A Victory & Reseda review of the 2016 GMC Sierra Denali
The full-sized pickup truck market is one of the toughest segments to cover in this business.
It is not because of the vehicles themselves. It is because of the level of parity that is forming among the manufacturers. Rather, as to which aspects of each pickup are favorable in the eyes of both consumers and this automotive blogger/writer/etc. The four half-ton pickups I have driven since the dawn of V&R each exhibit its own character and core competencies, along its flaws and shortfalls. Sometimes it is tough to absolutely state "THIS IS THE BEST DAMN HALF-TON PICKUP SOLD IN NORTH AMERICA!" That is, until the next one comes along and blows the one I thought was excellent away.
Yet, each truck offers its own debate. The proponents of each pickup are loyal to their brand. They enthusiastically point out what their chose vehicle is capable of, even if I disagree with a few of their points. They will never listen to honest criticism, because their truck is all they know and care about.
This year's Presidential Campaign? The campaigns prior to the Brexit vote? The current South African Parliament? Even those who do not think Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might not make it through his term.
For the record, I used to participate in politics. I blame my mother for that part. Now, I hate it. It has become intolerable, divisive and downright hateful. I want absolutely none of that in my life! I wished we can maintain our collective sanity beyond the date we have to go to the polls and make our decision – in a secret ballot booth!
Pickup trucks are as American as the country we debate enthusiastically over. While there is a relative parity in the half-ton market, some models are a bit "better" than others. "Better" in terms of the combination of performance, capacity, capability, quality and cabin appointments. I had the chance to try to the most luxurious trucks available in this market – the Ram 1500 Limited, the Ford F-150 King Ranch and the Toyota Tundra 1794. Granted, Ford’s luxury truck line continues all the way to the new F-150 Platinum, we often forget there is one that actually set the tone for the proliferation of the luxury pickup truck.
The GMC Sierra Denali.
It all started in 2001 with GMC's pickup receiving a higher level cabin trim, similar to the original Denali – the Yukon SUV. At that time, Ford countered GM with the King Ranch and the Lincoln Blackwood. The King Ranch was more "Cowboy Luxury" than "Cadillac-level Luxury." Yet the King Ranch raised the bar of what would become the most lucrative sub-segment in the pickup truck business. The Lincoln Blackwood was more of a truck based off the Navigator than a real F-150.
Chrysler did not jump into the real luxury truck business well after the break off of the Ram brand from Dodge. You saw the Lariat spawn into the Longhorn and Limited for 2013 and beyond. Toyota added the 1794 during its mid-cycle refresh of the current Tundra in 2014.
Without getting an argument of "chicken" and "egg," let's just establish that GMC offered a level of luxury at a time when the market was craving for something along the lines of Cadillac and Lincoln in the pickup game. It is just that GMC kept at it consistently creating a halo pickup for well-heeled customers. Although Ford has exploded the market with a three-pronged approach: King Ranch, Platinum and Limited, it is safe to stay with an original – the GMC Sierra Denali.
The updates to the 2016 model have already been lauded on this site. Yes, I said it was a "solid choice" in the segment. But, I wondered if I was holdout out for the Denali version to see whether it was “the best” in class.
The only way to do so is to live with the Denali.
Sure, it would be easy to say that I was "living large," but that would be more apt for the Sierra HD Denali. The half-ton 1500 is plenty big. The Onyx Black paint job makes it look the part – a tuxedo topped with a matching black Stetson and finished with black boots. It is sophisticated, elegant and classy. It is still a pickup truck, with its sprayed-on bed liner, corner foot holds, and higher ride height.
The elegant Sierra Denali adds a few more touches to secure its place in the truck phylum. Power retractable steps is the perfect way to get into a luxury truck. That fine textured grille is the crowning touch telling the world that they are nothing but ranch hands. The 20-inch allow wheels cap off the classy Denali, yet shod with Goodyear Eagle LS2 tires. I understand this to a point, but it is a pickup. I rather put on some serious truck rubber so I can utilize its capabilities. That is just me, however…
Step inside, and you have a mix of Cadillac, Buick and GMC. Professional Grade meets the hottest brand in China and Johan de Nysschen's plan to rule the luxury car business (again)…and it all works absolute well! The seats are huge, well-bolstered with a blend of comfort and support. The perforated leather works well in the Denali motif. I noticed that the Denali offers a large TFT screen in the instrument binnacle. The four gauges are responsive, along with a larger information screen than in normal Sierra models. Everything I touch works extraordinarily well.
Sometimes, I end up being disappointed with at least one aspect of General Motors' infotainment systems. IntelliLink works well with the radio, Bluetooth connected music file playback and the onboard navigation system. I strongly believe that OnStar is the absolute best telematics and connected driver’s assistance system in the world. This also includes its 4G LTE Wi-Fi connection. There was a glitch with Apple CarPlay, however. In all of the vehicles I worked with so far, it would boot up quickly. From there, I had mixed experiences on how it was stable within the infotainment system and so far. In the case of the GMC Sierra Denali, initial boot up took a while and it had to take a couple of steps to get it working right. Not that I'm complaining, but this experience after having a flawless experience with Apple CarPlay – in a Porsche.
This is just nitpicking, because I absolutely thoroughly enjoyed the 2016 GMC Sierra Denali 1500. Especially with the big hammer underneath the hood – the EcoTec3 6.2 liter V8. Let me get this out of the way: 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque cannot be ignored here. This is the most power one can get in its class. We’re talking smooth power, especially when connected to the latest 8-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive system. It may look like a sophisticated, classy pickup, but what lies underneath is no mere V8 engine.
The ride quality is a tad better than your average pickup truck – with a bit of pitching and road feel. For the most part, the Sierra Denali is smooth. I rather skip the part of about handling and cornering because of a particular vehicle that I got to work with the weekend before the Sierra's Denali. That vehicle being written about for another publication – which shall remain nameless – has spoiled every story that is being read on this site. Steering and braking are what you expect from a pickup – in fact, I found no change between the steering and braking behaviors on the Sierra Denali from the previously reviewed Sierra 1500 SLT – which are actually quite good for its class.
In all, is the Sierra Denali a treat to drive? Absolutely! This is considering what it is – a luxury half-ton pickup truck with a crew cab and four-wheel drive. There is another way to look it at. What I may have here is a modern day equivalent to a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham – from the 1960s to 1979, perhaps – that is elegantly disguised as a half-ton pickup truck.
It is quite an audacious statement, but think about how the automotive marketplace has changed since 1980. People of all stripes have taken to trucks and SUVs as their primary mode of transport. The pickup truck has been accepted into the family fleet, therefore customers are demanding more comfort and amenities than before.
I wanted to explore this more with the Sierra Denali. Can this fit within an inner ring suburban lifestyle of a single guy and his want of wanderlust?
The first test was the commute. As someone working two jobs – V&R, along with its related endeavors and some office job – I needed to see why some people are compelled to commute in a pickup truck. You can, even though you might the biggest vehicle in the parking lot. The truth is that there are several other half-ton pickups that commute to the same office complex. I might not be alone, but it is a reflection of the times and the marketplace.
With that said, my twelve-mile round-trip commute was fine. Parking at home was another story, as I usually tuck it into my space off of the alleyway. Getting in is no problem. Getting out in the morning takes a few turns to accomplish. Maybe I should listen to my inner voice telling me to park out front instead.
The next test was what I would call "the pre-dawn patrol." The Sierra Denali's next task was to take my roommate and her guy to the airport for a very early flight. No problem, right? You can flip up one part of the rear seat to make room for roller bags and other smaller carry-ons behind the driver's seat. There was the issue with a golf bag. The solution was to put it in the box. I have to admit that I would have felt more secure with the bag inside the cab, but we managed everything well.
Piece of cake? All bags arrived with their passengers, ready to be checked in. They also got a smooth ride to MSP.
As for its biggest test, I decided to test my wanderlust. I wanted to do a day trip on a Saturday that called for thunderstorms in the morning in the Twin Cities. Rain was in the forecast for most of the places I considered driving to. Usually, this would present a challenge to any motorist looking to get away. Not me. What I wanted to see was how this Onyx Black 2016 GMC Sierra Denali – the Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham of the pickup world – would be like as it drove in places where the pickup truck is more common sight.
I set the course for Sioux Falls, South Dakota. My plan was to go through rural communities to get there. Why? To see whether there are other luxury pickup trucks out in the countryside. While I was joined by many pickups along the way, in Sioux Falls and on my way back, I found that most new pickup truck buyers tend to not get the highest trims. The pickup truck is indeed the staple of rural communities. Yet, there is a sense that these consumers would rather have something that works than one that is purely made for recreational use – which most luxury trucks are seen in the eyes of the average pickup customer. Rural customers are hard-working people who spend more time ensuring that food will be on the table and a roof will always be over their heads. Their want of higher level luxury is not a priority.
Of course, there is one thing that could stop a lot of consumers in the rural markets – the sticker price. On this particular Onyx Black 2016 GMC Sierra Denali, it came with a bottom line of $60,745. Although a few rural dealerships will stock a pickup with a luxury trim to at least entice someone with a higher income bracket to buy one. There are a few customers who would partake in a Sierra Denali, mainly in professional positions in town.
I have asked a lot from this 2016 GMC Sierra Denali, and one would hope for some sort of return from it. In regards to fuel economy, it did average 19.5 MPG. That is a V&R record for gasoline-fueled full-sized pickup trucks! Even a 420-horsepower V8 can get almost 20 MPG when you can engineer it to do so!
It would be a stretch to call this GMC Sierra Denali the best pickup in the business right now. It certainly raised the bar in terms of offering more creature comforts over the past 14-plus years it has been offered. I have often read how much this would be easily sold as a Cadillac, if it really wanted to sell a real pickup truck. Yet, this is why people come to a GMC showroom – to see the Denali and what it offers to the most discriminating pickup truck owner.
On a larger scale, the parity within the pickup truck business makes it difficult to choose a clear winner above the rest. If you must spend $60,000 on a pickup, try the GMC Sierra Denali before trying the rest. I think you'll find it rewarding no matter where you use it.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by General Motors
All photos by Randy Stern