By Tim Healey
Forget the pony-car wars. Ford, GM, and Chrysler are engaged in yet another arms race--this one revolving around heavy-duty pickup trucks. Dodge and Ford have already updated their heavy-duty trucks in recent months, and now it's General Motor's turn. Despite downturns in the heavy-duty truck market due to the economic collapse, these trucks still appeal to a very specific segment of buyers. The Detroit automakers dominate this segment, and much like Cold War-era superpowers, the three keep raising the stakes in the big-truck game.
Capability usually trumps styling with vehicles like these, and to that end, the 2011 Chevrolet Silverado HD and 2011 GMC Sierra HD don't get a lot of styling changes, save for a new grille, front bumper, and hood, to go along with some new wheel choices.
What has changed, as the GM folks made clear during their presentation to the media, is what's under the sheetmetal. The engines, transmissions, and chassis are all either new or re-worked. There's also a new independent front suspension, which is said to increase the front-axle rating by 25 percent over the previous generation.
Truck buyers invariably ask "what's under the hood?" and in this case, it's either a 6.0-liter Vortec gasoline V-8 or a new 6.6-liter Duramax diesel. The diesel makes 397 horsepower and 765 lb-ft of torque, while the gas engine makes 360 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque.
As powerful as the gas engine is, the focus here is on the oil-burner, and not just because of the eye-popping torque rating. The new Allison 6-speed automatic transmission that matches to the diesel gets some attention, mainly because of its "smart" exhaust brake.
For those uninitiated in the lingo of these heavy-haulers, the exhaust brake uses a variable geometry turbocharger in concert with the engine's compression, to create backpressure, thus slowing the truck without use of the regular brakes. In practice, the idea is for the exhaust brake to work with the cruise control and the "tow/haul" mode of the transmission to slow the truck, therefore hopefully reducing wear on the brake pads.
Other available features of note include a hill-start assist, park assist, navigation system, OnStar, USB compatibility, Bluetooth, and satellite radio. Mobile Wi-Fi is also available.The biggest news is that for the first time, a Denali version of the heavy-duty Sierra will be available. Not only that, but the Denali will be available in both 2500 (three-quarter ton) and 3500 (one-ton) guise. Denalis will be available with either engine, with either two- or four-wheel drive, and with dual-rear wheel (dually) set-ups. 3500 Denalis will be available with either a 6-foot,, 6-inch bed or an 8-foot bed.
Denalis are differentiated by their four-bar chrome grilles, body-color bumpers, chrome door handles, chrome accents, upscale interiors, and 18-inch standard wheels (17-inch on duallys). 20-inch wheels are available.
The brakes consist of 14-inch rotors, and GM's Stabilitrak system is standard on trucks with single rear wheels.
There's a few more numbers to throw at you before I dive into the driving experience, such as the 21,700-lb towing capacity that the trucks have when equipped with a fifth wheel, and the 17,000-lb conventional towing capacity. Payload stands at 6,635 lbs. The trucks have a 5-year/100,000 mile warranty.
Exact fuel economy numbers weren't given, but GM says that there is an 11 percent improvement over the previous trucks, and that the highway range on the diesel is 680 miles, with the gas engine falling only a bit a shy of that number.
GM says that the diesel won't need an engine-block heater unless the temperature drops below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, and that the glow plugs will take no more than 3 seconds to heat up as long as the mercury is above -20.
Perhaps against the company's better judgment, GM allowed journalists to hop into several different variations of both Silverado and Sierra HD models, including one with a dump truck body. Some trucks were unloaded, some were ballasted, and some were hooked up to trailers. We even got some seat time in the competition's offerings.
Barely an hour after touching down in Baltimore, I found myself nervously taking the wheel of a truck that was towing a 9,000-lb trailer. Thanks to the grades and hills of western Maryland, I'd soon be testing the 6.6-liter diesel's--and the exhaust brake's--capabilities.
Nearly 800-lb feet of torque (for perspective, that's more than double the twist of the most powerful sports cars) gave the 6.6 enough thrust to get rolling. Maybe "fast" isn't the best adjective to use here, but strap a trailer to your back, and see how well you move.
The exhaust brake does its job quietly and competently, slowing the truck enough so that a downshift will kick in, forcing engine speed up and vehicle speed down. It doesn't work alone, however. To bring about said downshift, it's best combined with the cruise control or a brief application of the wheel brakes.
Speaking of brakes, the wheel brakes are smooth and solid, even with the huge trailer tagging along out back. Ride and handling are also impressively smooth when towing.
Unloaded, the truck drives a bit like the GM light-duty trucks, albeit with a higher ride height. Acceleration is a tad slow on both models, due to the mass of the truck, but it's not unacceptable for a truck of this size, nor is it any worse than the Ford or Ram. GM says it that 2500HDs can hit 60 mph in less than 9 seconds and the quarter-mile in under 16 seconds, which is plenty enough acceleration for real-world driving.
These trucks don't exhibit much body roll when pushed, but there is some tire squeal--these aren't sports cars, and they aren't shy about reminding you of that fact. Adding ballast adds a little body roll and subtracts from the acceleration, but otherwise the extra weight goes almost unnoticed.
It's not a secret to say that these trucks ride like, well, trucks, but there is a variation from model to model. The Denali offers the smoothest unladen ride, while the dump truck I drove was by far the bounciest. In between, the other models rode comfortably, but you never forget your driving a truck. Adding ballast didn't appreciably change the ride. Overall, the GM trucks rode better than the sloppy Ford and the truckish Ram, although the Ram isn't far behind in terms of ride quality.
On the inside, not much changes. Interiors can be suited to the truck's purpose--for example, there is a work-truck interior that can be hosed down for easy cleaning. On models with more upscale interiors, the materials are mainly easy on the eye, although there may be too much plastic or fake wood paneling in some places.
Visibility is generally good, although the new louvers on the hood affect forward vision somewhat. Road and wind noise is generally hushed, but the engines--the diesel especially--can get loud under throttle. That said, the Duramax is still quieter, at least to my ears, than the competitors' diesels.
The Wi-Fi system works well, with fairly quick connection speeds, although coverage can be spotty when driving through mountainous or rural areas.
Work trucks are meant to do just that, and the 2011 Sierra and Silverado HDs seem more than capable. Numbers-wise, the Ford and GM trucks are about even, so buyers will need to choose based on aesthetic preferences and driving experience.
Denali buyers will likely be either fleet bosses or family-types who want a luxury truck to tow their boat to the lake. The rest of the lineup seems aimed at the regular Joe or Jane farmer or construction worker. But really, the bull's-eye here wears a blue oval on its grille.
General Motors and Ford have been shooting it out since almost day one of the auto industry, and Chrysler has never been shy about joining the party. Now that GM's entry into the fray is up to date, let the barroom arguments begin anew.