Thumbs Up: It’ll tow 13,000 pounds and haul five adults comfortably
Thumbs Down: Too big for everyday driving, especially in the city
Buy This Truck If: You’re a GMC guy and you need the biggest, baddest non-dualie truck they make.
If you’re a car guy, and I mean really, truly a car guy, then sooner or later you’ll need to tow something big and heavy. Maybe it’s a flatbed trailer with a once-in-a-lifetime barn find, or maybe it’s an enclosed trailer to haul your race car and tools. Whatever the purpose, you’re going to need a real truck to tow things with, because a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds just won’t cut it if you’re hauling a ’69 Camaro on a flatbed trailer across the Rocky Mountains. In a case like that, you want something with serious grunt and reasonable fuel economy. If you’re taking a few buddies on the trip, you want something with enough interior room for passengers and cargo. In short, you want a heavy duty, diesel powered, crew cab pickup.
The Detroit big 3 all build them, and I’m not the guy to give you the merits of one over another. Besides, facts don’t necessarily matter to truck guys: GM guys buy GMC or Chevy trucks, blue oval guys buy Ford trucks and Mopar guys buy Dodge trucks, and there isn’t much you can do to sway a loyalist to another brand. No one builds a bad product, so it comes down to this: which manufacturer do you trust the most?
The 2011 Sierra 3500HD is all new under the skin, sporting a stiffer frame, an updated suspension and a brand new 6.6 liter V8 Duramax turbo diesel option mated to a heavy duty Allison six speed transmission. The new motor not only gives you 105 ft lb more torque than last year’s turbo diesel, it also returns 11% better fuel economy. Let me just say that if you’re even remotely considering a heavy duty truck, then you want to check the option box next to the diesel motor option. Why? Because in the case of the new GMC 3500, this gives you 765 ft lb of torque while returning reasonable fuel economy. In fact, I saw an actual 13.7 mpg in my mix of city and highway driving.
Outside, GMC chose not to make any significant changes to the 3500s styling. The grille is revised, and the hood now features a louvered insert. A high-end Denali version joins the lineup, aimed primarily at those who tow full sized fifth wheel travel trailers and want the same amenities you’d find in a luxury automobile. Unlike sedans and coupes, heavy duty pickups aren’t purchased based on their looks; still, the styling on the GMC 3500 is decided middle of the road. It’s a truck, but it doesn’t scream that to your neighbors.
Climb on up into the cab (and yes, the running boards are required), and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how roomy the crew cab really is. The front armrest and storage bins fold to create a third front row seat, and the rear seats will easily accommodate three full sized adults. The center armrest features upper and lower storage bins, and the broad top surface gives the driver a reasonable approximation of a table. You can tell that the truck was designed with work in mind, even if the higher trim levels do make concessions to occupant comfort. The SLE trim level gives you cloth seats, but that’s not a bad thing since they’re comfortable and look good. The seat bottoms were a little too soft for my liking, but I wouldn’t see this as a problem unless you spent a lot of time behind the wheel every single day. Seat bolstering was good enough, since no one will be inclined to throw a 6,500 pound truck around in corners. My tester also came equipped with adjustable pedals, but unfortunately I couldn’t find a comfortable position. As on the Cadillac SRX I tested recently, the brake pedal is offset from the gas by a rather substantial distance. I know this is to avoid “driver confusion” between gas and brake, but it also lengthens the stopping distance for those of us who know how to drive, and that’s not a good thing. I don’t know what the correct answer is from a manufacturer’s liability point of view, but from a driver’s perspective the new setup isn’t comfortable in the least.
Behind the wheel, controls will be familiar to anyone who drives another GM product. The dual zone climate control is icon based and simple to understand, as are the controls for the audio system. The four spoke steering wheel gives the driver controls for phone, audio and cruise control, and the buttons are large enough to work with gloves on. My 4wd tester had shift on the fly four wheel drive (4wd High, of course), controlled by a dial selector to the right of the steering wheel. A manual transmission mode allows the driver to select gears based upon terrain and load, and turbo diesel equipped trucks also include an exhaust brake to reduce brake fade and wear on steep descents.
Instruments are clear and easy to read, and my SLE tester came with an oil pressure gauge, fuel gauge, tachometer (with an inset driver information center), speedometer (with an inset gear indicator), voltage gauge and temperature gauge. I’ve praised GM’s driver information display in the past, but I’ll do it again: it gives you easy to access menus and provides you with the information you’re likely to need on a trip. It’s not fancy, but it’s functional and very easy to use.
Turn the key, and the Duramax turbo diesel comes to life with none of the drama associated with diesels of the past. It’s a lot cleaner than diesels of years ago, too: in fact, I never noticed smoke, even under heavy acceleration. Then again, I didn’t have the opportunity to tow or haul anything during my time behind the wheel, so the motor may act a bit differently under heavy load. Acceleration is reasonable for a truck weighing in at over three and a quarter tons, and published zero to sixty times are in the eight second range. I think my biggest surprise was the turning radius: I wouldn’t call the truck “nimble”, but it did offer better directional control tan any similar sized truck I’ve ever driven. Steering feel was quite good as well, and it never felt over-boosted or had too much play in the wheel. Ride comfort was about what you’d expect from a full size, heavy duty pickup. It was never uncomfortable, but you do know when you hit a bump or cross a set of railroad tracks. I’d actually give praise to GM for making a heavy duty pickup that was reasonably comfortable for occupants yet still as capable as the 3500.
My 2011 Sierra 3500 4wd Crew SLE had a base price of $41,480 including destination charge. Options on my tester included the $860 Convenience Package (Power Adjustable Pedals, Universal Home Remote, Remote Vehicle Starter, Rear Parking Assist, Rear Window Defroster), the $980 SLE Preferred Package (Steering Wheel Controls, Dual Zone Auto Climate Control, 6 Way Power Driver’s Seat, Bluetooth Phone Integration, USB Port Audio In, Fog Lamps, Locking Tailgate, EZ Lift Tailgate), the $7,195 Duramax Turbo Diesel Motor, the $1,200 Allison 6 Speed Automatic Transmission, the $689 Chrome Running Boards, the $455 Integrated Trailer Brake Controller, the $450 Rear Vision Camera System and the $150 Skid Plate Package. Total sticker price came to $53,459, which makes a truck like the 3500HD a fairly substantial investment. By comparison, a comparably equipped Ford F350 would sticker for $52,915 and a comparably equipped Dodge Ram 3500 would sticker for $52,840. Like I said earlier, you buy a heavy duty pickup based on brand loyalty and not on price or styling.
I don’t see a heavy duty pickup in my future, simply because I don’t have the need for one on a regular basis. There are plenty of drivers who opt for a full size pickup as a daily ride, but that’s not for me. They take up too much room, use too much fuel and just aren’t that entertaining to drive. When I do hit the Megamillion lottery, I’ll need a tow vehicle for the race car and trailer, and that’s when I’ll be in the market for a heavy duty diesel pickup. The GMC would currently be atop my list.