2011 GMC Sierra 1500 Hybrid
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    2011 GMC Sierra 1500 Hybrid Expert Review:Autoblog

    2011 GM HD Trucks - Click above for high-res image gallery

    Usually whenever we head out to a new vehicle press launch, we have to sit through exhaustive technical and marketing presentations before we get a chance to climb behind the wheel. However, General Motors put us straight into a dual-rear wheel GMC Sierra 3500 crew-cab diesel upon our arrival in Baltimore. On the docket? A 130-mile trek from Baltimore airport to Rocky Gap Lodge in the Allegheny mountains of western Maryland with Vehicle Line Executive Rick Spina sitting shotgun.

    We actually appreciated this 'backwards' approach, because it gave us the opportunity to develop some 'gut' impressions of these new trucks even before we got the attendant sales pitch. For a two-hour, mostly highway jaunt, the duallie SLT proved to be a surprisingly amiable companion, but it was just the first of seven different trucks we would drive over the next couple of days. Read on past the jump find out what GM's new heavy duty trucks are like when sampled in a range of real-world conditions.



    Photos by Sam Abuelsamid, Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.



    The SLT trim level on our first Sierra brought with it leather seats and steering wheel, navigation, power-adjustable pedals and just about everything else you can think of. The first thing we noticed is how quiet the Duramax diesel has become. The true degree of that silence wouldn't become fully apparent until the next day when we drove the Vortec-powered GMC Denali, but this certainly isn't the kind of bucket-of-bolts diesel we've become accustomed to when sitting next to them at traffic lights.

    It wasn't just the engine that was quiet, everything about the cabin was very subdued. Of course, it's no Lexus LS, but especially considering how high up we were sitting on big truck tires, it was very impressive. Even with the barn-door sized towing mirrors, wind noise was kept to a minimum, and at highway speeds, conversations without raised voices were never a problem. Beyond the quiet, the crew cab was exactly that – with second-row seat room big enough to accommodate three adults in comfort. And for those times when extra protected storage was required, the rear seat cushions flipped up to provide a flat load floor.



    The single most impressive aspect of the Sierra 3500 on that first drive was its ride quality. This one-ton truck had no load in the back, which in the past would have meant bouncing around on every expansion joint and bump. The roads in Maryland are certainly smoother than what we have to deal with back in Michigan, but the GMC was nonetheless a serene operator. With a curb weight of 7,387 pounds, the Sierra was also surprisingly quick, thanks to its 397 horsepower and 765 pound-feet of diesel torque. Past criticisms we've leveled at GM HD pickups with Allison transmissions included rough shifts and noisy gears, both of which have been addressed in this latest iteration. Seamless gear changes even under hard acceleration are now part of the HD's MO.

    The next day, the skies opened up as we started off in a Vortec-powered single-rear-wheel crew-cab Denali heading further west into the Allegheny mountains where we we would dip into West Virginia. Like other Denali models, the HD gets the usual perforated chrome grille, chrome bumpers and door handles and brushed aluminum interior trim for a little added flash. The Vortec was decidedly louder than the diesel, although actually in a very good way. The small-block V8 engine has the roar that we've come to know and love since time immemorial. Considering how quiet the rest of the truck is, the engine sound actually seems almost of out place, but we're not going to complain.



    Like the duallie we drove the day before, the Denali was unloaded, and as we got further up into the mountains, the road surface quality worsened considerably even as it became more serpentine. Nonetheless, the GMC handled anything we threw at it with genuine pluck. We managed to trigger the ABS and stability control on wet pavement several times, and unlike past experiences with, say, the Toyota Tundra, the Sierra just tracked right where we pointed it. Even when we hit some mid-corner rough stuff, the rear end never once stepped out on us. Who would have thought a big truck could handle so well?

    In addition to a bouncy ride and spongy brakes, the bad old days of heavy duty pickup dynamics had us expecting sloppy, overboosted steering. Thankfully, the days of being able to wiggle the steering wheel 5-10 degrees off-center with no real response are over at GM and Ford. The Generals have a new larger recirculating ball steering gear, which, in tandem with the improved contact patch control of the revised front suspension, results in steering response that's better than some cars we've driven. The GM trucks offered no disconcerting slack zones in the steering and actually provided pretty decent feedback as the cornering forces built while driving through the mountains. Our only complaint was that the effort felt a bit light at low speeds, but it firmed up nicely at higher velocities.



    At our first vehicle swap point, we grabbed a Sierra 2500 crew cab, with a 35-foot-long, 9,000 pound (empty) travel trailer hanging off the hitch. After a quick primer from engineer Brent Deep on how to maneuver nearly 60 feet and over 16,000 pounds of truck and trailer, we headed out. Our tow truck was again powered by the diesel, and even with all that mass to drag around, the engine never felt strained, even though our drive route contained several extended grades of seven to eight percent. After getting used to checking the spotter mirrors to make sure we didn't clip any curbs or cross center lines, we set the cruise control at the 55-mile-per-hour limit and let the truck go to see how well the new smart exhaust brake worked. In short, it was brilliant.

    As the truck crested a hill and headed down, the speed would creep up by about 2 mph, which triggered the transmission to downshift and the turbo control to kick in. From there, our velocity was held in check with our set speed all the way down the hill without any intervention on our part. The first couple of times we used the system, we hovered our foot over the brake pedal just in case, but once we were confident the system worked, we just put our foot down and let the truck do the work. The beauty of this system is that it works entirely without applying the brakes. Now, if GM would just add radar-based adaptive cruise control and integrate the turbo and transmission control to provide primary deceleration in addition to braking, this system would be near perfect. You could follow traffic, maintaining a safe distance without using the brakes most of the time.



    Even when you do have to use the brakes, the newly solid pedal feel makes modulation a breeze. The most important benefit of all this is the confidence it inspires while driving with either a payload or a trailer. Towing in hilly terrain is now possible with much less concern about using up all of the brakes prematurely, leaving drivers to focus more on where the truck and trailer are on the road.

    After lunch, we switched to a crew cab Chevy Silverado 2500 with 3,000 pounds of ballast in the bed. Frankly, the big Duramax barely noticed the 1.5 tons worth of steel, seemingly accelerating just as effortlessly as the unloaded trucks did. Going around corners, the extra mass manifested itself as added inertia resisting directional changes, but it did help to dampen vertical motions even more than the unloaded truck. Another factor contributing to the comfortable ride, even in the work-truck variants like this one, is the use of two hydraulic body mounts at the rear of the cab. The front end is tied down with traditional rubber mounts, but the hydraulic units out back give the engineers more latitude to tune motions in several directions and focus on specific frequencies that are annoying to passengers.



    After our return to Rocky Gap, the trucks were available with their Ford and Ram rivals for back-to-back comparisons over a shorter loop. Only one Ram 3500 was available, and it was unloaded. Our gut reaction? If you prefer old-fashioned, sloppy truck steering, this is your ride, as it has plenty of free play just off-center and it's overboosted effort everywhere.

    Of the two Super Duty F-350s, one was loaded with 3,000 pounds of ballast and the other was towing a trailer identical to the one hooked to the GM truck we sampled earlier. The first thing we immediately noticed was that the new 6.7-liter Scorpion diesel is simply not as refined as the Duramax. It produces plenty of power and torque, but at light accelerator applications, it still exhibits some of the traditional clatter traditionally associated with diesels. Put your foot into it at more than about 35-40 percent throttle (yes, we know a diesel has no throttle) and it settles down nicely into a similar growl to the Duramax. Since this is an all-new engine, perhaps the Blue Oval's engineers are still coming to grips with tuning it.



    The other big difference we noticed with the Ford was in the area of ride comfort, which is clearly inferior to the Sierrado twins. Parts of the drive loop included some small, medium frequency waves that were noticeable but not intrusive in the Sierra. The Ford, on the other hand, felt jiggly over these same surfaces, even with 3,000 pounds of ballast in the bed. The Ford's steering was just as slop-free as the GM trucks, but on the demerit side, it felt distinctly overboosted.

    We took out the Sierra and F-350 with identical trailers for some side-by-side testing on the short loop. While the Ford has exhaust-gas braking, it is of the traditional on-off variety rather than the variable control setup used by GM. Ford confirmed to us that there is no turbocharger control currently implemented in its tow-haul mode. The result is that while the system slows the vehicle on downhill grades, speeds can creep up unless you apply the brakes.



    When accelerating, the Scorpion doesn't feel as brawny as the Duramax, even though the GM diesel only has a 7-horsepower and 30 pound-feet of torque advantage. Seizing the opportunity, we grabbed some of our colleagues and lined up the Sierra and F-350 (both with 9,000-pound trailers) for an informal drag race. The Ford did get an initial jump on the GMC, but then the Sierra quickly caught up and pulled away. Some seemed to think that Ford might be doing some torque limiting with its engine, perhaps to protect the transmission. Whatever the case, the GMC offered better performance both uphill and down.

    For our final drive stint, we returned to a single-rear-wheel Sierra 3500 crew-cab with a 3,000-pound payload for the return run to Baltimore's airport. This time, we reset the fuel economy readout in the trip computer, and in deference to the large population of eagle-eyed Maryland state troopers, we set the cruise control to the state mandated limit of 65 mph. Over the next 133 miles through the Allegheny mountains and then into the flatter area near the city, we rarely touched the accelerator or brake except when stuck behind a semi. The cruise control maintained a steady speed over hill and dale and we made no attempt to optimize our mileage. As we rolled into our destination, the readout in the instrument cluster read a very impressive 19.8-mpg average for the diesel V8 – not bad for nearly 11,000 pounds of truck.



    As you might expect, these GM heavy-duty trucks are not inexpensive, with pricing starting at about $28,000 and easily running over $60,000 when loaded up with all the toys. Of course, we've been in some gussied-up half-ton pickups whose Monroneys breech 50k, and given all that these HDs are capable of, we don't find the bottom line off-putting. Besides, people generally buy HD trucks because they need them – very few are purchased as lifestyle vehicles. As Chevy truck marketing manager Tony Truelove tells it, this is the "most expensive tool" in an operator's kit.

    In terms of raw capabilities, these new GM trucks edge the Fords in most categories, but not by any amount big enough to be truly meaningful. For example a towing capacity of 21,700 pounds vs 21,600 for the Ford is not likely to sway a buyer one way or the other. What may tilt the scales toward GM, however, is its superior ride quality, engine refinement and features like smart exhaust braking. We suspect anyone who needs this kind of truck is unlikely to be disappointed by either of these leaders, but they might find themselves feeling a bit more refreshed after an extended stint in a Sierra or Silverado HD. In the gritty world of long distance heavy hauling, that's perhaps a luxury worth more than any other.



    Photos by Sam Abuelsamid, Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

    A serious pickup for serious work.

    Introduction

    The GMC Sierra delivers serious towing and hauling capability. The Sierra is built on the same platform and shares mechanicals with the Chevrolet Silverado but exterior styling is quite different. 

    Sierra offers a choice of 4.8-liter, 5.3-liter, and 6.2-liter V8 engines, plus a hybrid gas-electric. It comes in Regular, Extended, and Crew Cab versions with long and short beds, long and short wheelbases, two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. 

    All the V8 engines benefit from variable valve timing and Flex Fuel capability (meaning they will run on E85 ethanol). Active Fuel Management is standard with the 5.3-liter V8. The 5.3-liter and 6.2-liter V8s come with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The 6.2-liter V8 is available for Sierra Extended Cab and Crew Cab models, and is useful for towing heavier loads. A 3.08:1 axle ratio is standard with both transmissions and offers better fuel economy, but it's not recommended for towing. 

    The Sierra Hybrid uses GM's Two-Mode Hybrid system. It's available only as a Crew Cab model with a specially tuned 332-horsepower 6.0-liter V8 working in conjunction with a battery pack and a 4-speed automatic transmission that houses two electric motors. The Hybrid is EPA-rated at 20 mpg City/23 mpg Highway, while compromising payload and towing capacity (maximum around 6000 pounds). 

    A choice of interior styles is available. The traditional layout, called pure pickup, has a driver-oriented dash layout with large switchgear and door handles designed for work gloves. The pure pickup interior includes a 40/20/40 split front bench seat with the center section folding down to provide a large storage compartment and wide armrest. 

    The luxurious Sierra SLT has a cabin similar to that of a luxury SUV, with two front bucket seats separated by a fixed center console. This design places audio and ventilation system controls more easily within reach of the front-seat passenger, who may or may not be a spouse, and it offers space for a navigation system and storage compartments. 

    The Sierra Denali makes for a comfortable, luxurious pickup with the emphasis on performance rather than payload and towing capacity. The Sierra Denali offers the same sort of high-line content as the upscale GMC Yukon Denali sport utility, and it's available with all-wheel drive. Denali comes with a 6.2-liter V8. 

    Side-curtain airbags and seat-mounted side airbags are standard on all Sierras, while StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover mitigation is standard on 1500 models. A rearview camera is available and we recommend it. Changes for 2011 are minor and include subtle refinements to reduce wind noise. All 2011 Sierra models except the basic Work Truck come with OnStar 9.0. 

    Lineup

    The 2011 GMC Sierra offers four engine choices: 4.3-liter V6, 4.8-liter V8, 5.3-liter V8, 6.2-liter V8. All the V8s will run on gasoline or E85, a mixture of gasoline and 85-percent ethanol. All come with automatics transmissions; manual transmissions are not available. 

    The Regular Cab is designed for fleet buyers and others who want a basic truck for work, budget play, or a clean slate for customization. It can be equipped with a standard bed (6-foot, 6-inch) or a long bed (8-foot), two bucket seats or a three-person bench seat, V6 or V8 engines. 

    The Extended Cab has two rows of seats with rear-hinged rear access doors that open 170 degrees and have roll-down windows. The Extended Cab can also be equipped with a standard or long cargo bed, and with seating for five or six people. 

    The Crew Cab has two rows of seats and four front-hinged doors. It can be equipped with seating for five or six and comes with a short (5-foot, 8-inch) bed. 

    Standard equipment on the basic Work Truck ($20,850) includes vinyl seating surfaces, air conditioning, AM/FM radio, daytime running lights, tire pressure monitoring system, Smooth Ride suspension, 17-inch wheels, and chrome bumpers. The 4.6-liter V6 engine is standard. 

    Sierra SL is available in Extended Cab and Crew Cab models, and adds a CD player with MP3 capability, XM Satellite Radio, deep tinted glass, OnStar, carpeting, chrome grille surround, body-side moldings, styled steel wheels, cruise control, remote keyless entry, cloth upholstery, and power mirrors, windows and door locks. The 4.8-liter V8 is standard. Extended Cabs get a handling/trailering suspension. 

    Sierra SLE adds premium cloth upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, handling/trailering suspension (for all cabs), and illuminated visor vanity mirrors. Crew Cab XFE (Extra Fuel Economy) models get alloy wheels. Options include dual-zone air conditioning, a floor console, power driver and front passenger seats, leather seat trim, audio controls on the steering wheel, and machined aluminum wheels. 

    Sierra SLT adds leather seat trim, a unique instrument panel, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and outside temperatures, upgraded audio system with Bose premium speakers, Bluetooth, front bucket seats with 10-way power adjustment and heat, fog lamps, dual-zone climate control, rear window defogger, remote start, 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels, and the 5.3-liter V8 engine. Crew Cab models also get a rear-seat audio system. 

    Sierra Denali includes a top-flight interior with leather, unique woodgrain console, park assist and the standard luxury and convenience features from the preceding trim levels. The options include a heated steering wheel, heated/cooled front seats, sunroof, and rear-seat entertainment. The Denali comes only as a Crew Cab with the 6.2-liter V8 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission and rear or all-wheel drive. 

    Sierra Hybrid, available as a Crew Cab only, uses a 332-horsepower 6.0-liter V8 in conjunction with a battery pack and four-speed automatic transmission that houses two electric motor units. With an EPA rating of 20 mpg, its urban economy is the best of the Sierras, the compromises being price, payload (maximum in the mid-1500-pound range) and maximum towing capacity around 6000 pounds. A towing package is standard, however. Options include a locking rear differential and a power sunroof. 

    Safety features include dual front airbags, head-curtain airbags that automatically inflate when sensors sense a severe impact to provide extra protection in the event of a rollover or secondary collision, driver and front-seat passenger side-impact air bags, anti-lock brakes, StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover mitigation technology, and tire-pressure monitoring. The optional Autotrac active transfer case, ultrasonic rear park assist, and OnStar emergency notification can further enhance safety, as can the all-wheel-drive system on the Denali. 

    Walkaround

    The front of the GMC Sierra emphasizes the truck's wide stance. The GMC emblem is set amid dark horizontal bars in the middle of an upright and chrome-surrounded grille. The headlamps are a pair of stacked, jeweled lenses. The front bumper features round fog lamps and a wide air intake and wraps around the sides of the truck to the front lower edge of the front wheel wells. 

    Top trim levels get some distinguishing features. The Denali gets its own chromed grilles, both the upper section and the air vent below the front bumper, and the bumpers are painted to match. Hybrid models are festooned with odd-looking H badges. 

    The Sierra hood has a pair of long, narrow V-shaped power bulges and leads back to a steeply raked windshield. The windshield is tilted back for improved aerodynamics and enhanced highway fuel economy. 

    The side view features slightly bulging and elongated fender flares that sweep down behind the headlamps. The sides of the cargo bed are higher than on previous models, and the exterior of the tailgate is sculpted, enhancing the rear view of the truck. Stacked tail lamps are on either side of the tailgate. 

    A cargo management system is available for the bed with side rails and various cargo-carrying and cargo-controlling boxes and dividers and tie-downs. 

    The GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado are built on the GMT900 platform that debuted in 2007 and shares many underpinnings with the Yukon, Suburban, and Tahoe SUVs. The pickups get a unique rear suspension and stiffer rear frame section. The Sierra and Silverado share mechanical components, with the exception of the unique features found on the Sierra Denali. 

    Compared with the previous-generation models, the current frame is much stiffer in all directions. This stiffness contributes to a smoother ride and better handling. It also allowed the engineers to reduce the gap between the truck bed and passenger compartment as well as the gaps between fenders and bumpers, all of which enhances aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. 

    The front suspension uses a coil-over-shock setup and the rack-and-pinion steering gear is mounted to the engine cross-member frame. The truck also has a rear axle design with shock absorbers mounted outboard and more upright for better dynamic control. 

    Fuel economy ratings, except for Hybrids, run 12-15 mpg City, 18-21 mpg Highway. When using E85 those numbers drop dramatically. The XFE (Xtra Fuel Economy) models with a 5.3-liter V8, 6-speed automatic and axle ratio of 3.08:1 increase EPA ratings from 15/21 to 15/22 mpg City/Highway. Proprietary XFE pieces include aerodynamic upgrades in the form of a soft bed cover and extended front air dam, plus aluminum wheels (including the spare) and lower front suspension arms, locking rear differential, and low rolling resistance tires. A trailering package is standard so XFE models can tow up to 7000 pounds. 

    Interior

    Two types of interiors are available. The GMC Sierra SLT boasts interior features popularized by the Yukon sport utility, providing a much more upscale environment for the driver and passengers. GMC hasn't forgotten about owners who use their trucks for work, however. So the other Sierra models use a pure pickup interior with more function, like dual glove boxes, and less luxury. 

    The pure pickup, as it's called, has a unique dashboard that is more driver-oriented and has large switchgear and door handles that are designed to be easily manipulated by those wearing work gloves. The pure pickup interior includes a 40/20/40 split front bench seat with the center section folding down to provide a large storage compartment and wide armrest. 

    The SLT's SUV-style luxury-oriented interior puts audio and ventilation system controls more easily within reach of the front-seat passenger and has two front bucket seats with a fixed center console with assorted storage compartments. 

    Either dashboard sports full analog instrumentation, and may have more information available through digital display. Operating controls are GM simple, especially on the pure pickup, while on the top-line models the central dash has many small white-on-black buttons that may require a short learning curve. Some drivers report peculiar ergonomic details as the steering wheel is slightly offset from the seat centerline (which is not uncommon). 

    Rear seating is provided for three people in the Extended and Crew Cab versions. With 34.3 inches of rear legroom in the Extended Cab, space is comparable to the competitions'; but the Sierra Crew Cab, with only 39.0 inches of rear legroom, comes up 1.4 to 5.5 inches short of the largest cabs offered by the Ford F-150, Nissan Titan, Dodge Ram and Toyota Tundra. The Sierra Crew Cab's rear seat is split 60/40 and can folded up individually for a flat load floor; this arrangement is also standard on some extended cabs and optional on others, depending on trim level. 

    Access to the rear seating area of the Extended Cab is eased by rear-hinged doors that open to nearly flush with the bed sides. Sitting in the back seat of the Extended Cab is made more pleasant thanks to the fact that the windows in the rear access doors power fully down. 

    Driving Impression

    We've driven multiple versions of the GMC Sierra and found all of them to be comfortable. 

    The 5.3-liter V8 provided plenty of power for the extended cab SLE models we drove. All engines need to be revved up (by truck standards) for best performance. Generally, the Sierra models match competitors for smoothness. 

    Of the suspensions, the Z83 is claimed the smoothest ride. The Z85 is slightly stiffer and for those who often tow moderate trailers, a good choice for towing. The Z71 is set up to enhance off-pavement driving yet works very well on the road. In fact, we think the Z71 is the best suspension setup for comfort on the widest range of surfaces. The Z60 configuration is for street performance and includes big 20-inch wheels; we like performance but think trucks should be trucks, so the Z60 is not our first choice. The NHT Max Trailering Package is designed for Sierra owners who need to tow and carry the heaviest loads. 

    With NHT, the SLT Crew Cab 4x2 is equipped with the 6.2-liter V8 engine. The SLT with NHT suspension is designed for maximum capacity trailer towing, with a special steering gear, shock absorbers, rear axle and tires. We found the NHT suspension compliant relative to its carrying capacity. Isolation and control are both very good. By virtue of its fairly stiff spring and shock rates, the NHT suspension can be driven aggressively on winding roads with tire squeal the primary indication you're approaching the cornering limits. Steering is direct by truck standards and nicely weighted, providing good feedback about how hard everything is working, though the assist can fall behind during repeated full-lock maneuvering as when backing a trailer. However, if you mostly use the truck with it empty and don't often tow, we don't recommend the NHT package, due to its harsher ride. If you do tow, however, this is the hot setup among light-duty pickups. 

    The integrated brake controller should find favor with drivers who tow RV or box trailers. However, be sure your trailer brakes are compatible with it before choosing the option, as some electro-hydraulic disc conversions do not work with the integrated controller. If it is compatible, it's a great feature, eliminating the mess of installing an aftermarket unit and offering more precise braking. We've found it's much easier to modulate the brakes with the integrated brake controllers than with aftermarket units. With aftermarket units, we find we stop a few feet sooner than intended when braking from a high speed with a trailer attached. With the aftermarket unit, we could stop more precisely and more smoothly. 

    The highest tow rating for a Sierra is 10,700 pounds on Extended Cab (not long bed) models; top Crew Cab rating is 10,600 and for Regular Cabs it's 10,000 pounds. Note these figures typically apply to a truck with just a driver on board, and vary substantially based on a variety of equipment and options. 

    Summary

    The GMC Sierra is an excellent choice among full-size pickups. Those who plan to use their trucks for commuting to work, carrying lots of family members and towing boats, may prefer the SUV-style interior, while those who use their trucks primarily as working tools likely will opt for the more utilitarian-oriented pure pickup design. We like the Sierra SLT Crew Cab for towing car trailers. 

    G.R. Whale reported from Los Angeles after his test drive of several Sierra models; with Larry Edsall reporting from Phoenix. 

    Model Lineup

    GMC Sierra Regular Cab Work Truck 2WD standard bed ($20,850), Extended Cab SLE 4WD long bed ($33,795); Crew Cab SLT 2WD ($39,125); Denali AWD ($46,645). 

    Assembled In

    Pontiac, Michigan; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Flint, Michigan; Silao, Mexico. 

    Options As Tested

    NHT Max Trailering Package ($1,370) includes 6.2-liter V8 engine, 9.5-inch 3.73:1 axle, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, locking rear differential, Z85 suspension, six-lug alloy wheels. 

    Model Tested

    GMC Sierra SLT Crew Cab 2WD ($39,125). 

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