The hyper-accelerated growth of luxury trucks aimed at well-heeled utility-focused buyers and status seekers looking to live large has been properly exploited by almost every automaker with a finger in the pickup pie.
Engine: 6.2-liter V8
Output: 420 hp. 460 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
US Fuel Economy (MPG): 15 city, 20 hwy
CAN Fuel Economy: N/A
CAN Price: Estimated $76,000
US Price: Estimated $69,000
For GMC, however, the stakes are somewhat higher: its Denali premium brand represents a full 30 percent of its total sales, with a higher average transaction price than several European luxury stalwarts and volume that dwarfs most of the next-in-line badges.
This makes the 2019 GMC Sierra Denali, its flagship full-size truck, the most important jewel in the company’s crown. Not only is it the one area where GMC has a legitimate chance to give its Silverado-cloning Sierra a chance to rise about its shared Bowtie platform, but it’s also the strongest seller in the entire Denali family. As goes Sierra, so goes the rest of GMC’s fortunes.
Surprisingly, after a day spent traversing the coastal roads of Newfoundland, Canada’s newest and least-accessible province, I discovered that the latest Denali is a much more incremental step than one would otherwise expect – especially after having sampled the rest of the best in the pickup truck world.
Bigger and Better
First, the basics. As with all things truck, the 2019 edition of the Sierra Denali is larger in almost every respect compared to the model that preceded it. In four-door crew cab body styles, this becomes most obvious when sitting in the rear seat, which benefits from a massive three extra inches of legroom, catching up to peers from Ram and Ford and embiggening an already generous cabin.
Other benefits for the redesigned Sierra include a frame that is both stronger and lighter (providing a quarter of the near-360 lbs of weight savings that have been sliced from the Denali’s girth), a longer wheelbase, and a wider cargo box (whose 7-inch boost comes when ordering its 5-foot, 8-inch version).
Style-wise, the new Sierra Denali follows the trend of massive grilles, extensive chrome brightwork, and chiseled, muscular sheet metal all around. It’s less clean than older versions of the truck, but still handsome enough in its own right, and certainly in keeping with the overbearing designs of its peers.
Old Meets New
Most of what’s fresh in the 2019 GMC Sierra Denali is balanced out by carry-over features and equipment – although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The vehicle is offered with the choice of either a 355 horsepower, 5.3-liter V8 or a 420 horsepower, 6.2-liter V8, with the latter also generating 460 lb-ft of torque. Each of these engines will be familiar to anyone looking to upgrade from last year’s Denali, although the larger of the two benefits from a new 10-speed automatic gearbox (and a turbodiesel V6 will eventually be added to the mix later in the production run).
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I was only able to drive a 6.2-liter edition of the Sierra Denali during my time on the Rock, but it proved to be as quick and smooth a power plant as it was in the previous-generation truck. The 10-speed was just as content working behind the scenes as the original 8-speed, which is a definite win for GMC, despite no fuel savings coming with it.
Also the same? The Denali’s standard magnetic ride control suspension, an adaptive setup that isn’t quite as cosseting in the Sierra as in the Yukon SUV (and which lacks the coil-spring control or air ride adjustability of the Ram 1500), but which keeps the pickup straight and true and more comfortable than its lesser siblings. Both two-wheel and four-wheel drive versions of the truck can be had (with a locking rear differential and low-range gearing on the latter), and power-seekers take note: if you want that big 6.2 you’re going to have to spring for a 4×4 as well.
Not Far Enough
Having recently spent time in the 2018 Denali and been critical of what I perceived as its behind-the-times interior trappings and feature availability, I expected the 2019 redesign to present a dazzling counterpart to my previous complaints. Instead, what I encountered was a frustrating ‘more of the same’ mentality inside the passenger compartment.
Yes, the newest Sierra Denali does introduce much-needed equipment such as keyless entry and a push-button ignition, but in terms of materials, it’s quite difficult to grade the truck higher than its predecessor. The cabin remains a sea of grey and black plastics and leather, with only a splash of wood grain trim on the door pulls to break things up. This is a far cry from the comparably sumptuous details available in the upper-tier Ram 1500 and even Ford F-150 models.
The vehicle’s infotainment screen, too, feels small and cramped at 8 inches, although it does its job quickly and with only the briefest of flickers when moving from one screen to the next. It’s joined by a massive head-up display (which had me wondering how long before the entire windshield gives up its real estate to digital data), but neat information such as the truck’s angle of orientation is balanced out by a surprisingly simple gauge cluster.
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The rest of the 2019 GMC Sierra Denali’s talking points come across more like gimmicks than next-generation improvements to the pickup. A carbon fiber cargo box is available for an undisclosed upcharge expected to be in the thousands, and while it does add strength and durability over steel (along with a modest reduction in mass), it’s hard to pinpoint the demand for this kind of feature. More questionable to the traditional pickup truck crowd is the Denali’s standard multi-function tailgate, a unit which Swiss Army knifes its way through bench, bed-extender, and step configurations, aided and abetted by a slot machine handle affixed to the inside of the cargo area. It’s heavier than a normal tailgate, and will certainly be tricky to operate during winter conditions – not to mention what will happen once road salt, mud, and grime begin to clog up its many hinges and mechanisms.
One area of innovation that does come across as particularly useful with the 2019 Denali, however, is its extensive suite of trailering features, which include not just assistance while backing up and aligning the hitch, but also the ability to individually test each trailer light as well as access a need-to-do checklist before towing (by way of an app or on the infotainment screen).
The Verdict: 2019 GMC Sierra Denali Review
That the 2019 GMC Sierra Denali trucks when it needs to truck is never in question. With a tow rating of 9,600 lbs and a payload of just over 2,000 lbs, the Sierra doesn’t scrape up against the class leaders but does offer real-world practicality for the vast majority of pickup buyers. It’s also reasonably comfortable, respectably stylish, and preposterously large inside its four-door cabin, backed by a truly excellent powertrain when opting for the 6.2-liter V8.
Where the Denali falls flat is in the execution of its luxury mission. For a vehicle whose MSRP can easily crest the $70,000 mark, the return on investment just isn’t there as compared to more compelling efforts from its immediate Detroit-based rivals. Simply put, it’s not as fully-featured nor as plush as it needs to be to claim premium status, making the latest high-zoot Sierra feel more like a missed opportunity than a triumph.
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