First Drive: 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 AT4 and Denali

Better In Every Way

Aug 27, 2018
Photographers: Jason Gonderman, Courtesy GMC
Breaking the silence on what was probably one of the worst kept automotive secrets, GMC pulled back the curtain on the all-new 2019 Sierra 1500 Denali at an invitation-only event held in Detroit in February of 2018. Shortly after, in March, AT4 was unveiled ahead of the New York Auto Show. The 2019 Sierra has been redesigned from the ground up, is larger in almost every dimension, and improves on nearly every aspect of the outgoing pickup. While Sierra’s bowtie-clad sibling stole much of the spotlight, this is the truck we were eager to test. Thankfully, our patience paid off and we were treated of a wonderful first drive experience with the Sierra 1500 Denali and AT4 in beautiful St. Johns, Newfoundland.
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What’s New?
Simply put, everything. Sierra’s sculpted body shares only the roof skin and rear doors with Silverado, breaking a decades-long tradition and giving Sierra its own unique persona. Wheelbase is extended, and rear seat legroom has increased by three inches. This new Sierra is up to 360 pounds lighter than the outgoing model thanks to the strategic use of aluminum and other weight reduction, such as 88 pounds removed from the frame due to increased use of high-strength steel.
The interior is new as well with more luxurious accommodations, which include premium Forge leather seating, authentic open-pore ash wood trim, and dark-finish aluminum on Denali. A multi-color head-up display is available, as is a rear camera mirror and high-definition surround-view cameras.
Drivetrains are updated for 2019 as well, with the introduction of Dynamic Fuel Management on the 5.3L and 6.2L V-8 engines, along with a new 2.7L turbocharged four-cylinder and 3.0L inline six-cylinder Duramax diesel. The 6.2L V-8 and 3.0L Duramax are mated to GMC’s new 10-speed automatic. Legacy engines include the 4.3L V-6 and 5.3L V-8 with Active Fuel Management, both of which are mated to a six-speed transmission.
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The Best Kept Secret
We mentioned that the new Sierra was a pretty poorly kept secret (seriously, we saw so many spy photos), what we didn’t know about was the new MultiPro tailgate. In Newfoundland we finally got to spend a fair amount of time with the gate, and what seemed at first like a gimmick finally began to make sense. Standard on SLT, AT4, and Denali, the MultiPro gate flips and folds into six different positions. These include a standard gate, a step, a pair of load stop configurations, and a workbench, among others. GMC also offers accessories for the MultiPro gate, including lights and a Kicker audio system (the Kicker system is wicked cool and going to quickly become the tailgater’s favorite feature).
An activity of loading the bed with fishing gear, lobster traps, coolers, lumber, and more served to demonstrate the real-world versatility of the MultiPro gate. Once we saw just what it can do in the real world we were sold. And the fact that it’s standard on SLT and above is a fantastic bonus in world where only the top trims get the cool features.
Speaking of beds, GMC also trotted out a display of the upcoming CarbonPro carbon fiber composite bed. However, it was still in prototype form and we’re still skeptical of its place and purpose in this world. More on that at a later date. In the here and now, Sierra’s 5-foot, 8-inch box features best-in-class cargo volume at 63 cubic feet, which was created by widening the bed floor nearly seven inches. The standard bed floor is still roll-formed high-strength steel and has 12 fixed tie downs rated at 500 pounds per corner. LED cargo lights are still present and, like everything else, have been improved.
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So, How Does It Drive?
If you have read our 2019 Silverado First Drive piece you already know half of the story. Steering is firm without the feeling of being overboosted, and braking is tight and linear thanks in part to a new electro-hydraulic booster. The brake pedal has been moved closer to the accelerator (more SUV-like than traditional pickup) and the steering wheel is centered (so you can stop with the letters already).
For the purposes of this test we were outfitted with trucks featuring the 6.2L V-8 engine and 10-speed automatic. The 6.2L’s 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque leave little to be desired. Thanks in part to the massive range of the new 10-speed transmission, there’s power on tap whenever it’s desired. We never felt that the truck was underpowered, and there’s little wait for it to kick in. The transmission reacts very quickly to throttle input and drops the appropriate number of gears for the acceleration desired (thanks largely to its ability to skip multiple cogs up and down). Shifts are smooth and seamless; leaving the driver with a true inability to know what gear the transmission is currently in. While this is great for the everyday owner, we’d love to see an indicator on the dash if for no other reason than to quench our curiosity. We’d also like an available axle gear ratio other than 3.23:1. This drivetrain combination with a 3.73:1 or 4.10:1 rear end would be an absolute rocket off the line.
Unfortunately we’ll have to wait to test any of the other drivetrain combinations as we didn’t get into a 5.3L DFM truck during our short time, and there were no 4.3L, 5.3L (AFM), 2.7L, or 3.0L trucks present.
Speaking of Dynamic Fuel Management—which can disable between one and seven cylinders in any of 17 different combinations—the new system proved to be completely invisible. Unlike the old Active Fuel Management system that produced an audible tone change and perceived vibration, the new DFM system went completely undetected, which is amazing. And if the fuel economy gauge on the dash is to be believed (which we generally don’t) this new generation of Sierra should return phenomenal fuel economy when cruising. We achieved better than 20 mpg on multiple occasions with a previous-generation 6.2L and 8-speed combo so this new one shouldn’t disappoint in the real world.
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What About The Ride?
This is where the similarities with the Silverado end, for Denali at least. Exclusive to Denali is an all-new Adaptive Ride Control system. Much like the old MagnaRide, the new system utilizes adjustable dampers with sensors at each corner and a computer capable of adjusting ride characteristics in milliseconds. While the standard Sierra ride is much improved over the outgoing model, Denalis take it to the next level with a ride that is incredibly smooth over the roughest of surfaces. While it can’t completely tune out road undulations (it’s still a live-axle pickup, after all), we noticed the biggest improvement came on graded gravel roads (which were under construction) and uneven pavement.
Another neat feature of the new Adaptive Ride Control is the ability to automatically adjust when the truck is loaded, either in the bed or with a trailer. Using the rear suspension sensors, the system determines when a load is present and adjusts accordingly by stiffening the rear suspension and acting as adjunct sway control. While it doesn’t increase wheel travel or have the ability to self-level, we did find that in both situations (with 800 pounds in the bed and with a trailer in tow) the suspension made the ride feel incredibly normal. Secondary motions typical of towing a heavy load or hauling heavy payload are tuned out, and the top-heavy feeling is almost completely gone. While you still shouldn’t rip around like a road racer while hauling a heavy load, Denali’s Adaptive Ride Control sure makes it feel like you can.
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When The Pavement Ends
While Denali proved to be the king of the highway, AT4 reigned supreme when the tarmac gave way to dust. AT4 features a 2-inch suspension lift with Rancho monotube shock absorbers, available Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires, and fancy red tow hooks (among other things). Our off-road course wasn’t quite as extreme as the one that Chevy laid out for their Trail Boss, but that was hardly GMC’s fault as the local municipality decided to fully grade the off-road trail a week before our drive. You can’t win them all.
Off-road the AT4 doesn’t disappoint. The Rancho shocks work well at soaking up bumps and ruts in the road, and the Goodyear tires provide loads of traction. Four-wheel drive is standard on AT4, as is an automatic locking rear differential and hill descent control. Ripping through the woods like a rally car was a blast, even it if it wasn’t the most technical. We had no issues with shock fade, and passenger comfort was high with little to no violent head toss from the cross ruts and dips in the road. A Baja racer the AT4 is not, but for the everyday outdoor enthusiast it’s more than suitable.
Back on the highway the ride was firm while not being harsh. We did notice a fair bit of noise from the Goodyear DuraTrac tires, which is to be expected from such aggressive rubber. There was also a bit more wander than we found from Denali, as the DuraTracs more readily tracked with grooves in the road.
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Technologically Advanced
Let’s address the elephant in the room right off the bat… the new 2019 Sierra Denali doesn’t have adaptive cruise control and we’re not happy about that. There, we said it. The competition has offered it for years, it’s found in GMC’s current Yukon, and any number of entry-level vehicles offer it as well. We love adaptive cruise and can’t fathom why it’s not offered. With counseling we’ll get over it, probably.
What we do love is the new head-up display, which is multi-color and enormous at 3x7 inches. We wish it had a few more display options (radio information would be nice), but what is available is incredibly useful, such as navigation guidance. We’re also fans of the new-generation camera mirror, which replaces the typical rearview mirror with a high-definition screen. This latest generation offers the option to tilt and zoom the image, as well as change the brightness. While it takes a bit of time to get used to, we found it to be incredibly useful as it offers a wider range of view than the standard mirror.
The ProGrade Trailering System with Trailering App is an incredibly useful feature for those who tow a lot. The system offers a multitude of camera angles designed specifically to aid in hitching and towing trailers, as well as several checklists and tutorials and the ability to store trailer information and monitor trailer tire pressure and temperature (when equipped with the correct sensors). We’d like to see a way to enable the trailer light check function from the key fob instead of just the app, but that’s really a small grievance.
Sierra’s infotainment center has been upgraded to the latest generation, while retaining its 8-inch size, and we couldn’t be happier with it. Apple CarPlay works seamlessly, which has been a constant gripe among our GM-driving staffers. Remote starting is standard as is keyless entry, and a keyless ignition has finally found its way into Sierra. Front and rear park assist is standard, as are lane change assist with side blind zone alert and rear cross traffic alert. Also available is forward collision alert, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, low speed forward automatic braking, front pedestrian braking, following distance indicator, IntelliBeam headlamp control, and the fantastic vibrating safety alert seat.
We love the addition of lane keep assist, as it just gently nudges the truck back into the lane instead of jerking hard on the steering like most other systems. Lane departure warning vibrates the seat and can get obnoxious at time with false alerts, as can the forward collision warning system. But neither of these issues is abnormal for the industry.
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Final Thoughts
It’s no secret that we’re fans of the Sierra Denali. In fact, the Sierra 1500 Denali won our 2016 Pickup Truck of the Year award and the Sierra 2500HD Denali took the distinction for 2018. Overall we’re quite pleased with the advancements made for the 2019 model year. Everything has improved and nothing has been left untouched. The 6.2L V-8 and 10-speed combination is an amazing drivetrain, and Denali’s adaptive suspension provides among the best highway ride of any ½-ton pickup. The interior is comfortable and the safety and technology package leave little to be desired (other than the addition of adaptive cruise). Exterior styling is bold while retaining an air of elegance that is central to GMC and the Denali sub-brand in particular. GMC did a great job of building a pickup not just for the here and now, but one that should remain relevant for many years to come.

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