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First Drive: 2011 Chevy Silverado HD & GMC Sierra HD

Chevy Driver Side Front View
Drew Hardin
| Contributor
Posted November 1, 2010
Photographers: Courtesy of GM

General Motors Raises The Work Truck Bar Again

Early in the trip back from the media preview of GM's new heavy-duty pickup trucks, I found myself comfortably seated in a leather chair checking email on my laptop. Not from an airport lounge, but in the back seat of a Wi-Fi-equipped Sierra Denali HD as it rolled down I-70 toward the Baltimore airport.

It wasn't all that long ago when a heavy-duty work truck was just a four-wheeled tool, all grunt and purpose, fitted with nothing more than what was necessary to get the job done. If your tool's powertrain was diesel, you put up with a noisy, smelly, smoky engine in exchange for the torque and longevity it delivered. Those days are gone. We sampled just about every powertrain and cab configuration GM has to offer in its '11 3/4- and 1-ton pickup trucks, and the only one that even came close to that old work truck stereotype was, well, a 1-ton chassis-cab Work Truck model with rubber floor mats and crank windows. Yet even that was a comfortable, quiet rig to drive, with just a hint of the rough ride that characterized unloaded 1-tons not so long ago.

GM isn't alone in this trend of gentrification. All of the Detroit Three have engineered heavy-duty trucks with plush amenities and improved ride quality, then mated them to smooth and efficient drivetrains that deliver remarkable power. (Peak torque from the new Duramax is 765 lb-ft; Ford's new Power Stroke isn't far behind at 735.) None of these work trucks is a penalty box anymore. But GM has inched the bar just that much higher than Ford or Dodge-sorry, Ram-to claim "best in class" in the measures that matter.

Like that Duramax torque spec, the GM diesel's horsepower is tops too: 397 versus 390 from the Power Stroke and 350 from the Ram's Cummins. GM's max conventional (2WD) tow rating of 17,000 pounds beats Ford's 16,000 and Ram's 12,000. Likewise the Silverado/Sierra's (2WD) fifth-wheel tow rating and payload, in both 3500 and 2500 versions, are all better than the competition.

We're planning a three-way HD truck shootout, similar to the one we did back in May '08, to see if GM's HD pickup truly is better than the rest in a head-to-head, 4WD-oriented comparison. For now, though, let's run down the key elements of the General's newest heavy-duties.

Although the Chevys and GMCs have fresh looks on the outside, the real news is beneath the skin. The HDs now ride on fully boxed frames that are five times stiffer torsionally than previous versions. Front axle weight ratings have gone up by 25 percent, so all 4x4 versions can accommodate snow plows. GM has developed five torsion bar rates to support the different front axle weight ratings, rather than relying on one bar as was done before. In back, the leaf springs are asymmetrical-the front and rear halves aren't the same length-to improve traction and decrease axle hop. The brakes are bigger all around, but so are the bolt circles, meaning '10 and earlier wheels won't fit these trucks and vice versa.

During our preview in western Maryland we drove 2500 and 3500 pickups loaded and unloaded, and the ride quality was excellent across the board. Granted, the roads were pretty smooth in this part of the state, and we were never off the pavement. Even so, the trucks' ride and handling rivaled that of their light-duty brothers. You could easily drive one of these trucks cross-country without a bit of harsh-ride fatigue.

And then there's the power. GM brought several trailers to the preview so we could test the new Duramax's capability, and when we towed a 9,000-pound travel trailer, our 2500 4x4 handled the load without breaking a sweat, and without a bit of combustion rattle or black exhaust smoke.

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