The General Motors pickup strategy is pretty simple; attack the market with two brands where competitors only offer a single choice. As it relates to heavy-duty consumers, we’ve already seen what they’ve done with the all-new platform, controversial styling, and impressive towing technology in the 2020 Silverado 2500 and 3500, and now it’s time for the GMC side of the family to roll out their HDs and unique features.
The 2020 GMC Sierra 2500 and 3500 models are founded on an entirely new, stronger, longer, and taller ladder frame, specifically designed to deliver bigger max towing and payload numbers. Across every configuration, specific considerations to thicker, lighter, and more advanced materials have been included in the frame, upgraded suspension components, and even in the powertrains themselves, resulting in higher maximum payload (in excess of 7,000 pounds) and maximum towing numbers (in excess of 35,000 pounds). Here’s a fun fact GM engineers want you to know: every configuration of GM’s one-ton dually (no matter what cab, what engine, what drivetrain) can tow more than 30,000 pounds. Neither Ford nor Ram can say the same.
A huge piece in this HD puzzle is, as you might imagine, under the hood. Although the 6.6-liter Duramax turbodiesel (rated at 445 horsepower at 2,800 rpm and 910 lb-ft of torque at 1,600 rpm) is basically a carryover engine choice, it is now mated with an all-new Allison 10-speed automatic transmission, which sports a larger, faster computer controller. Additionally, there’s an all-new gas engine choice in the form of a 6.6-liter direct-injection V-8, rated at 401 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 464 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm. This new engine replaces the long-past-due 6.0-liter with a mountain of proven and new technology and compares exceptionally well with the new Ford and Ram gas V-8 offerings.
From an exterior design perspective, GMC internals continue their push to separate themselves from their Chevrolet brethren. For better or worse, GMC has taken a more conservative approach, keeping their multi-block grille, front bumper, and headlight designs more in keeping with the half-ton models. The most dramatic changes to the Sierra HD front ends are in actual size, driven in large part by the added airflow requirements needed for both the diesel and gas engine choices. The front end still offers dual-intake avenues for cool air (one integrated in the hood, the other through the wider grille), but now also adds a substantial under-bumper mini-grille to direct air either to the intercooler (for the diesel) or transmission cooler (for the gas). Window beltlines have been lowered for better driver and passenger visibility and the actual bed sill height is lower as well. We especially like that all HDs will offer integrated sidesteps into the rear bumper and bed body (one in front of the rear wheel well, one in the bumper corner) on all models for easier, quicker access to anything in the bed.
We recently had the chance to do quite a bit of highway towing, off-roading, and payload cruising in and around Jackson Hole, Wyoming (around 6,000 feet above sea level), with several new Sierra HD models and, briefly, here’s what we found:
Highway Towing: The Duramax/Allison is an absolute monster when pulling heavy loads. Unlike some max-tow powertrains, the 6.6-liter turbodiesel delivers 100-percent of its torque off the line and the new 10-speed transmission does an excellent job of smoothly and progressively getting all that power to the rear wheels. Our first 3500 dually crew cab 4×4 Denali (listing just under $82,000) was towing a Keystone Montana fifth-wheel RV with dual slide-outs, weighing in around 13,000 pounds dry. With the exhaust brake on and in Tow/Haul (which gave us some rather aggressive grade-braking downshifts each time we tapped the brake), our time with the truck and trailer was fairly comfortable and stress-free. Add to this a myriad of trailering camera options (front, both side mirrors, bed, tailgate, and a final hard-wired camera on the back of the RV), and we could see just about everything or anyone wanting to sneak up on us. We should note that GM is the only HD truck maker that offers an integrated Transparent Trailer feature that (when set up properly) allows the driver to see through the trailer you are towing to those drivers following you (many of whom might want to pass). This technology is not only cool, it provides an extra level of safety and situational awareness we’ve never experienced. Additionally, we towed with a gooseneck flat-bed that reportedly weighed over 25,000 pounds with a one-ton dually and found the workings of the drivetrain plenty strong enough to pull the load confidently, feeling quite composed the whole time. Of course, we’ll have to reserve our final judgements for long-haul towing (and any overheating issues) until we can get a test truck and set up a multi-state run.
Off-Roading: One of the biggest sales surprises recently for GMC is their newest off-road package, called the AT4 (actually an evolved trim from earlier All Terrain packages). Offered on both light-duty and heavy-duty platforms, the AT4 package for the HD offers bigger wheels and tires, specially tuned Rancho monotube shocks, extra skid-plating underneath, a Traction Select system with a unique Off-Road mode, Hill Descent and hill hold features, a 15-inch color head-up display with an off-road inclinometer, and a high-def surround-view camera. The 2500 or 3500 AT4 is exclusive to the GMC brand (meaning there is no Chevy Silverado HD Trail Boss at this time) and, with the exception of an anti-roll bar disconnect and winch, this could be the closest thing to a Ram 2500 Power Wagon competitor. We had the chance to punish a few AT4s on both some higher-speed, choppy dirt roads, as well as some rocks and nasty 4×4 trails we found near Grand Teton National Park. Uniquely, the transfer case offers both all-wheel drive, four-wheel drive high range, and four-wheel drive low range modes, each with a different Off Road mode setting in the transmission to help improve traction control and throttle response. We found this hugely helpful when navigating a deep river wash that eventually got rocky, then turned back into tire-swallowing, fluffy, smooth sand. Moving back and forth between the 4WD settings is all push-button, requiring us to be in Neutral only when moving into or out of 4 Low. To state the obvious; this was the most fun we had in a GMC pickup the entire week. And, we should also note, the AT4 package suffers no down-rating in max payload or towing when compared to other non-AT4 HDs (something the Power Wagon cannot say).
Payload Cruising: We also had the chance to run rather long stretches of mountain highways with both a Sierra Denali 2500 and Sierra AT4 2500 with at or just above 2,000 pounds of freshly cut logs in the bed (all properly strapped down). Of particular note, which is a pet peeve of ours, we loved the fact that even with that much weight in the back there was very little rear-end droop from the rear springs. Neither of our test trucks showed any trouble accommodating the weight or sacrificing any ride or handling quality as we carved through the canyons parallel with the Snake River. We should note, however, our AT4 loaded with logs did have the new V-8 gas engine, which did seem to have a little more trouble keeping up with traffic as we crossed over a mountain pass, and, with four fewer gears than the Allison (but lower 3.73:1 axle gears—all Duramax HDs get 3.42:1 gears), it did still seem to struggle a bit more. With all that said, we were still quite impressed with how well both the Denali and AT4 suspensions handled the load, providing a balanced and composed chassis during mountain road cornering.
But what about the interiors? If you were looking for something dramatic or a huge upgrade in the 2020 GMC HD interiors, you will not be happy. For the most part, everything we’ve already seen from GMC (mostly from the new interiors of the light-duty trims) will be carried over into the HD lineup. Expect the top-of-the-line Denali to still fall short of the what Ram and Ford are doing with their top trims—meaning you’ll still see the usual chrome surrounds with brushed aluminum accents, and plasticky wood trim pieces on the center console and door panels. We actually like the idea of keeping the interior looks between light-duty and heavy-duty similar but we’d really like to see more drama with better-quality materials and choices. Beyond that, the softer dash materials and stitching choices are still pretty good, just not for a truck that can easily run above the $75,000 mark. We consider this the biggest area of opportunity for GMC and, unlike some of our colleagues, we’re willing to wait and see what’s likely to come in the next mid-model refresh.
Rollout for the new GMC Sierra 2500 and 3500 models is happening now but the more popular models (meaning crew cab 4x4s) will come first, then the others later. Expect the AT4 and Denali crew cabs first, with other trims and cabs rolling out thereafter. Eventually, 2020 GMC HDs will offer three cab configurations, two bed lengths, two engine choices, and five trims—the value-oriented Sierra trim, the more mainstream SLE and SLT, then offer the more well-appointed AT4 and Denali for those wanting to fully option and have more style. Entry-level Sierra HD regular cab will start at $38,790. The more popular 2500 SLE crew cab 4×4 will have a starting price $1,900 cheaper than the outgoing model and will include these upgrades: a stronger, more efficient 6.6-liter gas V-8, LED headlights, traction select, more payload and towing capacity, more sidesteps, and more cargo tiedowns in the bed. Pricing for this specific model starts at $46,990. The top-of-the-line 3500 dually Denali 4×4 crew cab will have a starting price of $69,490 and include the 6.6-liter Duramax and 10-speed transmission, surround-view cameras, Multi-Pro Tailgate, and much more. Realistically, though, you can expect one of the heavy haulers to get pretty close to or above $80,000 with all the boxes checked. Certainly not cheap by any measure, but consider the upgrades being offered for the 2020 model year, there’s a strong value proposition to be made.