this truck along impressively quickly. Even with 5,500 lbs of trailer and ATV, the Sierra Denali pulls effortlessly up hills. It can run on as few as two cylinders to save fuel, changing both which cylinders and how many are firing nearly constantly.

The 10-speed is quick and quiet in execution, with shifts barely perceptible in most driving. The only time you’ll really notice the number of gears is if you’re trying to use the manual-shift mode on the column shifter. Tapping down seven gears takes enough button-presses that you’ll probably just leave it in D, and let Tow/Haul mode keep the right cogs engaged.

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While no truck will ever actually manage to drive “car-like”, no matter how many times you read it, GMC is getting impressively close. The light steering hides much of what’s happening at the wheels, and there is still a slight shimmy through the wheel and felt through the chassis on large impacts like expansion joints, but it’s minimal.

The Denali is impressively quiet, though, again, it’s hard to forget that you’re pushing a full-size truck slab of air out of your way. It’s impressive for a big square hunk of steel, aluminium, and optional carbon fibre.

2019 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

2019 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

The truck market is full of trucks that drive well, though. It’s how you use the truck as a truck where GMC is really trying to set the new Sierra apart from the rest of the crowd. With new features like the Multipro tailgate, new easier to use trailer labels and apps, and even fancy suspension tricks to help you control your cargo.

The real party trick is that tailgate. Six different positions to let you access the bed with a step, have a shorter reach-in over the tailgate cutout, use a standing flat workspace, and stop longer loads from sliding out. It might seem like a bit of a gimmick, but it’s actually really useful. Especially if you’re the kind of truck user who already knows that those fancy slots in the inner bedsides are just right for sliding in 2×6 planks to keep your cargo in place and allow multiple layers. Though you’ll need to cut longer pieces of lumber to fit the new wider bed. That cutout in the tailgate is just wide enough to hold a 4×8 sheet, leaving it supported and in place on the drive home. And instead of a drop-down or moulded-in step to reach the front of the bed, the power running boards can pivot rearward. That gives you a nice wide step for picking up cargo or strapping things down in the deepest, darkest reaches of the box.

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GMC has also debuted the first carbon-fibre bed, arriving sometime next year as an option on certain trims. The whole bed isn’t carbon, just the inside. The outer fenders and the top rails are still steel. The change trims nearly 30 kg off of the truck’s weight compared with the all-steel version. We weren’t allowed to throw cinder blocks and tool boxes at it, but I did see someone take a swing with the butt of an axe that didn’t leave a mark.

The trailering app lets you store profiles for multiple trailers. Handy for users who tow a boat on the weekend and a flat-deck Monday to Friday. It will store brake controller gain settings and even track mileage for each trailer, making it helpful for maintenance. The phone app, along with one in the infotainment system, will also let you run a light check with just one person. No more finding a friend to check that rear turn signal. There is also a combined tire pressure and temperature sensor that sends a signal to the cab. No more long-flat trailer tires blowing out and ruining your tow. You can use the temperature sensors to watch for a dragging brake or hot wheel bearing too, again things that can stop you from being stuck roadside with a broken rig.

2019 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

The new weight label is one of those ideas that is massively simple, so much that even the GMC engineers wondered why it hadn’t already been done. Instead of the handful of obscure numbers current labels have, the Sierra’s tells you those numbers, but also max payload, tow capacity, and curb weight for your specific truck. No more calculator to know if your load is legal and safe.

When you have that payload maxed out, the adaptive suspension really shines. Sensors in the rear detect when the truck is loaded down and change the suspension settings. With a large ATV and a full cab, we were near max payload of the truck. Instead of the up and down bouncing along with crashing against the bump stops you’d expect, the adaptive suspension kept that big load in the bed well in check. The ride felt the same, or maybe even a touch better, than with just the passengers. Even over some massive dips and holes in the road.

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The updated rear camera mirror helps you see around cargo. The latest version lets you zoom the camera, plus change the brightness and adjust the camera angle up and down. So you can see further behind you, or even part of the bed, depending on how you want it set. With a big, tall load like the ATV, much of your view is still blocked, but there is a definite improvement. It lets you see more around a loaded trailer too.

The downside to all of these features and tech is that they’re going to cost you. The Denali gets all of the fancy interior bits, special trim, and Multipro tailgate, but if you want all of the fanciest tech, you’ll need to step up to Denali Ultimate. That adds the rear camera mirror and surround view cameras, and the cool power step bars, as well as the sunroof. It also has the active safety features you want like collision alert, lane keep assist, and low-speed automatic braking. Opting for the 6.2L engine over the 5.3 will cost you even more.

2019 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

We were also able to give the new AT4 trim a brief drive on an off-road course. The AT4 is a new trim that GMC said would expand to their full line of products. It trades chrome for dark finishes and the interior has Kalahari stitching and accents for the black leather. More importantly, it has a 2-inch lift and the choice of 18-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac off-road tires or 20-inch All Terrain tires. Plus a dual exhaust that lets the V8s sing a little bit more than the muted grumble in the Denali. The off-road track was more of a gravel road, but the lift and lack of running boards add useful ground clearance. The Rancho monotube shocks and locking rear diff give the truck a better ride off-road and more traction when things get slippery.

In an increasingly competitive luxury truck market, where the crew cab is taking the place of the S-Class as executive express, it’s difficult to stand out. This new Denali does that. Not just standing out from its twin under the skin at Chevrolet, but also from the competition from Ford and Ram. It takes payload ready drivetrains and adds an interior that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cadillac. But instead of hiding its working-class roots, it adds a host of genuinely useful features that make using this truck as a truck easier. Like the trailering app, easy-read label, adaptive dampers, and surround view cameras. It makes for a package that’s hard to beat.

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