ENCINITAS, CA -
Leave the cool embrace of Encinitas and the Pacific, head inland skirting the Mexican border and you might eventually find yourself on the Great Southern Stage Route, delving into an entirely different kind of terrain. Slalom and shudder through sand blown arroyos, through the washes and canyons that lie parched and bare under the 100 degree heat, stones pattering, dust clouds billowing behind you.
The land is open and empty. Anything living here is spiny, spiky and willing to kill you.
Eventually, you might stop atop the Diablo Drop in your 2022 GMC Sierra AT4X and watch customized off-roaders try, and occasionally fail, to scale the steeply gouged inclines below.
Then it’s your turn. Shift into 4Low and engage Terrain mode to enable one-pedal rock crawling. Stab the button for the front and rear e-locking differentials that determine power delivery and traction for each individual wheel. Then shift the 10-speed automatic to Low and start to ease down the slope, the 18-inch black wheels bearing Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac Mud-Terrain tires scrambling for purchase across the scree, rocks grating against the protective rocker guards, skid plates and transfer case shield.
At the bottom, heave a sigh of relief, spin the truck around in the powdery dust and climb back up, nothing but sky in the windshield, the 6.2-litre V8 grumbling but pulling effortlessly, the Multimatic DSSV spool-valve dampers and longer-travel off-road suspension sucking up the bumps as you slip and grip your way uphill.
The only things making all this desert stress and straining barely bearable is the gentle breeze of air conditioning inside the Sierra and the cool ventilation of the 16-way power adjust seats. And, hmm, maybe turn on the massage mode and add a little light chamber music from the 12-speaker Bose Premium audio system.
Yes, such is the grim task of off-roading in the modern age.
GMC has always tried to separate itself from the competition, bolstering the brand to ever higher premium levels, best exemplified by their Sierra Denali luxury pickup offerings and the Sierra AT4 off-roader, two different but decidedly upscale flavours that have served as the epitome of rugged elegance.
Until now. For the 2022 model year, the GMC Sierra pickup lineup has elevated those upper levels of excellence with two new “halo” trucks - the first-ever Sierra AT4X, a raised height of premium off-roader that I was driving at the beginning of this review, and its new sibling Sierra Denali Ultimate, the most advanced and luxurious Sierra ever, featuring GMC’s hands-free Super Cruise driver assistance technology as standard equipment.
Our testers were powered by a standard 6.2-litre V8 VVT DI with Dynamic Fuel Management that makes 420 hp and 460 lb-ft or torque via a 10-speed automatic and standard 4WD (a 3.0-litre DIHC I-6 turbo-diesel in also available in the Denali Ultimate). Both trucks build on new-for-2022 Sierra tweaks with new wheels, new added colours, revised designs of the front bumper, fascia and grille along with new dual-projector LED headlamp and C-shaped DRL combinations that light up with animated sequences on approach, on startup, or when walking away.
Inside, comfortable and roomy cabins feature a cockpit-oriented layout, a new console and electronic shifter, and over 40 inches of digital display - a new larger central 13.4-inch colour touchscreen, a new 12.3-inch configurable instrument cluster and a multicolour 15-inch head-up display, all featuring configurable levels of personalization to suit any driver’s needs.
And, along with all the expected apps and techs, most Sierra models now offer Google built-in, compatible with Apple and Android devices, available Amazon Alexa and hosting cell phone features we’re used to using, like Google Maps, Google Assistant and Google Play.
Keep checking the content levels and you wouldn’t be far off to think that the AT4X and Denali Ultimate make pretty well all the available Denali features standard - rear camera mirror, power sunroof and the aforementioned all-new 12-speaker Bose Premium audio system with Center Point surround sound, AudioPilot and a Richbass woofer, to name just a few.
The luxury-focused AT4X’s Obsidian Rush interior features dark technical grain leather and trim accents, dark Vanta ash wood trim and the contrasts of white piping and red stitching to reflect the red theme of the AT4X badging and front tow hooks.
The Denali Ultimate makes a different but also darkened styling statement, standing on bigger Low Gloss Black 22-inch wheels and with its unique grille and GMC badging dressed in low key Vader chrome. GMC’s six-way MultiPro tailgate comes standard as does the lightweight and durable CarbonPro composite cargo box along with Denali’s Premium Suspension with Adaptive Ride Control and GMC’s power assist steps.
Slip inside the Denali Ultimate’s Alpine Umber interior and you are ensconced in full-grain leather appointments enhanced by open-poor Paldao wood trim. There’s a nice exclusive touch inside the Denali Ultimate with topographical maps of the summit of Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America, laser-etched across the Paldao wood-mounted dashboard and also embossed across the leather facings of the badged front seats, rear seat and door panels. That Easter Egg topographical touch even carries out to the exterior fender vent badges. The leather trappings are complemented by premium micro-suede on the headliner, visors and pillars. It’s a particularly handsome cabin, with sensible controls, logical layout and, along with the expected apps and techs, most Sierra models, including the Denali Ultimate, now offer Google built-in, compatible with Apple and Android devices, available with Amazon Alexa and the cell phone features we’ve all become accustomed to, like Google Maps, Google Assistant and Google Play.
Trying out the trailering-capable Super Cruise was interesting. We’ve all become accustomed to adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping technologies, but it still requires a leap of faith to drop your hands from the steering wheel and just sit back.
And with the majority of Sierra customers using their vehicles for towing, other related technologies include up to 14 camera views including Transparent Trailer, a GCW alert, in-vehicle trailer apps and info, Trailer Blind Zone Alert and trailering enhancements to the Adaptive Cruise Control. And the list goes on.
Over the years, GMC has dragged us across continents to demonstrate the latest techs, the newest features and added amenities that, at the times, made those trucks the best Sierra pickups ever built.
This year, they’ve done it again, with the 2022 Sierra Denali Ultimate and the 2002 Sierra AT4X, featuring new apps, new luxuries and new levels of content, making these latest models, again, the most inclusive premium pickups that GMC have ever built.
At least, for now.
2022 GMC Sierra AT4X & 2022 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate
BODY STYLE: premium pickup trucks (two-row, five passenger)
DRIVE METHOD: 10-speed automatic, 4WD
ENGINE: 6.2-litre V8 VVT DI with Dynamic Fuel Management (420 hp, 460 lb-ft of torque)
FUEL ECONOMY: 15.7L/11.9L/100km (city/hwy estimates)
TOW RATING: AT4X 4,037kg (8,900 lb); Denali Ultimate up to 5,897 kg (13,000 lb)
CARGO VOLUME: Short Box 1,809 litres (63.9 cu-ft)
PRICE: Starting MSRPs AT4X $85,748; Denali Ultimate $93,648