I must confess that it took me almost a day and a half to appreciate the fact that GMC's gargantuan Sierra Denali pickup represents truly cutting-edge news for 2002. After all, it's really just a re-badged C3 whose debut in '01 introduced the world to GMC's giant 6.0-liter V-8 mated to an all-wheel-drive powertrain. But then I started pushing buttons; and when the indicator labeled "4WS" illuminated, nothing happened.
Not at first, that is. When I turned at the next intersection, I experienced one of those vague seat-of-the-pants sensations that something unusual was taking place. The rear end of the truck seemed to speed up on me, independently of the front. Now, that's odd.
And when I parked at the post office, I almost clipped the car I was parking aside, because this hulking beast of a truck made the turn so much more abruptly than logic or my experience led me to anticipate. Such, I have since learned, is the nature of the Quadrasteer system, which endows a land yacht like the Sierra Denali with the unprecedented maneuverability of four-wheel steering.
Sure enough, the clues were there all the time. Look under the cargo bed at the rear axle, and you can see the telescopic actuators that turn the rear wheels about the axes of their unorthodox steering knuckles. The body flares over the rear wheels are another giveaway: they're meant to enlarge the wheel well to accommodate the greater space necessary for housing the rear wheels at their maximum turning angle.
What's less obvious is the principle of Quadrasteer. When you're parking or traveling slowly, the rear wheels turn in a direction opposite that of the front wheels. This puts the truck on a truly circular trajectory and slices the turning radius by 20 percent. In two-wheel-steering mode, the Sierra describes a 46.2-ft diameter circle, but in 4WS that narrows to 37.4 ft —virtually the same figure achieved by Saturn's tiny sports coupe (at 37.1 ft).
2002 GMC Sierra Denali
In higher-speed, freeway situations, however, 4WS changes its mind. In other words, when the front wheels turn left — to overtake another car, for instance — the rear wheels turn left also. The result is a swift, clean passing motion that seems to skate forward briskly.
For towing situations, there's an even further refinement: counter-steering is reduced at lower speeds, while parallel steering is increased at higher speeds. You can consider Quadrasteer the robot equivalent of the fireman who steers from the rear of one of those long-trailered ladder trucks.
Well, this changes everything. Suddenly, a 5478-lb truck that's almost 19 feet long is almost as maneuverable as a sports car. And backing a trailer down a narrow boat ramp or trying to park in a crowded parking lot become geometrically easier exercises. After the initial sensation of novelty wears off, in fact, it's unlikely you'll ever crave two-wheel steering again. This mode's only reason to persist, it seems, is to provide a haven for technological traditionalists.
GMC has made Quadrasteer a standard (and so far, exclusive) feature of its flagship pickup. This, together with the 325-horsepower V-8, all-wheel-drive powertrain, adjustable ZX3 Ride Control suspension and four-wheel disc, anti-lock braking system fully explain the take-it-or-leave-it price of $44,150, as tested. The Sierra Denali that I drove, in fact, incorporated not one single option.
The Denali package consists of all the best and brightest items in the GMC parts bin — literally, in fact, in the case of the distinctive cat's-eye halogen headlights, bug-eye fog lamps and "trucker's special" series of amber running lights crowning the brow of the cab. How ironic then and disappointing to motor up the gentle incline of my driveway one evening as a freshet of cold, clear water cascaded out of the sunglasses bin in the overhead console. Rainwater, it seems, must have seeped under the trucker's lights installed into the center of the roof. This created a little indoor wading pool just waiting to douse The Wife with a mood-shattering, teeth-chattering cold shower.
Liquid refreshment notwithstanding, the Sierra Denali is an entertaining and versatile truck. Its ideal application is towing; and to that end, it comes equipped with a weight-distributing trailer hitch and 10,000-pound tow rating. Moreover, thanks to Quadrasteer, the sensation of a swaying trailer is a thing of the past. With its extended-cab layout, the Denali pickup seats five; and for short rides, even three adults on the folding back bench will find sufficient room. The chief disadvantage of this body style, however, is the back-hinged rear doors that require the front doors to be opened before the rear door handles can be reached.
2002 GMC Sierra Denali
The Sierra Denali is a half-ton pickup whose short-box cargo bed is rated for 1,722 lb. Hauling 4x8 sheets of plywood requires lowering the tailgate, but the 43.5 cu-ft cargo space was still roomy enough to transport my friend's new dining room table and small credenza from the furniture store. True to the Denali's spiffy dresser personality, GMC includes a color-coordinated soft tonneau as a cargo cover. Once in place, it fits as tight as a drum skin; and despite its complicated-looking design, with removable ribs and bulkheads, it's actually quite easy to put on and take off.
There is no doubt that the Sierra Denali is GMC's reigning technology show piece. But unlike some if its rivals — Ford's hot-rod F150 Lightning pickup, for example — the Denali emphasizes its functionality, not its potential for anti-social behavior. Partisans of the late Prelude sports coupe, of course, will recall that Honda toyed with four-wheel-steering during the '80s and '90s. But GMC's "big ol' truck" proves that 4WS is no mere plaything. It's a turn for the better.
2002 GMC Sierra Denali
Base price: $44,105
Engine: 6.0-liter V-8, 325 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 227.6 x 83.5 x 73.9 in
Wheelbase: 143.5 in
Curb weight: 5478 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 12/15 mpg
Standard safety equipment: Front airbags, anti-lock brakes, all-wheel drive
Major standard equipment: Quadrasteer, four-wheel disk brakes, ZX3 adjustable suspension, engine hour meter, power windows/locks/mirrors, HVAC, AM/FM/CD, 17-in wheels, fog lamps, tubular side steps
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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