2004 GMC Sierra 3500 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Crew cabs galore.
GMC Sierra offers first-class hauling and towing capabilities yet offers a smooth, comfortable ride among the full-size pickups. Even compared to more recently introduced or re-engineered models from Ford, Dodge, and Nissan, the Sierra rides and handles very well.
New for 2004 is a roomy and comfortable Sierra 1500 Crew Cab available with 2WD or 4WD, in SLE or SLT trim. Built with a new 5-foot, 8-inch cargo box the new 1500 Crew Cab is shorter than extended-cab trucks and is designed for easier parking and maneuverability. Crew Cab models offer a rear-seat DVD entertainment center as an option, making these pickups an attractive alternative to a full-size SUV.
GMC Sierra’s current design dates from 1999, but it was significantly refined and updated last year, with a bolder, more raked front end. Its interior was revised as well, for improved function and appearance. The brakes were upgraded, and the engines tuned to run cleaner.
These are great tow vehicles. The Sierra Denali, for example, is rated to tow trailers of up to 9,900 pounds. Combined with Quadrasteer, heavy-duty brakes and a relatively long wheelbase, the Sierra Denali makes for a supremely stable tow vehicle.
GMC Sierra comes in two- and four-wheel-drive models; in light-duty (1500) medium-duty (2500) and heavy-duty (3500) loading and towing capacities; with short-bed (6-foot-6-inch) and long-bed (8-foot) bodies, and with step-side or full-width beds. There are standard-length two-door cabs, extended-length cabs with two auxiliary doors in the rear, and Crew Cabs with four full-size doors. (This review focuses on the Sierra 1500 models.)
Engine choices include 4.3-liter V6, 4.8-liter V8, and 5.3-liter V8. The 2500/3500 HD models come with a 300-horsepower, 6.0-liter V8. Five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions are offered.
The new 1500 Crew Cab is powered by the 5.3-liter V8 and features a shorter wheelbase than last year's 1500 HD (143.5 inches, vs. 153.0), made possible by its extra-short 5-foot-8-inch box. (Last year’s 1500 HD model, with its monster 3094-pound payload, six-passenger Crew Cab, and 6.0-liter V8, has been re-designated a 2500 HD-series model for 2004.)
Base models have been upgraded for 2004 with an attractive chrome grille molding, chrome steel wheels, and a chrome rear bumper, plus cruise control as standard equipment. Carpeting and cloth seats are also standard. The W/T (Work Truck) package is now available on all Sierra models. The W/T deletes the front-end chrome and carpeting, and substitutes vinyl seats, for a credit of $200-$700, depending on cab style.
SLE trim adds a CD player, fog lamps, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Leather upholstery is optional. SLT trim, available on Extended Cabs and Crew Cabs, adds automatic air conditioning, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, and OnStar telecommunications.
Sierra Denali, the flagship of the fleet, is an extended-cab, short-bed 4x4. Denali packs a 325-horsepower version of the 6.0-liter V8, along with automatic transmission and an exclusive, sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system. Denali comes with OnStar, tone-on-tone leather, dual-zone automatic climate control, extra sound deadening, a Bose audio system with separate controls for rear-seat passengers, a unique console and other exclusive amenities. It's equipped with steering wheel controls for the audio system, OnStar, trip computer, and other programmable functions. Denali also provides a lockable floor console large enough to hold a picnic lunch for a family of four; it comes with a reversible, removable cup holder tray and a storage nook in front of the lid.
Quadrasteer is available on Sierra 1500 short-bed Extended Cabs and 2500 HD Crew Cabs, and comes standard on the Denali. An electronically controlled four-wheel-steering system, Quadrasteer reduces Sierra’s curb-to-curb turning diameter by 21 percent and enhances high-speed stability. Quadrasteer comes packaged with a limited-slip differential and a trailer-tow package.
The front styling of the GMC Sierra ties it closely to the mid-size GMC Envoy, and to some of the great GMC pickups of the past. The chrome-framed grille consists of three black horizontal bars that prominently display a big red GMC emblem. Chromed front bumpers include two airflow cutouts. Up-level models have a body-colored lower front fascia; base models have a light-charcoal fascia.
Compared with the Chevy Silverado, GMC’s styling is more conservative, more mature, with smoother, more sophisticated lines. Overall, it’s a look that a lot of truck buyers will like: more upscale than the Chevrolet pickup, more conservative than the Dodge or Ford pickups.
Premium Sierra models offer 16-inch bright-machined aluminum wheels; 17-inch wheels are available for 4WD models. An optional grille/brush guard adds front-end protection. A single OnStar roof antenna combines the GPS and cell-phone functions.
The load height (the distance from the ground to the bed) for 2WD Sierra models is just 31.6 inches. For 4WD models, it's 33.7 inches.
All GMC Sierras are built on the stiffest and lightest truck frame General Motors has ever produced. The frame rails are hydroformed, a process that uses high-pressure hydraulics to shape relatively large steel components. Tubular crossmembers and roll-formed mid-rails increase rigidity further. This stiff structure enhances handling and ride quality immensely, while improving crashworthiness.
The GMC Sierra cab remains among the roomiest in the industry, with large door openings to aid entry and exit. The interior was extensively redesigned for 2003.
The seats are big and cushy. Whether you like them depends to some extent on how you're built and how you like your seats. I don't find them as comfortable as those in other pickups, which use firmer, more contoured, more supportive seats. Other pickup owners find the GM seats more to their liking. Also, the interior door handles are ropey and awkward.
The instrument cluster features highly legible gauges with white backlighting and orange pointers. The Denali’s gauges feature blue backlighting and white pointers. A driver information center reports on as many as 27 vehicle functions with an easy-to-read, single-line LCD display. A compass is incorporated into the overhead console, along with three storage areas for sunglasses, garage door opener, and small items.
Audio and climate controls, which were introduced for 2003, are sophisticated, yet easy to operate. XM Satellite Radio is available as an option, great for traveling because the stations don’t change as you drive across the country, allowing you to keep up on news and weather or listen to your favorite types of music. You still get ads, but XM Satellite seems less commercial than FM. The system comes with AM, FM1, FM2, XM1, and XM2 bands. Optional audio controls on the steering wheel make it easy to switch among station presets and modes. Set your stations carefully and you can quickly zip to favorite stations scattered among AM, FM, and XM Satellite without taking your hands off the wheel.
Optional bucket seats come with an extended center console that flows into the instrument panel. It includes a storage compartment and a 12-volt power outlet at the rear. (All Sierras come with three 12-volt power outlets at the bottom center of the dash.) Vents and HVAC controls for rear-seat passengers are mounted on the rear of the center console on Crew Cabs and Extended Cabs.
Extended-cab models offer surprisingly good back seat accommodations. Climb through the reverse-opening rear door and find a seat that’s reasonably comfortable. Rear-seat passengers get their own air-conditioning outlets and a set of drop-down cup holders. When cargo capacity is more important than hauling passengers, the entire rear seat assembly can be loosened from the floor with a wrench and removed through one of the side doors. Not exactly quick release, but a useful feature.
The rear seats in the Crew Cab models are as roomy as the second-row of seats in a Suburban. Sierra Crew Cabs are capable of carrying six passengers and is very roomy with four. With optional leather, a Crew Cab feels truly luxurious. Rear seats are split 60/40 and fold down, providing a large protected cargo area inside the cab.
A Panasonic DVD system ($995) is available for the 1500 Crew Cab, turning it into a real family vehicle. The system comes with a seven-inch flip-down screen for watching DVD movies and cartoons, a CD player, two sets of wireless headphones with independent volume control, a wireless remote control and three sets of auxiliary video and audio inputs.
Safety is enhanced with dual-stage airbags (1500 only), which deploy with less force in less-severe collisions. An automatic passenger-sensing system assesses whether the occupant in the seat is an adult or child, based on weight and seat belt tension, and deactivates the passenger-side air bag accordingly. An indicator light in the rearview mirror lets the driver know when the airbag is deactivated. Three-point seat belts are provided in all first and second-row seat positions.
No question, GMC Sierra represents a great line of full-size pickups. On the road, the Sierra is quiet and well behaved, more so than other full-size pickups. It's stable at high speeds, particularly the longer wheelbase (143.5-inch) models. It rides well and handles well.
The 5300 V8 makes for an enjoyable engine around town and on the Interstate. The 5.3-liter (327-cubic-inch) engine is rated 295 horsepower with 330 pounds-feet of torque, plenty for light towing and hauling. The available V6 produces 200 horsepower and 260 pounds-feet of torque, but most Sierra buyers opt for a V8 and automatic transmission. With 285 horsepower and 295 pounds-feet, the 4.8-liter V8 is the most popular engine for this truck. With its 6.0-liter V8, the Denali really gets with the program.
A Tow/Haul mode helps the four-speed automatic transmission keep its cool when towing. Press the Tow/Haul button on the end of the shifter, and the transmission holds gears longer before shifting up or down, reducing the annoying tendency to hunt between third and fourth gears in hilly terrain. Shifts are harder and quicker in Tow mode, reducing heat buildup in the transmission. We find it improves the performance of the truck when pulling a trailer and reduces driver annoyance levels.
Two-wheel-drive 1500s have rack-and-pinion steering, but there is still a fairly wide dead spot in the center when cruising. GMC says this is intentional, to minimize steering corrections on the highway. The steering feels a bit light, but the truck tracks beautifully and handles well on pavement, loose dirt, deep dirt and even off-road. Recirculating-ball steering comes on 2500/3500, four-wheel-drive, and Quadrasteer models.
Quadrasteer makes driving these big pickups so much nicer in tight, crowded parking lots. It reduces the turning circle by 10 feet on an extended-cab short-box model (from 47.3 to 37.4). On the road, our Quadrasteer-equipped truck felt more stable, especially on winding roads, where it was easier to drive, and where the trailer tracked better behind it. If you tow frequently, you really owe it to yourself to test a truck with Quadrasteer. Backing a long trailer into a parking space at a 90 degree angle is much easier with Quadrasteer than without it. The system shortens turning circles with trailers and makes backing up more intuitive. For reasons we can't explain, ride quality in the Sierra Denali with Quadrasteer seems much smoother than our recollection of the full-size Yukon XL SUV with Quadrasteer.
The brakes are excellent. Brakes are large, heavy-duty discs on all four corners; ABS is standard on all models. Refinements introduced for 2003 resulted in increased stopping power, improved pedal feel with less pedal effort, and quieter operation. Dynamic Rear Proportioning improves stability under heavy braking, whether the truck is loaded or empty, and can reduce stopping distances. Jam on the brakes, and most vehicles without ABS will lock up the rear tires, because most of the weight is being transferred to the front wheels. ABS keeps the rear wheels from locking, but you still lose braking effectiveness as most of the weight is transferred to the front tires. With Dynamic Rear Proportioning, brake pressure is transferred to the tires with the best grip, thereby reducing stopping distances.
Optional Autotrac four-wheel-drive allows the driver to lock the axle speeds together in low range for maximum off-road traction, or select an automatic mode that sends power to the wheels with the best grip. Autotrac uses electronics to control a conventional, truck-style two-speed transfer case. It’s a great setup for serious off-road duty, be it mud, deep snow, silt, sand, or rugged terrain. The system was refined last year for better fuel efficiency in two-wheel-drive mode, and improved low-speed cornering feel in the Auto mode.
It’s fun to drive the Denali on winding mountain roads. It handles well, with responsive steering, and delive.
The 2004 model year is the year of the full-size pickup, with new introductions from Ford and Nissan and solid entries from Dodge and Toyota.
The GMC Sierra delivers lots of power, big payload capacities, and lots of towing capability. It looks classy and distinctive, and is a bit more upscale than the Chevy Silverado. The Sierra pickups are among the smoothest, quietest, most civilized, best equipped, and most enjoyable trucks we’ve driven. The GMC Sierra is a must-see if you’re buying a new full-size pickup.
Sierra 1500 2WD Wideside (Reg Cab) ($20,652); 2WD Wideside SLE Reg Cab ($24,055); 2WD Wideside Work Truck Reg Cab ($19,020); 2WD Wideside Reg Cab W/T ($19,120); 2WD Wideside Reg Cab ($20,952); 2WD Wideside SLE Reg Cab ($24,355); 2WD Wideside Ext Cab W/T ($23,075); 2WD Wideside Ext Cab ($26,197); 2WD Wideside SLE Ext Cab ($27,862); 2WD Wideside SLT Ext Cab ($32,560); 2WD Wideside Ext Cab ($27,297); 2WD Wideside SLE Ext Cab ($28,962); 2WD Wideside SLT Ext Cab ($32,860); 2WD Wideside W/T Ext Cab ($25,570); 4WD Wideside Ext Cab ($29,202); 4WD Wideside SLE Ext Cab ($30,967); 4WD Wideside SLT Ext Cab ($35,665); 4WD Wideside Denali Ext Cab ($41,180); 4WD Wideside W/T Ext Cab ($27,475); 4WD Wideside Ext Cab ($30,302); 4WD Wideside SLE Ext Cab ($32,067); 4WD Wideside SLT Ext Cab ($35,965); 4WD Wideside Worktruck Ext Cab ($28,575); 4WD Wideside SLE Crew Cab ($34,820); 4WD Wideside SLT Crew Cab ($38,883).
Pontiac, Michigan; Ft. Wayne, Indiana; Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.
Options As Tested
automatic transmission (no charge); XM Satellite Radio ($325).
GMC Sierra Denali ($41,180).
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