A Newfoundlander walks into a parking lot and sees a 2019 GMC Sierra alongside a new Chevy Silverado. “Which one’s the Sierra?” he asks. “The one with the massive new grille and almost as many miles on it as my snowblower.”
Newfoundland has been a Canadian province since 1949, and jokes about its harsh climate and proud and resilient residents might date back equally as far. Even within Canada, the island of Newfoundland is distinctive. The easternmost point of North America has a culture, accent, and even a time zone of its own. The 480,000 people who live on “the Rock” advance their clocks by 30 minutes, putting them out of step with the rest of Canada and making them the subject of Canada’s version of blond or lawyer jokes.
The raw beauty of its craggy shores and fishing hamlets of multicolored houses make Newfoundland unique and a fitting backdrop for our first drive of the 2019 GMC Sierra that is more distinct from the Chevrolet Silverado than ever before.
Both full-size pickup trucks have been completely redone, riding on a new platform and receiving updated powertrains. But unlike past generations where the lesser-volume GMC shared a chassis, body proportions, and even a precut hole for the headlights, this time the designers and engineers were able to sculpt the premium truck they envisioned for the brand from the outset.
It is a flexibility borne of necessity. GMC customers said the last-generation Sierra, which debuted for the 2014 model year, did not do enough to separate itself as the professional brand. GMC customers have shown a willingness to pay for a premium truck, but the brand has to deliver the goods.
There is inevitable sharing, but the list of differences has grown. The Silverado has eight trim levels, the GMC five. The Sierra’s exterior distinguishes itself by its massive chrome grille, beveled wheelwells, C-shaped headlights, and integrated exhausts. For 2019 it boasts a segment-first carbon-fiber bed and six-position tailgate that is a game changer in terms of making the bed easier to use.
Newfoundlanders like their pickups. Winter is harsh, and summer can be, too—this year there was a blizzard on June 26. Power and reliability are important. New for the 2019 lineup is an optional 420-hp 6.2-liter V-8 with GM’s new 10-speed automatic transmission on the Denali, SLT, and new AT4 off-road trims. The 355-hp 5.3-liter V-8 is a carryover with a six-speed on the base trim and an eight-speed on SLE and above. Both V-8s have start-stop (which can be turned off) and Dynamic Fuel Management (on the 5.3 with the eight-speed), which enables the engine to operate on one to eight cylinders, depending on demand. The shutdowns are so seamless, you can’t tell how many are firing at any given time. GMC thinks half the V-8 customers will upgrade their engine.
Production has begun in Fort Wayne, Indiana, starting with the top trims, V-8s, and popular cabs. First up were Denali Crew Cabs with the 6.2-liter; preproduction models were sent to Newfoundland for the media drive, along with a couple of AT4s. The engine doesn’t lack for power, and the shifts with the 10-speed are imperceptible.
GMC will start SLT production next month, and the top three trim levels are expected to account for at least 80 percent of the volume. In three months SLE will go into production, and the line will add double cabs as well as a new 310-hp 2.7-liter turbocharged inline-four that will be paired with GM’s eight-speed transmission. The Silao plant in Mexico will start building the new trucks early next year, assembling both crew and regular cabs. The base work truck will get the carryover 285-hp 4.3 liter V-6 paired with a six-speed.
In January GMC will introduce a new 3.0-liter diesel engine with the 10-speed. Executives say they have no idea what the take rate for the diesel will be, as this is new territory for them.
The new MultiPro tailgate will be standard on the Denali, SLT, and AT4. The SLE and Work Truck get a standard tailgate, but the six-position MultiPro might be an option. Its versatility is impressive with an upper tailgate imbedded in the main tailgate, both of which have load stops. When we loaded the trucks with gear and fresh seafood for our lunch, a message in the driver’s screen noted that our inner tailgate was open, a handy feature.
The bed’s corner step remains, but the MultiPro adds a full drop-down step and grab handle to make it easier to get into and out of the bed, which features 12 tie-downs to secure cargo. The tailgate isn’t powered, but push a button on the gate or key fob, and gravity brings it down easily. A carryover is the articulating running board that helps the driver hop in. Tap the end of the running board with your foot, and it moves back to access a bed deep enough that you can create two load heights by inserting a plank.
The tailgate design was inspired by an early idea to split the gate in two horizontally, though the fear was that a standard latch wouldn’t be strong enough. The idea went through innovation clinics and morphed into an inner tailgate with cables for strength. Evidence of the complexity and importance of this GMC- exclusive tailgate: a team of about 10 worked on it, compared with two or three in the past.
Overall, the 2019 Sierra is huge, becoming the largest truck in the segment alongside the Silverado. The box is 7.0 inches wider and also deeper. Sierra’s 62.9-cubic-foot short box offers more volume than standard boxes in the Ford F-150 or Ram 1500.
Even though the truck is longer, taller, and wider, it feels smaller from behind the wheel. You only become aware of its body-on-frame construction on some of Newfoundland’s rough roads with potholes that would make Detroit cringe. The new electrohydraulic system provides effortless braking.
These roads proved perfect for assessing the suspension. For 2019, GMC replaced the Denali’s magnetic ride control with a new Adaptive Ride Control. The new system still moves fluid through the shocks but has an electronically controlled valve designed to react to road conditions faster. It sopped up the imperfections of the island roads easily—striking down the joke: “You know you’re from Newfoundland when driving is better in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow.”
The Sierra doesn’t come cheap. It starts at $31,095 for a basic two-wheel-drive regular cab work truck, and the popular Denali starts at $59,495. Our review vehicle came to $67,700 with $2,495 for the 6.2-liter engine and the $5,710 Ultimate Package to get the exclusive rear-camera mirror, head-up display, full range of cameras for surround vision, power sunroof, and a number of safety alerts and assists.
Over at Chevy, the Silverado High Country reaches a similarly high echelon, but the GMC marketing team says its research shows there’s not a lot of cross shopping between the two brands. And all three Detroit automakers feel there’s no cost ceiling for high-end trucks these days as customers keep asking for more.
“Our focus is very much on the high end,” says Phil Brook, GMC vice president of marketing. The focus is on the market at $45,000 and up.
It is at the high end that the GMC is a good deal for its customers; the Chevy buyer can’t get the GMC tailgate for any price. Nor can they get the carbon-fiber bed exclusive to GMC.
The CarbonPro Box is coming in limited numbers in April, near the end of the first model year. GMC is still finalizing pricing and packaging. The beds are made in Huntington, Indiana, by Continental Structural Plastics, part of the Japanese Teijin Group. They use a unique process, and GM claims the resulting bed is unparalleled for its toughness and durability. It also saves 67 pounds. Overall, the truck is 380 pounds lighter than the outgoing model. Chevy dropped 450 pounds from the Silverado, but the GMC has more content.
GMC also distinguishes itself with a multicolor 3 x 7-inch head-up display and second-generation rear-camera mirror with buttons to adjust brightness, zoom in and out, or switch to a conventional mirror.
Further differentiation is needed in the interior, which is very similar to the Chevy’s. In the ever-popular black Denali with black interior, there’s the subtle gray contrast stitching and some brushed aluminum in the center console to brighten the area around the screen. The other choice is a gray and brown interior. The Denali adds real wood trim for the first time, but the placement is puzzling as it’s basically obscured by your thighs on both sides.
GMC says its customers want the Sierra to look like a working truck despite its premium status—hence durable versus soft leathers. But more differentiation would give the Sierra a more distinct personality.
For 2019, the Sierra’s front wheels have been moved forward; crew cab customers will appreciate the extra 3.0 inches of rear legroom in the cavernous cab, as well as the hidden storage bin in each rear seatback.
The Denali and SLT offer optional 22-inch wheels, The AT4 comes with 20-inch wheels with all-terrain tires or 18-inch wheels with all-mud tires.
For off-roading, the AT4 comes standard with a 2-inch lift, Ranchero rear shocks, and an off-road inclimometer in the head-up display. Unfortunately, the mild off-road course we drove did little to showcase the need for the short overhang, revised front bumper, skidplates, locking rear differential, or the longer and beefier front halfshafts. Hill Start Assist holds the truck in place indefinitely with foot off the brake, an improvement over the previous system, which released after a few seconds. We didn’t have a 5-degree grade available to test this feature, though.
The new Sierra doesn’t offer adaptive cruise control, which is confounding in a vehicle close to $70,000. There are cars at half the cost with this feature. GMC tells us it’s a temporary omission for the 2019 model year. A better system is in the works, but it wasn’t ready for the first model year and GMC didn’t want to redo the grille after a year to accommodate it.
Our other quibble is that the lane keep assist system with lane departure warning seemed to be hit or miss, both in vibrating to alert us when we’d wandered out of our lane and in its ability to offer steering correction. Apparently it works best on a straight road, but this inconsistency makes it unreliable. Other safety features include front pedestrian braking and low-speed automatic braking, neither of which we had the chance to test in the real world.
GMC doesn’t have a trailer assist system like Ford’s where the truck does the steering. However, GMC’s ProGrade Trailering System’s full range of cameras around the truck give you a 360-degree view to help you back up to the hitch. Just tap the touchscreen for the view and angle you want. A trailering app has a checklist to remind you to put the truck into tow/haul mode, check the trailer tire pressure, and ensure the trailer lights work.
All in all, Newfoundland proved a unique venue to test a truck that has stepped out from underneath its own shadow.
“Sharing with another brand has not constrained the truck this time,” says Matt Noone, director of exteriors design for GMC. “We had become a bit too predictable with GMC.”
And with that, the GMC team ate a dried sardine, kissed a cold and slimy cod, downed a shot of Screech rum, and recited a tongue twister. Officially “screeched in,” they were declared honorary Newfoundlanders. That’s a status that, to the islanders, is no joke.