Federal mandates require one camera for backing up in all vehicles. The 2020 GMC Sierra full-size pickup truck matches and raises the feds. You can have cameras on all four sides, looking down into the pickup bed, another inside your trailer, another looking behind the trailer — as many as fifteen camera views of the trailer alone. The most fascinating is an X-ray view that effectively sees through your trailer and shows the view. GMC has finally solved the blind-spot problem with trailers.
Add in the carbon fiber bed liner and six-way MultiPro folding tailgate introduced last year, more efficient and more powerful gas and diesel engines, and the ability for a pair of the heaviest-duty Sierras to carry the payload of an 80,000-pound 18-wheeler, and it shows GMC more than matches the competition in new features.
Upscale Brand, Great HUD, Not Afraid to Get Dirty
GMC is the upscale pickup truck and SUV brand to Chevrolet, as Lincoln would be to Ford if Lincoln did more than dabble in the pickup business (Blackwood 2002, Mark LT 2006). For now, GMC has several innovations — they are more than gimmicks — that make its pickups a viable alternative to the similar Chevrolet Silverado that hasn’t yet gotten GMC’s technology. The 2020 models tested here are GMC’s heavier duty pickups, the Sierra 2500 HD and Sierra 3500 HD, both of which are beefier than the mainstream GMC Sierra 1500 LD (light duty) introduced a year ago. The HD pickups are for people who tow big boats or trailers or want a full-size heavy-duty pickup (Sierra AT4) to go off-roading. “Light-duty” is a relative term; the Sierra 1500 LD can tow up to 9,300 pounds, versus 4,000 pounds for a midsize GMC Acadia SUV or 8,100-8,500 pounds for the full-size Yukon Denali SUV.
Here’s what I found driving various GMC heavy-duty pickup trucks on the highways, country roads, and hilly/muddy off-road areas of Wyoming and Idaho: These are serious trucks. The new features, such as the cameras, multi-way tailgate, and carbon fiber bed liner, are all useful. The crew cab cockpits are roomy, there are plenty of USB jacks, the cupholders are sized for Big Gulp cups, the diesels really haul yet one gets 30 mpg on the highway, and the competition should figure a way to work around any patents GMC has on its camera system. The head-up display provides the biggest image I’ve seen, and one of the most useful. The one tech downside is the eight-inch center stack display looks positively tiny in a truck that fits three NFL linemen side-by-side in the crew cab row.
Amazing ProGrade Trailering Camera System
No surprise: Full-size pickup trucks are big (213 to a whopping 247 inches long for the Sierra HD). Possible surprise: Not every driver is 100 percent comfortable driving a pickup and a trailer. Maybe the owner feels savvy, but less so the spouse/partner or young adult family member, who has to share the driving. The ProGrade Trailering System cameras give normal people a chance to drive more safely and confidently. With the multi-camera package, you have these views:
- Front view
- Front top-down view
- Front side view
- Rear view (with a trailer, you’d see the hitch and front of the trailer)
- Rear top-down view
- Rear side camera
- Rear trailer view (looking back from atop the trailer)
- Picture-in-picture side-view camera (rear side views and the view behind the trailer — the view that cries out for a Ram 1500- or Tesla-size LCD)
- Bowl view (looking back showing the truck and trailer, using realistic icon imagery, as if a drone flew 10 feet in front of your truck)
- Transparent trailer rear camera
- Bed view
- Hitch view
- Rearview mirror camera (the optical inside mirror that flips to a wide-angle LCD camera view)
- Rear surround view (wide-angle)
- Inside trailer view
The camera system can switch views automatically, or when you flip the turn signal blinker. Say you’re driving and start to make a turn. The system switches to cameras on the turning side and you get a wide-angle view of the truck, trailer, roadway, and possible hazards such as center berms, curbs, or vehicles possibly within the arc of your turn. I found this most helpful making wide turns (the only kind possible here) with a 30-foot trailer and 14,000 pounds of cargo. Sometimes you don’t always see things, like say a Suzuki Samurai that is but a blip in the side mirror otherwise.
Currently, ProGrade Trailering works with box trailers (the ones that haul stuff, or horses) or camping trailers up to 32 feet long. Boat trailers are currently not compatible.
X-Ray Vision: Good Idea, Finally in Production
Others have shown X-ray concepts over the years. Land Rover five years ago demoed a Transparent Bonnet, which uses the forward-facing camera plus time-lapse to show off-roaders the rocks and hazards under the hood (bonnet). It also showed a concept Transparent Trailer which does exactly what GMC’s ProGrade Trailering system does.
In 2015, Samsung showed an even-more conceptual Samsung Transparent Truck. The rear of the truck box would show a video image of the road ahead, useful for showing cars behind when it’s not safe to attempt a pass on a two-lane road as in the image (right).
Hauling Big Loads
The point of a heavier-duty pickup is the ability to haul bigger loads, or be ready to haul them should the need arise. To wit, a recent Ford survey of big-SUV intenders said virtually all wanted to tow trailers. But only a handful actually towed anything their current vehicles. GMC may tell you that’s SUVs and not pickups, or Ford and not GMC. But still: People often buy vehicles for the most extreme use they might have over their years of ownership or lease.
There are four-, six-, and eight-cylinder gasoline engine choices, at least if you include the Sierra 1500 LD along with the 2500 and 3500 HD. For hauling, diesels are the choice since you want to maximize torque. Torque, not horsepower, is what gets a truck and 10,000-pound trailer up a 6 percent grade, and torque is an attribute of diesels (also electric motors). The base diesel for Sierra is a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder with 277 hp and 460 pound-feet of torque, allowing a tow load of 9,100 pounds or a cargo load of 1,830 pounds, which is less than the sibling Chevy Silverado, the Ford F-150, and Ram 1500, all rated for 10,000-pounds-plus towing. GMC says it wanted a 30-mpg highway rating for the 1500 LD. For those who dislike pickups because they’re big and therefore fuel-inefficient, the light-duty diesel is an elegant rebuttal.
Anyway, GMC says, people who want to haul more than 10,000 pounds typically go for the HD trucks. They did this knowing competitors will beat up on GMC for selling a diesel that hauls less than 10,000 pounds.
For the HD Sierras, there’s a gas-engine 6.6-liter V8 with 401 hp and 464 pound-feet of torque, mated to a six-speed automatic. An optional Duramax 6.6-liter diesel produces 445 hp (not much more than the gas engine), but with 910 pound-feet of torque and connected to a 10-speed Allison automatic transmission. That’s a $9,500 upgrade. Add a second-wheel (still one axle) on each side in back, the big Duramax, and you have a regular cab Sierra HD DRW (dual-rear-wheel) that has a gross combined weight rating of 43,500 pounds, a fifth-wheel hitch tow rating of 32,000 pounds, a gooseneck trailer rating of 35,500 pounds, and a max payload of 6,532 pounds. Every Sierra HD, gas or diesel, 2500 or 3500 HD, tows at least 14,500 pounds.
Fans of Ford and Ram will note that depending on configuration, their brand has more of X-feature. Ram’s Cummins HD diesel is rated at 1,000 pound-feet of torque, most notably. All this shows that no one has a clear or long-term advantage in the specs wars, which makes GMC’s newest features – ProGrade Trailering (the cameras), the MultiPro tailgate and the carbon fiber bed so compelling.
Off-Roading: Why Not?
GMC has a solid, midsize off-road capable truck in the GMC Canyon, sibling to the Chevrolet Colorado. Now there’s an all-new 2020 GMC Sierra Heavy Duty AT4 with off-road suspension, Rancho shocks, skid plates, an Eagon locking rear differential, an off-road mode for the traction selection system, hill-descent/hill-start assist, an off-road inclinometer in the optional head-up display, and a surround vision system with low-speed views showing vehicle surroundings such as big rocks and ditches.
I toured an off-road course GMC set up for the AT4 and would have happily spent the entire day there. There is nothing like getting dirty a truck you don’t own, and giving it back in the same condition, with no repercussions.
If you’re an off-roader, you already know this: Big pickups are fine for off-roading in wide-open spaces. On narrow trails, a smaller vehicle is better. It’s one reason the Jeep Wrangler sells and sells.
Should You Buy?
The GMC Sierra full-size pickups trail Ford, Ram, and Chevrolet in sales. But GMC is ahead on features, especially for towing. (Ford has one useful feature that hasn’t been matched: Pro Trailer Backup Assist, a dashboard knob that turns the whole truck and trailer in the direction you want, without fear of jackknifing or figuring which way to turn the steering wheel.) The fourth-generation Sierra launched in 2019 with the 1500 LD; the 2500 HD and 3500 HD are new for summer 2019.
From low to high, the GMC Sierra trim lines are SLE, Elevation, SLT, AT4, and Denali. The carbon fiber bed comes standard in the top three trim lines, optional in the others. There are regular and long cargo boxes, and single cab, double cab, and crew cab seating configurations.
If you want the most flexible towing options, GMC is the go-to brand. The camera system is outstanding and should be put on 18-wheeler trucks as well, to improve safety. GM has improved the state of the art, and vehicle safety, with its ProGrade camera system. It’s a gem.
The carbon fiber bedliner definitely protects against dents and damage. Some of GMC’s comparative-advantage claims use extreme tests cases such as sharp objects dropped from 25-50 feet up. Lots of pickup trucks survive extreme daily use with many small dents and never a puncture. A spray-on bedliner minimizes cosmetic damage, while GMC’s CarbonPro bed virtually stops cosmetic and puncture damage. If you’re into a pickup for $60,000 or more, $1,000 for a carbon bed isn’t unreasonable.
The Sierra 1500 now gets adaptive cruise as an option, but the best you can get with the 2500 and 3500 HD is cruise control. ACC on the big pickups would be a benefit, suitably modified so ACC’s minimum following distances are modified relative to the cargo you’re carrying. A pickup with 10,000 pounds of cargo takes a longer time slow or stop.
There are only a couple downsides you should know about the GMC Sierra series. The Sierras you want cost a lot, same as pickups from every maker. The higher-end AT4 and Denali trim lines are quite nice, but overall Ram and F-150 have nicer interiors at comparable trim lines, even when GMC is the one premium-nameplate, pickup-truck maker.
If technology matters, GMC has a lot to offer than no one else: the great head-up display, the unmatched camera system, the carbon fiber bad, and the multi-way tailgate.