- Great handling, for the class
- A wide lineup of engines
- Nicely trimmed interior--either one
- Class-leading gas mileage in the Hybrid
- Plain-looking, even compared to the Silverado
- Seats don't have much lateral support
- Rear seat back is too vertical
- Sierra Hybrid loses back-seat storage to batteries
- Hybrid's pricetag is high, goes higher
The 2012 GMC Sierra has one of the greenest pickup trucks in its lineup, but some of its early spec-sheet triumphs have been bested by the latest F-150 and Ram.
The GMC Sierra 1500 is part of the backdrop of middle America. Along with the Chevy Silverado and the Ford F-150, it's been one of the top full-size trucks not just for a decade, but for decades. Redesigned in 2007, it's still one of the better choices for truck buyers of all kinds, from commercial users to personal-luxury seekers, thanks to a wide variety in powertrains, pleasant handling, and titanic towing capacity.
The Sierra's sheetmetal hasn't changed much at all since 2007. It's a conservative, tasteful look that totally hinges on the power of the rectangle. The grille says it all: it's a big, squared-off piece, with big, squared-off "GMC" lettering. Simple, straightforward--like the rest of the truck. It's almost stark, until you get inside, where Denali versions get quite plush, with woodgrain trim, soft-touch plastics and leather framing the basic GMC building blocks.
From V-6 to big V-8, the Sierra has a powertrain for just about any pickup-truck need. The basic workhorse engine is a 195-horsepower, 4.3-liter V-6, meant mostly for fleets and very tight budgets. There's a small-block, flex-fuel, 302-hp 4.8-liter V-8 on some low-mid trims, but it's worth moving up a notch to the flex-fuel 5.3-liter V-8 that's the most common Sierra powerplant. It has 315 hp and cylinder deactivation that helps mitigate the Sierra's thirst for gas--and it's the basis for the Sierra XFE, the most efficient, non-hybrid Sierra you can buy. The most expensive models sport a 6.2-liter, 403-hp, flex-fuel V-8 shared with the Cadillac Escalade.
Right up there in price is the Sierra Hybrid, which gets a special mention due to its complex, two-mode hybrid drivetrain. The combination of batteries, motors and a 6.0-liter V-8 with cylinder deactivation nets the equivalent of 332 horsepower and 367 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers give the Hybrid strong acceleration--it's close to the output found in the 5.3-liter V-8--but with eerily smooth, quiet acceleration. The Hybrid can run on battery power alone up to about 25 mph.
Base six- and eight-cylinder versions use an outdated four-speed automatic that pinches gas mileage, but the rest of the Sierra lineup gets a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic that improves fuel economy and cuts down on road noise. Four-wheel drive is an option on every body style and with every drivetrain, though the system on Denali models technically is on-demand "Autotrac" all-wheel drive.
Like the Silverado, the Sierra has up to 10,700 pounds of towing capacity, but it's not the only mechanical feat it manages well. Both trucks have good, nearly carlike steering and well-sorted handling that makes them among the easiest full-size pickups to drive briskly. Ford's F-150 has eclipsed them with electric power steering, but the Sierra still feels far more nimble than the Tundra and Titan. Ride quality is mostly smooth and well-sorted, except on the off-road packages; hefty curb weight and long wheelbases help a lot here. The Sierra Hybrid is the exception: its electric power steering and regenerative brakes give it a more detached driving feel, and the ride is a bit stiffer.
The Sierra's cabin comes in a few configurations, but in most, the seats are wide and flat, and could use more lateral support. Five-seat trucks have a wide center console with astounding storage capacity, while six-passenger versions get a simpler dash and a front bench seat. Both versions have clear displays and big controls, meant to be operated with work-gloved hands. Regular-cab versions have a little storage space behind the front seats, and Extended Cabs have just enough space behind rear-hinged access doors for a toolbox and work gear. Crew Cabs have four front-hinged doors and decent interior space, but they're behind the Ram and F-150 and Tundra in one regard: the rear seatback sits almost on a vertical axis, making it uncomfortable for anything but short trips. It's a little shy on leg room, too, but the seat does split and fold, and offers some storage beneath--except on Hybrids, which tuck their batteries there.
Bed lengths vary by model. Hybrids and Crew Cabs have a 5'8" bed; a 6'6" bed can be selected on any style except the Hybrid, as can an 8' bed.
Safety ratings have been above average. Before it changed its formula, the NHTSA gave the Sierra five stars; it's now rated at four stars overall. The IIHS gives it "good" scores for front impacts, but calls it just "acceptable" in side impacts. All versions have curtain airbags and stability control, and OnStar; a rearview camera is a recommended option, and you could make the case for power-adjustable pedals. We hate the way they dull brake response, but some shorter drivers simply won't be able to reach the controls, otherwise.
GMC sells the Sierra in a broad band of trim levels, from stripped-down Work trucks to plush Denali models. Equipment varies from vinyl seats and manual door locks, to trucks with leather ventilated seats, hard-drive navigation systems, Bluetooth and DVD entertainment systems. Hybrids are equipped at the luxury end of the spectrum, and they and Denali versions can easily blow by the $50,000 mark.Changes for the 2012 model year include a new hard-drive navigation system, available as an option, and standard trailer-sway control, along with reshuffled equipment. The Sierra is due for a redesign, expected sometime in the 2013-2014 model year range.