2019 GMC Sierra 1500 first drive review: A few steps forward, a few steps back

August 27, 2018

Big pickup trucks such as the 2019 GMC Sierra have been locked in an arms race for more than a decade. Payload, tow capacity, total output, even fuel economy, they’re all battles waged to win over millions of new pickup buyers each year.

The undisputed champ of the class, the Ford F-150, protects its big sales lead with a panoply of powertrains and features. Ram’s 1500 full-sizer does it with style and technology. GM’s full-size pickup trucks, the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, have made their case with nearly endless configurations and with high-feature models like High Country and Denali.

MORE: Read our 2019 GMC Sierra full review

New this year, the 2019 GMC Sierra takes a tech tack to win truck driver hearts and minds. The Sierra gets trailer-view cameras, a carbon-fiber bed, and a multi-function tailgate that add talents to an exceedingly capable truck.

At the same time, the 2019 Sierra falls further behind the F-150 in pulling power, and the expected gas-mileage gains from weight-saving construction and new transmissions haven’t yet come to bear.

Raw numbers and explanations

The lineup will eventually include turbo-4, gas V-6, and turbodiesel inline-6 engines, but the first drive of the new truck featured its two V-8 engine choices. The Sierra performs strongly with either of the V-8s provided during a test drive in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.

We took a short spin in the carried-over 5.3-liter V-8, which pumps out 355 horsepower through an 8-speed automatic. It doles out strong acceleration for a truck that weighs between 4,500 and 5,000 pounds, according to the specs offered by GMC.

The weight ranges factor in a huge variety of cab and bed styles, from regular to extended to crew cab, from 5-foot-8-inch to 6-foot-6-inch to 8-foot-long beds. GMC says the new Sierra range drops up to 360 pounds, thanks to aluminum body panels. What’s puzzling is that, with weight savings baked into those specifications, the rear-drive Sierra with this engine improves only slightly in gas mileage, while four-wheel-drive versions post a fuel-economy dip.

The much more muscular 6.2-liter V-8 ripples with 420 hp of full-size brawn. It sends power out through a new 10-speed automatic—and again, despite the addition of fuel-shutoff and stop/start technology, and the new transmission, this Sierra’s gas-mileage ratings barely budge.

Road manners haven’t made big progress, either. GMC sells Sierras with conventional strut-and-leaf-spring suspensions, and with adaptive shocks that skip magnetic control this time for a lower-cost solution. The 2019 Sierra’s ride and handling strike a better balance than the bobbly ride of an F-150, but shod with its biggest 22-inch wheels, the Sierra gets mildly jittery despite the adaptive damping.

The Sierra has gained in payload: the new model can carry up to 2,240 pounds in its bed. But tow capacity with extended-cab 4WD trucks maxes out at 12,200 pounds, while a similarly configured F-150 can pull 13,200 pounds, according to the manufacturers.

As a tow and haul appliance, the 2019 Sierra still excels. The stats that put this brand-new truck shy of best in class are telling, but GMC explains it with a simple posit: Anyone towing more than the 12,200 pounds possible with the new Sierra should look at one of its heavy-duty trucks instead.

That’s fair, even rational in a truck universe where today’s full-sizers essentially are the heavy-duty trucks of a decade ago. GMC brands itself as professional grade, though, and inherent in its premium positioning is a promise of step-above capability, even if it might only be used a fraction of the time.  

2019 GMC Sierra

2019 GMC Sierra

2019 GMC Sierra

2019 GMC Sierra

2019 GMC Sierra

2019 GMC Sierra

2019 GMC Sierra

2019 GMC Sierra

Lavish technology, sometimes behind price walls

Where the 2019 Sierra steps smartly ahead is in interior space and in technology. Styling has changed precious little in the new generation, but the Sierra’s 2.9-inch stretch in crew-cab rear-seat room gives the truck exceptional rear seat room, and finally, a reclined seat back that’s comfortable enough for the truck to carry six passengers without much fuss.

GMC’s spent lots of time and engineering dollars on the Sierra’s bed, too. Next spring it will sell a tougher, lighter, carbon-fiber bed that it says will be almost invincible to punctures, a jab at the F-150’s aluminum bed. No price has been announced for this likely expensive and limited-availability feature.

GMC also will sell high-end Sierras with a six-way tailgate that folds down, flips up part of its edge to contain payload, or folds down a center panel to create an easy-load inlet to the bed, even a bench seat for tailgate parties. Built-in barbecue seats? That’s progress.

The Sierra also adopts camera systems that allow drivers to monitor the view behind a towed trailer, grants a view of the hitch connection, and even shows the contents of the bed. But in GM’s maddening features packaging of the now, those items are limited to expensive trucks. Blind-spot monitors and a rear mirror camera? Same. The worst offense? Automatic emergency braking, a key new safety feature, can only be ordered as an option on the top three Sierra trims (SLT, AT4, and Denali).

All Sierras get touchscreen infotainment and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. Base trucks have vinyl floors and manual mirrors, but the plush Denali Sierras have cooled front seats, Bose audio, and wi-fi hotspot capability.

Prices for the new 2019 GMC Sierra range from about $32,000 for a base V-6 truck to more than $57,000 for a Sierra Denali. Our choice, when the Sierra goes on sale late this year, starts at the SLT trim, and spends up to automatic emergency braking.

The bottom line? As we say in our full review, the 2019 GMC Sierra steers out of the max-tow race, at least for now. Instead, it puts its marker down on smart and easy-to-use technology.

Whether that’s enough to fend off the Ram 1500 in the second-place arms race remains to be seen.

GMC flew Internet Brands Automotive to Newfoundland and covered expenses for this first drive review.

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