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First Drive: 2017 GMC Sierra HD Denali
Photos courtesy General Motors.

First Drive: 2017 GMC Sierra HD Denali

Telluride, CO- If the picturesque, adventurous ski town of Telluride had an official truck, it would be the GMC Sierra HD Denali. The immaculate old mining town is unintimidating in its beauty, but is laden with properties owned by some of the wealthiest individuals on the planet. Nestled at 9,000 feet above sea level with some killer slopes, it’s a town that requires brute on four-wheels both to navigate winter and to tow all the toys for which Telluride is tailored. Which is exactly why the Sierra HD Denali seems so at home there.

Easily hitting $70,000, the Sierra HD Denali is, by every description, a luxury vehicle. So naturally, a luxury ski village is the perfect place for this truck. But the oddity with Denali is one shared with Telluride; both lack the gold-plated gaudiness; the snob stigma that is a pinnacle and pitfall, depending on who you ask. Both the truck and the town also share another attribute: they’ve steadily evolved over time to what they are now.

In Sierra’s case, the last major evolution of the HD version happened back in 2015. At the time, it switched to GM’s K2XX platform, which greatly increased strength and rigidity over the old GMT-900 version. There were also modifications to the optional 6.6-liter Duramax diesel, but it was largely carryover from 2011. For 2017, GMC has slotted in an all-new diesel engine and provided significant improvements in overall integration on the truck.

As for Telluride, well, the lack of consistent cellular coverage vindicates they’re still evolving too.

Sierra HD’s evolution is a little more substantial than meets the eye. At first glance it looks the same inside and out and the diesel displacement is still a double-six. So, what exactly is evolved here?

Well, the Duramax is more than evolved; it’s actually all-new. The bore and stroke are really the only carryover credentials from the previous version, lending to the carryover displacement. Everything from the block, cylinders and turbocharger are all-new parts that yield power increases across the board and an overall better behaving truck.

The primary motivator behind the Duramax remodel is emissions. GM has known for some time now that the Duramax would need reengineered to meet strict new emissions standards, but the situation created an opportunity for them to enhance the power output of the engine, so the 2017 version has 445 horsepower and 910 pound-feet of torque along with an EPA-satisfied emissions system.

Despite the power increase, GMC has left the towing capabilities status quo from the 2016 model, with a max rating of 23,100 pounds. GMC says that its truck covers about 80-percent of the HD truck ownership with that rating and it is happy with that much of the pie. The stance is signaling that GM is stepping away from the manhood measuring contest that trailer ratings have become in recent years between the Detroit OEMs.

Nonetheless, GMC is right that most buyers are not going to exceed 23,100 pounds, especially in Telluride where the rare fifth-wheel RV is about as heavy of a toy as typically seen. Though bowing out of the max trailer weight showmanship may turn some buyers to competitors under the assumption they’re more capable, but that’s likely not correct.

Towing about 5,000 pounds of Polaris ATVs along the 75-mile journey from Telluride to Paradox proved GM’s talking point about improving the truck’s behavior within its existing trailering abilities.

Even at 9,000 feet elevation, the new Duramax had little problem lugging around the trailer full of ATVs. Part of the Duramax upgrade includes a new ram air-like system with a functional hood scoop. This scoop is sending about 60 percent of the Duramax’s airflow, which assists in compensating for the lack of air at high elevations.

All along the path to Paradox, the overall theme that continuously presented itself was ‘smooth.’ The new Duramax power band is flatter and smoother, devoid of the jerkiness of the outgoing engine. Turbo lag is also far less noticeable, especially for a big diesel. The no-fuss attitude from the new engine makes trailering much easier and more predictable.

The trip included over 4,000 feet of downward elevation, which served as a great opportunity to test just how integrated the Sierra HD is when it comes to trailering. At the core is a new GM engineered control system on the engine (versus the former, which was shared with Isuzu). Bringing this in-house has allowed GM engineers to better incorporate the engine with the rest of the truck, which already had GM control systems.

For example, when heading down a near eight-percent grade with the ATVs in tow, the Sierra leveraged the exhaust brake and hill descent control map of the transmission in unison. Literally, software has allowed the Sierra to act like a well orchestrated symphony.

While engaged, the exhaust brake works without guidance from the driver. While the transmission will hold a gear until the driver taps the break while on a descent, then the transmission will downshift a gear and hold or reduce the current speed. Over the 75-mile trip the brakes were barely used, which is always a plus when trailering.

Also aiding in trailer control is a new-for-2017 camera system available on the Sierra HD. The dealer-installed option adds a camera on the bottom of each exterior mirror and on top of the cab to keep a better eye on trailers.

Basically every time the turn signal is turned on, the camera on that side of the truck engages and displays on the touchscreen in the dash. It’s a nice check-and-balance to ensure you’re turning wide enough to get through and, in our case, gave some close-up views of the canyons surrounding the Paradox region.

Aside from the camera system, most of the Sierra HD technology is carryover from the 2016 model. All versions offer niceties that come in handy in Telluride, such as a heated steering wheel and 4G LTE WiFi, which has a much-appreciated stronger signal than a smartphone. Denali ups the luxury factor with nicer interior trims and, of course, more chrome.

That said, Sierra is missing some features that the competition is offering. Things like adaptive cruise control, heated rear seats and a 360-degree camera are features offered by the all-new Ford Super Duty that are still lost on the GMC order sheet.

GM trucks are often described as the gentlemen of the industry. They’re typically not on the cutting-edge with new, unproven gadgets or chasing the vanity capability statistics. That’s really the case with the 2017 Sierra HD. It’s not on the bleeding edge of the HD truck market, but it’s probably going to go down as the best within the bandwidth of its capabilities. The notoriously quiet, well-mannered HD truck is now even more refined.

The town of Telluride isn’t the most advanced in society either, but its class and well-defined mission make it appealing to many, a parallel that can clearly be drawn with this 2017 Sierra HD.


About Nick Saporito

AutoVerdict Senior Editor Nick Saporito began writing about cars at age 13. Nick ran a couple of automotive enthusiast sites for several years, before taking some time off to focus on his career and education. By day he's a marketing executive in the telecom world and by night he hangs out here at AV. You'll find him focusing on tech, design and the industry's future.
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  1. nsaporito
    I am planning to pick up a 17 Silverado HD at some point this year, but I agree about the lack of rear heated seats being a silly exclusion as well as adaptive cruise. I am excited about the new diesel. That was a long overdue upgrade.

    The new D-Max is great, but yes, the lack of options is just dumb at this point. It's not hard to add heated rear seats.
    I am planning to pick up a 17 Silverado HD at some point this year, but I agree about the lack of rear heated seats being a silly exclusion as well as adaptive cruise. I am excited about the new diesel. That was a long overdue upgrade.
    Need a new Super Duty vs GM twins HD's review sooner or later.
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