Test drive: GMC’s Sierra Denali — the ultimate blend of luxury and utility

GM is doing a lot of things right when it comes to trucks today. And perhaps no truck better illustrates this philosophy than the ultra-plush Sierra Denali models. These /-ton beauties have been tricked out with every conceivable luxury item in GM’s arsenal. My demonstrator was loaded with options, including fully adjustable driver and passenger seats, front and rear leather upholstery, full instrumentation, Bose stereo with satellite radio and dash-mounted six-disc CD changer, OnStar security, heated rear-view mirrors, heated seats, dual climate control, tilt steering wheel with stereo controls and a driver information system.

Of course, if you’ve got a demonstrator truck, you have to let friends and family take a turn behind the wheel. Everyone who either rode in or drove the Sierra was impressed with its interior comfort levels. A few friends simply couldn’t believe GM was putting such a high level of luxury in a pickup truck. “I’ve been in Cadillacs that weren’t this nice,” one buddy told me.

My father, who grew up driving a 1951 Chevy 3100 pickup, was also a convert. The Sierra was light years removed from the bench seats and three-speed manual transmissions he associates with pickups. But being an old codger, Dad was also preoccupied with its name. “What the hell does ‘Denali’ mean?” he kept asking me. “I dunno,” I finally told him. “I think it’s supposed to evoke images of Africa – y’know, safaris and stuff like that.” I guess that satisfied him, because he didn’t bring it up again.

That said, I have no doubt this truck could tackle the savannah. From the outside, the Sierra Denali’s stance and demeanor give it a bulky, aggressive look more in line with a 2500 HD or four-wheel-drive pickup. The broad, chromed-out Denali grill, large headlamps and standard fog lights certainly help reinforce this perception. Up top, GMC has chosen to signify Denali models with amber cab lights, which make the truck appear taller than it actually is, while lending it a bit of big-rig flair. All in all, it’s a very satisfying look.

Pop the Denali’s hood and you’ll find GM’s brawny Vortec 6000 LQ4 gasoline engine waiting for a chance to burn a little rubber. This 6-liter engine puts out a respectable 325-horsepower at 5,000 rpm, which gives the Sierra Denali plenty of oomph at both ends of its power range.

Finely tuned engine and brakes ensure top performance
GM has moved away from mechanical throttle linkage with its 2003 model trucks. The new throttle input system has more in common with aviation fly-by-wire technology than with gas pedals from the days of old. But fear not. Throttle response is quick, precise and seamless. You’d never know your foot was telling a computer how much air and fuel to send to the engine.

In fact, a few of my guest drivers found the Denali’s gas pedal to be a little too touchy for their tastes. They loped the truck down the road with excessive throttle input, then backed off too much as the Denali took off. Let me hasten to say this wasn’t the Denali’s fault. Mainly we were dealing with drivers who simply weren’t used to the high level of performance the Sierra Denali offers. They’re used to driving vehicles that are either underpowered, too heavy or both. If you put your foot down in a Sierra Denali, you’re going to accelerate – quickly.

And speaking of performance, everyone who drove the Denali gave high points to its four-wheel, anti-lock brakes. Under normal driving conditions, the truck stops smoothly and quickly – impressive considering its bulk. The brakes are also up to snuff in emergencies. I was driving the Denali through the University of Alabama campus one evening when a student suddenly pulled out in front of me in his ancient import. I was going about 30 mph at the time and jammed my foot on the brake pedal as soon as the kid’s car appeared in front of me. I swear that Denali came to a complete halt in less than 10 feet. It was truly amazing.

Not just a party trick: Quadrasteer delivers big-time maneuverability
But of all the features and amenities found on the GMC Sierra Denali, none got as much attention as the truck’s four-wheel-steering system, which GM calls Quadrasteer. I was lucky enough to drive Quadrasteer trucks in the prototype phase, and a year later when GM officially unveiled the system. So I was already a Quadrasteer convert when my demo Denali arrived.

Friends and family, however, were not. The guys had heard about Quadrasteer and couldn’t wait to try it out. Some explaining was necessary for the women, and my mother required a demonstration before she would get behind the wheel. But everyone agreed Quadrasteer is no gimmick. The Sierra’s turning radius was greatly reduced by the articulating rear wheels – in fact, that big ol’ truck can turn as tight as a Saturn coupe with the system engaged. One buddy’s wife took the truck and turned continuous circles in it, much to our amusement. She said she was amazed at the handling difference Quadrasteer gave her, compared to her husband’s Sierra 1500.

Positive Quadrasteer experiences were the norm during my demo week. Parking the big truck was a snap. No matter how confined the space, the big Denali would whip into it with minimal steering input. At highway speeds, Quadrasteer gives the big truck an added feeling of lateral stability and control. “Why would you ever turn it off?” my best friend asked after comparing performance with and without the system engaged. He’s got a point. If there’s a downside to GM’s Quadrasteer system, I have yet to find it. This is a truly innovative feature that only adds to a pickup truck’s performance and practicality.

All told, the Sierra Denali delivers a lot of luxury and utility for the money. It can handle the rigors of the worst jobsites, and still transport clients to the country club in style. Its sharp looks turn heads wherever it goes. If you’ve been wanting a little more comfort from your work trucks and don’t want to go the SUV route, then this may be the perfect truck for you.