It must've really bugged GM to see Ford own the luxury heavy-duty market, especially considering that GMC's Denali line has been known for truck luxury since 1999. When General Motors announced it was expanding its Denali line to include heavy-duty GMC pickups, it made perfect sense -- this could be the way for GM to battle the King Ranch in this segment.

For a lighter-duty vehicle, creating a Denali version is relatively easy: Add chrome, offer Denali-unique wheels and tires, and Denali-specific interior cues, and, in some cases, make a larger-displacement, higher-horsepower engine standard. Look at the Yukon and Yukon XL Denali. In addition to the Denali styling upgrades, that trim level is the only one where you can get the 403-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8.

In the case of the 2500HD and 3500HD, though, creating a Denali package is more complicated. At the heavy-duty truck level, styling and wheels are nice, but they can't have a dramatically negative effect on the truck's capability. The Denali package is available on 3/4- and one-ton heavy-duty trucks, crew cab only, with either rear- or four-wheel drive. Denalis come with the standard (6.5-foot, 2500HD) or long (8.0-foot, 3500HD) bed.

How do you know it's a Denali by looking at it? The truck, offered only in black, gray, or white, has a four-bar chrome grille, chrome accents, and 18- or 20-inch polished forged aluminum wheels on the single-rear-wheel models, 17-inchers on dualies. Interior amenities include a Bose audio system, power-adjustable pedals, brushed aluminum accents (unique to the Denali), and 12-way power seats. Heated steering wheel and heated/cooled leather seats are options.

Other than those differences, the rest of the truck is exactly the same as the standard Sierra HD line. Unlike the other vehicles offered with the Denali package, the Sierra HDs come with the same engine/transmission pairings; the 6.0-liter V-8 and 6L90 six-speed automatic transmission is standard, and the 397-horsepower, 765-pound-foot 6.6-liter Duramax turbodiesel V-8 and Allison 1000 six-speed automatic are an $8395 option. We would've liked to see some differences between the Denali engine and those in the rest of the heavy-duty line, but there's certainly nothing lacking here. Besides, Ford has the same philosophy with its King Ranch Super Duty.

Getting into the 4WD 3500HD (dualie) diesel, it was instantly clear that the Denali's interior is not nearly as brash as in the King Ranch. The truck's interior is tasteful and attractive, but if you want the large badges and unique leather hue of the King Ranch, you might find this too understated. Seats are comfortable during long drives, and all the controls were easy to reach while driving. The cabin was roomy, and for those familiar with GM's basic layout of truck interiors, there are no real surprises here.

What was a surprise was how fast the truck felt. We used it to tow 12,000 pounds up a 16-percent grade, where even semi-casual drag races against competitive trucks showed that the Denali pulled away. The Sierra HD had no trouble putting the power to the wheels. Even with 765 pound-feet of torque, there was no wheelslip, which was not always the case with other trucks in this competitive set.

Power came effortlessly, and with a trailer in tow, it still felt like a performance truck. Later that day Motor Trend/Truck Trend technical director Frank Markus put the truck through our battery of performance tests and confirmed our seat-of-the-pants theory: This truck doesn't just feel fast -- it is fast. It reached 60 mph in just 7.7 seconds and went through the quarter mile in 16 seconds flat at 85.5 mph. It weighs 8100 pounds, and its 0-to-60-mph time is comparable with those of a Dodge Challenger (V-6-powered), Mazda3, or Acura TSX. And the last time we checked, none of those cars could tow 21,100 pounds. Braking from 60 mph took 143 feet.

After a full day of driving -- from early in the day until long after midnight, on two-lane country roads and highways, in rain that fell in sheets and bright sunshine -- the Sierra Denali HD impressed us. The truck is much more refined now, with a quieter cabin than ever before, and the ride is smooth and comfortable. This is a truck you could drive all day, all week, with a heavy load in back, and you'd ride in comfort, with total confidence. Oh, and the fuel economy, which we recorded as a combination of driving while towing and with the truck unloaded, was 13.6 mpg.

After a full day of driving -- from early in the day until long after midnight, on two-lane country roads and highways, in rain that fell in sheets and bright sunshine -- the Sierra Denali HD impressed us. The truck is much more refined now, with a quieter cabin than ever before, and the ride is smooth and comfortable. This is a truck you could drive all day, all week, with a heavy load in back, and you'd ride in comfort, with total confidence. Oh, and the fuel economy, which we recorded as a combination of driving while towing and with the truck unloaded, was 13.6 mpg.

We are happy to say this truck isn't just good on paper; it's equally good in real life. But can it hold its own against the new King Ranch? For those who like the King Ranch's unique style, the Denali is probably a bit on the dull side. But when you compare numbers -- the Duramax's 397 horsepower and 765 pound-feet of torque compared with the recently upgraded Power Stroke's 400 horsepower and 800 pound-feet -- the trucks are very close in capability.

While we've yet to receive all the pricing data, from what we can tell, the Sierra Denali 3500HD we drove would cost about $59,000 as equipped, and the equivalent King Ranch with similar equipment would cost around $58,000.

We haven't had the chance to test a one-ton F-350 King Ranch with the updated performance numbers (remember, when the Fords first went on sale, they had 390 horsepower and 735 pound-feet); that's something we will take care of in the next few months. Meanwhile, though, for the first time, Ford has to face an excellent luxury contender in this category from GM. And we're eager to see how Ford deals with it.


2011 GMC Sierra Denali 3500HD
POWERTRAIN
Drivetrain layout Front engine, 4WD
Engine type Turbodiesel 90-deg V-8, iron block/aluminum heads
Valve gear OHV, 4 valves/cyl
Bore x stroke 4.06 x 3.90 in
Displacement 403 ci/6.6L
Compression ratio 16.0:1
Power (SAE net) 397 hp @ 3000 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 765 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
Transmission type 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 2.28:1
Transfer-case model NV 271
Low-range ratio 2.72:1
Crawl ratio (1st x axle gears x low range) 31.5:1
DIMENSIONS/CAPACITIES
Wheelbase 167.7 in
Length x width x height 259.0 x 95.9 x 77.8 in
Track, f/r 68.8/75.0 in
Turning circle 55.4 ft
Ground clearance 8.5 in
Curb weight (f/r dist) 8100 lb (58/42%)
Max payload capacity 5122 lb
GVWR 13,000 lb
Max towing capacity 21,100 lb
Seating capacity 5
Headroom, f/r 41.2/40.5 in
Legroom, f/r 41.3/39.0 in
Shoulder room, f/r 65.2/65.1 in
Bed LxWxH 97.7x62.4x21.0 in
Width bet wheelhousings 50.6 in
Bed volume 75.5 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 Power-assisted recirculating ball
Ratio 16.1:1
Turns, lock to lock 3.6
Brakes, f/r 14.0-in disc/14.0-in disc, ABS
Wheels 6.5x17-in forged aluminum
Tires 235/80R17 120R Michelin LTX AT2
PERFORMANCE
Acceleration
0-30 2.8 sec
0-40 4
0-50 5.7
0-60 7.7
0-70 10.1
0-80 13.5
0-90 17.9
Quarter mile 16.0 sec @ 85.8 mph
Braking, 60-0 143 ft
CONSUMER INFO
Base price $47,745
Price as tested $59,000 (est)
Airbags Dual front, front side
Fuel capacity 36.0 gal
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy Not rated
As-tested fuel economy 17.8 mpg (mfr)
CO2 emissions Not rated
Recommended fuel ULSD
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