2011 GMC Sierra Denali HD road test: All dressed up for hard work and play

2011 Sierra Denali HD

2011 Sierra Denali HD 4WD

The Lowcountry of South Carolina is truck territory, so it was no surprise that the 2011 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 HD 4WD Crew Cab pickup truck gathered quite a bit of attention as I put it through its paces in and around Charleston.

Frankly, It was a tough crowd for the Sierra Denali to stand out in, what with pickup trucks, SUVs and crossovers of every type and stripe crowding the roads.

Travel a couple of miles and you’re liable to see vacationers towing mobile homes, boaters towing trailers, tailgaters,  construction crews, lawn-service companies hauling huge mowers, soccer moms running back and forth to school activities, delivery men — big is good and bigger is better for lots of motorists in the coastal south.

But the Sierra, first heavy-duty GMC pickup truck to get the upscale Denali treatment, did stand out. It is equal parts luxury car and brutish work truck,  It sits high off the road, sports a chrome grille with a giant GMC logo and is so long you need to hail a cab to get from the grille to the tailgate. (Well, almost.)

To be honest, I couldn’t understand the appeal at first. I do understand the need for strong work trucks and I do understand a buyer’s desire to sit in a comfortable cabin with a comprehensive list of upscale amenities. But I couldn’t understand the logic in putting such seemingly divergent missions under the same roof.

Who, I kept wondering to myself as I cruised along with a load no heavier than me, would shell out $60,000 or more for a heavy-duty pickup truck, no matter how luxurious.

This is a truck that can treat tar strips like boulders, a truck that can jiggle and jar its passengers even on relatively smooth surfaces, a truck that has vague steering under light loads, a truck that hogs up nearly a full lane, a truck that features a turning radius too wide to make a U-turn on many two-lane roads. (In case you are doubting me, the turning circle stretches out to a full 50.5 feet.)

I also kept wondering why anybody in the market for a serious work truck would choose one so fancy it would seem like a crime to let it get dirty, let alone drag muddy boots across its thick pile carpeting or plop soiled work clothes onto those premium leather seats.

Finally it began to dawn on me. I was in the right church, wrong pew.

This is not a dirty-jobs truck. This is a vehicle the boss takes to the construction site. This is the truck for towing horses to the polo match, or race cars to the track. This is the truck for the retired couple exploring the U.S.A. with their mobile home trailing along behind.

Put some weight in or behind the Sierra Denali and the ride settles down; the sturdy recirculating-ball steering firms up; and the strong all-wheel, antilock disc brakes stand ready to pull thousands and thousands (15,600 to be exact) of pounds to a halt in a hurry. The traveling experience is definitely more pleasant when the Sierra is being put to its intended use.

Credit some of this to new shock absorbers and a new suspension —  an independent torsion-bar setup in front that is strong enough for snow-plow use, and  new two-stage, multi-leaf springs at the rear that support heavier loads than the previous truck.