FIRST DRIVE. 2019 GMC Sierra Denali 1500

August 27, 2018

Plenty of new technology, more room and better fuel economy, but the real story is what’s in the back

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“So, what exactly is ‘Screeching-In’?”

It’s a question I pose to an extraordinary gentleman the night before the launch drive of the 2019 GMC Sierra Denali. The gentleman in question – let’s call him ‘John’ – has apparently converted many “mainlanders” over the years, but the ritual is a little complex.

Firstly, to become an honorary Newfoundlander – sorry, “New-fin-lunner” – I must prove I can eat, drink, speak and kiss like one, the first task gamely undertaken with ‘Newfie Steak’ (a small chunk of bologna) and a small, very dried fish – head and bones included – called Capelin. The ‘drink’ is a “man’s strength” shot of Screech, a local Newfoundland rum named in homage to the cheap, high-alcoholic spirit of moonshine. And the ‘speech’ – “Are ye a screecher?”, “‘Deed I is, me ol’ cock! And long may yer big jib draw!” – is even more incomprehensible than that sounds thanks to John’s surprisingly thick Irish accent. Fortunately my farcical attempts at repetition are met with a smile from John and a tug of the meticulously Windsor-knotted tie he’s wearing over his fishing waders. Clearly I’ve passed the third phase.

That just leaves the kiss, and with the Screech already taking rapid crotch-shots at my synapses, I assume this will be delivered by a gorgeous brunette with ‘come hither’ eyes who has a thing for Englishmen. Turns out it’s a very dead cod John pulls from a nearby cooler. “G’wan!” Cue another shot of Screech.

Ritual complete, John, true to his word, ‘knights’ me as an honorary Newfinlunner with the end of his boat hook, and even presents an ‘official’ certificate for verification on conditions that I head out of St John’s and do some exploring. GMC is happy to oblige.

Early the following morning, we’re approaching the halfway point of our drive across the Eastern most point of the province, the road twisting its way pretty much continuously from Harbour Grace, site of the first trans-Atlantic flight by a female pilot in 1932 by a certain Ms Earhart, towards Heart’s Delight.

The road is starting to climb back away from the hinterland, and soon the vestige of brilliantly coloured houses in the fishing community we left in the Rear View Camera are replaced with an expanse of deep, blue Arctic ocean stretching for hundreds of kilometres through the Sierra’s passenger window. It’s extraordinarily pretty, and far in the distance, there’s even an occasional spout from a family of Minke whales.

 

“With the Screech already taking rapid shots at my synapses, I assume this will be delivered by a gorgeous brunette with ‘come hither’ eyes who has a thing for Englishmen.”

 

You really get the sense that GMC has pushed the boat out for the launch of the 2019 Sierra Denali and SLT, and with good reason. Since 2013, Denali sales have more than doubled and now account for a third of GMC’s overall business. Focus specifically on the flagship Sierra, and both the Denali and SLT packages account for more than three-quarters of Crew Cab sales, by the far the most popular model configuration on the company’s five-strong model line-up. Bear in mind the almost ravenous popularity the Sierra has garnered with its customer base – almost every third vehicle we come across in New-fin-lan’ is a GM – and that RAM launched its new 1500 earlier this year, and you start to realise just how important this launch is to GMC.

And so far the company’s confidence in its product is well-placed. There’s talk of a ‘bold new design’ of course, plus ‘innovative’ technology, an updated ‘driver-focused cabin’, and advanced powertrains, blah blah blah, but five new features in particular have been specifically designed to tip the Sierra over the edge. Both the aforementioned Rear Camera Mirror and a brand-new 3×7 Head-Up Display are segment firsts, and, though a little distracting in my peripheral vision for the first 100km, get an immediate thumbs up.

 

The real cheddar is at the rear, however. The new ProGrade Trailering System features updated software to make hitching easier for just one person, and can even be configured via an app on your phone. For those of us still learning the proverbial ropes, items like a pre-departure checklist, trailer electrical diagnostics, and tire pressure and temperature sensors would prove invaluable.

The CarbonPro box is the first carbon fibre composite example of its kind, weighs in 28kg lighter than the steel variant, and is said to be the toughest to-date. Just behind that is the brand new Multi-Pro tailgate which has six unique configurations – seven if you count the new ‘Denali’ nameplate – and range from multi-tier loading to a standing work station for yet more ease of use. It’s ‘casually’ mentioned during our lunch stop – “do you happen to have any Calepin?” – that the tailgate has received more research and customer input than pretty much any other GMC product so far, as is demonstrated by the 2x4s, coolers, kindling and pair of crab cages that’s loaded into our box at Harbour Grace, all without chafed knuckles and blue language. Tick tick.

 

“The tailgate has received more research and customer input than pretty much any other GMC product so far.”

 

Something doesn’t feel quite right though, and it’s not last night’s Screech starting to take hold. Granted, the road surface between Victoria and Heart’s Content does it no favours, but it’s difficult to ignore the Sierra’s occasionally choppy ride, the newly updated Active Ride Control not cutting this particular mustard. It’s smooth, absolutely, but has a raw edge that, frankly, when combined with limited lumbar support in the leather-backed seats and overly stiff seat, is not what I’d expected of “the Denali legacy”.

Admittedly, at the request of our genial hosts, we’ve been invited to test ‘Sport’ mode – in a truck, for crying out loud – for this particular stretch that crests the coastline and starts to wind its way back towards the mainland (“was that a spout…?”). Yes, the very power-assisted steering does get some additional beef added to it, and the 10-speed automatic gearbox does get notably feistier, but there’s no real tangible difference to the cornering, and actually makes that occasionally choppy ride even stiffer.

I’m more than happy to revert to Tour for our mid-afternoon leg towards New Harbour and Dildo (steady now…), because, tailgate functionality and the Trailer App aside, it’s the Sierra’s finest quality. Okay, there’s a couple of question marks over the durability and quality of some of the interior plastics – I’m looking at you, door pockets – and the cabin does lack an innate sense of character compared with the also-new Ram 1500, but there’s no want for head or legroom in either the front or back (a significant improvement over the old model), and the driver-centric design makes the instrumentation around me all the more intuitive. I wonder if a Stop/Start button mounted on the dash at knee level was the wisest choice, and I do fear the small infotainment screen will date badly, but these are trifling concerns. It’s a top job.

 

“We’ve been invited to test ‘Sport’ mode. In a truck, for crying out loud.”

 

Back on the highway having blown through Dildo (sorry), it’s our last chance to give the 6.2-litre V8 under the bonnet a poke. Very impressive Dynamic Fuel Management – which can de-activate up to six of the eight cylinders at a cruise – means we’ve registered a fairly astounding 11.3km per 100km in a pick-up north of 2.5 tons. It’s the poke of the engine that truly resonates, however. Give or take a beat around 1000rpm, 420hp and a mighty 460lb ft of torque are immediately pulling from the low revs, and don’t stop as we blast our way past the 5000rpm mark, the speed building consistently and the drivetrain showing neither signs of lag nor breathlessness. There is a 5.3-litre option available and a turbo diesel set to arrive later this year, but if you find yourself with some loose change, the 6.2 will not disappoint.

So, just to recap, far on this Newfoundland jaunt, I’ve drank rum, eaten fish almost exclusively, taken in the province’s biggest tourist spots, listened with glee to ‘Over the Top’ and other Irish-lilted music, driven a GM pick-up truck with a full load of fishing equipment along the coastline, whale-watched, and even kissed a dead cod.

The big test though comes later than night when our route is completed and, gut-founded, we’re heading out for scoff. “Where y’ longs to?” we’re asked by our cordial waitress. “St Johns,” say I. “And I have the certificate to prove it.”

 *Images courtesy of GMC and Jim Fets

 

Technical specifications

Engine: V8, EcoTec3, 6,200cc

Power: 420hp @ 5,600rpm

Torque: 460lb ft (623Nm) @ 4,100rpm

Transmission: 10-speed automatic, four-wheel drive

Suspension: Independent coil-over-shock with twin-tube shock absorbers (front), solid axle with semi-elliptic, variable-rate, two-stage multi-leaf springs (rear)

Brakes: Vented, 345mm (front), 360mm (rear)

Wheels: 22in (front and rear)

Tyres: P275/50R22 all-season (front and rear)

Weight: 2274kg (Crew Cab)

0-100kph: N/A

Top speed: N/A

Price: $60,295 (base)