Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2018 GMC Sierra Denali

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The 2018 GMC Sierra Denali is a truck that finds itself in a bit of a tough spot. Due to be replaced by an all-new model before the end of the year, it’s trapped in that limbo that afflicts all end-of-life vehicles, one where potential buyers try to weigh the no doubt substantial incentives being offered by dealers eager to move metal, against the promised charms of a clean-slate design.

For those truck shopping right now, a choice has to be made: do you need the latest and greatest, or can you drive home happy in the current Sierra Denali thanks to the soothing balm of cash on the hood?

More than that, however, the Denali edition of GMC’s full-size pickup is facing a more existential crisis that may also be giving customers second thoughts. In a market where almost every one of its rivals from Ford, Ram, Toyota, and even corporate sibling Chevrolet is available in a luxury edition – or two, or three – the Denali hasn’t quite been able to keep up. The end result is a vehicle that’s quite good at being a truck, but which has fallen behind the rest of the pack when it comes to punching a premium ticket.

Big V8 Fun

There’s certainly no faulting the 2018 GMC Sierra Denali on its workhorse credentials. My four-door crew cab tester was equipped with the 6.2-litre edition of the company’s venerable pushrod V8, which also offers cylinder deactivation to improve fuel mileage. Although around-town consumption in a vehicle as hefty as a four-wheel-drive Sierra will hurt your wallet (16.0 L/100 km), the 11.7 L/100 km rating on the highway is achievable if you keep your foot out of it.

Can you resist the temptation to unleash the Denali’s 420 horses and dip into its 460 lb-ft of torque? I certainly couldn’t, and with its eight-speed automatic transmission operating entirely transparently I was pleased to discover that the pickup felt well-muscled – its 5.6-second sprint to 100 km/h is sport sedan territory. It’s exactly the drivetrain you’ll be happy you ordered when called upon to tug its max trailer rating of 12,500 lb.

Mag Ride for Comfort

While the 6.2L may be the largest eight-cylinder motor you can currently order in a light-duty pickup truck, the GMC Sierra Denali’s secret weapon is actually completely invisible: a set of magnetically adaptive dampers. Able to react to changing road conditions and driver demands almost instantaneously, the truck feels more fleet of foot when altering course than the F-150 or even the standard version of the Sierra. It manages to achieve this athleticism without subjecting riders to the bounce of overly aggressive suspension tuning too, giving it comfort credit trumped only by the coil- or air-spring-equipped Ram 1500.

Spartan Luxury

Where, then, does the most expensive version of the GMC Sierra fall short of the standard set by its peers? The Denali’s most telling stumble is found in its cabin furnishings and its equipment list.

With a price tag of $77,000, it would seem a no-brainer to include both keyless entry and a push-button ignition with this luxury truck – but neither exist, requiring a fob button and a twist of a mechanical key to access and then fire up the Denali. If this seems like a trivial complaint, I am highlighting it only to illustrate that it’s something you can get on other trucks – and some at significantly lower prices.

This dovetails with the functional, and simple appearance of the Sierra Denali’s interior, a habitat comfortable enough but not up to the standards set by the F-150 or Ram 1500’s top-tier trims in terms of detail or opulence. It’s a shame, really, as the exterior of the truck is stunning, setting high expectations that are dashed upon opening the door and finding a merely adequate passenger compartment (albeit one with fantastic storage, especially when stowing the easy-flip rear bench).

My final complaint about the Denali’s premium presentation is that it’s possible to order the truck with the 5.3-litre V8, an adequate engine but one whose 355 horsepower represent a serious step down from the 6.2-litre unit. In fact, that’s the standard mill. It wasn’t too long ago that Denali meant the best of everything, including the drivetrain, and while a smaller engine might open up the trim to customers not interested in spending more on big power, it does somewhat dilute the perception of the Denali brand.

Great Expectations

Had my 2018 GMC Sierra Denali not been pushing the $80K mark (with a starting price of $67,000), I’d find far less fault with its execution. Fundamentally, as I stated earlier, this is an excellent truck – but it’s not quite as compelling in its role as a luxury model perched at the pinnacle of GMC’s lineup.

With the 2019 model just around the corner, it’s very likely that General Motors has addressed almost all of these complaints about the Denali, especially regarding equipment level and interior refinement. For those shopping right now, however, a choice has to be made: do you need the latest and greatest, or can you drive home happy in the current Sierra Denali thanks to the soothing balm of cash on the hood? I’m willing to bet that a good deal will make it that much easier to live with having to dig into your pocket for a key fob come wintertime.

Engine Displacement 6.2L
Engine Cylinders V8
Peak Horsepower 420 hp
Peak Torque 460 lb-ft
Fuel Economy 16.0/11.7/14.1 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 1.76 m (69.3") box; 12,500 lb towing capacity
Model Tested 2018 GMC Sierra Denali Crew Cab Short Box
Base Price $66,945
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $77,890
Optional Equipment
$9,050 – Ultra Denali package (6.2-litre V8, 22-inch wheels, sunroof, retractable running boards, trailer brake controller) $9,050