Some might call it the perfect storm -- a confluence of seemingly random events that work together to make something larger than the sum of its parts. Heavy duty truck-lovers have been waiting for this type of storm for quite a few years, and they'll likely have to wait a long while before something like this happens again. Last year the Ram HD made a dramatic debut and won our 2010 Motor Trend Truck of the Year. This year, both Ford and GM are bringing their best and brightest (and strongest ever) to the party. And now the table is set for battle royal...but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

We recently had the opportunity to drive the new Chevy Silverado Heavy Duty and Sierra Heavy Duty in just about every configuration they offer and the changes they've made seem right on target. In fact, to their credit, they've laser-targeted some key areas where GM trucks traditionally didn't match up too well with the competition. Recently, Ford's been doing a lot of bragging about their recently released Super Duty, and for good reason; in fact, it even won our head-to-head comparison when we pitted it against our 2010 Truck of the Year winner, the Ram HD. Now the ring is set for a full-scale smack down as all three big-truck makers have an all-new or recently-new heavy-duty player. But that comparison test will have to wait because we've just spent several days driving just about every configuration of new GM HD truck they have to offer and we've got a few things to say. Here we go.

To begin, although there is plenty new about the 2011 models, the most obvious aspect of the 2011 trucks is that both inside and out, they don't look much different at all. Maybe that makes sense given all the upheaval GM has experienced recently and this is just very focused example of a company being very careful with every dollar they spend. We can buy that. In that context, it makes sense to focus every available resource on those foundational pieces that matter most to truck customers. It just so happens none of those features can be seen from inside or outside the truck; in fact, the real magic to the 2011 GM Heavy Dutys is underneath. The cornerstone to this new truck is a brand new fully-boxed frame to give the new HDs a stronger foundation to build the new truck from, with its primary purpose to get much higher towing, payload, and GVW numbers. It's no secret this segment relies heavily on bragging rights and General Motors has been lagging against the competition.

All GM models have kept the independent front suspension (where both Ford and Dodge use live front axles) but have significantly beefed up the upper and lower control arms, as well as the connecting knuckle and links. Likewise, the rear suspension is fine-tuned, making the live axle/leaf spring system asymmetrical with longer, stronger, and wider leafs and frame attachment points. Other less obvious improvements include bigger brakes, hydraulic cab mounts on extended and crew cabs, a new camshaft profile on the 6.0-liter gas V-8 engine, and a new exhaust brake feature on the upgraded 6.6-liter V-8 Duramax. In fact, this last feature is just part of a whole host of finely tuned tech upgrades for the new 6.6L V-8 Duramax. Specifically, upgrades include new Piezo injectors, stronger pistons and connecting rods, improved oil pump flow and parts cooling, as well as a smarter emissions after-treatment setup and B20 capability. To its credit, the 2011 Duramax is 63-percent cleaner, 11-percent more fuel efficient, and the most powerful turbodiesel in the class. New rating numbers for GM's monster motor are 397 horsepower at 3000 rpm and 765 lb-ft of torque at 1600 rpm. To keep pace with this output, the Allison 1000 has a stronger case, a stronger torque converter, and reduced spin losses.

GM is pricing the 2011 truck very close to 2010 prices, with an average cost per vehicle increase across the lineup of $600. Add to that the fact that GM is reporting the highest maximum and average payload and towing capacities across its eleven 2500 HD models and eight 3500 HD models and you clearly see how aggressive they're attacking the segment. Of special note, even with the improvements to both HD diesel and six-speed transmission options, their price remains the same ($7195 and $1200, respectively). Silverado HDs will continue to offer the base trim WT package, mid-level LT, and top-line LTZ models, with Sierra HDs offering WT, SLE, and SLT trim. However, GMC, as announced earlier this year, will be offering a top-of-the-line Denali model in both 2500 HD and 3500 HD configurations, which will include the maxxed-out Dually Crew Cab with just about every bell and whistle in the Denali parts bin. No word on Denali HD pricing at this time, but expect it to compete with the King Ranch F-350 and F-450 in the Ford stable. GM's HD lineup will range from just under $29,000 on up to $55,000.

So are the new frame and a significantly upgraded cast of supporting technology enough to make this pickup the new leader in the segment? Recently, GM gave us the chance to drive just about every variation they offer through the rolling (and sometimes steep) hills of eastern Maryland, parts of Pennsylvania, and the deep-wooded areas of West Virginia. For simplicity's sake, I'll focus most of my comments on the Silverado 2500 HD Extended Cab LT 4x4 (std. bed; gas V-8) I spent most of my time in. This configuration is likely to be the volume leader for GM if history is any indication, and listed for just under $38,000. From the outset of our drive, it was almost startling how smooth the front and rear suspensions drove over the hilly highways, especially since our truck was completely empty of a load. Traditionally, empty is never how you want to drive a three-quarter or one-ton pickup truck but the work done on the redesigned frontend pays huge dividends. The new front suspension (new forged upper control arms and a precision-machined cast-iron lower) offers 25-percent more load capacity, making every 4x4 model in the lineup able to be ordered with a snowplow package. The front GAWR is now 6,000 pounds across the board. But what really impressed us was how these bigger, heavier, and stronger pieces were able to more quickly and fluidly absorb sharp pothole inputs and accommodate road irregularities while cornering. This improved IFS has more control than ever before. And we were left with a similar impression on a 3500 HD dually as well. We usually don't think about refinement when driving vehicles in this segment, but GM engineers have pulled a rabbit out of their hats here.

Additionally, although fundamentally less complicated, we were equally impressed with the driving dynamics of the rearend. A new leaf spring strategy seems to have resulted in a smarter, quicker responding spring and shock combination. All 2011 HDs have wider and asymmetrical leaf springs to more quickly and firmly control the typical hopping motions heavy rear axles turning big torque numbers can generate. "Asymmetrical" means that the exact center point of the leaf spring is not directly over the axle. The new GM setup puts more spring over the back of the truck where they'll have more opportunity for the multi-stage flex of the spring to damp and cushion even more up and down forces. The result, as near as we could tell, in both empty and loaded scenarios (we drove several pickups, RWD and SRW, with 2000 pounds in the bed), was just about the most confident rearend we've experienced.

Another standout feature is that the steering feel is vastly improved over the previous generation. GM is now using a bigger gear box with stronger connecting shafts and arms that firm up the steering feel. GM has tuned in a firmer feel at highway speeds, while slower parking-lot speeds will feel lighter. Finally, our primary test unit came equipped the Vortec 6.0-liter gas engine, which is relatively unchanged with the exception of a new cam profile to lower the peak torque a few hundred rpm. The engine is rated for 360 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque and didn't have any problems keeping up with traffic but the 6L90-E did do a bit of gear hunting up steeper grades with some rough shifting between Three and Four. Our less-than-scientific average fuel economy came in around 15.2 mpg on our highway stretch with two large males and an empty pickup bed.

We did get to tow various types of trailers (fifth-wheel, flatbed, travel trailer) and, as you might expect, the new HDs seems to thrive in this environment, especially when equipped with the 6.6L V-8 Duramax turbodiesel. While driving a GMC Sierra HD 3500 HD 4x4 Dually with a fifth-wheel horse trailer loaded with lead ingots weighing about 13,000 pounds, we found the new Duramax pulls hard. The new variable vein turbocharger seems plenty fast enough to deliver strong off-the-line power and pulled our trailer up a grade from a dead stop to 55 mph. On the downgrade, we engaged the exhaust brake button (which uses the icon of an ice cream cone lying on the ground. Huh?) and hugely appreciated how the tow-haul mode aggressively uses aggressive downshifting and bigger brakes (now with 14-inch discs) to slow our heavy beast. We like that the same turbo that spooled up so fast to get us up over the hilltop is the same turbo that changes the fin angles to create back-pressure in the engine to slow it down on the backside of the grade. The dually diesel combination was impressive given our GVW must have been well over 21,000 pounds.

Later, I also drove a 2500 Crew Cab with the Duramax after we hooked up a 9000-pound travel trailer to the bumper (weight-distributing hitch, of course) and was even more impressed with its performance as it seemed to adjust to the load rather quickly and provided a more nimble ride. It didn't take long at all to forget the trailer was there while cruising along the highways or navigating the back roads and small towns of West Virginia. The only issue we need to be mindful of was our length and width of the roads during corners. We especially liked the fact the Allison transmission continues to offer manual shift capabilities on the column, and found the 1000 plenty smart enough on its own to make proper downshifts early enough to keep us in control yet not too early when coasting over a hilltop. In unloaded testing performed by GM, the new Duramax and Allison combination showed 0-60 mph times to drop by 0.3-seconds, with quarter-mile times dropping by more than 0.5-seconds. We'll find out for ourselves when we get one to test.

Still, we like the focus and enthusiasm the GM engineers have shown with this next-generation execution -- we're guessing this platform will have to last a while. In fact, by not spending the cash needed to more thoroughly redesign the interior and exterior of the pickup, you can expect this foundation to last for at least two or three (maybe more) model upgrades. But, of course, everything depends on what the competition does. By taking the lead in several key categories for HD models (highest conventional towing, highest payload, and most horsepower and torque for a turbodiesel), they've addressed some of the key complaints as Chevy and GMC loyalists have had to sit on the sidelines and watch the competition come out with their new products. It's not the Full Monty but what we've seen, we like.

Bottom Line: If we had to guess how these new HD pickups are going to be received by the marketplace, we'd guess GM is going to be pleased. There is real under-the-skin substance here -- and it's the right kind of substance: more capability, more control, more confidence, and more efficiency. We're guessing truck guys will appreciate that GM put the bulk of the money in all the right places -- frame, suspension, diesel engine, brakes, steering, and towing technology. How that compares to the extensive work done to the new Super Duty and Ram HD remains to be seen, but from where we sit, the race just got tighter. Expect to see a full towing, hauling, and track test with all these impressive trucks in the near future.

The fully-boxed frame (Super Duty and Ram HD are not) is completely computer-designed and all-new, providing 92-percent stronger bending and five times more torsional stiffness. The front frame structure is 125-percent stronger than the previous model.

(Above Right)
The front suspension continues to use torsion bars, but can now offer a snowplow option package on all 4x4 models across the range, from base 2500 HD up to fully loaded 3500 HD Dually.

(Above Left)
Effectively the same rear axle housing in both 2500 HD and 3500 HD configurations as previously used, GM engineers did find a way to shave 35 pounds from the Dually axle, effectively bolstering its payload capacity.


2011 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD 4x4 Extended Cab
Base price $37,600
Vehicle layout Front-engine, 4WD, 6-pass, 4-door pickup
Engine 6.0L/360-hp/380 lb-ft OHV16-valve V-8: 6.6L/397-hp/765 lb-ft OHV 32-valve TD V-8
Transmission 6-speed auto
Curb Weight 6600 (mfr)
Wheelbase 158.1
Length x Width x Height 249.5 x 80.0 x 77.6
0-60 MPH 9.0 (mfr est)
EPA City/Hwy Fuel Econ 12-15/17 (est)
CO2 emissions 1.40 lb/mile (est)
On Sale in U.S. Currently


2011 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD Extended Cab LT 4x4
POWERTRAIN
Drivetrain layout Front engine, 4WD
Base engine 90-deg V-8, iron block/alum heads
Bore x stroke 4.00 x 3.62 in
Displacement 364 ci/6.0L
Compression ratio 9.6:1
Valve gear OHV, 2 valves/cyl
SAE horsepower 360 hp @ 5400 rpm
SAE torque 380 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm
Transmission 6L90-E 6-speed automatic
1st 4.03:1
2nd 2.36:1
3rd 1.53:1
4th 1.15:1
5th 0.85:1
6th 0.67:1
Reverse 3.06:1
Optional engine 90-deg V-8 turbodiesel, iron block/alum heads
Bore x stroke 4.06 x 3.90 in
Displacement 403 ci/6.6L
Compression ratio 16.0:1
Valve gear OHV, 4 valves/cyl
SAE horsepower 397 hp @ 3000 rpm
SAE torque 765 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
Optional transmission Allison 1000 6-speed automatic
1st 3.10:1
2nd 1.81:1
3rd 1.41:1
4th 1.00:1
5th 0.71:1
6th 0.61:1
Reverse 4.49:1
Axle ratio 3.73:1
Final drive ratio (base/opt) 2.50:1/2.28:1
Transfer-case model NV 271
Low-range ratio 2.72:1
Crawl ratio (1st x axle gears x low range) 40.9:1/31.5:1
DIMENSIONS/CAPACITIES
Wheelbase 144.1 in
Length x width x height 230.6 x 80.0 x 77.8 in
Track, f/r 68.8/67.3 in
Turning circle 47.9 ft
Ground clearance 8.5 in
Curb weight 7205 lb
Weight distribution, f/r 64/36 %
Max payload capacity 2295 lb
GVWR 9500 lb
GCWR 22,500 lb
Max tow cap (bmper/5th wh) 13,000/14,000 lb
Seating capacity 6
Headroom, f/r 41.1/39.4 in
Legroom, f/r 41.3/34.3 in
Shoulder room, f/r 65.2/65.3 in
Bed LxWxH 78.8 x 62.4 x 21.0 in
Width bet wheelhousings 50.6 in
Bed volume 60.7 cu ft
CHASSIS
Construction Ladder frame
Suspension, f/r Control arms, torsion bars, anti-roll bar/live axle, leaf springs, anti-roll bar
Steering type Recirculating ball
Ratio 16.1:1
Turns, lock to lock 3.6
Brakes, f/r 14.0-in vented disc/14.2-in vented disc, ABS
Wheels 7.0 x 20-in alloy
Tires 265/60R20 118S Goodyear Wrangler SR-A
PERFORMANCE
Acceleration, 0-60 9.0 (mfr est)
Top-gear revs @ 60 mph 1400 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
Base price $37,700
Price as tested $48,095
Airbags Dual front, front head, front side
Fuel capacity 36.0 gal
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy Not rated
Recommended fuel Diesel or B20 capable

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