2019 GMC Sierra Denali and AT4 First Drive - Beyond the City Lights

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
2019 gmc sierra denali and at4 first drive beyond the city lights

If Chevrolet’s Silverado is truly like a rock, the upper trims of GMC’s Sierra line are semi-precious gemstones, continuously growing in hardness and value. We’ve sampled Chevy’s new-for-2019 half-ton already, but last week was GMC’s chance to turn its glitzy 2019s loose — while keeping the lesser trims’ intriguing 2.7-liter four-cylinder, as well as the late-availability 3.0-liter diesel inline-six, out of reach of journalists’ paws.

Yes, the range-topping Denali earned top billing during this Newfoundland jaunt, but General Motors’ truck division seems to be growing into its self-declared status of premium truck provider. There’s a new flavor of Sierra 1500 for 2019, and it’s neither spartan nor cheap: AT4 — the off-roader for people who like nice things.

(Full disclosure: GMC flew me to St. John’s, Newfoundland and put me up in a trendy hotel where a stylized image of Mick Jagger kept watch over my sleeping form. I paid for the bags of chips provided in my room. Seafood-heavy meals were also served, along with a dead codfish we were all forced to kiss. There was no clothing or merchandise offered, which was nice.)

As the rising sun filtered dimly through a gauze of clouds shadowing the easternmost point in North America, journos assembled at the edge of a crumbling cliff no doubt grew tired of hearing the term “pro.” It’s the centerpiece of GMC’s branding strategy, and it finds a home everywhere you look. “Pro” pops up on every standout feature of the new Sierra — features that, at times, seemed to hold more significance than the newly reskinned vehicles themselves.

MultiPro. ProGrade. CarbonPro. They’re names you need to know if you’re a GM buyer with extra scratch burning a hole in your pocket. They’re what makes Sierra’s upper echelon distinctive from Chevy’s, not to mention its domestic and foreign rivals.

But before we get into that, the truck itself deserves a mention. For this restyle, GMC managed to maintain many of the visual cues of the previous generation Sierra without scaring the living daylights out of oncoming pedestrians. Chevy’s designers took a polarizing route; the Sierra team deserves kudos for not frightening kids.

Stacked with LEDs on opposing sides, the 2019 Sierra’s face gains swathes of chrome in Denali guise, befitting a top-flight luxury truck. Even the lower bumper sees a heavy dose of gilding. The high-end but burly AT4 goes the opposite route, however, shedding nearly all of the shiny stuff in favor of body-color here and gloss black there, with a 2-inch factory lift to boost both its social status and all-terrain cred. GMC brass wanted a Denali-like truck that didn’t scream “city.”

Longer in wheelbase (rear legroom grows nearly three inches), these crew cab models shed 450 pounds over their predecessors — the result of a hotly-debated decision to use aluminum for some of the body panels (hood, doors, tailgate). GMC claims its 5’8″ short box is the most voluminous in the industry (62.9 cubic feet), even more so than the 6’6″ long boxes found on Ford and Ram crew cabs. The jury’s out, at least for this author, on the visual appeal of those strange wheel wells. Inside, it’s again a case of evolution over revolution. A line of driver assist and convenience switches still adorns the bottom of the aluminum-trimmed center stack. You won’t reach for a climate or audio knob and discover it missing.

Nor will you find a fancy, small-displacement engine in either the SLT, AT4, or Denali. All three carry a standard 5.3-liter V8 (355 hp, 383 lb-ft), this one with GM’s Dynamic Fuel Management system. The same system, which imperceptibly shuts down various cylinders at various loads, shows up on the revered, optional 6.2-liter found in all but one of our test trucks.

Already a gem of an engine, it’s made better by the arrival of a new 10-speed automatic transmission. Displaying none of the annoying tendencies of multi-cog units, the 10-speed ascends rapidly through the gears, but didn’t hunt, pause, or drop too many cogs under light prodding during our coastal cruise of the Avalon Peninsula. It’s a smooth unit, and only served to make the perfectly decent eight-speed auto paired with the 5.3L feel dated and conspicuous. Sadly, EPA fuel economy remains the same as that of a 2018 6.2L 4WD model with eight-speed transmission (15 city/20 highway/17 combined). AT4s see a 1 mpg drop on the highway.

Blasting through towns like Dildo and neighboring South Dildo, the 6.2’s 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft moved the Sierra Denali with ease, adding its symphony to the cabin only after a throttle punch on long uphill grades. Speed was kept in check at least some of the time by the new head-up display, which guilt-tripped this driver by displaying the region’s oddly low speed limits.

Speaking of odd, suffice it to say that Newfoundland’s shockingly crack-free roads didn’t give the Denali’s trim-exclusive Adaptive Ride Control too much of a workout. Still, whenever a rare pothole strayed near, the trick suspension soaked up enough of the jolt that you’d swear there weren’t 22-inch wheels on each corner (20-inchers come standard).

My time spent in the Denali’s tasteful, monochrome black interior was evenly split between regular and sport drive modes (accessible via a knob to the upper left of the steering wheel), though there’s a tow-haul and off-road mode to choose from, too. This Traction Select System is optional on the AT4 and SLT. Steering and damping firmed up nicely in sport mode as lower gears held on a little longer, but not so much that it became an annoyance. While not a canyon carver, the winding roads and lack of local law enforcement revealed a comforting level of sedate agility in this loaded crew cab.

As an added safety feature, Denali-trimmed Sierras automatically switch the dampers to tow/haul mode if a height sensor detects roughly 550 pounds of additional weight above the rear axle. Again, this is optional kit on SLT and AT4. With an 850-pound ATV loaded in the bed, our tester didn’t feel all that top-heavy while underway; body roll was kept in check without ride quality suffering too greatly.

It’s too bad the AT4 remained out of reach for much of the drive, though I doubt the winding two-lanes would have been as quiet and enjoyable with those chunky Wrangler Goodyear Duratrac 4-seasons meeting the road. Still, an opportunity arose to take one off-road. And by off-road, I mean in-field. This wasn’t a rock-crawling, low-range affair — the worst incline was doable in two-wheel drive, though the AT4’s standard 18-inch wheels (20-inchers are optional) and Rancho monotube shocks happily complied when I took off at decent speed across that rutted parcel of cleared land.

Feeling extra adventurous? There’s a locking differential, skid plates, hill descent control, and two-speed transfer case to help you reach that isolated yurt.

The off-road course is where another technological feature comes into play. With its nose pointing towards God, the ground in front of the Sierra Denali remained a mystery for those without a photographic memory. That’s when the Surround Vision camera system came online. Whether it’s a side view to avoid scraping those glistening 22-inchers on a curb while parallel parking or a forward-facing gaze for spotting that destructive, pointy rock on a steep incline, there’s a camera angle (including split-screen or composite views) to suit any activity.

For 2019, GM’s Rear Camera Mirror also leaps from the SUV stable to the pickup fold, offering available wide-angle video of whatever’s going on behind you. There’s more cameras dotting the perimeter of this truck than your average medium-security prison. And yet none of these features don the word “pro.”

Only the big stuff gets a “pro” moniker, starting with the crowd-pleaser: GMC’s MultiPro six-position tailgate, which trumps Ford’s man step with what amounts to a man stepladder. Adam Tonge went nuts on this brand-exclusive tailgate-within-a-tailgate at its Detroit debut last winter, so we don’t need to tell you how it works. But we can show it next to a pile of firewood:

And look how easily this gate accommodates drinking. Hey, there’s even room for a charcuterie board or two when it’s set to the workbench position!

That work bench position holds an added bonus for fishermen, though the fold-out step also works as a bed extender when the full tailgate is lowered:

If hard work or fine dining isn’t your bag, the last step in the tailgate transformation process (which really is a step) hides an optional feature that should get bodies bumpin’: a Kicker Audio system, powered by its own battery and capable of hooking to your phone by cord or Bluetooth. Suddenly, thumping tunes become a possibility at your campsite, tailgate party, or outside the home of that girl you’re trying to impress. Gimmicky? Definitely, but how many other OEMs offer a tailgate that turns a parking spot into a club?

If the option seems too dear, there’s still a 120-volt outlet in the truck’s bed for juicing a portable sound system, or, if you can imagine it, an assortment of power tools.

From MultiPro, standard on SLT, AT4 and Denali, we move to CarbonPro, the nylon-based carbon fiber bed that’s optional on AT4 and Denali. Shaving 62 pounds from the truck’s curb weight, the box’s variable-thickness corrugation withstands six times the weight that would deform a steel bed. Still, if this feature rings your bell, you’ll have to wait. Availability isn’t until the second quarter of 2019, near the end of the 2019 model run. Despite its seeming imperviousness to damage, a CarbonPro repair process is currently in the works, and will be available by the time the bed reaches customers.

Standing out from the crowd requires something to show off, something the others don’t have, and GMC has its show-and-tell items in MultiPro and CarbonPro — though it’s still anyone’s guess whether customers will gravitate to a pricey bed. At least the brand’s starting out cautiously with that one.

The third standout “pro” — Sierra’s ProGrade Trailering System — connects a suite of trailering functions via an in-vehicle app, allowing owners to run pre-trip checklists, diagnostics, and light checks. A downward-facing camera located near the tailgate latch affords an easy overhead view for hitch marriage, not that I was allowed to actually try it out, and you can keep tabs on that union while underway by punching up the camera app on the 8-inch touchscreen. The MyGMC phone app also dials up that light test and checklist when you aren’t in the cab. Worried about theft? Making off with the trailer while the truck’s locked will sound the Sierra’s alarm. Just keep your OnStar subscription alive to keep that feature running.

Naturally, all of this newness and premium content comes at a cost. The Sierra Denali 4WD rolls into 2019 with a $58,000 pre-delivery sticker, or $67,595 after destination (and $500 Denali Ultimate Package discount) when loaded up with every option. In comparison, a 2018 Ford F-150 Limited 4×4 SuperCrew starts at $66,280 after destination. Going the AT4 route warrants a pre-delivery MSRP of $53,200, or $65,330 with every box ticked, destination, and a $500 AT4 Premium Package discount.

Just be aware that the cost of the late availability CarbonPro bed doesn’t appear in either of these trucks’ sticker prices. SLT 4WD crew cab pricing starts at an even $50k, with our 5.3L tester and its premium plus and X31 off-road packages rang in at $59,495 after destination and a $1k discount. Only the SLT offers the NHT Max Trailering Package, which bumps trailering capacity to 12,100 lbs (from the Denali’s 9,300 lbs).

Given these prices, I was not pleased to discover that GMC’s Driver Alert Package I (front and rear park assist, lane change alert, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert), while standard on SLT and Denali, remains “available” on AT4. These are basic safety features that should come standard on a vehicle of this price — and size.

For all three upper trims, GMC’s Driver Alert Package II — which adds things like front pedestrian braking, low-speed forward automatic braking, safety alert seat, forward collision alert, and lane-keep assist — remains an option.

While Ford and Ram (and to be honest, Chevy) offer sometimes garish ranch-themed luxo trims to appease the swagger of certain buyers, GMC’s premium offerings ditch the cowboy hat for a more dignified persona. That risks having loud and proud rivals garner all the attention. With AT4 — Sierra’s attempt at scrappiness — now on board, we’ll see whether a swelling of the ranks, as well as segment-exclusive features, can muscle the Sierra into the spotlight.

[Images: Steph Willems/TTAC]

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  • Gtem Gtem on Aug 27, 2018

    The idea that this truck is nominally intended as an “offroad package” is laughable. I’d love to see it go on even a moderately rough road, those rims and tires are not long for this world. There was a guy at work with a High Country Silverado on factory chrome 20s like that who spent the better part of 3 weeks rocking a black steelie with a normal sized tire after the spring pothole season, I couldn’t help but laugh.

    • Gtem Gtem on Aug 27, 2018

      Edit: that was the Denali on those ridiculous 22s that I was poking fun at. The AT4 looks more reasonable in that regard.

  • Cognoscenti Cognoscenti on Aug 28, 2018

    @Steph Willems, I'm curious: has the new 10-speed transmission eliminated any of the dashpot effect on upshifts at light to mid-throttle that plague pretty much every GM SUV and truck? I'm referring to how they program the transmissions to hold an extra 200 to 400 RPM on upshifts, reportedly to extend catalytic converter life and allow the company to build them cheaper. It drives me CRAZY (no pun intended)!

  • SCE to AUX Probably couldn't afford it - happens all the time.
  • MaintenanceCosts An ugly-a$s Challenger with poor equipment choices and an ugly Dealership Default color combination, not even a manual to redeem it, still no sale.
  • Cha65689852 To drive a car, you need human intelligence, not artificial intelligence.Unfortunately, these days even human brains are turning into mush thanks to addiction to smartphones and social media.
  • Mike1041 A nasty uncomfortable little car. Test drove in 2019 in a search for a single car that would appease two drivers. The compromise was not much better but at least it had decent rear vision and cargo capacity. The 2019 Honda HRV simply was too unforgiving and we ditched after 4 years. Enter the 23 HRV and we have a comfy size.
  • SCE to AUX I wonder who really cares about this. "Slave labor" is a useful term for the agendas of both right and left."UAW Wants Auto Industry to Stop Using Slave Labor"... but what will the UAW actually do if nothing changes?With unrelenting downward pressure on costs in every industry - coupled with labor shortages - expect to see more of this.Perhaps it's my fault when I choose the $259 cell phone over the $299 model, or the cheaper parts at RockAuto, or the lower-priced jacket at the store.Do I care about an ethical supply chain? Not really, I just want the product to work - and that's how most consumers are. We'd rather not know.Perhaps the 1990s notion of conflict-free, blood-free, ethically-sourced diamonds will find its way into the auto industry. That would be a good thing.
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