By on May 25, 2018

TTAC recently spent some time out in rural Utah, where GMC was keen to show off the 2018 Sierra Denali’s capabilities in both towing and everyday driving. Does the soon-to-be-replaced luxury pickup have what it takes to get the job done?

That depends on the options boxes, and which ones have been checked.

(Full disclosure: GMC flew me to St. George, Utah and paid for hotel accommodation and meals. They also provided ATVs for riding in the sand dunes, and paid for entry into Zion National Park. I was also offered a Nike GMC baseball cap which I didn’t take, and some off-roading goggles which I did.)

Ace of Base

Perhaps surprisingly, GMC’s lineup of Denali testers were not all loaded to the max. In fact, only two of the six test vehicles had the big 6.2-liter V8 in them, while the rest made do with the base 5.3-liter engine. I know how the B&B just hates when testing is of the high-zoot nature, so it was just fine when I was assigned the 5.3-equipped White Frost Tricoat Denali. No huge wheels, no Ultimate Package, no rear entertainment, no automatic step. Matthew Guy would be most pleased. The four-wheel drive tester’s only options were the metallic white paint ($995), sunroof ($995), and the trailer controller ($275). The destination charge of $1,295 brought this vehicle’s total price to $59,560. Let’s get going.

Towing

GMC says 70 percent of Sierra 1500 owners tow with their truck, and 40 percent of them do it more than once a month. The automaker loaded up two Polaris RZR side-by-sides on the back of each truck, explained how to tow things without crashing, and sent us on our way to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

On the road with between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds on the back, all testers were well within the Denali’s 9,100-pound tow rating. Though the trailer controller option was present, our trailer did not have brakes. Slowing for stops in a controlled and constant way wasn’t a problem, but having that sort of length behind the truck takes some getting used to (first-time tower, here).

[Get new and used GMC Sierra Denali pricing here!]

The 5.3-liter engine has been in the GMTs for generations now, and in present state has 355 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque, sent to an eight-speed automatic. For lower speeds around town, the additional weight behind didn’t pose a problem. But on any incline or highway situation, I found myself wishing for more power. A foot hard down was required on an entrance ramp with a moderate incline. In that moment, the thought of having the 6.2 in front of me was most appealing. Once up to speed, the rig felt stable and confident between the painted lines, even if the driver wasn’t. Lane keep assist will nudge the wheel in the correct direction if you go astray, but it’s not too invasive and can be switched off via a switch on the dash.

We made it to the dunes without incident, but I can’t see any serious towing owner selecting the 5.3 for regular hauling. Spend the ~$2,000 for the 6.2 and enjoy your Towing Stuff Lifestyle and a higher resale value down the road.

Looking Around

The blocky, masculine looks of the Sierra Denali is a familiar sight on roads by now, and that hasn’t changed for the 2018 model year. New paint colors (silver and red) coat the squared-off fenders and straight lines. The pearled white paint made for a clean look (it’s the most expensive paint color), and is a shade GM has done well with across brands. Paint finish seemed good, with little to no visible orange peel.

HiD lamps light the way up front, and Altezza-style LED lights accompany the rear. Dropping the dampened tailgate to the short box reveals the standard spray-in bed liner. Our tester had polished 20-inch wheels, since those are the ones that don’t cost extra. The door handles feel solid, and pull with a reassuring action. Shutting the door from either side of it produces a nice, low thud. And now we’re indoors.

Inside

The tester was equipped with the black leather interior option, though light brown “cocoa” leather is also available at no extra charge (would’ve been nice). Analog speedo and rev counters flank the instrument cluster’s center screen to display all the necessary information, which gets slightly reconfigured in tow mode to include a transmission temp gauge. I never wanted for more information in the Denali. On the tech front, navigation is standard and so are Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. There are also outlets of USB and regular variety, as well as wireless charging in the center console.

Buttons are where you’d expect, apart from the pedal adjustment in the center stack. It used to be on the door with the seat memory controls, which seems a more appropriate place. Everything you need is within reach and labeled in an understandable way. I found the seats comfortable and supportive, and both driver and passenger have many adjustments. Heat and ventilation arrive under your backside, though I wished for stronger ventilation. It wasn’t that hot, and not that sunny, and still the seat just felt room temperature — never cool.

Materials in the cabin are varied and don’t all seem cut to the same standard. The leather on the seats is soft and perforated, and the thickly padded dash has a stitched leather appearance. But the graphite-color trim around the vents is hard plastic, and the soft touch door panels at the front don’t extend to the rear — hard plastic back there.

Though my elbow rested on a nicely padded rest in the door, when my hand grabbed for the interior handle it found two roughly cut pieces of plastic, a seam against the back of my fingers. Some similar roughness was on the edge of the door and cargo pocket areas. There is wood trim along the console, but it’s quite artificial, and a bit too glossy. I expect real wood in this class, or at least some faux-matte open pore look stuff. Time to retreat to the back seats.

Leg room back there is much better than older GMT generations, and I had several knee inches to spare with my 6 foot and 32″ inseam measurements. The rear seats are a bit too flat, too upright, and do not recline at all. Thigh support is on the short side, and after a couple of hours back there it got a bit uncomfortable. And hot, because there are no rear air vents. I sat and stared at the blank rear of the center console, where there were no vents, temperature controls, or heated seat buttons — all things I expected on a $60,000 truck. I did use the fold-out center armrest, which was located a bit too high. It also had two cup holders in it, which meant there was little padded room for any limbs to rest.

Not Towing

Image: Corey Lewis/TTACBefore sitting in the back, I spent a few hours driving up front, and this time there wasn’t a trailer. The 5.3-liter that’s been at GM for so long has been refined and honed over the generations, and its present NVH is laudable. Idling, it’s a whisper, and nothing is felt through the cabin. Once let loose from its trailer duties, the 5.3 Denali behaved in a much more appealing way. Acceleration was just fine if you pressed the pedal a bit, accompanied by a quiet engine grumble. Shifts from the 8AT were smooth, though I did notice a tendency to upshift a bit sooner than I’d prefer in highway circumstances, especially at slight grades. Unless the paddles are used (they’re there), it forces a stab of the throttle to initiate a kick-down of a couple of gears.

All Sierra Denalis come with GM’s Magnetic Ride Control suspension as standard, and it works. The ride felt controlled through twisty and sometimes narrow roads within Zion National Park, and the truck didn’t bound or ride harshly over the occasional cattle grates. Some of this should be credited to the taller sidewall present on the 20-inch wheels, as those chrome 22-inchers are going to punish when the going gets rough. At speed, wind and tire noise was minimal. Anyone who’s been in a truck of even 10 years ago would notice a marked difference in the amount of isolation here. Steering on the leather-stitched wheel was fairly light, and it was easy to place the truck where desired. As expected in this class, feedback from the wheel is suitably minimal.

Another unobtrusive feature was the cylinder deactivation. Under light loads and on flat grades, the 5.3 will switch off half the engine block and run as a V4. The only way this was perceptible was when the green “V4” logo came up on the dash. In fact, the engine had been running in 4-mode for probably two minutes before I noticed — completely seamless. And the deactivation needed to be there, because the trip computer reported that after 155 miles of mixed and fairly gentle driving (at an average speed of 37 miles per hour) fuel economy stood at 15 mpg. That’s at the low end of the EPA estimate of 15 city, 20 highway, and 17 combined.

Overall, there’s a case to be made for this Ace of Base Sierra Denali. Said case makes sense for someone who doesn’t tow regularly, likes the present Denali styling and standard features, and doesn’t see the need for the 6.2-liter engine or the whiz-bang features of the $6,775 Ultimate Package. It’s a comfort and luxury truck for the seldom-towed path.

Bonus picture of these bighorn sheep, six of which walked right up behind me as I was taking pictures of the Sierra.

[Images: Corey Lewis / The Truth About Cars]

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44 Comments on “2018 GMC Sierra Denali 1500 First Drive – Trucking Around Out West...”


  • avatar
    VW4motion

    Great posting, you’re in my neck of the woods. Beautiful area to visit. No booty flop in the GM pickups.

  • avatar
    nomore99_

    After my service at a GM dealership today, I would never recommend buying a GM junker! Service completed and car (out of warranty) immediately had a problem (on their premises). “Not our fault”. So my repair cost will be tripled. It was 6 inches from where they were working?!

    Several months ago I had same vehicle at another GM dealership and they too returned it with a problem—they did the “Huh? I don’t hear it? I can’t hear it, can you Other Tech?”. I was stunned that I was being victim to GM’s “unable to replicate problem” arrogance.

    I’m leaving the problems vague because I’m writing a letter to GM about this garbage service.

    I will be buying a made-in-America “foreign” car soon! I can’t stomach the thought of even spending one more cent in a GM service center! I normally use an independent shop and never once have had an issue with them.

    3 new GM vehicles in my family within the past 2 months, be sure I will let the word out. Enclave being one of them!

    I am so p!ssed, and I don’t ever swear!!!

    DW, keep on preaching! DW, keep on preaching!!

    *I posted this here because it’s been pending on the Buick article for 17 hours.*

  • avatar

    Sigh, here is yet another dull under engineered GM truck with a cheap interior. GM cars are fine. The upcoming Escala is one of the most attractive GM vehicles ever.

    • 0 avatar
      Peter Gazis

      akear-a.k.a. Toyota fan boy

      You do realize that the Tundra is outdated junk. Known for a quickly rusting undercarriage. Plus the gas milage sux.

      • 0 avatar
        pdog_phatpat

        Yet made with more US content than the GM. Lets weigh the differences shall we? One truck thats junk but has more US sourced content VS another junk truck with less US content. Who wins here?

        • 0 avatar
          Peter Gazis

          @pdog_phatpat

          The last numbers I saw included engineering and design costs. The Detroit 3 all blew away Toyota in domestic content.

          • 0 avatar
            ponchoman49

            There is a big reason the Big 3 pickups all outsell the Tundra even to this day. Several co-workers had earlier run 2007-2009 versions and turned them in for Silverado and Ram several years ago. There were more issues with those Tundra’s than I can even remember. I’m sure the new ones are better but they are very outdated, the interior’s are cheap, they ride rougher and noisier and the old 5.7 is one thirsty sucker. The 2007’s rear chrome bumper started rusting in 2009 and was holes a year later despite many trips to the car wash!

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    That’s a nice truck, looks better than the Chevy variant. The 6.2 might not be needed but it’s a badass motor. Weather tech floor mats are a good investment, I’ve had them on my last two vehicles. I love the southwest, the high desert in AZ is wonderful.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    “Spend the ~$2,000 for the 6.2 and enjoy your Towing Stuff Lifestyle and a higher resale value down the road.”

    The common complaint I’ve heard from those who would rather see the 6.2 available in more trim levels is “the 5.3 really doesn’t offer a fuel economy advantage for much less power.”

    Trucks (almost all of them) are in that same spot as Cadillac back in the 60s. Once you can afford the price of entry you can trade up every few years and TCO is very low due partially to the inflated resale.

    • 0 avatar
      Mandalorian

      GM has a feature they know people want, they’re going to make it as hard to get as possible, just so we have the privilege of paying for it.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      Corey’s description of the 5.3 is similar to what I’ve been told about that engine. It will get the job done but needs RPM to do it.

      I have seen the 6.2 in lower trim levels but there are differences between Canadian and USA spec trucks.

  • avatar
    Jerome10

    Your comment on the GM cylinder deactivation is worth noting… They do a superb job. Had a suburban rental for 1000+ miles a few months back and you’re right, you cannot hear or feel the switchover on it.

    Contrast that with a HEMI charger I also had recently and the vibration in the car got weird in 4cyl mode, the exhaust sound changed etc. I noticed it constantly. Maybe it had something to do with the throaty exhaust, but in my limited experience GM does it really well.

    I was able to pull 24mpg in that burban for the trip based on the computer.

    Good review. I don’t expect much to change with the new model coming what, this fall?

    • 0 avatar

      That’s right, they’re in the process of re-tooling plants for the 2019 model.

    • 0 avatar
      redapple

      Gents:

      trip computers LIE!

      They are always high. Please exert 10 seconds of work and do
      gallons in / Miles Driven = Real MPG

      My last Equinox and current Forester – trip computers are 2 MPG high.

      • 0 avatar

        In a world where GMC makes me fill up the truck from empty and I know exactly how much fuel’s in the tank, this works.

        We started out the day with 3/4 of a tank though, and the trip computer got reset twice. Have to rely on a computer during a press drive.

      • 0 avatar
        cartime

        My GMC is within .2 mpg every time. I believe Jack had previously mentioned his was bang on as well.

    • 0 avatar
      ponchoman49

      We also noticed that the 5.3’s were far more refined than the Hemi engines and got better MPG too. One 2017 black Suburban with over 20K break in miles actually achieved 22 MPG on the highway. That was hand calculated BTW. The computer was showing 22.9 and we were going over 70. That kind of MPG would have been impossible not that long ago.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    I always find it amusing when reviewers complain about having “only” 355 bhp when towing 6k lbs.

    No very long ago at all, 355 bhp was out of reach for even the knarliest big block one ton trucks.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      @R Henry – too true. I went on a 5000 km trip through Northern Canada and Alaska with a camperette on the pickup and towing a utility trailer in a 3/4 pickup with 195 hp.

  • avatar
    cicero1

    Was that you I saw in Zion Tuesday around 4:30? I saw someone taking photos of a black GMC on the road east of the tunnel. Thought it was just someone who liked their new truck, but maybe part of the same GMC press group.

  • avatar
    deanst

    Not having rear vents in a $60,000 vehicle is ludicrous. I have them in my Mazda at less than 1/3 the price. Whoever is in charge of GM interiors needs to find a new job.

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    Ventilated seats: Is it simply a fan that blows surrounding cabin air through the seat, without any active refrigeration of the air? If that’s the case, then may explain why the seat didn’t get cold.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Probably a really nice truck, if that’s what you’re into (I’m not), but damn…that interior looks incredibly cheap for a $60,000 vehicle. Maybe those goggles they gave Corey were Audi-vision.

    How much cheaper is the non-Denali version?

    • 0 avatar
      Mandalorian

      That GM interior is the largest driver of Ram sales.

      • 0 avatar
        USAFMech

        Glad someone said it pithier than I.

        I’m a GM fan, but the interiors are objectively cut-rate. I won’t say “awful” since they seem to hold up as long or longer than anything else I’ve owned. But I do like to marvel at the cognitive dissonance of looking at a $100k+ sticker and a Fisher Price interior (Yukon XL Denali, Escalade, Corvette, etc).

  • avatar
    Spartan

    The Yukon Denali interior is executed far better than the Sierra Denali. No push button start, no rear vents, no real wood, no aluminum trim, all for $60k. The Yukon Denali has real wood, aluminum trim, lots of rear vents and the interior looks a lot better.

    If you must have a truck bed and want a nice interior, buy a Ram Limited. If you don’t need a truck bed and still need to tow, buy a Yukon (XL) Denali.

    • 0 avatar
      ponchoman49

      For 2019 they corrected the rear air vent issue, made the interior better and added some other features like push button start on all trims. I’m curious to check one out when they do get a 2019

  • avatar
    ernest

    First off, nice review of the truck, and I’m jealous of being able to spend the day in that area. There’s nothing comparable on the planet that I’m aware of.

    re: the truck itself. Forget the base- the primary reason GMC pushes as many Denali pickups as they do is simply because of that 6.2 V8. If you’re only after a plush interior, a Ram (or a F150 Platinum for that matter) does it better. Counter point, a loaded Silverado will do it much cheaper, with most of the same toys, if the 6.2 isn’t an issue.

  • avatar
    OzCop

    As good as the Denali looks from the outside, the inside seems to have been reduced to second tier trim level. My former Longhorn Ram had a much nicer interior, real leather trim, real wood trim, and an overall upscale look compared to this truck.

    I recently purchased a new truck, and while looking, seriously considered the Denali. (I prefer the grill treatment and overall look of the GMC over the Chevy) However, the Denali interior left a lot to be desired when compared to my Longhorn Ram in terms of luxury and other appointments. I finally settled on my current Laramie when considering price and overall appointments. Plus, as smooth and economical as the Hemi was, I was looking for the smaller diesel and at the time, that was not offered in any GM model other than the Canyon/Colorado models, and the price for those were nearly the same as the sale price of the Laramie Ram.

    I am actually a bit disappointed in the Ram interior as well, since it was no where near the interior of the Longhorn. But, it was nicer than the Denali. In terms of ride, the high zoot shocks and suspension on the Denali did not seem that much different than my 4 WD Ram. Considering sale price for sale price, (about 10K overall) the Ram was a no brainer…but I still like the exterior looks of that Denali…

  • avatar
    cognoscenti

    Having driven many GMC vehicles, I always have the same problem with all of them: the steering rack is too slow – even in the crossovers. Yes, I know, it’s a “feature”. They want the GMC’s to feel like trucks. It’s a brand thing. I swear though, if I ever buy a GMC vehicle again, I’m going to have the steering rack from the sister Chevy swapped in.


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