Decades ago, passenger cars were redesigned or retouched every year or two, while trucks evolved at a glacial pace. Nowadays, trucks – both pickups and SUVs – have picked up their evolutionary pace, and this includes pickups earmarked for heavy-duty use. Case in point: Just three years ago, GM introduced its current Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra HD, and they're already being massively upgraded for 2011.
It's interesting, then, that they don't look any different. GM developed a new, fully boxed ladder frame, beefed-up front and rear suspension components, bigger and better brakes, and a new Duramax diesel engine that offers both stratospheric torque and better fuel efficiency. But other than a full-width chrome bumper and the relocation of the fake hood louvers, there is little you can see inside or out that broadcasts to the world that there's anything new about these trucks.
Is That Some Torque in Your Pocket, or …?
The fact that there's so little to brag about on the outside is curious because, under the hood, GM is winning the old game of "mine's bigger" against Ford and Dodge. While we provided a thorough rundown of what's new on the 2011 Silverado and Sierra HD back in February, what GM didn't release then were the all-important horsepower and torque ratings for its slightly revised 6.0-liter Vortec gas V-8 and heavily reworked 6.6-liter Duramax diesel V-8. Only after Ford announced the output figures for its Super Duty pickups in March did GM toss out its own figures: 360 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque for the gasoline V-8 and 397 hp and a monstrous 765 lb-ft for the new Duramax turbo-diesel, which comes with a bespoke Allison six-speed automatic transmission. (The gas engine's peak figures are unchanged from 2010, but the torque curve is broader and efficiency is said to be improved.)
The gas figures place the Vortec V-8 behind the 385 hp and 405 lb-ft of the Super Duty's new 6.2-liter V-8, as well as the 383 hp and 400 lb-ft of the Ram 2500's 5.7-liter Hemi. But the Duramax vaults way out in front of the 350 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque of the Ram's 6.7-liter Cummins inline-six turbo-diesel, and even the mighty 390 hp and 735 lb-ft for the Super Duty's new Power Stroke turbo-diesel V-8. So while it's not an across-the-board smackdown, it can be argued that in the HD world, where diesels are the key to the kingdom, the Duramax wears the crown.
Additionally, the Silverado 3500 is rated to tow up to 21,700 pounds with a fifth-wheel hitch, where the Dodge is rated for 17,600 pounds max. The Ford can pull up to 24,400, albeit only in even-burlier 1.5-ton F-450 form. The F-350 tops out at 20,300 pounds. Still, there are few purposes for which 10 tons of towing ability (or the Dodge's eight tons, for that matter) aren't enough. The Silverado's 6635 pounds of bed capacity is equally impressive, although we're not sure what exactly weighs about as much as a Hummer H2 and can fit in the bed of a pickup.
In reality, disparities of 7 hp and 30 lb-ft between trucks weighing nearly four tons are minute. Unladen, the Ram, Super Duty, and GM HD are equally overqualified for the task of basic transportation. Indeed, lighting up the rear tires in the new Silverado or Sierra is absolutely no problem-GM claims a 0-60 time of less than nine seconds for the Duramax-powered 2500 and a quarter-mile time of less than 16 seconds. Accelerator travel is long, a deliberate decision to allow better management of all that torque, and the engine is amazingly quiet and smooth for such a humongous and powerful oil burner.
Stops and Turns, Too
The adjacent pedal also controls a significantly updated system. Much was done for 2011 not only to upgrade the brake hardware but also to enhance the pedal feel. As with the steering, the effort makes the truck feel far more comfortable and, dare we say, more carlike. Diesel models now come standard with a button-actuated exhaust brake, which uses the engine's compression to slow the vehicle. This is done seamlessly and quite effectively. Even with heavy loads in the bed, the HDs we drove thus equipped very little use of the brake pedal even on some of the steep Appalachian grades we descended on our drive. With the cruise control on, it was a set-it-and-forget-it affair.
The roads we drove were generally silky smooth. We encounted only a few rough patches, which we found to be managed heroically well for such a strong and sturdily sprung truck. Credit the independent front suspension-still a GM exclusive in the HD segment-asymmetrical leaf springs, and rock-solid, fully-boxed chassis. The steering isn't too light but rather nicely weighted for a big truck. It's also quite precise, with a semblance of life on center-something of a rarity in the HD-truck segment.
New Denali is $ 18,000 Upgrade
Also present was GMC's new Sierra Denali HD, which, not surprisingly, is just like the light-duty version, only with sturdier guts and the option to get the diesel engine and dual rear wheels. We drove a 2500 model equipped with the 6.0-liter Vortec and found it to be quite pleasant, although at its $ 46,860 price, some of the hard-plastic interior panels start crying out for padding. Or stitching. Or both. And the leather and "wood" quality both need to be brought up a notch or two. Still, with its glitzy wheels and perforated grille-now with ribs-the Denali is as handsome a truck as it's ever been in light-duty form and one that ought to appeal to many a boss seeking to assert his authority before ever stepping out of the truck.
Lesser Sierra and Silverado HDs start at a far more reasonable $ 28,960; both offer the upgrade to the Duramax with the Allison transmission for $ 7195. Considering their formidable increases in sturdiness, these prices, which see a slight increase from 2010, seem very reasonable.
It's too bad, really, that the attractive pricing and newfound strength aren't accompanied by anything new aesthetically. Newness matters, and both Dodge and Ford have fresh trucks, too-Dodge revamped the Ram HD for 2010, Ford redid its Super Duties for 2011. GM's best-ever HD trucks are arriving in dealerships now, and the company will have to get the message out to its customers via some smart and targeted marketing efforts, because the one thing these trucks can't do on their own is spread the word.