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2011 Sierra Denali 2500 4X4 Crew Cab – Duramax Yes, Denali No

Ten years ago when you thought about General Motors pickups you probably weren’t thinking heavy-duty. Sure, a half-ton Silverado might do nicely for city slickers or small jobs but for the real cowboys working on heavy duty projects only a Ford Super-Duty with a Power Stroke or Ram with a Cummins would really ‘work’. When it came to the heavy-duty pickup truck market it seemed as though GM didn’t really have what it took and their small share of the heavy-duty truck market (only 10%) reflected that sentiment. But all that was about to change…

By 2001 GM had approached Isuzu Motors of Japan (famous for building durable diesel engines) and entered into a joint venture, which resulted in the ‘Duramax’ turbo-diesel engine being offered in 2500 and 3500 GM trucks. This engine was a game changer for GM who ended up raising the industry bar for horsepower, torque and fuel economy. The Duramax made GMs heavy-duty truck lineup come alive and their market share jumped to more than 30% by 2002. GM has since taken Duramax development in-house.
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This weekend I had the privilege to drive GMs latest 2500 HD and leave our old Silverado, Tacoma, and Travelall trucks in the garage. I must say, driving this truck (aside from finding parking or maneuvering in tight spots) was very satisfying – then again, I’m kind of a ‘truck guy’. As long as you’re familiar with the rather rough ride and freeway ‘buck’ of heavy duty unladen pickups then you’ll be sold by virtue of the power, braking, handling and hauling capabilities of this truck.
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After a drive around the block I kept trying to hide the rather silly clown-like smile I had across my face. Nobody driving such a serious beast should be clean-shaven or be smiling. They should have at least a day’s growth of facial hair (assuming they’re male of course…) and look like they mean business – and not the paper pushing type of business but rather the mending barbed wire fences or castrating cattle type of business. This truck is a serious piece of machinery. Which made me curious… who purchases the 2500HD decked out in ‘Denali’ trim? The interior was too nice for a work truck!
There don’t seem to be quite as many really successful (read: prosperous) contractors out there since 2006 and if I’m purchasing such a serious workhorse, as the 2500HD is, it’s not typically for ‘personal use’/commuting and I don’t want the fancy wood trim or soft leather (although my wife sure did like those heated seats!). So the Denali part of the equation didn’t quite compute for me, especially at $61K (each!).
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The Duramax 6.6L
The potent diesel smell and loud clanging of old school diesels is gone. This diesel is muted and clean. Inside the cab was quiet – even under acceleration. Getting in and turning over the Duramax you instantly feel like you’ve received a testosterone injection. You get to fill up at truck stops, you start insisting on helping friends and family pull or haul anything they want and you automatically start believing your second calling was to become a heavy earth moving equipment operator.
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The Duramax is one stout stump puller of an engine! At 397 horsepower and 765 lb. ft. of torque the new 2011 Duramax diesel has 32 more horsepower and 105 more lb. ft. of torque than the 2010 model. Nevertheless, the competition moves really fast around here and Job #2 of the 2011 Super Duty actually increased the 2011 Ford Super Duty numbers enough to blow right by the 2011 Duramax. Fords 6.7L Power Stroke now produces 400 horsepower and 800 lb. ft. of torque (up from it’s original 390 horsepower and 735 lb. ft. of torque) and the Ram Cummins 6.7 currently sits at 350 horsepower and 650 lb. ft. of torque. And for you biodiesel fans the Duramax’s compatibility with biodiesel has been boosted from B5 to B20 blend.
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Ford’s New Numbers!

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It is interesting that the spec sheet from GM comparing all 3 trucks still lists the 2011 Super Duty with the first production run numbers. This highlights both the fact that this segment is driven by specifications and is highly competitive. You know as soon as the guy’s at Ford realized GM had bumped their numbers up on the Duramax for 2011 giving GM boasting rights and street credibility they were already working on higher output. And because Fords engine is newer and built out of a tough compacted graphite iron engine block they could easily squeeze more power out of the engine – edging out the GM engine. This should put GM on notice as the Duramax is probably at the peak of it’s capability and a new generation of Duramax should be in the works… like yesterday.
The 6-Speed Allison transmission delivers the twisting power from the Duramax seamlessly. Having the 6-speed and a 36-gallon fuel tank allows for a range of nearly 680 highway miles at roughly 18.8 mpg. I on the other hand averaged about 17.8mpg. Not bad for a rig that could tow your house! For you biodiesel people the Duramax’s compatibility with biodiesel has been boosted from B5 to B20 blend.
The Concern
The trouble for GM marketing will be grabbing prospective buyers attention out on the road. If you read the brochure or check out their website you’ll know that the 2011 GM HD trucks are basically all new underneath the skin (Fully boxed frame, retuned Diesel engine, etc.) but the 2011 GM HD trucks don’t look much different from 2007-2010 GM trucks other than a little different hood and grille. It’s kind of a shame that GM may not get as much credit as they deserve for the amazing re-engineering work they have performed on these heavy-duty trucks. That being said, the marketing department may not have much to worry about as prospective buyers will be traditional truck buyers who are most interested in stats and as far as stats go, the 2500 and 3500 trucks are solid, sturdy workhorses that currently have very competitive horsepower, torque, towing and payload. Besides, Ford and Chevy truck guy’s tend to be pretty brand loyal. Anyway, the 2500HD is one nice rig!
A Few nitpicks
Bed Rails keep getting taller and taller and taller… I can’t reach in over the side of the bed and pull anything out. What’s the deal? Styling? Image? Cargo Capacity? Tanau covers? Theft (if you can’t see it you’re less likely to steal it)? I’d like to be able to reach over the bed rails again…
Co-worker pointed out that the antiquated (and relatively small) $2250 NAV system did not come with the $450 rear vision camera system – bringing the grand total to $2700 – YIKES!
I realize we don’t get flat tires as often as we think but what’s up with18″ wheels but only a 17″ spare!? If we’re working on a job site – flats from nails or debris do happen and we don’t always have time to have the flat tire plugged right away – which means leaving the 17″ on for more than a few days – not always good for a differential.
NO HVAC for rear occupants (in a $61K Denali truck)
NO auto up/down for window regulators (not even for the driver) – easy & cheap fix for a manufacturer
Little things I liked
The exhaust brake (or Jake brake) is a great feature! When loaded up and going down a long steep grade you could push the exhaust brake and use the engine to help slow the truck down instead of riding the brakes.
Rear wheel house liner (Dealer Installed) – This is a great cosmetic fix to the huge painted (color-keyed to body) rear wheel well openings on 2007 and newer GM trucks. I didn’t know GM even offered this feature until this truck arrived. If it were me this would be a standard feature! The wheel well openings are huge, wheel & tire packages are relatively small – it looks a lot better with these installed (especially on a non-black truck)!
Exterior door handles – I could open the doors with thick leather work gloves on and the door handles were constructed in such a way that prevented finger nails from scratching the pain as those with longer finger nails went to open the door.
Tie Downs had rubber grommets that covered up the opening when not in use but using the tie downs you could pop the rubber grommets off and they remained riveted to the bedliner – which meant I did NOT have to store them anywhere and I was less likely to loose them!

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