Even with the assistance of all manner of modern media and mechanicals — a tailgate camera with integrated backup path indicator, side-view mirrors with integrated fisheye perception, proximity sensors with integration into the vehicle’s far-flung front and rear — we could not get the $52,000 2014 GMC Sierra pickup truck’s trailer-hitch ball to align with a $75,000 23-foot Airstream’s coupler socket on our initial try.
Or our second. Or third.
In fact, despite the presence of all these advanced mating assistants, we eventually had to resort to the resolutely old-fashioned "Monback" method: “To the left!” “C'mon back.” The presence of a power-operated sliding rear window helped us to hear our brave volunteer, who crouched, invisible, behind the towering tailgate. The presence of an industry-leading defroster integrated into said window, not so much.
And this was our experience again and again in our two days towing, and not towing, nearly three tons of retro-styled aluminum camper through Southern California with nearly three tons of brand new domestic pickup. The GMC Sierra does, and includes, everything one would expect of a contemporary luxury truck. (Yes, that is now a thing.) It just happens to accomplish it in a familiar fashion.
This is not a bad thing. Or a criticism. It is simply a statement of subjective experiential truth. Where category sales-leader Ford has attempted to differentiate itself within the (massive) two-million unit pickup truck market with the sophisticated whistle of its twin-turbocharged EcoBoost, and category bronze medalist Ram has attempted to differentiate itself from the same cavalcade with its coil springs and Jaguar-emulating leather and chrome interiors, GMC has seemingly decided to double down on continuing to do precisely what they’ve been doing for the past 111 years: building slightly more swanky and well-equipped versions of Chevrolet’s truck.
This schtick has been quite effective. Last year, GMC — which sells only trucks — was the 11th largest automotive brand by volume in the United States, and the number two General Motors brand after Chevy, with sales of nearly 415,000 vehicles. For perspective, that’s as many total vehicles as were sold here last year by BMW and Audi, combined.
What makes the brand effective is refinement. Not simply refinement as in well mannered, though the truck is indeed that. In fact, in regular operation, even in highway-merging kick-down mode, the 355 hp/383 lb.-ft 5.3 liter V-8 in the blue double-cab 4x4 ZL1 we sampled was about as noisy as taupe wall-to-wall. (We doubt the 285 hp/305 lb.-ft. 4.3 liter V6 or the 420 hp/450 lb. ft. 6.2 liter V-8 behaved much different, but we didn’t have an opportunity to put them to the test). And for a vehicle that extends a full twenty feet between its bumpers, it has about as much rebound as Manute Bol (before he died — obviously, he now has league-leadership in non-rebounds.)
All that smooth urbanity arrives without even mentioning the trucks ability to vibrate your butt with a version of Cadillac’s seat-mounted Land Departure Warning system, or its ability to save your butt with its camera-enabled Forward Collision Warning system, or its ability to cosset your butt with perforated, heated, and cooled leather seating surfaces. Though it also arrives without mentioning the cheapish fake chrome gauge surrounds, the cheapish real brushed-aluminum steering wheel and infotainment trim, and the downright odd, though nicely grained, French-stitched synthetic that covered the dash and looked like something out of which an ogre might craft an ideal tunic to wear to his son’s gay wedding.
No, the kind of refinement we’re really referring to is the kind of glacial change for which GM has long been known: taking an idea — the family sedan, the small-block V-8, the Cavalier — and evolving it, slowly but consistently. The new Sierra thus has everything you would want from a contemporary truck, but nothing that you wouldn’t expect.
To wit, GM’s combination of direct injection, variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation allows the V-8 engine in the truck we tested to beat Ford’s EcoBoost-ed V6 4x4 in EPA mileage ratings — though just barely: 16/22 city/highway mpg vs. 15/21 for the Blue Oval. Certainly, this is a win. But which solution makes its brand sound more sophisticated and adventurous? Likewise with Chrysler’s integration of diesel power and eight speed transmissions, in contrast to the General’s gassers and six-speeds bearing the HydraMatic name Oldsmobile coined when FDR was in office.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the truck’s exterior design. As the loyal owner of a 1972 GMC Suburban, we are clearly not opposed to resolute rectilinearity. And we think the Sierra looks clean and handsome and purposeful and unpretentious, like an Eichler house in Northern California, or David Beckham in his boxers. But despite the projector beam eyeballs in the ‘14’s flinty face, this truck looks about as different from its progenitor as this year’s harvest of French Cabernet Sauvignon grapes do from those gathered in 2013. Or 1613.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a quest to be different and disruptive, auto manufacturers often forget that many people — by no means all, perhaps not even a majority — use vehicles like this for work. Truck sales track solidly with new home starts and new office construction. Perhaps GM’s gamble in playing it safe, while playing it forward, grows from the idea that people will purchase these trucks not to showcase their style or sophistication, but simply to do their jobs. Which, when you think about it, is what trucks are meant to do.