2011 Chevrolet Silverado Heavy Duty: First Drive

Thanks to major engineering improvements, Chevy’s new heavy duty contender aims to raise the stakes

2011 Chevrolet Silverado Heavy Duty: First Drive

Forget pony cars or luxury sedans; one of the most hotly contested performance wars these days concerns heavy-duty pickups. In particular, Ford and General Motors seem to be caught up in a race to achieve the highest in payload, towing capacity, torque output and all around capability.

FAST FACTS

1. Maximum payload capacity on the 2011 Silverado HD is 6,635 lbs, with max fifth wheel towing rated at 21,700 lbs.

2. A hill start assist feature is standard with Stabilitrak on all single rear wheel models, which holds the throttle for 1.5 seconds when on an incline.

3. Single rear wheel models use two stage rear leaf springs; while dualies have a three- stage design to support heavier loads.

4. The new 6.6-liter Duramax is bio-fuel capable and makes 397-hp at 3000 rpm and 765 ft-lbs of torque at 1600 rpm.

5. Automatic grade braking and more advanced trailer brake control feature are designed to make towing safer and easier than before.

When Ford introduced a revamped Super Duty for the 2011 model year, it somewhat turned the segment on its ear. By adding a new 6.7-liter PowerStroke diesel V8, significant chassis and suspension changes, updated styling and new features, including a first in class factory installed fifth wheel connector, Ford boasted that it had created the definitive heavy-duty pickup, with unmatched towing capability.

Now the General is fighting back and the 2011 Silverado H-D aims to snatch the crown with some significant updates of its own. Recently, AutoGuide became one of the first members outside of GM to drive the new truck. Is it up to snuff? Read on and find out.

SUBTLE ON THE OUTSIDE

Compared to the original GMT900 trucks, the 2011 Silverado doesn’t look significantly different on the outside, but there are changes. The grille opening is larger and the front bumper is deeper, plus the hood is more sculpted than before. Twin bulges with plastic inserts on either side of the bonnet are also new and add a touch of Tonka to the new truck.

Chevy has expanded the Silverado H-D lineup for 2011, so now there are a total of 18 different models available, 10 based on the 2500 ¾-ton pickup and a further eight on the 3500 1-ton trucks. In terms of cab configurations regular, extended and crew cabs are offered, with a choice of 6.6 or 8.2-feet beds, plus 3500 chassis cabs. Coincidentally, the former extended cab 3500 has bitten the dust; in its place is a 1-ton crew cab with a 6.6-foot box.

As for trim levels, base trucks still adopt the W/T (Work Truck) moniker, which includes such luxuries as vinyl seats and floors (pricing for these starts at $27,965). A step up is the LT, which will likely attract the bulk of H-D buyers, adding carpeting and cloth seating, while the luxurious LTZ adds such features as built in navigation screen, wood trim and available leather seating. Although by the time you’re done, you’re looking well north of $50,000 for a truck equipped like this.

INTERIOR MOSTLY CARRIED OVER – AND LOOKS IT

Inside, not a whole lot is changed from last year’s truck; the seats are wide and fairly comfortable – the side bolsters flanking your hips to lend a quasi-armchair experience. Instrumentation is simple and logically laid out, even on the LTZ trucks with their added center stack features. On extended cab models, rear seat access is seldom a problem, with the auxiliary doors swinging open 170 degrees to facilitate easy entry/exit. Crew cab models have a fairly generous 39-inches of leg space and 40.5-inches of headroom, making the rear almost as capacious as the front (extended cabs are slightly tighter in leg room (34.3-inches, but almost match the crew in head clearance (39.4-in). The rear seat on these cabs also folds up, to facilitate loading bulky items like toolboxes or even flat screen TVs.

If there’s any criticism to be leveled at the interior, it’s fit and finish. The 2011 version still hasn’t been able to break away entirely from the cheap plastics that have plagued the T800 and early T900 series trucks. We noted sharp edges and a low rent feel to the textured plastic, particularly the instrument panel.

SERIOUS HARDWARE

Where you can find the biggest changes on the 2011 model however, are under the skin. The new Silverado H-D adopts a frame that’s entirely new, save for a single bracket. The frame rails are longer and now fully boxed, from end to end, with stouter crossmembers. Larger mounts, both for the engine and transmission are designed to better quell vibration, along with hydraulic body mounts where the frame attaches to the rear of floor on extended and crew cab models. With an increased use of high tensile steel in frame construction, GM says bending and beaming stiffness are 90 and 20 percent better respectively over last year’s truck.

Along with a stouter chassis, comes a revised suspension. At the front, the torsion bar setup uses new forged steel upper control arms that are stronger and lighter, while the cast iron lowers allow front axle loadings to increase by 25 percent to 6,000 lbs. There are also now five different torsion bar rates to support different front-end loading capacities. It also means that all 4×4 versions can now be equipped with the snowplow prep package.

At the rear, larger (and wider) asymmetrical leaf springs are designed to improve payload capacity (up to 6,200 lbs on ¾-tons and a staggering 9,300 lbs on 1-ton dually trucks), while the shocks have been specifically designed to maintain a smooth ride under all conditions.

POWERFUL NEW 6.6-LITER DURAMAX

In terms of drivelines, Chevy has simplified the H-D lineup with just two engines and two transmissions. The 6.0-liter Vortec V8 is unchanged from last year and is rated at 360 horsepower and 380 ft-lbs of torque. It’s coupled exclusively with the 6L90 six-speed automatic and as a team the engine and transmission work well. Torque delivery is fairly peaky for a pushrod engine, max torque doesn’t come in until 4200 rpm, but the six-speed shifts in the linear, smooth fashion expected of a GM unit. A manual shift mode allows you to hold the transmission in gear, which is welcome, especially when hauling 2,500-pound plus loads or negotiating steep grades.

The optional 6.6-liter Duramax diesel has been considerably updated for 2011. An $8,395 option, it boasts improved internal oiling and new pistons, along with more efficient lubing of the turbocharger. Improved horsepower, torque and lower emissions were criteria when developing this latest version of the Duramax and thanks to the adoption of a higher-pressure fuel system and the use of diesel exhaust fluid injection to quell tailpipe emissions, nitrogen oxide is said to be reduced by around 63 percent over the 2010 engine.

By far the coolest feature is the adoption of an exhaust brake on the Duramax diesel. By using turbine control of the turbo, along with compression generated from the engine, it allows you to slow the truck significantly when descending a grade, without having to use the brakes. It’s a smart system, integrated with the cruise control to vary the engine speed as you slow down. GM has put a lot of faith in this new feature and to find out how good it was, we procured a Silverado ¾-ton dually, with a 2,500 lb load dropped in the bed and a 10,500 lb. trailer (including a rented Bobcat) hitched up behind. On steep grades in western Maryland, with the cruise activated, the exhaust brake proved active and aggressive. Considering the weight we were hauling, there were few instances where we needed to touch the brakes at all. This represents a tremendous boon for those who will be using these trucks for hauling big trailers and puts Chevy ahead of Ford, whose 2011 exhaust brake system feels barely noticeable by comparison.

In terms of power and torque, GM rates the new Duramax at 397 horsepower at 3000 rpm and a stump pulling 765 ft-lbs of torque at just 1600. Combined with the Allison 1000 six-speed automatic, it’s a combination that’s hard to beat and enables these trucks to pull a maximum of 21,700 lbs behind them with a fifth wheel (17,000 with a conventional hitch).

Throttle response isn’t as instant as on Ford’s PowerStroke, but the torque builds rapidly and during our evaluation, there wasn’t anything that seemed to phase this stout powertrain. Whether traversing hills, overtaking or negotiating twisty roads it seemed perfectly at home, plus at highway cruising speeds, the Duramax was quiet enough to wonder whether we were actually behind the wheel of gas truck, not a diesel.

GREAT RIDE, BRAKES AND FUEL ECONOMY

In terms of on-road behavior, that new frame and suspension results in vehicle dynamics that blend like the ingredients in a fine cocktail. Ride is nicely composed, even when unladen and there’s a noted absence of squeaks and rattles. Plus, unlike some rivals in the segment, the steering is nice and crisp (the linkage has been revised for 2011), with good on center feel, both at low and higher speeds.

Braking is strong and progressive (aided by larger 14-inch discs and improved pedal modulation), which combined with that exhaust brake, makes for a mean combination when it comes to bleeding off speed. When towing, we noticed that with the factory integrated trailer control, there was generally little drama, though, when towing a 20-foot camper, we still felt slight buffeting when braking from highway speeds.

Because this was an early evaluation we didn’t have a chance to accurately measure fuel economy, though, thanks to a larger 36-gallon fuel tank on all models, range on the 2011 trucks is improved. According to GM sources, this means that drivers can go around 680 miles between fill ups in Duramax powered trucks.

THE VERDICT

In today’s heavy-duty truck market, despite fierce brand loyalty among buyers, the competition is fierce. For 2011; GM has made considerable strides with its Silverado HD in the areas that count; namely payload, towing, performance and refinement. Although there are still a few things that could be improved upon (particularly interior fit and finish), there’s no question this is by far the most capable heavy-duty Chevy yet seen and a truck that’s likely to give the competition (particularly the current Ford Super Duty) a real run for its money.

RELATED READING

2011 Ford F-Series Super Duty: First Drive 2010 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty: First Drive 2011 Chevy Silverado Heavy Duty Gets More Powerful and Efficient Duramax 6.6 and Allison Tranny

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