2016 GMC Sierra Denali Review: The Cadillac of Trucks

wheel-to-wheel copy

Sierra Denali
Sierra Denali | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The idea of a luxury, full-sized, rugged pickup has always sounded like one hell of a fat oxymoron. Trucks are supposed to be fire-breathing, unrefined, mud-caked, off-road machines, like the terrific Tundra TRD-PRO we enjoyed so much, not some soft and sexy slice of sovereignty.

Few in their right mind take something so nice and haul lumber around in it before getting it covered in mud and blood while wild boar hunting. But despite our misgivings, the swanky truck market continues to soldier on. To see what the fuss was about, we spent a week with one of the most glamorous of these rigs: the GMC Sierra Denali.

Sierra Crew Cab
Sierra Crew Cab | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

What we have here is a 2016 model with all the toppings and an extra side of sauce. It’s a $60,000, 6.2-liter powered example of American overindulgence and, as predicted, has more tasteful options on it than most drivers will ever need, both mechanically and in the amenity departments.

But the moment I started driving the Denali around town to experience the life of the average retired rancher, I began to realize exactly how good this truck is. It may have been too pretty to take off-road the same way we took the Chevy Silverado last fall, but from an in-town practicality standpoint, it had it all. GMC sits squarely between the Buick and Cadillac brands, but don’t think that its plush nature has jeopardized the GMC bloodline of hard-working trucks.

LED daytime running lights
LED daytime running lights | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet


While the Sierra may be a big, boxy bruiser in Crew Cab trim, its rectangular tubed LED lights, practical integrated exterior touches, and balanced body are just what the doctor ordered. From the automatically deploying side steps and the GM signature corner bumper footholds to the wheel and tire option and centered ride height, this pickup is a brilliantly drawn and well-designed four-door.

GMC LED tail lights
GMC LED tail lights | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ Boxy, bold, and basic, the visual appeal of the Sierra scores points in our book with its LED tubed lighting, bulging creases, skid plate, recessed hood latch tray, and simple attack on soft lines.

+ Practical external touches include a coated bed, corner steps, retracting sideboards, and a ride height that’s just right.

+ The Denali wheel/tire package is big, bold, and really well done, just like the truck’s front fascia.

– No integrated bed rail stow boxes or hidden pockets in the floor, and the deviated crack near the cab means leaves and gunk can collect like crazy and are a bitch to remove.

– While the grille is an attractive design, it’s all chrome, which is equal parts distracting and gaudy.

– No power folding mirrors, keyless entry, or a dual port exhaust. The exhaust tip alone is just a clamped-on tip, and not being a welded feature makes it look like an afterthought.

6.2-liter V8
6.2-liter V8 | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet


While the regular version of the Sierra Denali comes equipped with a sturdy 5.3-liter V8, the version that landed in my lap for a week came equipped with a massive 6.2-liter variant that gave up 420 horsepower and 460 foot-pounds of torque. Designed to tow up to almost 12,000 pounds in 4WD trim, this truck is built to haul more than just ass. With its adjustable drivetrain traction modes, a copious number of trailer towing options, and cylinder deactivation, there’s so much here that truck enthusiasts will appreciate.

Traction modes
Traction modes | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ All 420 horsepower and 460 foot-pounds of torque are good for both fun and work.

+ Cylinder deactivating technology lands this GMC truck a 15/21 mile per gallon rating, which isn’t bad considering its weight and locomotive-like aerodynamics.

+ Multiple traction modes, various trailer towing settings, and an eight speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission that shifts smoothly and efficiently for increased fuel economy.

– You’ve got to baby the throttle if you want to see any sort of meaningful fuel gains.

– No multiple traction modes for sand, snow, mud, etc.

– The 1500 version of this truck can’t be had with a diesel.

Denali leather interior
Denali leather interior | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet


Like a Cadillac on stilts, the crew size cabin of the Sierra 1500 Denali is a splendid place to plop down for a drive. All of the luxurious offerings are there and then some, and since this is still all truck, things like rugged selector knobs and toughened toggle switches are in abundance. Luminescent LED lighting, vented seats, sharp leather stitching, top-end heated and cooled leather bucket seats, and a warming steering wheel are just a handful of the key features that are sure to win buyers over.

Toggle switches, control knobs, and charging ports
Toggle switches, control knobs, and charging ports | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ High grade materials are everywhere, and both the front and rear bench feature amenities typically reserved for Cadillac.

+ Truck touches like beefy toggle switches, glove-friendly control knobs, several charging port options, and tons of storage pockets and enlarged, silicone-lined bins are winners.

+ Wireless cell charging, power adjustable pedals, multiple seat setting options, and a power sliding rear window to match the sunroof option are all practical and appealing.

– Steering wheel does not telescope out very far.

– Faux wood grain finish feels like a cop-out when compared to the materials found in a modern Cadillac.

– Wireless charging trough is too narrow to fit larger phones like the Samsung Note, and doesn’t work well with cell phone cases.

Suspension geometry
Suspension geometry | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

There’s a mountain of tech and safety incorporated in all modern Denalis, and the Sierra 1500 has some really cool touches with many doubling as safety focused no-brainers. Hell, the customizable, video game-grade MID alone is worthy of a paragraph of praise, and with GM’s outstanding touchscreen atop the center stack, there’s little to dislike in the Denali.

GMC MID | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ If all the tricked-out trailer guiding and braking goods didn’t attract you, maybe the smooth-sailing 3D interactive navi maps, Bose audio, Apple CarPlay, 4G LTE Wi-Fi, and remote vehicle start will.

+ GMC’s “Enhanced Driver Alert Package” rules. For a measly $550 you get active lane keep assist, adaptive headlamps, forward collision warnings, and a seat that vibrates if a collision is imminent.

+ This MID is sensational. Everything can be customized, the morphing graphics are sleek and swift, and it shows you everything from parking proximity warnings to hill grade monitoring in real time.

– Not having a pressure sensitive central control knob is a miss, especially if the person controlling the truck has work gloves on.

– Standard apps are pretty slim pickings.

– There is no blind spot monitoring, which is a big miss in a truck of this size.

2016 GMC Sierra Denali interior
2016 GMC Sierra Denali interior | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

It may look like a truck, handle like a truck, and guzzle gas like a truck, but the Denali is the serene king of the road on this side of $70,000. This pickup cuts through traffic like a suede-wrapped chainsaw, and commands attention everywhere it goes due to its sharp styling and enormous footprint.

Comfortable, calm, and loaded with tech, the cabin of the Denali has to be one of the roomiest and most road-ready creations in GM history, and not once did I tire of being behind the wheel. Everything is easily accessible, the rear bench seat is almost as swanky as the front two, and issues like road noise and poor visibility are virtually insignificant.

The brakes are pretty suitable for all of that curb weight, and both steering inputs and suspension responsiveness are appropriate and predictable for the class in which it sits. The rear ride quality could stand to be a little more refined considering its badging and heritage, but from an on-road viewpoint this truck delivers a very satisfying driving experience that is equal parts practical and capable.

GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Crew Cab pickup
GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Crew Cab pickup | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

Has the 2016 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Crew Cab converted me into a believer of all things luxury pickup? Not really. As refined and brilliantly crafted as this truck is, I still have issue with using this thing to its full potential, and the thought of mucking up something so snazzy makes me shudder.

This is a $60,000 boat towing, camper hauling, Fourth of July parade cruiser, and it’s so close to being the complete package. It’s extremely capable and superbly stitched together in virtually every way, and features the most potent light-duty non-diesel engine in America.

While 60 grand may sound like a lot at first — and it is — once you compare this truck to what a similarly equipped Caddy runs, you’ll realize that this American monster is one hell of a sweet deal. So if you have the dough and want a big old box of opulence, complete with towing capacity of a NASA shuttle and the ability to best a wide assortment of terrain, buy this truck. It’s a little bit of everything, and since almost all of it is done extremely well, the sense of seniority you get while behind the wheel is second to none.