Over the past year or two, we've seen dramatic updates and improvements happen to nearly every pickup in the half-ton segment after a long drought. The timing may be partly due to restrictions caused by the Great Recession. That itself hurt the automakers in two ways: it caused research and development budgets to get squeezed for a few years, and it caused truck sales to drop. And that makes sense: if people can't afford to buy trucks, they hold onto what they're currently driving until things get better. Trucks took longer to develop and longer to sell.

The previous generation of the Silverado/Sierra was on the GMT900 platform, which we liked so much we named it our 2007 Truck of the Year. But that was seven years ago, and once the drought ended, a lot suddenly changed in the industry (such as EcoBoost engines, grille shutters, air suspension, and eight-speed transmissions). And it seemed the GM trucks were falling behind the pack, staying still while the rest of the market zoomed ahead. After all, as one example, Ram introduced an eight-speed transmission, when GM was still using a four-speed in some models.

When we heard that we would finally get the chance to take a new GM pickup to the track, in this case a four-wheel-drive 2014 Sierra 1500 Crew Cab SLT Z71 with the 5.3-liter V-8, we were excited to see how it would do. After all, General Motors made so many significant advancements for the new generation of half-tons, we wanted to see if the claims were legit.

All three engines are all new, despite having the same displacement as before, yet horsepower has increased by 40 and torque is up by 45 lb-ft. The EcoTec3 line uses a new version of Active Fuel Management cylinder shutoff, direct injection, and continuously variable valve timing, a combination that was used to improve power and fuel economy. All three engines are now backed by six-speed automatics, a decision that also helps the cause. The company also used more aluminum, hydroforming, and high-strength steel to save weight.

At the track, the Sierra hit 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, and went through the quarter mile in 15.7 seconds at 89.0 mph. To compare, the 2007 Sierra -- also a four-wheel-drive Z71 crew cab with the 5.3-liter -- went from 0 to 60 in 8.1 seconds, and took 16.2 seconds at 88.1 mph to complete the quarter mile. Considering the new truck weighs 5607 pounds and the '07 weighed 5353 pounds, that 0.7-second improvement is especially impressive. However, when we tested the 2013 Ford F-150 4WD SuperCrew with the EcoBoost V-6, it hit 60 in 6.6 seconds; a similarly outfitted F-150, a 2012, reached 60 in 7.1 seconds with the 5.0-liter V-8 under the hood. The four-wheel-drive 2013 Ram 1500 crew cab, with the 5.7-liter and eight-speed automatic, got to 60 in 6.9 seconds.

The improvements at the track continued when the test team evaluated braking. That 2007 Sierra stopped from 60 mph in 150 feet; the new Sierra needed only 125 feet to stop from the same speed. The 2013 F-150 stopped from that same speed in 134 feet; the V-8-powered Ram 1500 stopped in 129 feet.

After it went through its paces at the track, we had some time in it around town and on our favorite roads. There were a few things we noticed that hadn't been as apparent on a previous drive of the truck. While throttle tip-in has felt touchy on a few trucks and SUVs we have driven lately, in the case of the Sierra, the throttle was slower to respond to driver input. It almost seemed as if there was a delay. Steering feels firm and nicely weighted, but the turning radius was not as tight as with other trucks in the segment, a downside that was most noticeable when turning into parking spaces. Brake response was excellent, just the right combination of firmness and response. The Sierra's ride was a touch firm, but it was a good balance between ride comfort and being set up to accommodate payload. And yes, the cabin was just as amazingly quiet as we remembered, whether at freeway speed on driving around town.

Our experience in the Sierra this time around involved a lot more time sitting in traffic, and the fuel economy suffered for it. Our observed fuel economy was 16.2 mpg, which is just a tick about the EPA city fuel economy number, but lower than the 17.6 mpg we saw previously. Keep in mind that's an improvement over the previous truck. The four-wheel-drive 2013 Sierra with the 5.3-liter had an EPA rating of 15 mpg city/21 highway. The 2014's EPA-rated 22 highway mpg is just one shy of the previous-gen hybrid's highway rating, and is much better than even the previous 4WD 4.3-liter V-6's 14/18.

We like the spot mirror on the driver-side mirror -- it's a great way to integrate better visibility of surrounding traffic, and it comes in really handy when you need to see around the trailer you're towing. We liked it so much we hope it'll become an option for the passenger-side mirror as well. We also like the way the Driver Alert Seat works; it vibrates to let the driver know what's going on (for example if you start to wander out of the lane, or if another vehicle gets too close), without a series of startling beeps. Two minor quibbles about the cabin: first, we wish the top of the center console sat a touch lower. As it was, with the driver seat in the right driving position, it was hard to comfortably use the center console as an armrest. The other: the tilt and telescoping steering wheel used two different levers to adjust each angle. Many other companies have integrated those into one single lever. It would also make sense to make it as a power option.

Overall, we came away from this drive just as impressed as we were when we drove the Sierra at the media launch. GMC has made tremendous strides catching up with the rest of the segment. What's also nice is that the company has plenty of other advances and features it could look at in the future, like eight-speed automatics, that could be used in the future without sacrificing capability or reliability. But the Sierra has proved to be faster, more capable, and more efficient than before, and that's good, because the rest of the segment has advanced quite far in a short amount of time.