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In an undated handout photo, General Motors' 2015 Sierra Denali 2500. Perfectly capable of towing heavy loads, the Denali is still a luxury vehicle on the inside, with a $64,000-plus price-tag to match -- in keeping with an industry trend toward more expensive full-size trucks. (General Motors via The New York Times)

General Motors, New York Times

GMC Sierra Denali: Behold the luxury pickup truck

  • Article by: EZRA DYER
  • New York Times
  • June 7, 2014 - 1:20 PM

– I wince as a half-yard of mulch cascades from the bucket of the skid-steer loader into the cargo bed of the 2015 GMC Sierra Denali 2500, a plume of drab dust mushrooming out to coat the Onyx Black body with flecks of bark and sawdust.

This is a truck, a diesel-powered beast of burden with a 10,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating. And yet I feel mildly uncomfortable using it as such.

That’s because the Sierra Denali is also a luxury car, with heated and cooled leather seats, 20-inch forged aluminum wheels and a $64,575 price. Hauling mulch in a $64,000 vehicle seems extravagant, the kind of activity a cackling oligarch might attempt just after a game of ostrich polo. A truck this expensive induces some psychological tension.

I grew up with trucks that came from the factory with dents and rust, trucks that had vinyl seats and cardboard roofliners. Those were trucks that you didn’t feel bad about putting to work. Not to pick on General Motors, but last year I drove a modest V-6 Silverado — cloth upholstery and two-wheel-drive — that cost more than $36,000. I’ve driven $50,000 half-ton pickups from every brand and a Ram 2500 that cost $65,700. Add a few more options and the diesel four-wheel-drive models can top $70,000.

Is it my imagination, or did truck prices go haywire sometime in the recent past?

It turns out that it’s not my imagination. Last fall, the chief economist at Edmunds.com, Lacey Plache, ran the numbers on car and truck prices over the past decade and came to the surprising conclusion that, adjusted for inflation, overall vehicle prices actually dropped by 8 percent. Full-size trucks, though, took the opposite path, soaring 37 percent in raw dollar figures, or 9 percent when inflation-adjusted.

“But the quality has gone up,” Plache said in a telephone interview, noting that new entry-level trucks with V-6 engines had more horsepower than many V-8s of a decade ago. And the new trucks are quieter, more fuel-efficient, more capable.

“Comfort, technology and safety have come a long way,” she said.

Which brings me back to my overqualified garden cart, the Sierra Denali 2500. In the manner of new Cadillacs, the Denali’s driver’s seat will vibrate to warn if you’re drifting out of your lane or about to back into a solid object. A Pandora music app resides in the dashboard multifunction screen along with navigation and SiriusXM weather information. GMC will soon offer a built-in 4G connection that can turn your truck into a Wi-Fi hot spot. It’ll be like having a Samsung Galaxy that’s the size of an actual galaxy.

While the 2015 redesign modernized the body and interior, the GMC’s powertrain carries over, which is to say that it’s still outrageously stout. The 6.6-liter turbocharged and direct-injected Duramax diesel V-8 generates 397 horsepower and 765 pound-feet of torque, routed through an Allison six-speed automatic transmission that cracks off instant, glassy smooth upshifts with no hint that it’s funneling five Hondas’ worth of torque to a drive shaft that looks like a Parthenon pillar.

A translation: Like the woodsman’s lore that you can’t outrun a grizzly bear, there are plenty of cars that can’t outrun this 7,384-pound behemoth. Mash the accelerator and a moment of turbocharger lag quickly gives way to a frenetic rush to the 3,000-rpm horsepower peak, the tall rear tires clawing for traction. Perched as you are in the ether — the step-in height is 26 inches, which means you’re riding around with your posterior at least 3 feet off the ground — the sensation is of piloting a low-flying plane in traffic. Sierra 2500, requesting permission to land.

With the diesel’s full measure of torque available by 1,600 rpm, towing isn’t much of a challenge, either. I was towing or hauling something practically the entire time I had the Denali, so the mileage numbers are a little warped. (Because of its weight rating, this truck does not get EPA mileage numbers on its window sticker.) But I did see that it would manage 12 mpg while towing my boat. Which is pretty good, considering the boat and truck together are 10,000 pounds of messy aerodynamics.

Tow ratings vary according to a particular truck’s configuration, but the one I drove — diesel, four-wheel-drive, crew cab with the 3.73 final drive ratio — maxes out at 17,100 pounds using a fifth-wheel trailer. That is, ballpark figure, the weight of a school bus. Configured for maximum towing capability, a Sierra HD with the same Duramax engine (but the 3500 model) can handle 23,200 pounds, which ought to be sufficient to tow the entire New England Patriots 90-man offseason roster, provided you could find enough roller skates. What I’m saying is that it probably won’t have a problem getting your Glastron to the lake. The Duramax V-8 isn’t unduly stressed, even at this power level.

GM says that from the factory, the Duramax diesel is intended to suffer whatever rough-duty abuse you can throw at it for at least 200,000 miles without a major overhaul. This engine’s laudable combination of power and longevity bears consideration when you’re scratching together an extra $8,395 to go diesel: $7,195 for the motor and $1,200 for the Allison transmission. And there we are with money again.

As Plache pointed out, pickups have become far more capable than they were a decade ago. In the GMC camp, a half-ton Sierra can tow as much as 10,200 pounds, which is probably enough for most drivers. But if you’re making the leap up to the 3/4-ton league of the 2500 series, you may as well go all the way and get the diesel, which is not available in the half-ton models.

Then go ahead and throw mulch in the bed. Haul gravel. Tow an elephant or two. Reconcile the dichotomy between luxury price and workaday purpose, because trucks are no longer wheezy agricultural implements trimmed in cardboard.

And anyway, if the past decade is any indication, 10 years from now we’ll wax nostalgic for the humble days of $70,000 pickups.

© 2014 Star Tribune