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The idea of a luxurious pickup truck is no longer an oxymoron, and thank goodness. Just because you have to work or haul a lot of gear doesn't mean you should be uncomfortable — or technologically challenged. The GMC Sierra Denali 1500 is all about creature comforts and connectivity. Throw in a couple of genuinely useful innovations, such as active noise cancellation and a motorized step that will help you reach gear in the back of the truck bed, and you've got a winning four-wheel-drive formula.
Sure, at $63,185 for the model I tested, the Sierra Denali comes at a premium price. But it includes premium appointments usually reserved for luxury cars, including special Denali leather seats, a suspension that will quiet the kids and a roomy backseat (more than 40 inches of head and leg room). The price also includes the $6,005 Denali Ultimate package, which comes with a bigger V8 (6.2 liters versus the standard 5.3 liters), massive 22-inch chrome wheels, a power sunroof, a safety tech package, and those truly innovative — and helpful — power steps.
The Vitals: 2016 Sierra Denali 1500
Price as tested: $63,185 MSRP (including destination charge)
Engine and drivetrain: 6.2-liter V8 with eight-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive
Fuel rating: 17 mpg, combined (15 city, 21 highway)
Connected car system: GMC IntelliLink with 8-inch touch screen
Safety technologies: Forward-collision warning, automatic high beams, vibrating haptic alert driver's seat
Driver assist technologies: Rearview camera, lane-keeping assist
Installed options: Trailer brake controller, tri-mode powered steps
Power steps steal the show
I'll admit that while the technology gimcrack that attracted most of my attention was the power steps, which are really running boards on both sides of the Sierra Denali's cab that swing out when you open the doors. They may not be unique in the luxury arena, but what is special is a kick button on the back of the steps that makes them swing backward so you can use the step to get to the rear of the truck's flatbed. That is a brilliant solution that saves you from having to climb on the rear wheel or into the bed itself just to get something you stowed in the back.
On the driving-tech side, lane keep assist steers you gently — very gently — back into the lane if you stray. The effect is so subtle — it operates only above 35 mph — that it's easy to ignore it, which is when you'll get a vibration under your derriere warning you to either signal or get back in line. (It's a feature you'll appreciate in such a grizzly-size truck because it alerts you without tipping off passengers that you've crossed the line.)
At night, the automatic adaptive LED headlights will prevent you from blinding others by switching from high to low beams whenever other cars approach.
For work and hauling, the Denali includes a trailer sway control as well as an integrated trailer brake controller. Together with the adjustable accelerator pedal, you can customize this truck to suit your individual frame and driving style. Have your winter work boots on? Push the accelerator backward. Wearing a pair of dress shoes for an evening out? Just move the accelerator forward.
Admixture of tech
The Sierra Denali includes most of the current welter of available technology, such as heated and vented seats, but the four-wheeler still has a few vestiges of pickup truck tradition. For example, there is no push-to-start button (you still have to use a key), and the stalk shifter on the steering column now feels outdated. More important, the cruise control is not adaptive, so it won't slow you down or speed up in traffic. Nor does it include automatic stop and start, which can be a godsend in traffic.
None of these omissions is likely to bother traditional pickup owners, who tend to prefer driving themselves and just want to get their work done. Besides, all of the essentials are there, including a rear-view camera for backing up, a forward collision alert system and the active lane keep assist.
Big touch screen, built-in hotspot
GMC outfitted the Sierra Denali with all of the requisite connectivity features. For starters, there's a built-in navigation and infotainment system with an 8-inch touch screen. The on-screen icons are easy to follow, whether you're connecting to make a call, plugging in a destination, or looking to play Pandora or SiriusXM stations.
For those who want to plug in, there are plenty of outlets right up front, under the center stack. These include two USB ports, two 12-volt cigarette-lighter-style outlets and a standard 110-volt AC plug. In the center armrest is a skid-proof wireless charging pad, under which is a storage area that's so capacious it can hide a laptop or tablet.
Want to keep passengers occupied? The infotainment system has a built-in, 4G-backed Wi-Fi hotspot that can handle up to seven devices. (The first three months and 3GB are free, and after that, plans start at $10 per month.)
As a GMC vehicle, the Denali also includes five years of a basic OnStar plan. For that, you don't get the full concierge service or stolen-vehicle tracking — those plans start at $19.99 per month — but you do get remote start and lock/unlock. The basic plan also includes the ability to trigger the horns and lights over an internet connection, plus diagnostic reports that can be sent automatically to your dealer for regular service.
The navigation system worked well, plotting several routes over hundreds of miles. The voice recognition feature, like many competitors, has very limited comprehension. For example, it won't let you adjust the AC or heat, which are still controlled by mechanical buttons on the center stack. Using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto will let you ask more questions, but as with all current implementations, you cannot access many of the truck's controls, including HVAC. Still, it's nicely agnostic.
The Drive: Tamed animal magnetism
As one might expect with a 6.2-liter V8, passing semi-tractor trailers with the Sierra Denali 1500 on a two-lane road is a breeze. Its 8-speed transmission kicks down quickly to make such maneuvers safer, and it can really haul, er, gear, getting from 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds.
If anything, the Sierra Denali will make you feel overconfident. That's thanks, in part, to its magnetic ride control suspension. It's a technology deployed on Corvettes and Cadillacs — even licensed by Ferrari — that automatically adjusts to road conditions. It smooths out potholes and rail crossings that otherwise feel harsh in most pickups. It even reduces the inflection of highway seams (although the optional 22-inch wheels on my test vehicle tended to add some harshness).
Together with the surprisingly effective Bose noise cancellation system, which operates regardless of whether you're playing music, it makes you forget you're driving a pickup truck — that is, until you realize you're looking down on everyone else.
If you push the truck on the highway, curves will eventually make an impression. This is not a sports sedan. But over mountain passes, the Sierra remains well-behaved, thanks again to that eight-speed automatic transmission.
Heading off-road, the Denali forded a couple of streams effortlessly. (You can choose to set it to two-wheel drive, auto or full-on four-wheel maneuvering). And on a highway cruise, the truck can deploy its cylinder deactivation feature to shut down four cylinders when they're not required.
Drive it or park it?
Although the sticker price may seem high (topping out at over $60K), the Sierra Denali's cost is in line with those of competing models. The truck also has enough room in the rear seats and enough comfort that family members won't whine when you have to use the pickup for a long road trip. (Camping anyone?) Yes, the Sierra Denali truck is essentially a premium step up from the basic Chevrolet Silverado, but what a step up it is.
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John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. For Tom's Guide, he has reviewed televisions, HDTV antennas, electric bikes, electric cars, as well as other outdoor equipment. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and the CBS News television program.