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2019 GMC Sierra Review: Innovative Tailgate, Great Head-Up Display

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The fourth generation of the GMC Sierra 1500 pickup truck is all new and chock full of useful features. The most intriguing ones are the MultiPro tailgate that opens six different ways, a carbon fiber load bed, and a head-up display that represents the best use yet of the visual airspace sitting just above the front hood.

Add in the features shared with the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado — new chassis and body, new engines, truly variable cylinder deactivation, trailer-tow cameras — and the Sierra represents a highly credible upscale pickup. The lack of adaptive cruise control and GMC’s choice to make important safety features part of a pricey options package damps Sierra’s appeal. In the full-size-pickup market, when you combine Sierra and Silverado with the new Ram 1500 pickup, the sales-leader Ford F-150 has its most serious competition ever. Still, Ford led its closest pickup competitor Silverado by more than 300,000 units last year.

The Sierra Denali, the top trim line, is covered in leather. It’s heavier — stiffer — than high-end passenger-car leather because GMC wants it to last a long time, even in work conditions. (Photo: GMC)

GMC has rolled out the first two of the six Sierra trim lines, the off-roading Sierra AT4 and the top-line Denali. The AT4 comes with a 2-inch lift, meaning the body is hiked raised two inches at the factory, and fitting with off-road tires and special shocks. The Sierra Denali has a wide array of standard and optional features that can push the transaction price past $70,000.

Denali is the top trim line for more than a half-dozen GMC SUV and pickup models. GMC sees Denali as a luxury brand within the GMC brand, something like AMG is for Mercedes. Were Denali its own brand, it would rank fifth in luxury vehicle sales, GMC says, behind only Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus, and Audi, and ahead of Cadillac. With more than 160,000 Denali sales in 2017, Denalis constituted nearly a third of GMC volume. Pickup truck profits are substantial, especially among the top trim lines. It takes a lot of Malibus to equal the margin on one Sierra Denali.

The Tailgate to Die for: GMC MultiPro

No longer do pickup trucks have tailgates that fold down, end-of-story. F-150 got kudos for a built-in step and ramps that let you load, say, an ATV. Silverado has power open/close from the cab. Ram 1500 may get a vertically split tailgate and the halves would swing open or drop down separately. None holds a candle to the Sierra MultiPro tailgate. MultiPro’s outer and inner tailgates open, fold, slice and dice six ways. There’s a drop-down step (to match F-150), a top half that folds down, load stops, and a tailgate load shelf for carrying two levels of cargo, among the various features (slideshow above).

The 2019 Sierra seriously raises the bar with MultiPro, and owners will find it’s useful, not just a gimmick. There is even an auto-close feature available: Bump the main tailgate up with your knee and it closes the rest of the way automatically. It didn’t work well during our press drives; GMC says it’s an early production model. Also, unless you’re in work clothes, you might not want to bump the tailgate with your knee if the gate has picked up road dirt.

Denali buyers can specify a carbon fiber load bed, called CarbonPro; it saves 62 pounds of weight. GMC and Chevy have been making fun of Ford’s F-150 alternative weight-saving tailgate, which is aluminum, but what they mean is, they believe aluminum dents easily if you drop really heavy stuff from a height. It may, but not so you’d notice any slowdown in F-150 sales. Sierra buyers can also specify a factory-sprayed bed liner, done in a controlled environment.

The Sierra’s head-up display is big, bright, and intuitive. It shows lane guidelines being tracked, forward collision alert locked onto the car ahead, following distance in seconds, speed and speed limit. It can also show driving directions, phone, or audio info. (Photo: Bill Howard)

Superior Head-Up Display

HUD switched for off-roading or steep inclines. (Photo: Bill Howard)

GMC has done the nicest job I’ve seen yet in making good use of the additional space among the newer, bigger head-up displays. Every automaker works with third-party hardware suppliers but the layout look and feel is GMC’s exclusively. The display (photo above) shows speed and speed limit, navigation directions if in use, or audio or phone info. Most cars do that.

But on the left is the best part: a big pictogram road view showing lane departure warning and forward collision warning active. When the car is centered in the lane, both lane indicators glow green. They change color if you drift out of the lane. One or both lane markers disappear if the camera can’t pick up the markings. The only HUD feature missing is blind spot indicators, which enhance the mirror or A-pillar BSD indicators; so far just a handful have this, including Genesis, Hyundai, and Mazda.

The lane-and-cars pictogram would be fabulous for showing the status of adaptive cruise control except ACC is not on the 2019 Sierra. It is on other GMC vehicles (but not on the new Silverado). A GMC exec privately said, “We’re working on it.” As they should be.

GMC specifies the HUD size as 3 by 7 inches and also as a 15-inch diagonal HUD. The diagonal measurement would make it the industry’s biggest when other automakers talk about 10- and 12-inch displays for the new offerings. GMC’s is dazzling.

With the right drivetrain, the Sierra tows up to 12,500 pounds. Shown here is the 2019 GMC Sierra SLT mid-grade pickup. (Photo: GMC)

Other Cool Technology: Trailering, Cylinder Shutdown

GMC and Silverado both raised the stakes for trailer hookup and towing. GMC calls its package ProGrade Trailering. Hitch Guidance with Hitch View is a separate down-facing rear camera. It makes it easy to back up and put the trailer ball perfectly under the trailer hitch. From 10 feet away, it took me 15 seconds to place the ball an inch from dead-center of the hitch so that when the trailer was lowered, the ball settled right into place. Put the shifter in Park and the electric parking brake is applied so that the car doesn’t roll an inch or two when you take your foot off the hydraulic brakes. A smartphone app lets you test each of the trailer lights and since you eyeball them yourself, there is never the feud with your spouse/partner over whether that’s the running light, brake light, or backup light (“honey, the backup light is always white”). Ford has a nice cockpit app to test trailer lights, but seeing the light go on is really believing.

You can order a camera to mount on top of your trailer ($250) to really see behind your vehicle. You can’t have it always on (in the center stack display), thanks to federal regulations by somebody in DC who’s probably never even hand-towed anything bigger than a Radio Flyer wagon with a kid aboard. But you can flick on the trailer camera or tow-hitch camera for 5-8 seconds at a time, which is good enough. If you tow multiple trailers, you can set separate profiles for each. The profiles let you track usage and fuel economy for each configuration, too.

GM also offers surround view cameras, useful for parking a vehicle 81 inches wide. The nose camera is great if you’re climbing a steep hill or driveway. But: If you order the trailer camera package and surround cameras, you don’t get a nose camera. GMC gave us a song and dance about how useful the trailer camera is, ditto a 270-degree almost-surround camera. What they mean is: “We specified a four-port camera input box and we haven’t yet certified a five- or six-port box. Sorry.”

GMC’s big V8 (6.2 liters, 420 hp) and new 5.3-liter V8 use dynamic fuel management while the other engines use active fuel management (all cylinders on or half on). With DFM, there are 17 patterns for running on two to eight cylinders and with an odd number of cylinders engaged, the engine moves among the cylinders to make them working and idle. Sierra powerplants will include a new 6.2 liter V8 with a 10-speed automatic, a new 5.3-liter V8 with an eight-speed, a new 2.7-liter gas turbo four (310 hp!) with the eight-speed, a new 3.0-liter inline-six turbodiesel with the 10-speed (2019 availability), and a 4.3-liter V6 with a six-speed.

The Sierra Denali comes draped in leather. It’s upscale but not dazzlingly more so than Silverado High Country, or the top-end Ford F-150s and Ram 1500s. (Photo: GMC)

Denali: The Most Luxurious Sierra

With the 2019 Sierra Denali, you can spend up to $70,980 if you check every options box including the $995 white frost tri-coat paint and $2,995 22-inch wheels with 50-series tires. The Sierra Denali starts at $57,190 including $1,495 shipping. (The Denali I tested was $67,595.) The seats, steering wheel, and the like are leather, but the seats are not glove-soft. Even the Denali falls under the company’s Like a Pro branding and the leather has to be thick (and stiff) enough to survive 100,000 entry/exit cycles and still look good. Still, the Denali doesn’t have quite the interior cachet of an Audi, Lexus, or Mercedes-Benz. Or Ram 1500.

The Denali only comes with crew cab seating, meaning two real rows. For 2019 the back seat is three inches longer; the truck is 232 inches long bumper to bumper with the short cargo box. The Denali has adaptive ride control and sensors adjust the vertical suspension properties every 2 milliseconds (1/500 of a second) so passenger comfort is good on the highway and cabin noise is muted. If you haven’t been in a full-size pickup, you’ll admire a center console that is a foot across, and room in the back for three to sit comfortably. There’s an amazing number of door and console pockets, even under-floor and behind the rear-seatback storage areas. Does your car have two glove boxes?

Smaller drivers and passengers may feel the front seats are too big. There are plenty of USB ports including USB-C. The infotainment system and center stack have lots of big buttons and knobs, although because the knobs are made to look like bright metal, they’re harder to grasp than the rubber knobs on Silverado. The center display is 8 inches wide, dwarfed by the Tesla-like 12-inch LCD on the Ram 1500.

The Sierra AT4 is GMC’s off-road-ready pickup, shipped from the factory with off-road tires and lifted 2 inches. Buyers can special order other trim lines with 2-inch lift kits if desired. (Photo: Bill Howard)

Sierra AT4 for Off-Roading

The GMC Sierra AT4 is the Sierra that comes from the factory ready to go off-roading. It rides well enough on paved roads despite its knobby Bridgestone Dueler A/Ts with 20-inch wheels. It’s a mild off-road tire and well-suited to the mild obstacle course GMC offered: into a farmer’s pasture, along a dirt path at a decent clip, up a grassy hill, stop and admire the Atlantic Ocean in the distance off the coast of Newfoundland (the most easterly point in North America), down the hill and avoid some rocks, done.

It’s as capable as the Silverado Z71, which at launch allowed testers to crawl over log-roads, up a steep hill, along a boulder course, and then romp through a curving water-filled ditch of several hundred yards. My test AT4 (above) was about as dirty as any of them got. It’s also zippier inside than other Sierras, with contrasting stitching inside.

The center stack and infotainment system are functional. There are lots of buttons but direct access to functions works for many users. An 8-inch LCD in a vehicle almost 8 feet wide underwhelms in 2019. (Photo: GMC)

Should You Buy?

The 2019 GMC Sierra is an entirely new model. It’s better in every way, so much that you’ll see 2018s marked down by $10,000 plus however much discount you can leverage. A diesel and V6 are coming. The big V8 and 10-speed automatic are capable of 20-plus mpg in highway driving, although EPA combined ratings for the vehicles and powerplants released so far are 15-17 mpg. The big V8 will get to 60 mph in about six seconds.

The MultiPro tailgate is a must-have feature. The carbon fiber bed is currently offered just on Denali and the price will be lofty, at least $1,000 and quite possibly well beyond that. The head-up display is fabulous though most Sierras won’t have it. The trailering features are very good, better than Ford’s. The 2019 Sierras look better than the previous generation. GMC’s standard OnStar telematics, now 20 years old, has proved its value.

So far there are three Sierra 1500 trim lines available with vehicles just now on sale (August-September): Sierra Denali, Sierra AT4, and a mid-level SLT at $49,690 base price. These are the three that have MultiPro tailgate standard. Yet to come are the three lower trim lines: entry Sierra, SLE, and Elevation. The Sierra should start in the mid-thirties, roughly on par with the Silverado Work Truck. All have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so you can use that for your navigation. Sierra configurations include regular, double cab, and crew. Regular cab (one-row) Sierras get an 8-foot box, double-cab Sierras get a 6-foot-6 box, and crew cabs get a 5-foot-8 or 6-foot-6 box. Every trim line offers four-wheel-drive. Depending on the trim line, trailering capacity goes to 12,100 pounds.

The Sierra Denali grille is more intricate than on the lower trim lines. (Photo: GMC)

There are a couple drawbacks to the 2019 Sierra at launch: no adaptive cruise control at least until calendar 2019, you lose the front surround view camera if you get the trailering camera, and there’s a general shortage of standard safety equipment. On the $50K-$70K Denali, for instance, the only feature standard beyond government-mandated or industry-standard items is blind spot detection and that’s optional on some lower trim lines. You have to pony up $2,320 (Denali Driver Alert Package II) to get lane keep assist/lane departure warning, forward collision alert, low-speed forward automatic braking, front pedestrian braking, following distance alert (standard on most $25,000 Hondas and Toyotas) plus some cool stuff: the head-up display, automatic high beams, HD (720p) surround cameras, and a wide-angle digital (camera) mirror that takes over for the optical mirror by flipping a button.

The 2019 Sierra is further differentiated from the Silverado now, more cousin than sibling, and the Denali seems to ride better than the comparable Silverado High Country. The Denali has three features Silverado lacks: MultiPro tailgate, available CarbonPro bed, and adaptive shocks. I’d suspect some Silverado intenders will shift to the Sierra to get the superb tailgate and also suspect more will complain so much that in a year or two Chevy will get a MultiPro Lite gate. Why? Because Silverado plus Sierra still sold 100,000 units less than Ford F-150 did last year. Better Sierra loses sales to Silverado than be cannibalized by Ford and Ram.

F-150 is 18-24 months from an all-new model and is still quite capable. The 2019 Ram 1500 is an overdue new model and its range-topper, the Laramie Longhorn Edition, may be more luxurious than the Denali. Ram’s 48-volt mild hybrid system, called e-Torque, is a big step forward. Among full-size pickups, only Toyota Tundra and (more so) Nissan Titan struggle to keep pace. In other words, there’s no clear winner, only four good choices: Sierra, Silverado, F-150 and Ram 1500. Even the current Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan can be desirable with the right kind of factory incentives. You’ll like what the Silverado has to offer and at the high end, GMC has built a loyal sub-brand out of Denali customers who return again and again. The Sierra MultiPro tailgate, head-up display, and dynamic fuel management are big leaps forward.

Now read: Aluminum-body Ford F-150 pickup sheds 700 pounds, 2019 Chevrolet Silverado Review: 8 Models Ready to Fight Ford, Ram, Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Tested: Formula 1-Style Shocks Make the Difference