Enzo Ferrari used to sell his customers an engine and throw in the car for free. While Ferrari still reserves the right to sell whatever it wants to whomever it wants without worrying about what anyone else may want, Maranello's mad machines are now at least as dynamically cohesive and ergonomically sound as your average John Deere lawn mower (if infinitely less practical). In fact, the Italian automaker has passed the mantle of "engine first engineering" to GMC. More specifically, to the Sierra 1500HD pickup truck.
Our test Sierra was powered by GM's sublime Vortec 6000. Granted, new millennia power freaks will not find the 6.0-liter engine's 300hp output overly impressive– especially when the horses in question are harnessed to a vehicle weighing 4800 lbs. And yes, GMC slots some bigger, badder units into the Sierra; including a 6.6-liter DURAMAX turbo-diesel with enough torque to pull the Queen Mary into dry dock (640ft.-lbs.). But the Vortec 6000 is a flawless and loveable lump, a V8 from The Old School.
Crank it up, and the Vortec's burble makes today's muscle cars seem like castrati. Hit the open road, and the powerplant cruises the Sierra at extra-legal speeds with just a few lazy rpm. Put pedal to metal and the engine bellow-blasts the truck towards the horizon with all the manic fury of a drag strip refugee. Aside from wallet-draining mileage– 11mpg in town and 16(ish) in "when's the next exit?" mode– the Vortec is everything you could want from a big block V8: smooth, powerful, punchy and charismatic.
As for the rest of the truck– its design, ride, handling, brakes and comfort– the predominant theme is "great, for a pickup truck". Or, if you prefer, "crap". Now, before I ignite a flame mail firestorm from the flatbed fraternity, a quick note to The American Pickup Truck Anti-Defamation League…
I understand the appeal of a vehicle that can schlep or tow big, heavy, dirty things; that's rugged enough to take any kind of extended [cab] abuse; that's cheap enough to accommodate a working man's wallet. But let's face it: we've moved on from the "pickup as automotive work boot" mindset. The test Sierra 1500 is a $39k, four-door, five-seat vehicle driven by as many suburbanites as blue collar workers. As far as I'm concerned, as far as the vast majority of buyers are concerned, it's a car with a large, open, versatile luggage compartment.
The Ford F150 gets it. The GMC Sierra does not. For example: the Sierra's suspension is so primitive that its reaction to surface imperfections is positively nostalgic. I'd forgotten what it's like to drive a vehicle with truly independent suspension– in the sense that all four wheels do different things at different times. Driving over a bump in a Sierra isn't so much an event as a series of events. How and when you experience the resulting shudders and body flex depends very much upon where you're sitting.
If you're sitting in the driver's seat and press the brake pedal, the Sierra will slow down, but it'll feel like you're inflating a pool toy. The steering, though admirable in its desire to add some heft to the proceedings, is about as accurate as The Weekly World News. Unless you're towing something heavy, the four-speed gearbox is easily outwitted. Go for the aforementioned full-bore sprint and there's more fumbling about than a teenage boy trying to unhook his first bra.
The Sierra's interior is also a lot less than accomplished. In fact, it has the nastiest dashboard since all the other nasty dashboards in all the other nastily dashboarded GM products. The General has been talking about replacing their interior farragoes for years, yet the Sierra clearly doesn't know disco is dead. It's a riot of cheap plastic and ugly, sharp-edged switchgear. I haven't seen a dot matrix display with so few pixels since my first digital watch.
Again, I'm happy to admit that the Sierra represents a huge improvement from pickups of yore (except for the buckboard ride). Twenty years ago, who'd a thunk a standard-issue pickup truck would boast 300 horses, dual-zone climate control, satellite radio, cruise control, ABS brakes, airbags and suicide doors? Who'd a thunk it would cost 40 large? That said, with GM's fire-sale discounts and finance, you can probably own a Sierra 1500 for a couple hundred bucks a month. So it's still something of a working class hero.
Be that as it may, there's no getting around the fact that the GMC Sierra is a long way behind its competition in terms of refinement and ergonomics. Once upon a time, that didn't matter. Now, engine nirvana or not, it does.