We get serious about trailering in the new 2020 GMC Sierra and Sierra HD

Photos by GMC and Glenn Oyoung

As a child of the 80’s one of my favorite movies growing up was Smokey and the Bandit. What’s not to love — sweet Trans-Am, Burt Reynolds as the affable Bandit, Jackie Gleason as the cartoonish Sherriff Buford T. Justice giving chase across state lines. Sports car, police car, big rig: that’s the holy trinity of ingredients needed for the quintessential car movie.

With that in mind, you’ll understand that when I got the e-mail from GMC inviting me to experience their new 2020 Sierra Light Duty and Sierra HD (as in heavy duty) trucks by off-roading and towing in Wyoming I was immediately brought back to memories of Smokey and Snowman bantering on the CB.

2020 GMC Sierra AT4

The extremely hummable theme song “East Bound and Down” notwithstanding, make no mistake, the light and heavy-duty pick-up truck business is a very serious and very profitable business. Therefore, OEMs are cranking out trucks of all sizes, drivetrains, and power plants for every need, lifestyle, and taste. We’re in a Golden Era of trucking and we lucky consumers are spoiled with trucks as fast as yesteryear’s head-turning sportscars and as comfortable as today’s finest European luxobarges.

With over 12 million Silverados and Sierras sold and counting, General Motors knows a thing or two about trucks. The Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra are “an integral part of a $65 billion truck business.” For those keeping score, that’s almost half of the GM’s annual revenues. While the stakes have never been higher in the truck business, GM and its GMC division are doing more than ever to expand their consumer base.

What’s in a Name: Sierra vs. Silverado and a quick GMC brand overview

The Silverado and Sierra are corporate cousins that have been virtually indistinguishable to all but the most hardcore truck enthusiasts up until the present generation. In fact, if you type in “GMC Sierra Chevy…” in Google the autocomplete features pulls up “…GMC Sierra vs. Chevy Silverado differences” and iterations of that. Anyone trying to explain “badge engineering” could count on Silverado/Sierra as exhibit A for the last few decades.

That is less and less the case. The fourth generation that debuted for the 2010 model year marked the first time where the cousins didn’t need a microscope to tell the difference. While the chassis and powertrain are still identical, there are more points of differentiation between the Sierra and Silverado that provide more choices for end-consumers like you and me.

GMC positions itself as the premium truck and SUV brand, as compared to Chevrolet which will target everything from work trucks to fully-loaded off-road trucks for younger (we can assume) buyers. Denali remains the GMC sub-brand targeted at well-heeled, self-made guys who like to tow big, heavy toys. Today one in three GMCs sold are Denali. The Denali sub-brand ranks just under Mercedes for average transaction price (a whopping $54k).

2020 GMC Sierra AT4

New for GMC, the AT4 sub-brand is billed as the “pioneer of premium off-road.” Think TRD Pro, in a coat and tie. According to GMC’s internal studies, the Sierra AT4 buyer is still affluent and active, but about 8 years younger. These buyers like the more understated look and feel of GMC overall, but could do without all the chrome.

A side-by-side comparison of AT4 vs. Denali is a study in customer segmentation. Carl Zipfel, design manager at GMC Brand Studio gave us an in-depth walkaround on the things that make AT4 unique. One of the most interesting things coming out of focus groups was consumers’ desire for something that eschewed the bejeweled look of Denali for a look that was more rugged. At the same time those consumers didn’t want “a bro truck.”

(Note: For a quick primer on “bro” trucks think of the last time you went to Ralph’s and saw a lifted fill-in-the-black truck with a $10,000 suspension, lights everywhere, a winch, and 26” wheels. Yeah, that’s very, very bro.)

The counter according to GMC would be something capable but that you could still take to the country club. While that may sound cliché, as a guy approaching peak #dadbod status with a side of daily lower back pain I totally get it and AT4 works for me.

Sierra AT4 Driving Impressions

If you’re Apple, there are two requirements for debuting a new product: an auditorium and a black mock turtleneck. If you’re GMC and you’re showing off a new off-road trim on your latest and greatest Sierra, you need an off-road course with rocks, muds, and logs. Oh, and throw in the Grand Tetons in the backdrop for good measure.

2020 GMC Sierra AT4

AT4-Wheelin’

The off-road course that GMC’s team commissioned certainly highlighted the AT4’s capabilities, starting with a rock climb with approach and departure angles out of Top Gun. The Sierra AT4’s off-road armament includes 4WD with a two-speed transfer case, rear lockers, and a 2-inch factory-installed lift. The AT4 stormed the hill like it was a parking garage ramp and before I knew it I was facing what felt like straight down. Hill descent control made it as easy as pressing a button and letting the truck do its thing.

2020 GMC Sierra AT4

Over the bumps, through the mud, and on the adjacent trail the AT4 was ridiculously comfortable thanks in no small part to its off-road-tuned Rancho monotube shocks. Whoever set up the dampening rates deserves a Nobel prize in wheeling. I expected the AT4 to be a capable off-roader, I just didn’t expect it to be so damn comfortable in flagrante.

2020 GMC Sierra AT4

Commence Towing!

Lest you think the Sierra is just a wannabe trophy truck, it can serve its truck duties – namely, haul and tow. To prove this point, the folks at GMC loaded up a Sierra HD AT4 with thousands of pounds worth of logs, patted us on our backs, and sent us traversing the peaks and valleys around Jackson Hole. Even loaded down with enough lumber to construct a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home, the HD AT4 had plenty of pep.

I wasn’t flown in to Wyoming to haul logs though, regardless how heavy. Trailering was the name of the game and next up I got the chance to put the Sierra HD to the test. GMC touts its Prograde Trailering suite of trailering functionality and tools as “the most comprehensive,” and after several days at the wheel of various Sierra-powered freight trains I’m apt to believe them.

I jumped into a Sierra hitched up to a cargo trailer loaded up with concrete k-rails, and headed out to the mountain passes. My previous towing experience was limited to pulling cars to the track in an open trailer, so I was very cautious on the first few legs. Loading up with thousands of pounds of cargo wasn’t quite as carefree as playing Smokey and the Bandit with Tonka trucks. My trepidation quickly gave way to confidence thanks to the Sierra’s towing ability and the host of driver assistance measures.

Watch Out Wonder Woman: The Invisible Trailer 

It turns out that GMC’s Prograde Trailering tools can take you from JV-grade to first round draft pick pretty quickly. The biggest confidence-booster was the incredible visibility that the new Sierra features, thanks to a class-leading 15 camera views. I was able to see around, behind, inside and — thanks to the “Transparent Trailer” view, through — the trailer. The last two views require auxiliary cameras. In my book they are totally worth it to see how your beloved cargo is doing (think horses, racecars, gold bullion) inside and to spot any potential issues (think impatient drivers with poor judgement) behind you.

2020 GMC Sierra Available Transparent Trailer Rear Camera View

Visibility is just the tip of the trailering confidence spear. GM’s engineers meticulously dissected the towing experience to understand how to make it safer and easier for its customers. Hitch Guidance and Auto Electric Parking Brake Assist reduce marital strife by making it easier to get hitched (see what I did there) in one take.

2019 GMC Sierra Denali ProGrade Trailering System

Trailering? There’s an App for That

GMC is so serious about trailering that they developed a mobile app that integrates with the Sierra’s center stack. You can access a pre-departure checklist, maintenance reminders, trailer diagnostics (i.e. electrical system, tire pressure, temperatures). The cumbersome light test is also something addressed by the trailering app, no-doubt another great win for familial harmony.

GM worked with two leading industry trade groups, the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association to bring greater integration between the truck and trailer. Sierra owners will be able to customize and save individual trailer settings from their app and from the driver’s seat.

The Heartbeat of Towing

All the tools and cameras in the world are for naught if you don’t have the power to get rolling. The HD’s 6.6L Duramax V-8 diesel is the star of the show in this department. It pumps out 445 horsepower and a whopping 910 lb.-ft. of torque and is mated to an Allison 10-speed automatic transmission. The Sierra HD also has a segment-exclusive factory-installed fan to help the diesel chemical factory cool down after ignition shutoff. Customers can also opt for a 6.6L gasoline V-8 with a 6-speed automatic transmission that’s good for 401 horsepower and 464 lb.-ft. of torque.

2020 GMC Sierra Denali

As I lived out my big rig fantasies over the winding road tracking the Snake River, the Duramax diesel provided plenty of pep from a full stop and throughout elevation changes. Speaking of which, climbing involves descending and when you’re towing up to 9,400 pounds (on the AT4 with Max Trailering package) stopping is not something you take for granted. The combination of the Sierra’s brakes, the Integrated Trailer Brake Controller, and engine’s Diesel Exhaust Brake kept things copacetic.

Fifth-wheelin’

 Just as I was feeling like shopping for cool hats to go with my new career as a long-haul trucker, I was hit with another shiny serving of instant humility in the crisp Wyoming morning air.  This time it was in the form of the all-new Sierra HD dually hitched up to a 39-foot Keystone Fuzion toy-hauler.

Thankfully, both the Sierra and Sierra HD come equipped with all the slick trailering tech and power on tap to help even novice haulers like me take on a ridiculous payload in comfort and style. How ridiculous? In the case of the HD try 35,500 pounds, a 52% increase over the outgoing Sierra. There are a myriad of ways to configure your Sierra HD – regular, double, crew cab; ¾-ton (2500) or one-ton (3500); single or dual rear wheels, hitch or fifth-wheel. If you’re towing a lot just remember this: all Sierra HD duallies with diesel engines can tow more than 30,000 pounds.

Tim Herrick, GM’s Executive Chief Engineer, was on hand to share the many changes that made this leap forward in towing capabilities possible over the preceding generation. The 2020 Sierra HD is bigger, stronger, and yet more comfortable than its predecessor thanks to re-engineering of the chassis, frame, and drivetrain.

Luxury and Innovation

Whether you’re in the Sierra or Sierra HD, consider towing a breeze. With the capability aspect covered – does GMC deliver on the luxury promise? I found all the Sierra variants to be as spacious as a C-level suite, and replete with all the creature comforts you’d expect for $50 (Sierra AT4) to $70 (Sierra HD Denali) large.

2020 GMC Sierra AT4

I experienced the range-topping Denali trim on the Sierra HD. Highlights include an 8” GMC Infotainment system, a segment-first multi-color HUD (super helpful while towing), and a heated and ventilated leather seating that made me want to kick-back and let my co-pilot do the driving.

2020 GMC Sierra AT4

MultiPro Tailgate

Both the Sierra and Sierra HD offer the coolest innovation I can recall in the truck world since GM added the corner step to the Silverado – the MultiPro tailgate. It’s two tailgates in one and it can act as a bed extender/load stop, a step, a work surface, and more. I added bar to the mix, and if you think I’m joking you don’t know about the optional Kicker Audio sound system you can install. It’s the Swiss Army Knife of tailgates and whoever thought of this at GM deserves a gold-plated Sierra HD Denali.

2020 GMC Sierra AT4

Pictures don’t do it justice. If you think I’m just exercising in dishing out hyperbole about innovation, check out this video from GMC. Prepare for jaw drop in 3…2…1!

CarbonPro 

In addition to the tailgate, GM pointed their brightest minds at the truck bed itself. The result – CarbonPro. Made from carbon fiber composite, the material withstands a serious beating — including multiple walks with a baseball bat and even a thrown cinderblock — witnessed by yours truly. In addition to toughness, CarbonPro beds maximize volume by reducing empty airspace between the bed and the truck’s exterior body panels. The option will be available on Sierra 1500 Denali and AT4 editions.

2019 GMC Sierra Denali CarbonPro Edition

2020 GMC Sierra Denali CarbonPro Edition

If there is one minor nit I have about the Denali, it’s the interior surface materials. It’s not that they are not good, they are great. That being said, the arms race in the truck space is in full effect. Competitors like Ram are sparing no expense to coddle the well-heeled truck buyer in the softest leather and dazzle them with upscale trim pieces.

That’s a 10-99, Good Buddy

10-99 as in mission complete, not 1099 as in Uber and Lyft are so screwed in California. I landed in Jackson Hole at the most beautiful airport on Earth a trailering novice. I left more confident in my towing abilities which is quite a feat considering the short trip and the huge things we were pulling. Thanks to Delta, I had an extra eight hours at the airport to reflect on my trip and I came away with these insights:

  1. Trailering doesn’t have to be scary, if you have enough power and tech on your side.
  2. Trucks do not, by definition, have to get 12 mpg (like mine) or look like assault vehicles to be capable.
  3. If I was picking between a Silverado and Sierra, I now have more reasons than ever to consider Sierra. Namely I’m older, less flashy, and I like to be comfy.

Recently I’ve been considering picking up an econobox beater to make my regular commute to DTLA less wallet-crushing. This visit changed that trajectory completely. I find myself thinking about the 3.0L diesel inline-six that’s now offered in the Sierra light duty. 33 MPG highway/23 MPG city in a super comfy truck sounds pretty darn sellable to the Chief Family Officer. Throw in a campfire with smores, an RV loaded up with toys, and tunes blazing from a MultiPro tailgate – what more could you want in a truck? Throw in a CB radio and a Stetson and I’m in.