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First drive: 2019 GMC Sierra

We tour "The Rock" in GMC's updated half-ton pickup.

When we say "The Rock," your mind probably goes first to the Nicolas Cage/Sean Connery (with a dash of John Spencer, may he rest in peace) movie of the same name, which, in turn, will get you to Alcatraz. We like where your head's at, but it's an entire continent away from our destination.

That's right--Newfoundland. Its nickname is a bit diminutive if you ask us. Canada's fourth-largest island is the size of Tennessee and just as colorful. During our stay, we ate seafood catered by a chef who shared screen time with Anthony Bourdain (may he also rest in peace), encountered locals so friendly they'd make Ned Flanders look like Archie Bunker, and participated in its capital's surprisingly youthful and energetic nightlife. Oh, and we even got Screeched-in.

But mostly, we drove a truck.

Sierra Nueva

Like the new Chevrolet Silverado, the GMC Sierra 1500 has been completely redesigned for 2019. We drove the Chevy just a few weeks ago, and since GMC would rather we not devote half of this write-up to comparing their product with what is essentially an internal competitor, we're going to get some housekeeping out of the way right here at the top.

Yes, the Silverado and Sierra are basically the same truck, in the same way a Tahoe and a Yukon are the same SUV. They're skinned differently, equipped differently, and marketed differently, but where it "matters," they differ very little. For that reason, the Sierra benefits from the same new bed construction that widened the Silverado's box floor by seven inches and upped the total available cargo area to 63 cubic feet.

The 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 hasn't lost quite as much weight as its Chevrolet counterpart, but's close, and that's largely because the Sierra comes in fewer variations than the Silverado. The 2019 Sierra is as much as 360 pounds lighter (vs. 450 for the Chevy) depending on trim, and makes use of many of the same weight-saving strategies employed by its sibling, including aluminum "swing" panels (doors, tailgate and hood). Everything else is steel, with the exception of the bed floor in certain configurations.

And no, GMC hasn't gone the way of Ford and opted for an aluminum bed. Instead, they've jumped off the metal bandwagon entirely and gone straight to another industry staple--carbon fiber. GMC calls it "CarbonPro" (because everything GMC's marketing team touches turns to Pro). Dismiss your mental image of carbon fiber as you find it on lots of high-performance vehicles, gleaming in its well-polished resin. GMC went for an aesthetic more akin to that of a hard-sided rifle case. Yeah, we're sure that's a coincidence too.

Carbon fiber isn't all GMC has up its sleeve when it comes to the business end of the new Sierra. For that, we turn to yet another Pro.

MultiPro

This is GMC's name for its incredibly versatile new tailgate. It comes standard on SLT, AT4 and Denali (which puts it smack in the middle of the volume end of the Sierra lineup), and it may be the Sierra's singular defining feature.

Words cannot do the MultiPro's various configurations justice, so we'll include a video below. For those who can't (or don't want to) view it, the general gist is that it can double as either a step, a load extender (and stopper), and a workstation.

Pro-pulsion

GM's new truck lineup benefits across the board from a complete powertrain revamp. There are far too many variants to fully enumerate them here, but we'll cover the basics. Entry-level models are equipped with the 305-horsepower, 4.3L V6 which makes a respectable 283 lb-ft of torque. Moving up from that is the 5.3L V8 (355 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque). In lower-end configurations, both are paired to a six-speed automatic.

A revamped version of the 5.3L V8 is also available with GM's new Dynamic Fuel Management and paired to an eight-speed auto. This is also the standard transmission for GM's new 2.7L turbocharged four-cylinder. At 310 horsepower and 348 lb-ft of torque, it seems like it should be a decent daily driver powerplant, however it was not available for us to drive in Newfoundland.

At the top of the range (available from the AT4 trim on up) is GM's 6.2L V8. Producing 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque here, it's the most powerful (and grunty) engine currently available. A 3.0L turbodiesel is slated for release later this year or early next, and both of these will be mated to GM's new 10-speed automatic. No power figures for the diesel are yet available.

Max towing for the new Sierra ranges from 10,000-11,400 pounds for 2WD variants and 9,800 to 12,100 pounds for 4WD variants. Max payload (which is found on the regular cab model) is 2,240 pounds, but both 2WD and 4WD crew cab models can do better than 2,000 pounds.

Professional grades

To cement its role as the higher-end of GM's two half-tons, the Sierra is offered in configurations weighted more toward the premium (larger, better-equipped, more-comfortable) end of the spectrum. This is not the realm of the short-cab, long-bed pickup (though GMC does still offer it on the base model... for now). The next step up from the base model is SLE, which adds a full-color, 4.2-inch cluster display, additional connectivity, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and other niceties like body-color door handles.

The next trim up is Elevation, which is new for 2019. It's available exclusively as a double-cab model and pairs the SLE's upgraded feature content with an exterior appearance package featuring monochromatic door handles, bumpers and grille surround, along with black accents for the grille insert, tow hooks and side window trim. It also features 20-inch alloy wheels. If this sounds eerily similar to the Silverado Custom, well...

Above that, we get into the meat of the Sierra lineup. It's no accident that the MultiPro tailgate, for example, becomes standard at SLT. This is where the overlap with the Silverado starts to fade and the Sierra comes into its own. This trim bakes in options available on lower models (like the rear-view camera mirror and 10-way adjustable power seat) and features like LED head lamps and tail lamps are offered for the first time.

AT4

Elevation isn't the only new trim for 2019, and it's certainly not the most interesting. That honor goes to AT4, which is the Sierra's new dedicated off-road trim. Baked into AT4 are a two-inch suspension lift, standard four-wheel-drive, a two-speed transfer case, a rear locker, skid plates, Rancho monotube shocks, and 18-inch wheels with Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac all-terrain tires. Everything but the lift and monotube shocks is available as part of the X31 off-road package and the lift itself is available as a dealer-installed option on other Sierras.

The AT4 gets some other unique touches, like a two-tone interior, a unique grille insert and red off-road recovery hooks. It also gets hill descent control and GM's traction select system, which offers multiple modes for improved grip, and makes use of the available Surround Vision camera system to make navigating tight trails easier.

Denali

This is the crown jewel in the Sierra lineup, and where the proverbial magic happens. Its party piece is the new Adaptive Ride Control suspension, which is GMC's (somehow not "Pro") variant of MagneRide. Like most adaptive damper systems, it's tied into the Sierra's drive mode toggle, firming things up when you want it sporty and helping keep the rear end in check when you're towing.

That's not all, of course. Denali is the lap-of-luxury offering for GMC's lineup, so you get other niceties like real wood trim, a multi-color HUD, standard Bose audio, a choice of updated V8 engines (or the forthcoming diesel), a standard trailering package, keyless entry and remote start.

On The Rock

Outside of St. John's, Newfoundland is (unsurprisingly) very rural, but not in the way of the American Midwest. Imagine instead that somebody decapitated Maine from the northeast and cast it off into the ocean. This is important, because half-ton pickups aren't small, but the roads on The Rock tend to be. Prominently crowned, twisty, narrow two-lanes wind over rocky outcroppings and dip into coastal fishing villages, many of which predate the concept of the American pickup.

GMC outfitted our test fleet with Denalis, so we had ample opportunity to try out the Adaptive Ride Control on road surfaces which wouldn't be out of place in the American rust belt. Dips and potholes, especially at the roads' edges, offered little in the way of reprieve (or opportunity for evasion), forcing the Sierra's beefy suspension to absorb the impacts. It performed admirably, though we found ourselves sticking to the drive toggle's "Tour" mode to soften things up at the expense of a little bit engine and transmission responsiveness.

We especially liked the multi-color HUD, which almost rendered the Denali's fancy eight-inch digital cluster display pointless thanks to its many customization options and outright convenience. The real wood trim was a nice too, especially after the decidedly ho-hum treatments found in the Silverado High Country.

At our lunch stop, GMC gave us the chance to take an AT4 model out on a nearby dirt track. There wasn't much to it, as the off-road course GMC's event team had previously scouted ended up being graded into irrelevance by government in the interim, but it gave us the chance to try out the Sierra's brake hold feature (which will keep the truck in place indefinitely on an incline even if you take your foot off the pedal) and Hill Descent Control, albeit briefly. Mostly, it just gave us the chance to snap some pictures of the truck next to trees and grass.

We'll say this for the AT4: Option it with the 6.2L and it sure sounds pretty.

Pros and cons

We discussed this briefly in our Silverado write-up, but it really needs to be expanded on here. "Luxury" pickups are becoming an expectation (rather than a niche entry) in today's expanding truck market, and GMC has been in the game longer than anybody else. Denali is the ultimate expression of aspirational truck purchases, giving the brand an edge that the competition lacks.

There are downsides. If GMC's mere existence keeps a lid on Chevy's up-market intentions, then Denali is a concrete block placed on top of that lid. Chevy's answer to every question about its limited dalliance into the high-end truck market can't simply be "that's what GMC is for," if for no other reason than the simple fact that GM doesn't like its brands punting to each other.

On the flip side, though, GMC has reigned supreme as America's upmarket truck builder for decades, and in the current climate, it just about prints money. While the brand expands downward into smaller SUV and crossover niches, its high-end (anchored by Sierra, Sierra HD and Yukon Denali) is as solid as ever.

The most expensive Denali we drove in Newfoundland was only $2,000 more dear than the Silverado High Country we drove in Wyoming, but the price is only part of the story. GMC's pitch is as much about image as anything else. It's about projection more than it is about comfort, which is why GMC has doubled down so aggressively on the "Pro" business.

To put it another way, GMC exists to not be "Chevy," with emphasis on the "y." Even compared to the full and proper "Chevrolet," GMC as a brand is intended to be less folksy, more refined, and equally capable. The Sierra embodies that to a T.

MG's bottom line

The 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 carries on the tradition of being a little more truck for a little more money without sacrificing the capability which gave it credibility to begin with. In a world where every pickup brand is scrambling to push its range-topping trims closer to triple-digit territory, GMC soldiers on with the quiet dignity of a brand that has been down this road before.

2019 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Crew Cab base price, $58,000; as tested, $67,595

Denali Ultimate package, $5,210 (incl. $500 discount); 6.2L Ecotec3 V8, $2,495; Pacific Blue Metallic paint, $395; Destination, $1,495

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd; interior photos courtesy of GMC.

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