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First drive: 2017 GMC Sierra 2500 HD

by Byron Hurd

GMC\'s heavy-duty pickup gets a powertrain overhaul.

Let's face it. In today's automotive landscape, it doesn't take much effort to sell a truck. With a little marketing spin and even a middling dealer network, you could slap a bed on just about anything and move several thousand units.

Automakers, then, could be easily forgiven for resting on their laurels--especially the domestic brands, whose hold on the U.S. pickup market is essentially unbreakable.

Such is not the case, of course. While the domestics may have little to fear from outsiders, they spare little expense in outdoing each other. And while the title of "best truck" is typically bestowed upon whichever model happens to be most recently updated, the real winner is the consumer. Trucks keep getting more capable, more comfortable and more reliable. Your average half-ton is nearly as robust as many heavy-duty trucks from just a decade ago. Competition betters the breed, as they say.

Good genes
The 2017 GMC Sierra 2500 Denali HD is not new, strictly speaking. It's essentially last year's truck with a brand-new diesel engine. Aside from some minor styling updates (including a functional hood-mounted air intake), there's little to differentiate them unless you know what you're looking at.

And the diesel upgrade is a big one. The Duramax diesel offered in the previous Sierra HD produced just 397 horsepower and 765lb-ft of torque. Thanks to some thorough revisions--including new cylinder heads, upgraded internals and a new turbocharger--the new one produces, well, more.

Quite a bit more, in fact. For 2017, the 6.6L turbodiesel produces 445 horsepower and 910lb-ft of torque (previous reports of additional torque were erroneous) and, as usual, it's paired to a six-speed Allison A1000 transmission. GM claims this combo will propel an empty 4x4 Crew Cab 2500 model from 0-60 in just 7.1 seconds. That's not quite pony car acceleration, but it's enough to keep up with most family sedans.

To support the extra grunt in the new Duramax, GMC engineers beefed up a handful of driveline components, including u-joints, prop shafts and the A1000's torque converter.

Showcasing the powerplant
Normally, a new engine alone may not warrant a product relaunch, but the 6.6L Duramax V8 is the heart and soul of GMC's heavy duty pickup line, especially at the top end. Customers who want comfort and capability almost overwhelming choose diesel, and GMC has the numbers to back that up.

For starters, Denali models account for nearly 50% of all Sierra HD sales, period. Add in the next grade down (SLT) and you're looking at 75% of all units the company's dealers move. Sure, work truck models exist for commercial buyers (or small business owners who need a rugged and capable commuter truck), but GMC mostly plays in the higher end of the HD truck equipment spectrum.

Care to take a guess at the take rate for the Duramax among Denali buyers? It's more than 90%. Yes, in simpler terms, 45% of GMC Sierra 2500 HD models sold are Denali package trucks equipped with the Duramax. Can you say, "Highest average transaction price in the segment"? GMC's marketing team sure can.

None of this is really surprising. Heavy-duty trucks are expensive. The people who buy them for personal use often need a truck that can tow something even more dear than the vehicle itself, be it a trailer full of prize show horses or a retirement home on wheels. Buying a Denali model "limits" you to only 15,400 pounds of towing with a fifth-wheel setup; those who need to bring along another Thoroughbred or two would be smart to opt for a 3500 HD model with a tow ceiling north of 23,000 pounds.

The Denali HD lifestyle
When it comes to media launches, marketing specialists put a great deal of effort into providing context for their products. GMC's team spent a great deal of time and resources into planning a route that would take us from Moab, Utah, to Telluride, Colorado, with opportunities to put the new Sierra 2500 Denali HD to work doing what it does best--hauling snowmobiles, towing trailers loaded up with mobile lodging and all manner of toys, tackling robust up- and downgrades, etc.

But sometimes, serendipity trumps even the most elaborate and well-executed plan.

We were just five minutes south of Moab on U.S. 191, our Denali kitted out with a bed-top rack to which two snowmobiles were securely strapped. As tall and visually obtrusive as it was, the whole shebang probably tipped the scales at no more than 1,500lbs--1/4 the weight of the truck charged with hauling it down the highway. It's beyond cliche at this point, but they may as well have not even been there at all.

As we chatted idly and took in the scenery, something on the horizon caught our eyes simultaneously. Conversation ceased as a black-and-chrome pickup hauling a massive travel trailer rapidly approached from the other direction. When it was close enough that we could easily make out the massive "GMC" badge on the nose, we looked at each other with an arched eyebrow.

We've seen many things on press drives. From camouflage-clad test vehicles being paraded in full view of dozens of professional journalists to incredibly photogenic (and obviously staged) examples of cars and trucks posed in the ideal execution of their intended duties. But this? Here we are, pretending to be HD Denali owners off on a grand high desert adventure, being slapped in the face by the real thing.

If it wasn't set up by GMC marketing, it sure should have been.

"Well, there you go," we said almost simultaneously. From the back seat, GM's full-size HD truck engineer chuckled. "There's your Denali customer," he said, appreciating the poetry of the moment perhaps better than anybody else in the cab.

We can tell you how little impact the added weight, increased wind resistance and raised center of gravity of the snowmobiles had on our drive. We can tell you how little effort went into hauling a 10,000-pound trailer up and down the steep grades outside of Paradox, Colorado.

But these carefully orchestrated and controlled tests are nothing next to the beauty of that single illustration. That owner, seeking to do what we could only hope to mimic--putting miles of desert behind his travel trailer at a cool and calm seventy miles per hour--paints a better picture than we ever could. Seeing that from the quiet, comfortable confines of our own cabin, and knowing from our own experiences that he was likely plagued by no more stress than we were despite the vastly increased scope of his undertaking, we were humbly aware of the fact that we simply can't follow such a perfect (and candid) demonstration of the HD Denali's mission.

Off the beaten path
We can also tell you how flawlessly the Sierra 2500 HD tackled a partially-groomed dirt trail (showing off its usefulness as a toy hauler for those in search of hidden trail-heads, if nothing else). That's because the All Terrain is back and burlier than ever.

Unlike the rest of the evaluation trucks we sampled, the All Terrain is based on the Sierra HD's SLT trim (there's the other component of that 75% take rate). The All Terrain model sports a heavy-duty, off-road suspension featuring Rancho shocks and Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tires. It also boasts unique wheels, blacked-out trim, blacked-out step rails and a style bar with "SIERRA" badging on the flanks and LED off-road lights up top.

We didn't have a particularly challenging course at our disposal, but we can tell you that we were impressed by the tires' ability to bite the soft desert soil atop the sides and ruts of the trail. Despite the Sierra's rather hefty curb weight, we could place it on the edges of these features with almost no slippage at all. While we could have easily navigated the trail in one of the Denali models on-hand (assuming we weren't fussed by getting such a pretty truck all scuffed up by the desert vegetation), we'd give our nod to the All-Terrain on the merits of its tires alone. We could do without the low-hanging air dam, though.

Leftlane's bottom line
GMC may not have the most powerful HD truck on the market, but it has one of the quietest and most luxurious diesel pickups money can buy. While our lizard brains would love to have seen them one-up Ford in the torque department, we're confident in saying the 2017 GMC Sierra 2500 HD has little to fear from being merely second-best.

2017 GMC Sierra 2500 HD Crew Cab SLT base price, $52,290; as-tested, $69,980
Duramax Plus package (incl. special discount), $9,930; All-Terrain X package, $2,990; All-Terrain package, $1,850; Power sunroof, $995; Special Equipment, $370; Power Sliding Rear Window, $250; Roof Marker Lamps, $55; Radiator Cover, $55; Destination, $1,195

2017 GMC Sierra 2500 HD Denali base price, $58,595; as-tested, $69,255
Duramax Plus package, $9,550; Cargo Convenience package, $385; Off-road Suspension package, $180 Destination, $1,295

Photos by Byron Hurd.