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2012 Sierra Denali 2500 HD: The dressed-up serious work truck

More power, better economy and luxury upgrades help make the big truck easy to live with
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Denali trim packages dresses up GMC's heavy duty Sierra workhorse.

The week Nissan first began delivering its Leaf cars to their owners, I was test driving a vehicle that would seem to be just about the opposite of the new environmental darling - a 2011 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 Heavy Duty crew cab four-wheel-drive pickup truck.

While the Leaf is all-electric, the turbocharged 6.6-liter Allison diesel engine averages less that 20 miles per gallon. The Sierra is also 50 percent longer than the Leaf and weighs nearly twice as much.

But in these days of growing environmental consciousness, things are not that simple. GMC has reworked the engine since last year to get 11 percent better mileage on the freeway. It also reduced NOx emissions by 63 percent. And it runs on B20 biodiesel without any modification.

Of course, the Leaf and Sierra HD are designed for totally different purposes. Despite all the attention paid to the Leaf's electric drive train, it is essentially a midsize family car designed for commuting, running errands and weekend getaways. In contrast, the Sierra HD is a workhorse built for carrying work crews and heavy equipment to construction sites - which also makes it good for hauling recreational and horse trailers.

The surprising thing is, despite its bulk, the Sierra is not a bad daily driver, even with the additional length of the four-door cab. Yes, corners must be taken wide and parallel parking is a challenge. But the ride is unexpectedly civilized, even when the bed is unloaded. Other heavy-duty trucks I've tested rode far worse without any additional weight. In fact, some expensive sport sedans have ridden harsher over broken pavement.

The diesel engine was also very livable - a marked contrast to those that gained popularity during the Arab Oil Embargo of the mid-1970s. Although you have to wait a few seconds after inserting the key for the glow plugs to warm up, it starts smoothly, doesn't smoke and is hardly any rougher or noisier than a gasoline engine.

Acceleration is also impressive, as should be expected with 397 horsepower and 765 foot pounds of torque on tap. That's an improvement of 32 horsepower and 105 foot pounds of torque over last year's engine, despite the mileage and emission improvements. The six-speed Allison automatic transmission shifts smoothly and downshifts quickly when a burst of speed is required. Popular Mechanics clocked it from zero to 60 miles per hour in 7.7 seconds, which is fast for a car.

The Denali package also made driving the Sierra comfortable. An option only available on crew cab models with standard beds, it includes 12-way power leather front seats, power-adjustable pedals and a killer Bose audio system. The black interior with wood trim in our test vehicle looked sharp. A heated steering wheel and heated and cooled seats are optional.

On the outside, the Denali package includes a four-bar grille with a chrome surround, chrome accents on the doors and door handles, body-color bumpers and new 18-inch and 20-inch polished forged aluminum wheels. Also included is a non-functional but impressive looking power bulge on the hood, just to let everyone know you're driving the 6.6-liter Allison.

The overall impression is a work truck that's also dressed up for a night on the town, much like the Gentleman Jim option package available on select GMC pickups in the 1970s. Those were all two-door models that seated three adults at most. The Denali equipped Sierras are all four-doors that carry five adults, although rear seat leg room is a little limited.

Of course, any number of trucks will carry five adults in comfort these days. The real reason for buying a heavy-duty pickup is its towing capacity. With the diesel engine, the heavy duty Sierra is rated at up to 6,335 pounds of payload capacity. Maximum towing capacity is 20,000 pounds. If you're counting, that's over one-and-a-half and nearly six Leafs respectively.

And just to make things a little easier, the Sierra is also available with an exhaust brake that uses the diesel's high compression to slow the truck down when descending on hills.

I did not have a chance to confirm the Sierra's maximum payload and towing capacities. A weekend run to the dump with several years worth of household debris did not faze it in the slightest, however. The only problem was the envious look on the faces of everyone else there.

• Model: 2011 Denali Sierra Heavy Duty.

• Manufacturer: General Motors Corp.

• Class: Full-size pickup.

• Layout: Front engine, two and four-wheel-drive (as tested).

• Style: Four door, five passenger truck.

• Engines: 6.0-liter Vortec gasoline V8 (360 horsepower, 380 lb-ft torque); 6.6-liter Duramax turbocharged diesel V8 (397 horsepower, 765 lb-ft torque, as tested).

• Transmissions: Six-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 16/21.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $46,000 ($56,000 as tested).