It's hard to make waves in the full-size truck segment - especially when you often find yourself standing in the shadow of your more-famous cousin. This is the situation facing the 2014 GMC Sierra, a pickup that is on the verge of moving out into its own spotlight thanks to a recent redesign effort that pushes its further up-market in terms of both appearance, equipment, and ride.
After spending a considerable amount of time with the all-new GMC Sierra on the hilly costal roads north of Santa Barbara, California, I came away impressed with how much effort has been made by the brand's engineers and stylists to subtly differentiate the Sierra from the rest of the pickup pack. No, the Sierra and the Silverado have not had emergency surgery in an effort to separate these Siamese twins from their admittedly identical mechanical platforms, but joined at the hip as they might be, the face that the GMC presents to the world won't be easily mistaken for one wearing a bowtie around its neck.
I'll start with that which the 2014 GMC Sierra shares with the Silverado: its list of available drivetrains. Three engines can be found under the hood of the Sierra for the current model year - a 4.3-liter V-6, a 5.3-liter V-8, and an upcoming 6.2-liter V-8 - and while their displacements might sound familiar the variable-valve timing, direct fuel injection, and cylinder de-activation technology used on each of these mills (yes, even the V-6) has dramatically changed their character.
This is particularly evident when I sampled a six-cylinder version of the Sierra. A perennial also-ran in the full-size power plant sweepstakes, the 4.3-liter unit now churns out 285 horsepower and 305 lb-ft of torque. This is an 85-pony improvement over last year's edition of the engine, and it also gives the Sierra best-in-class torque amongst entry-level six-cylinder motors. Even better is the way it drives: matched with the same six-speed automatic transmission found with every version of the GMC truck, the 4.3-liter is far smoother and quieter than any non-V-8 pickup the brand has ever built. Acceleration is also perfectly linear, with power building gradually through the rpm range until the vehicle has reached a full head of steam.
The V-6 edition of the 2014 GMC Sierra is capable of towing up to 7,200 lbs, but when it came time to pull a 23-foot Airstream camping trailer (my accommodations for the weekend) from Los Angeles to the Ocean Mesa RV park on the Pacific coast, I was given a 5.3-liter version of the truck. This model, which offers 355 horsepower and 385 lb-ft of torque (and can tow a much heftier 10,200 lbs), saw roughly half of its capacity absorbed by the luxurious polished aluminum Airstream.
Power was the least of my concerns, however, when motoring up the 101. The Sierra maintained a steady 55-mph pace with ease, passing slower cars at will and generally acting completely unperturbed by the additional mass hovering directly behind its tailgate. The presence of an integrated trailer brake controller was a welcome helping hand when it came time to 'woah' the trailer down to a standstill, and a series of evasive maneuvers performed with the Airstream attached were completed with absolutely zero drama. For those whose towing needs exceed the might 5.3-liter's capabilities, the top-tier 6.2-liter motor's 420 horses and 450 lb-ft of torque are on-hand to push things up to a hefty 12,000 lbs of trailering capacity.
One area where I do have to dock a few points from the Sierra is its responsiveness to throttle input. Although the V-6 was strong, and the 5.3-liter didn’t complain at all while towing, the latter doesn’t deliver the same kick-in-the-pants with the pedal down as Ford's 5.0-liter, eight-cylinder F-150. The engines are almost evenly matched on paper, but in the real world the Blue Oval's growl is a little fiercer than that of the GMC. Of course, from a fuel mileage perspective the Sierra emerges triumphant: 16-mpg city and 23-mpg highway for two-wheel drive, V-8 trucks versus the 15-mpg city/21-mpg highway posted by the F-150.
Most full-size trucks aren't towing on a daily basis, which means that how they perform when they are unloaded is just as important as their work-site (or camp-site) credibility. This is one area where the 2014 GMC Sierra sets itself apart from competitors, in-house or otherwise, as the truck's suspension system felt perfectly attuned for eating up highway miles without putting any stress on either driver or passengers. Moving onto secondary roads, I pushed the Sierra through tight corners and mountain switchbacks in an effort to get the truck out of shape, but found I was not up to the task. A pickup will never perform to the standard of a sport sedan, but GMC has dialed in a respectable amount of handling prowess into the Sierra's chassis and imbued it with a greater degree of competence than previous generations of the truck.
In addition to its accurate steering and good road-holding, the passenger compartment of the 2014 GMC Sierra was quiet and composed, even with the remotely-controlled sliding rear window in the open position. The term I would use to describe the truck's passenger compartment at speed would be 'business-like,' with no rattling to disturb my concentration and only minimal amounts of road noise intruding into my thoughts.
GMC has long positioned itself as the builder of 'professional-grade' pickups, and the 2014 GMC Sierra displays this attitude in perhaps its purest form yet. Most truck buyers are familiar with the high-end Denali trim level that doses the Sierra with all manner of luxury gear (and which will become available in the fall of 2013), but what GMC has done with its 'standard' full-size truck model range with this redesign - even going so far as to drop the 'Work Truck' trim from the options sheet - further pushes the entire family towards the premium spectrum.
I spent most of my time in a Sierra SLT, which is about as nice as the new GMC gets outside of the Denali range. Immediately, touches like the LED lights found in the vehicle's front fascia as well as standard projector headlights add the kind of jewelling that pushes the 2014 GMC Sierra past the Silverado. A soft-opening tailgate, available in-bed lighting, and a rear bumper with integrated corner-steps are also on hand.
The thrust towards premium status continues into the truck's cabin, where the dash is wrapped with a leather-like covering that would feel out of place in the more blue-collar Chevrolet. Wood and aluminum accents, the GMC MyLink touchscreen interface, and heated and cooled leather seats lend further credence to this posh manifesto.
What's nice, too, is that none of these trappings get in the way of the 2014 GMC Sierra's true mission, which is to be extremely useful. The truck's cabin, which I sampled in four-door Crew Cab form, is huge, with rear seat passengers enjoying ample legroom and everyone benefiting from Russian doll-type interior storage space. It seemed like wherever I turned in the Sierra - whether it be the configurable and watermelon-deep center console, the multi-pocketed door panels, or the double-opening glove box - there was somewhere for me to store my stuff. The pickup also offers up to five USB inputs for those who are determined to charge every passenger's phone at the same time.
The 2014 GMC Sierra is in many ways exactly what the brand needed: a much more modern and efficient full-size truck platform that can run with the rest of the crowd when it comes to horsepower, torque, and towing. What it also manages to do is differentiate itself from its equally block-styled Chevrolet Silverado platform-mate without making and radical changes to the formula that has seen both vehicles enjoy considerable sales success within General Motors. The Sierra is like a Silverado-Plus, not a Silverado clone, and the bonus features are found everywhere that counts: comfort, quiet, and style. The redesigned truck isn't a revolutionary entry in its segment, but it's definitely one that has finally found itself.
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