- 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
features & specs
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.
2012 GMC Sierra 1500
With important differences between upscale and work versions, the 2012 GMC Sierra carries the standard for taste and good design execution.
The last time the GMC Sierra was redesigned, back in 2007, the truck world was about to drop into a deep sales freeze. Now that it's beginning to thaw, the Sierra doesn't look freezer-burned--in fact, while the Titan and Tundra toe a weirder line, and while the Ram's been defanged to some extent, the Sierra keeps looking trim and serious, without too much visual bluster.
Like the Silverado from Chevy, and less so, the F-150, the Sierra doesn't depend on a lot of styling tricks to convey what it's selling--durability, dependability, toughness. GMC's big rectangular grille is simplicity itself, and the corners are just a bit more pronounced than on the essentially identical Silverado. There's little chance of mistaking the Sierra for any other brand's pickup, what with the big brand logo in red letters. Down the sides, and from the back, the Sierra is plain to the extreme, almost a little stark.
2012 GMC Sierra 1500
Even in the high-tech Hybrid edition, the GMC Sierra pickups have a common driving feel: smooth and well-mannered.
Responsive and refined in almost all its various shapes and sizes, the 2012 GMC Sierra still compares well to newer full-size pickups for ride and steering and especially, for its acceleration.
GMC has four gas-powered engines and a gas-electric Hybrid on offer with the Sierra, and the two lower-displacement options are meant mostly for fleet buyers. There's a 4.3-liter V-6 with 195 horsepower, and it's really for contractors and those on very tight budgets, as its fuel economy isn't great--a four-speed automatic is the sole transmission offered, and it strains to extract power from the six. There's also a flex-fuel 4.8-liter V-8 with 302 horsepower, but it also is meant for fleet use, and disappoints on fuel economy since it shares the four-speed automatic.
The engine we'd recommend to most Sierra buyers is one of the best sellers, a flex-fuel-capable 5.3-liter V-8 with 315 hp and cylinder deactivation. Standard in the fuel-saving XFE models and optional on other Sierras, this engine delivers a ripe exhaust note, smart acceleration and the best non-hybrid fuel economy of the lineup. It pairs with a six-speed automatic that shifts pretty smoothly, and helps it get that improved fuel economy while cutting down on noise.
At the top of the range, there's a 6.2-liter, 403-hp V-8 that can run on E85. It's identical to the V-8 found in the Cadillac Escalade, but this engine delivers sports-sedan acceleration when it's in an unladen truck, and very low gas mileage all of the time. For heavy, regular towing, it's probably the best choice.
The Sierra Hybrid earns special mention here because of its vastly more complex drivetrain. The combination pairs a 6.0-liter V-8 with cylinder deactivation to an electrically variable transmission (EVT) with two electric motor/generators, four fixed-ratio gears, and a 300-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. In all, the drivetrain pieces generate the equivalent of 332 horsepower and 367 pound-feet of torque, which gives the Hybrid acceleration pretty close to that of models outfitted with the 5.3-liter V-8 engine. A key difference: eerily smooth and quiet acceleration on battery power alone, up to about 25 mph.The Sierra can be had with either rear- or four-wheel drive; a single-range transfer case is standard on base versions, while dual-range 4WD is an option. An "Autotrac" electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system is featured on Denali models.
The Sierra matches its competitive 10,700-pound towing rating and payload numbers with quick, almost carlike steering and well-sorted handling. It's one of the easiest full-size pickups to drive quickly: it has communicative steering that's better than most other full-size pickups, though the Ford F-150's new electronic power steering sets a new high-water mark among trucks. Body lean is a given in any truck, but the Sierra manages it well, while providing a ride that's not jouncy or brittle, except possibly in the most extreme off-road versions. With its electric steering and regenerative brakes, the Sierra Hybrid feels more detached and the brakes are more spongy than on other models, but it's nothing that can't be mastered over time.
2012 GMC Sierra 1500
Comfort & Quality
Better seat comfort would help the GMC Sierra rate more highly against newer competitors.
It can be configured in dozens of ways, but the GMC Sierra still isn't quite as comfortable as its direct competitors, though the interior quality continues to be a high point for the current model.
Three different body styles are available, with the standard Regular Cab having very little space behind its front seats for anything other than narrow objects. The Extended Cab gets a bit more room--enough for gear and tools--and a pair of rear-hinged access panels to make that space more accessible. Sierra Crew Cabs have four front-hinged doors that can accommodate up to six passengers.
Generally, the Sierra's flat, wide front seats offer plenty of room for even the largest of drivers, though they're lean on lateral support. Six-passenger versions have a higher, more workmanlike dash that leaves enough space beneath for a middle passenger to find decent leg room. The Sierra can also be configured as a five-seater, one with a large center console that splits front passenger space, while it also give the dash a more upscale appearance. Big controls and clear displays make the Sierra's climate and audio systems easy to decipher.In back, there's less good news. Four-door Sierras have a bench seat with a backrest that sits too close to vertical. Long trips aren't really comfortable at all, for adults or kids. The back seat doesn't quite have the leg room of competitive four-door, full-size pickups, either, but the rear seatback does fold along a 60:40 split to preserve some cargo space as it's needed. On Hybrid models, there's no storage under the rear seat; that's where the battery pack lives.
Three different bed sizes are offered across the Sierra lineup. Crew Cabs and Hybrids tote a 5'8" bed; all versions except the Hybrid can be optioned up to a 6'6" bed. Also, all versions except the Hybrid can be fitted with a long 8-foot bed.
As with other vehicles that share the Sierra's platform, this truck has noticeably better fit and finish than prior GM pickups. Materials feel better than utility-grade, and high-end versions feel and look richer than expected. Road and wind noise is low, and the Hybrid is particularly quiet in operation.
2012 GMC Sierra 1500
Crash test scores have slipped, but the GMC Sierra now has some advanced safety options.
With its safety ratings slightly lower than in years past, the GMC Sierra still ranks highly for crash protection, and its list of safety technology is growing.In the 2011 model year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) changed the way it rates new vehicles, and as a result, dozens saw their safety scores fall. The Sierra is in this group: the federal agency now give it a mix of five- and four-star ratings, depending on body styles. Crew Cab four-doors get an overall rating of five stars, as Regular and Extended Cab models earn four stars overall. Every Sierra gets the NHTSA's top score for side-impact safety.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has a little worse news for the Sierra, too. The IIHS still calls its front-impact protection "good," and says side protection is "acceptable"--but in a new roof-crush test, the Sierra gets a "marginal" rating.
Every Sierra 1500 comes with standard curtain airbags and stability control, as well as daytime running lights. GM also includes OnStar hardware and a few months' free service. Of the options available, we'd take the rearview camera, since visibility over the tall tailgate can be a big issue, and parking sensors for the same reason. Power-adjustable pedals can be a boon for shorter drivers, but be warned: they strip most brake pedals of their accurate feel.
2012 GMC Sierra 1500
Base Sierra pickups are a tremendous value, but Hybrid and Denali versions compete with Cadillac-grade features.
The GMC Sierra is a mainstay of GM truck sales--and as such, GM's made it possible to configure the full-sizer in hundreds of ways, with choices for everything from powertrains, body styles, bed lengths, trim levels, and options. As a result, one driver's Sierra can be a very basic stripper, while another family's Sierra can be a plush towing toy.
The lineup of trim levels progresses from Work editions, through SL, SLE and SLT versions, into the luxurious Denali versions. The base truck gets a minimum of standard gear: there's a basic AM/FM radio, and the option to delete it; vinyl bench seat; manual locks; and crank windows.
The dizzying features list moves smartly through luxury features on the way to the Denali peak. Most Sierras have a standard USB port and an auxiliary jack for media player connectivity; Bluetooth is offered, too. More expensive Sierras now can be had with DVD navigation and real-time traffic data; a sunroof and a power-sliding rear window; 22-inch wheels; leather upholstery; even a factory-installed bedliner.
For off-road specialists, the Sierra's All-Terrain package adds on tow hooks, skid plates, and rescue fittings.
With the Hybrid model, many of the luxury features become standard equipment. Its pricetag starts in the high $30,000 range, and can blow through $50,000 when the pricier version is optioned up. The Hybrid gets standard automatic climate control, Bluetooth and steering-wheel audio controls; the navigation system comes with the Premium version, along with Bose audio, a hard bed cover, and leather.
2012 GMC Sierra 1500
As a whole, the GMC Sierra lineup has competitive fuel economy, with stingy Hybrids balancing out the biggest rippling V-8s.
GM has one of the most fuel-efficient full-size pickup trucks on its hands with the 2012 Sierra, but it also has some of the least efficient versions, though its V-8s aren't always the culprits.
The GMC Sierra Hybrid, as you might expect, earns the best EPA gas mileage ratings, at 20/23 mpg. Just behind that, however, is the 5.3-liter V-8 edition, which has cylinder deactivation technology and six speeds in its transmission, plus an XFE model with aerodynamic add-ons. It's rated as high 15/22 mpg--better than the Sierra with the base 4.3-liter V-6 and its 14/20 mpg. The difference in large part is the transmission, since the six-cylinder truck has an outdated four-speed automatic.
There's a fleet-duty 4.8-liter V-8 rated at 14/19 mpg, too. The Sierra's luxury-edition V-8 cuts its best figures by at least a third, rated at 13/18 mpg.
GM doesn't offer a diesel on the light-duty Sierra.