In the Family Pickup Wars, GMC Sierra Denali Might Be 1 Value Play This Summer

View of '18 Sierra Denali with trailer
Comfort and style are two of Sierra Denali’s biggest selling points, but it can tow, too. | Eric Schaal/The Cheat Sheet

Pickup trucks have rarely been hotter than they are in 2018. And by the end of the year, two of the market’s top three sellers, Chevrolet Silverado and Ram 1500, will be in dealerships as all-new models.

The same goes for the GMC Sierra Denali, the mechanical twin of Silverado. Being the upscale model in the General Motors truck lineup, the outgoing (2018) Sierra will be on many consumers’ radar when shopping for a family vehicle. With a new model replacing it, GMC discounts to move Sierra inventory were already in place at the start of June.

On a late-May drive through two of Utah’s national parks, we tried two versions of the Sierra Denali (one with a 25-foot trailer out back) to see how it manages the sort of vacations many Americans will take this summer. Here’s what we learned in an ’18 Sierra Denali towing two Polaris all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and how it stacks up against comparable pickups.

1. Setting the parameters of your trip

Shot of Polaris RZRs on Utah's Coral Pink Sand Dunes
The goal on this trip was getting ATVs to Utah’s sand dunes. | Eric Schaal/The Cheat Sheet
  • We needed to get about 5,500 lbs.’ worth of ATVs to the park.

Careful preparation is crucial to pulling off a successful vacation, all the way down to the trailer. For our purposes on this trip, we needed enough power and control to bring two Polaris side-by-sides (about 5,500 lbs. with the trailer) from Ivins, Utah to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes of Kanab (68 miles one-way).

Fortunately, we had enough to pull about 9,000 lbs. behind us. Denali buyers have most of what they need for the job included.

Next: What comes standard in the 2018

2. Denali comes with a standard trailering package.

The standard trailer package is your starting point. | Eric Schaal/The Cheat Sheet
  • For buyers of this model, it’s an expectation.

According to GMC, about 75% of light-duty truck owners use their vehicles to tow, with 30% towing more than once a month. So it makes sense that Denali buyers get the trailering package standard.  It includes:

  • The trailering hitch platform
  • A 2-inch receiver hitch
  • 4-pin and 7-pin connectors
  • A 7-wire harness mated to a 7-way sealed connector for parking/backup lamps and turn signals

This is enough to get started, and the trailer you decide on will dictate how you load up for any trip.

Next: How the Denali’s V8 handled on the trip

3. The 5.3-liter engine is just enough.

This load turned out to be as heavy as it looks. | Eric Schaal/The Cheat Sheet
  • A 9,000-lb. rating on paper feels different on the road.

One tidbit we learned from GMC’s lead engineer was telling: Some 30% of truck owners don’t know how much weight their vehicle can tow. Not knowing means missing out on your truck’s capability — and a potential to latch too much heft onto the trailer.

In our case, we pushed into the extra-heavy-duty classification (IV) with the two side-by-sides on the trailer. Using the 5.3-liter model meant we could handle up to 9,000 lbs. However, that load will feel heavy at times, especially if you encounter hilly terrain as we did.

This model’s 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque will mostly suffice for truck owners who tow occasionally.

Next: The 6.2-liter base model will be the call for buyers looking to tow over 12,000 lbs.

4. The Max Trailering Package in the standard 1500 moves the needle.

The GMC Tow Like a Pro media drive Monday, May 21, 2018 at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes in St. George, Utah.
GMC Sierra Denali HD | Isaac Brekken for GMC
  • Along with the 6.2-liter engine, it pushes the max trailer weight to 12,500 lbs.

The Denali’s 6.2-liter V8 (420 horsepower) will be the right call for people who want to tow nearer to the limit on Denali 1500.

For those who want to bring more cargo, a standard Sierra 1500 with the Max Trailering Package takes the limit to 12,500 lbs. with two-wheel drive. (Four-wheel-drive models can tow to 11,700 lbs.) While you can’t get that type of capability in the Denali 1500, it is available in the SLT trim.

Next: All things considered, Denali isn’t going to be the workhorse truck.

5. Denali as a family car

2018 Sierra Denali in white at Zion National Park, Utah | Eric Schaal/The Cheat Sheet
  • For Denali consumers, it’s about the look.

It might surprise some people to learn how many truck buyers are looking for a family car. Early in 2018, a Ram spokesman told Consumer Reports that 40-50% of the brand’s sales mix were family vehicles.

We imagine the percentage is even higher with Sierra Denali. On that front, we found this model comfortable throughout the ride, and its quiet cabin is one its best features. GMC said its customers’ No. 1 reason for buying this model was exterior design, and both the white and black models we drove look good at the curb.

Next: Help from a pro is crucial, but Denali’s electronic controls definitely help.

6. Towing beginners can lean on the pros.

Denali 1500 with a 25-foot trailer attached | Eric Schaal/The Cheat Sheet
  • Denali’s towing tech helps, too.

With a beginner like me, having a towing pro aboard for the ride helped a lot, and I had that in an ex-truck driver named Aaron. He showed me how to button-hook a turn like he used to do driving semis across the country, and walked me through preparations around the hitch.

Otherwise, the Sierra Denali’s electronic aids (Tow mode, Magnetic Ride Control) come through for beginners. Because of a missed turn, I ended up running this trailer in a tight 360-degree-turn before arriving in Kanab, but it wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I expected.

Next: How does it match up against an upper trim F-150?

7. Denali 1500 vs. Ford F-150 King Ranch

2018 GMC Sierra Denali | General Motors
  • F-150 has more power, but a comparable package will cost you.

If you want to match a 2018 Sierra Denali against an F-150, you’re probably looking at Ford’s King Ranch ($51,930) or Platinum ($54,485) models. Ford’s engine choices, whether the standard V8 or optional Ecoboost, overpower Denali here.

However, consumers may have a few bones to pick with the styling on the Lariat or King Ranch versus Denali. Meanwhile, both Ford models get pricey as you add on options. With incentive season in full swing, a well-equipped Sierra comes in cheaper (i.e., below $50,000).

Next: Ram Laramie is another upscale pickup competitor.

8. Sierra Denali 1500 vs. Ram Laramie

Matched against a Ram Laramie, Sierra Denali can’t tow the same weight but has a styling edge. | Eric Schaal/The Cheat Sheet
  • Ram Laramie has the edge in power and towing capacity.

In this comparison, consumers will find a Ram Laramie with four-wheel drive with more power at a lower base price ($45,845). However, you won’t get the standard safety suite (lane assist, collision alert, auto braking) coming standard in a Denali. Consumers may also quibble with a slightly less refined look in the Laramie.

On the other hand, 2019 Ram trucks have already landed in dealerships, so dealers may be even more aggressive in pricing with ’18 editions. All in all, summer 2018 is a good time to be on the market for premium pickups, and the outgoing Sierra Denali is definitely worthy of your consideration.

Disclosure: GMC provided The Cheat Sheet reporter with airfare, lodging, and meals in order to test the towing capability of the 2018 Sierra Denali.

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