2012 GMC Sierra 3500HD Road Test Review

Trevor Hofmann - CAP staff
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Need to tow something big? A fifth-wheel camp trailer? Horse trailer? House? Well, maybe not a house. You might want to beg, borrow or, no, don't steal an old GMC Topkick to do that, although with a max towing capacity of 10,432 kg (23,000 lbs) you could probably slowly tug along a smaller home with my Sierra 3500HD thanks to its 6.6-litre Duramax turbo-diesel. That engine puts out 397-horsepower at 3,000 rpm and a jaw-dropping 765 lb-ft of torque from just 1,600 rpm, easily capable of big heavy-duty jobs.

Sports and muscle car fans can go on all day about horsepower, and while close to 400 in this Sierra is no laughing matter, torque is the difference maker when push comes to shove, or pull. It's an awesome feeling when merely lifting off of the brake pedal results in a truck the size of the Sierra 3500HD rolling forward without even stepping on the throttle, and that's with a fully-loaded gooseneck trailer in tow! While speed will ramp up on its own, eventually you'll need to dip your toe into it to get up to road and highway speeds, but that initial launch puts the capability of a modern-day diesel-powered pickup truck into perspective.

Truck brands go to great lengths to advertise their torque ratings and pulling power. All you need to do is watch a sporting event targeted at men (I don't think curling qualifies) and you'll be barraged with all the latest tough truck commercials, and in 30 seconds or less you'll learn that the Sierra's seemingly unbeatable torque rating of 765 lb-ft is upstaged by both of its heavy-duty competitors, Ford and Ram, rated at 800 lb-ft apiece. Tow ratings are dependent on other factors, however, so where Ford's F-350 Superduty edges out the Sierra 3500 HD's maximum 10,432-kilo (23,000-lb) rating by 635 kilograms (1,400 lbs), the Sierra manages to out-tow the Ram 3500 by 113 kg (250 lbs). That's all good, but unless you're actually planning to pull that house down Main Street or your trailer weighs more than the Ram's least capable 10,319 kg (22,750 lbs) rating, your choice of truck will probably be sourced from the same brand your dad drove, and your grandpa did before that.

Loyalties run deep in the truck market, as rigidly allegiant as we are polarized to political parties. Or maybe more so. I grew up with friends who were blindly faithful to a specific brand, and they weren't even old enough to drive. We learn these biases as youth, listening to our fathers bash whatever brand they didn't adhere to. And then we can grow up with the same brand ideologies engrained into our psyches, unless we learn how to think for ourselves. We usually do, for things that truly matter, or at least I like to fool myself into believing that, but let's face it, no matter what the TV ads during the football game tell you, whether you decide to tow your motorhome with a Ram, Ford or GMC, or a Chevy for that matter, it'll likely get the job done just fine. The more important differences between domestic truck brands come down to style, features, and overall driving dynamics.

In my experience, GM trucks are particularly nice to live with whether towing or not. They're often commended for having the best ride quality, something I'd have to agree with in the case of this 3500HD. It's a heavy-duty truck, so don't expect it to glide along like a big Cadillac XTS or handle like an ATS, let alone a GMC Terrain, Acadia or Yukon SUV, but for a truck in its ultra-capable heavy-duty class it's a veritable limousine. The Allison 1000 6-speed automatic makes launching from standstill as smooth as can be, while shifts are only noticeable from engine and exhaust noise. That engine is fairly quiet, all things considering, GMC having subdued it as much as possible with sound deadening materials buffering the clatter in the engine bay from the peace and tranquility in the cab.

How much peace and tranquility you'll experience will be directly related to which trim level you purchase, or your fleet manager was willing to budget for. My tester was a near-top-line SLT, which for all points and purposes looks almost identical inside to the top-tier Denali I drove just minutes before. Some faux woodgrain trim down each side of the centre stack gives way to brushed metallic trim, which I happen to like more. The SLT gets the same upscale dash treatment too, which incidentally is much the same as what you'd get in a Yukon. Lesser models made do with a more utilitarian design constructed of cheaper looking plastics and filled with fewer features. The Sierra lineup consists of the base WT (Work Truck), SLE, SLT and Denali.

Trucks tend to extend their model rotations longer than cars, their buyers less fickle about updates, but minor modifications are common. For instance, GMC added a new chrome grille to my SLT tester this year, also available on the SLE, and it makes it look almost as classy as the Denali. The WT still soldiers on with its matte black grille, but it gets standard cruise control and a spare tire lock, while the 3500HD WT gets a standard set of vertical exterior camper mirrors. Denali buyers will like this model's standard heated and cooled seats, along with its new heated leather-wrapped steering wheel and rearview camera, while 2500HD Denali customers can now opt for an available high-idle switch. The list of changes goes on, including available hard disc drive navigation infotainment with a CD/DVD/MP3 player, satellite radio and USB port. Mine had all that, making my short morning drive all the more pleasant.

By the way, some other SLT highlights include ten-way power-adjustable heated leather bucket seats with driver's side memory, dual-zone automatic climate control, power-folding mirrors with integrated turn signals, an auto-dimming driver's side mirror with tilt-down reverse, an auto-dimming centre mirror, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, plus the premium Bose sound system featuring XM satellite radio and USB connectivity I mentioned a minute ago, as well as a great deal more. Truly, I'm just showing you a short list of highlights, as the standard SLT menu grows from the base Sierra WT, through the SLE that already includes powered windows with driver's auto-down, heated power mirrors, the aforementioned leather-wrapped steering wheel, an auxiliary input for the stereo, carpeting (yes, the WT has black vinyl flooring), etcetera. Options are a plenty, whereas possible cab, chassis and bed configurations are almost as varied.

Pricing begins at $37,490 including destination for the base Sierra 2500 Regular Cab Long Bed 2WD WT, to $64,340 for the 3500 Crew Cab Long Bed 4WD Denali. My 3500 Crew Long Bed 4WD SLT tester started at $58,150 including destination, while the Duramax turbo-diesel added $9,670, and the required Allison transmission another $1,445, plus extras like a set of 17-inch chrome-clad wheels, power tilt and slide glass sunroof, heated and cooled front seats, navigation, rear entertainment, etcetera, could increase the bottom line if wanted.

While I also tested a Denali, the SLT with the Duramax diesel is more than enough truck for me, especially considering the last pickup I owned was a fairly spartan 1982 work truck with a straight six and four-speed manual transmission under the hood and floorboard. It was brilliant for hauling and towing, but of course it couldn't tow anywhere near the Sierra 3500HD's maximum weight, nor its maximum with a conventional hitch, a claimed 8,164 kilos (18,000 lbs). I wouldn't have even dreamed of piling it up with 3,272 kilograms (7,215 lbs) of payload either, but like all things in the modern truck era, a lot is good and more is better.

You'd think with all of this extra power and capacity the 3500HD would be a fuel hog, but the opposite is the case. Running it empty (the bed and hitch, not the fuel tank), it returned a surprisingly efficient 12 L/100km city/highway! I'm sure that would go up if loaded full of cement or having a house in tow, but for day-to-day use you'll probably do better than your neighbour in his SUV. Add to this diesel prices that are normally lower than regular unleaded, and opting for the oil burner seems like a no brainer.

Then again there's a reason GMC offers its 6.0-litre gasoline-powered V8, first and foremost being BIG initial savings. As I mentioned, the Duramax diesel and Allison transmission combo makes for a $11,115 addition to the bottom line, so if you're not planning to drive that much and are ok with a tow rating that maxes out at about 5,900 kilos (13,000 lbs), the base V8's rating of 360-horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 380 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm might just do the job. It's best to do a few calculations with respect to how you'll be using your Sierra and how often, the likely mileage, etc., before plunking down more than $11k just in case you might need to pull something heavy one day.

If you pull heavy loads on a regular basis, though, or put long-haul trucker-like miles on the odometer, my GMC Sierra 3500HD SLT test truck might just be ideal.
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Pickup, GMC, 2012, Sierra 3500HD, $50,000 - $74,999,

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