GMC Sierra represents the best and most advanced in pickup engineering. It does everything pickups have always done, only better, with a first-class capacity for hauling and towing. It rides and handles more like a car than any pickup ever did before. Inside, the Sierra is one of the most luxurious pickups we've ever driven, setting new standards for quietness, plush appointments, and solid construction.
Of course, all of that is equally true of the Sierra's mechanical twin, the Chevrolet Silverado.
What sets the Sierra apart is image, the intangible value of GMC's 100-year heritage of building trucks and only trucks. And even if Sierra and Silverado are clones under the skin, the GMC pickup presents a bolder face to the world. Sierra boasts its own grille, hood, fenders, fascia, bumpers and headlamps. Like the best GMC designs of the past, it looks a little sharper-dressed than its Chevrolet cousin.
GMC also offers model and equipment variants that Chevrolet does not, including the 325-horsepower Sierra Denali with four-wheel steering; and the new business-oriented Professional, with unique interior equipment designed exclusively for the entrepreneur on the go.
Like all big American-made pickups, the Sierra comes in two and four-wheel-drive, in light-duty (1500) and medium-duty (2500) loading and towing capacities, with short-bed and long-bed bodies, and with fendered or full-width beds. There are standard-length two-door cabs and extended-length cabs with two more auxiliary doors in the rear. New for 2002 is a 1500 HD Crew Cab, with four full-size doors, just like the heavy-duty work-site models.
Engine choices for 1500 models range from a basic 4.3-liter V6, up through a 4.8-liter V8 (standard in extended cabs), and a 5.3-liter V8. Extended-cab, long box 1500s and all 2500s come with a 300-horsepower 6.0-liter V8. Five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions are offered.
Trim levels have been revised for 2002, and now begin with Standard, and advance through SL and SLE. SLT returns as a leather-and-luxury equipment package.
Also returning in revised form is last year's Sierra C3, now labeled Sierra Denali. Available only as an extended-cab, short-bed 4x4, Denali packs a 325-horsepower version of the 6.0-liter V8, along with automatic transmission and an exclusive, sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system. For 2002, it also comes with GM's electronically controlled four-wheel-steering system called Quadrasteer. Quadrasteer reduces Sierra's curb-to-curb turning diameter by 21 percent, to just 37.4 feet, which is within inches of a Saturn SC1. Quadrasteer also enhances high-speed stability.
Since Quadrasteer requires a five-inch increase in track, you can spot a Denali by its unique rear fender blisters. Denali also features a full pallet of luxury equipment and the ZX3 Ride Control suspension, with cockpit-adjustable shock absorbers.
Like the Denali, the new Professional is available only with a short box and extended cab, but unlike GMC's flagship pickup, the Professional is offered in two- or four-wheel drive, and it should be priced much lower. Starting with SLE-level equipment, the Professional adds a special full-length console with concealed storage for a personal digital assistant (PDA), cell phone, and other items; a seven-quart cooler; a cooled or heated cup holder, and a second Big Gulp-sized cup holder for those entrepreneurial doses of caffeine. The console can be converted to store hanging file folders. The Professional also features more lockable storage under the rear seat, a bold chrome grille, 16-inch alloy wheels and unique exterior identification. Standard power with two-wheel drive is the 4.8-liter V8 and automatic transmission, but 4x4 Professionals come standard with the 5.3. SLT trim with leather is an option.
Sierra prices cover a broad range, starting at $17,408 for a standard-trim, V6 1500 2WD, and more than doubling to $43,385 for the luxurious, high-tech Denali. A short-box, 4WD extended-cab SLE would include the 4.8-liter V8 for $29,266; and many popular 2WD models list in the $23,000-$27,000 range.
For even heavier-duty hauling, GMC builds the 3/4-ton Sierra 2500HD and 3500. (See review on the heavy duty Sierra models at NewCarTestDrive.com.)
While the Chevrolet Silverado looks almost as if it were designed to blend into the background, the 2002 GMC Sierra very nearly demands attention, with its mouth-like air intake and predator-narrow headlights. Aft of that front end, the same sheet metal that looks smooth and subtle on the Chevy suggests tensed and rippled muscles on the GMC. It's a look, we think, that a lot of truck buyers will like: more distinctive than the Chevrolet pickup, but not as over-the-top as the Ford or Dodge.
All GMC Sierras are built on the stiffest and lightest truck frame General Motors has ever produced. The frame rails are hydroformed, a process that uses high-pressure hydraulics to shape relatively large steel components. Tubular crossmembers and roll-formed mid-rails increase rigidity further. This stiff structure enhances handling and ride quality immensely, while improving crashworthiness.
GMC Sierra's interior is one of the most inviting and comfortable in the pickup business. The door openings are the largest in the industry, and the cab is the roomiest. Heated bucket seats optional in SLE/SLT extended cab models provide good support in hard corners.
The instrument package comprises a large speedometer and tachometer flanked by four smaller gauges. All use pleasant graphics in white on black. A compass is incorporated into the overhead console, along with three storage areas for sunglasses, garage door opener, and small items. The door trim is a nice combination of vinyl panels and dotted velour that is soft and warm to the touch.
The sound system control panel is located above the climate controls as it should be because we tend to fiddle with the radio more than the temperature. The climate control system uses a rotary dial layout that works perfectly. Three 12-volt outlets are provided at the bottom center of the dash for radar detectors, cellular telephones, laptop computers, and other accessories. Power door locks (standard on SLE) are programmable.
The SLT package includes not just leather seats but also OnStar, GM's satellite-based communications and security system.
The Sierra Denali comes with OnStar, too, along with tone-on-tone leather, extra sound deadening, a premium audio system with steering-wheel controls for the driver and separate controls for rear-seat passengers, a unique console with a driver information center (we used to call it a trip computer) and other exclusive amenities.
A lockable floor console is large enough to hold a picnic lunch for a family of four; it comes with a reversible, removable cup holder tray and a storage nook in front of the lid.
We were pleasantly surprised when we climbed through the reverse-opening rear door in the extended cab and found that the rear seat is reasonably comfortable. Rear-seat passengers get their own air-conditioning outlets and a set of drop-down cup holders. When cargo capacity is more important than hauling passengers, the entire rear seat assembly can be loosened from the floor with a wrench and removed through one of the side doors.
We love the 1500 HD Crew Cab. It's a great truck. The rear seats are as roomy as the second row of seats in a Suburban. Ours came with leather and felt comfortable and luxurious. It's capable of carrying six passengers and feels roomy and luxurious with four. Rear seats are split 60/40 and fold down, providing a large protected cargo area inside the cab.
On the road, the Sierra is so quiet and well behaved that it could be mistaken for a luxury car. This is largely due to the chassis (introduced for 1999), whose frame is 23 percent stiffer than that of the previous generation. A cast magnesium beam behind the instrument panel and a lateral steel beam between the magnesium beam and the right side of the dash further reinforce the stiff body. This is a very strong truck, and its strength lets the suspension soak up and manage all the bumps and ruts and tar strips.
The extended cab model's 143.5-inch wheelbase improves the ride and enhances high-speed stability.
The 1500 HD 4WD Crew Cab does not ride as smoothly as the Chevy Avalanche, but the ride was reasonably good for what is practically a three-quarter-ton truck with no weight in the bed. Adding some weight back there would undoubtedly smooth it out.
A four-spoke steering wheel connects to rack-and-pinion steering; there is still a fairly wide dead spot in the center when cruising. (GMC says this is intentional, to minimize steering corrections on the highway.) The steering feels a bit light, but the truck tracks beautifully and handles well on pavement, loose dirt, deep dirt and even off-road.
Quadrasteer, the available four-wheel-steering system, works amazingly well. Backing a super-long trailer into a parking space at a 90-degree angle is much, much easier with Quadrasteer than without it. The system shortens turning circles with trailers and makes backing up far more intuitive. On the road, it feels more stable. On winding roads, it's more stable, easier to drive, and the trailer tracks better behind the vehicle. If you tow frequently, you really owe it to yourself to test out a truck with GM's Quadrasteer. Even without a trailer, Quadrasteer makes it much easier to park the truck in tight spaces, such as underground garages and crowded parking lots.
The V6 produces 200 horsepower and a reasonable 260 pound-feet of torque, but most buyers opt for a V8 and automatic transmission.
The 4.8-liter small-block V8 is the most popular engine for this truck, but our Sierra had the larger 5.3-liter (327-cubic-inch) engine, rated 285 horsepower. Its torque peaks at 325 pound-feet, but the torque curve is plenty fat for light towing and hauling. The 5.3-liter engine is also fun for commuting and touring, and we recommend it over the smaller 4.8-liter engine.
The tow/haul mode is a great feature. GM's 4L60-E and 4L65-E four-speed automatics feature a delayed upshift when switched into the tow/haul mode, improving performance while helping the transmission keep its cool. In the tow mode, the transmission holds gears longer before shifting up or down, reducing the tendency of automatics to hunt between third and fourth gears in hilly terrain. When it does shift, the shifts are harder in Tow mode, reducing the amount of time it takes to shift. Both of those strategies reduce heat buildup.
The Sierra 1500 HD can tow trailers weighing up to 10,300 pounds or haul up to 3139 pounds of payload (2837 with 4WD). It comes standard with the Z85 handling/trailering suspension designed to provide a smooth ride. Though the bed is short, it's a great choice for people who tow horse trailers, race cars, or campers. The 6.0-liter V6 that comes standard in 1500 HD models is tuned with considerably more torque in the four-wheel-drive versions (488 pounds-feet) than in the two-wheel-drive versions (360 pounds-feet); the 4WD model trades off horsepower to the 2WD model to do this, however.
Brakes are large, heavy-duty discs on all four corners; ABS is standard on all models. The brakes are huge and powerful and begin to work only an inch into the pedal travel. A feature called Dynamic Rear Proportioning improves stability under heavy braking whether the truck is loaded or empty and can reduce stopping distances. Jam on the brakes and most vehicles without ABS will lock up the rear tires because most of the weight is being transferred to the front wheels. With ABS, the rear wheels won't lock up, but you simply lose some braking performance. With Dynamic Rear Proportioning, the braking performance will be transferred to the tires with the best grip, thereby reducing stopping distances. GMC promises huge improvements in fade resistance, pad life and heat dissipation, and after beating these brakes hard we believe them.
Optional Autotrac four-wheel-drive combines a conventional, truck-style two-speed transfer case with electronic controls. This system allows the driver to lock the axle speeds together in low range for maximum off-road traction; or to select an automatic mode that sends power to the wheels with the best grip. It's a great setup for serious off-road duty, be it mud, deep snow, silt, sand, or rugged terrain.
The Denali features its own full-time four-wheel drive system. A planetary center differential provides a permanent 38/62 front/rear torque split; while a viscous coupling locks up progressively if one axle or the other starts to slip. It's a good system for snow, ice, heavy water, gravel, dirt, or anywhere that presents inconsistent traction conditions.
Denali rides on a uniquely tuned suspension designed to limit body roll (or lean). It also comes with the Z82 towing package, and the high-capacity disc brakes from the Sierra 2500HD/3500.
It's easy and fun to drive the Denali quickly on winding mountain roads. It handles well. It's very responsive for a truck, and it delivers strong acceleration. With its superior towing capability, it might be just the ticket for someone who wants a luxury sports sedan, but has a boat to tow. The all-wheel-drive system will help pull the boat up slippery ramps, while the interior comfort, handling and performance make it an enjoyable and luxurious vehicle around town and on the highway.
GMC Sierra offers a great deal of essential pickup-truck goodness. If you're looking for more style than the Chevy Silverado offers and a bit of exclusivity, then by all means choose the GMC Sierra.
Our Sierra SLE was among the smoothest, quietest, most civilized, best equipped, and most enjoyable pickup trucks we've ever driven. The GMC Sierra is a must-see if you're buying a new full-size pickup.
Model as tested
1500 HD 4WD Crew Cab ($32,723)
3 years/50,000 miles
Pontiac, Michigan; Ft. Wayne, Indiana; Oshawa, Ontario, Canada
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
SLT Decor ($1,280) includes front leather seating surfaces, power front seat adjusters, air conditioning, cruise control, remote locking/security system, power windows and door locks, deep tinted glass, mirror with compass and temperature readouts, electronic shift transfer case, fog lights, OnStar; front full-feature reclining bucket seats ($1255); heavy-duty trailering equipment ($215); AM/FM/CD/cassette ($180); polished aluminum wheels ($150); 4.10 rear axle ratio ($50)
Model Line Overview
2WD Regular Cab, 6.5-ft. box, Standard ($17,408), SLE ($23,322); Extended Cab, 8-ft. box, SLE ($26,389), SLT ($28,149); 1500 HD Crew Cab ($29,648)
4WD Regular Cab, 6.5-ft. box, Standard ($21,975), SLE $26,439; Extended Cab, 8-ft. box, SLE ($29,566), SLT ($31,326); 1500 HD Crew Cab ($33,048)
Denali Extended Cab, 6.5-foot box ($43,385)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual airbags with front passenger suppression switch, ABS with Dynamic Rear Proportioning
Safety equipment (optional)
6.0-liter ohv 16-valve V8
Specifications as Tested
automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, 4-wheel ABS with dynamic brake proportioning, light package, tilt steering wheel, electric rear defrost, anti-theft system, mini overhead console, storage tray, leather-wrapped steering wheel, folding power heated chrome mirrors; 6.0-liter V8, driver message center, handling/trailering suspension package
Engine & Transmission
6.0-liter ohv 16-valve V8
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
224 @ 4400
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear