Sierra 1500

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The Good

A silky, all-but-noiseless ride, capable V8 engines, some worthy techno-features in higher trims and those oh-so-comfortable seats keep a lot of Jimmy’s 2012 Sierra 1500 pickup owners working, cruising and smiling.

The Bad

A ponderous turning radius and a weak V6 powerplant combine with limited cabin storage, a low-rent cabin atmosphere, some steering and handling issues, and an outmoded 4-speed automatic transmission to keep this medium-duty truck from true greatness.

The CarGurus View

Venerable yet capable, comfortable yet utilitarian, the 2012 GMC Sierra 1500 full-size pickup is a worthy rival in this competitive market. Yeah, it could use a bit more refinement and a few extra high-end amenities, and it could stand to lose the underpowered V6, along with its so-yesterday 4-speed automatic. But if a quality, do-everything, go-anywhere half-ton pickup is in the budget for this year, give this Jimmy’s tires a kick or two.

At a Glance

In its present guise, GMC’s Sierra 1500 full-size half-ton pickup has been around for four years now. This light/medium-duty, 3- to 6-passenger workhorse/status symbol is among the top choices in the full-size truck market, but the Ford F-150s and the Ram 1500s, and even the Toyota Tundras of the world have undergone more recent upgrades, providing them an edge in technology and performance that ought to be giving GM’s design and engineering teams inspiration, if not nightmares.

In any case, this classy truck continues to offer five trim levels, the base Work Truck, the lower-midlevel SL, the amped-up SLE, the quasi-posh SLT, the economical XFE, with its lightweight construction, and the flagship Denali.

A smooth, quiet ride, three V8 engines, a roomy cabin in Extended and Crew cab trims, and the traditional wealth of standard features remain standard in the higher trim levels. While the Work Trucks, though Spartan in standard stuff and, in their entry-level form, grossly underpowered with the puny standard V6 engine, may not shout luxury and performance, they are what they are—work trucks—and perform adequately as such. All trim levels, meanwhile, continue to be offered in standard rear-wheel drive (RWD) configuration, with four-wheel drive (4WD) available to all except the Denali, which can be delivered with full-time all-wheel drive (AWD).

As is commonly acceptable, Jimmy’s hefty pickup offers the traditional cabin configurations in the 3-passenger Regular cab, the 5-passenger (front bucket seats) or 6-passenger (front bench seats) Extended cab (with flush-opening rear doors), and the 5- or 6-passenger Crew cab with its four independently opening doors. Bed lengths also stand pat, with Regular cab and Extended cab trims sporting either a 6.6-foot standard bed or the 8.2-foot long bed, and all Crew cab trims toting the 5.8-foot short bed.

Though the Ford F-150 lineup continues to lead the full-size pickup segment in popularity, and Dodge’s Ram 1500 offers a more refined ride and a classier interior, the Sierra 1500 lineup can certainly handle its share of the load. These Jimmys, though beginning to age a bit, still flaunt a decently smooth ride, plenty of V8 power—at least in the higher trims—and enough basic creature comforts to satisfy the average weekend wrangler or full-time farmer.


Four engine choices are once more bestowed on the 2012 Sierra 1500 lineup. The Regular and Extended cab Work Trucks carry a 4.6-liter V6 that puts out 195 hp at 4,600 rpm. With the standard 4-speed automatic transmission, expect 260 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm, enough to tow up to 5,200 pounds when the available 3.37 rear axle ratio is selected. Mileage is estimated at 15 mpg city/20 highway in the standard RWD versions and 14/18 in available 4WD editions.

Next up, a 4.8-liter variable-valve-timed (VVT) V8 that puts out 302 hp at 5,600 rpm comes standard in the SL and SLE, as well as the Work Truck Crew cab levels, and is available to the Regular and Extended cab Work Trucks. Again with the standard 4-speed automatic, the baby-eight loads up 305 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm and can tow up to 7,200 pounds when properly equipped. Ethanol-burning Flex Fuel capability (FFV) comes standard in this capable V8, and mileage is estimated at 14/19 in RWD trims and 13/18 in 4WD configurations.

The standard powerplant for the SLT and XFE trim levels is a 5.3-liter Flex Fuel V8 that, under the management of a standard 6-speed shiftable automatic transmission throws out 315 hp at 5,200 rpm and 355 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Also available to the SLE and Work Truck variants, this hefty V8 can tow up to 9,100 pounds when properly equipped, and VVT allows 15/21 in both RWD and 4WD variations. The XFE, available only in RWD, uses its aluminum-alloy frame in stretching fuel efficiency to 15/22.

The flagship Sierra 1500 Denali, in keeping with its lofty status, boasts a Flex Fuel 6.2-liter V8 that will pound down 403 hp at 5,700 rpm and 417 lb-ft of torque at 4,300 rpm, again managed by the 6-speed shiftable automatic. In the standard RWD version this hefty V8 is estimated to get 13/18 in RWD and 12/18 in AWD configurations. When properly equipped, the RWD Denali can tow some 10,700 pounds of trailer.

Those trims equipped with either part-time or on-demand 4WD systems boast auto-locking hubs and a mechanical center differential. Work Trucks and the SL trim level feature floor-mounted manual hi-lo gear selection, while the SLE and SLT trim levels sport Autotrac, with a rear locking differential, electronic hi-lo gear selection and an automatic setting that instantly transfers power from the wheels that slip to the wheels that grip. The AWD-equipped Denali sports a locking rear differential that helps automatically shift torque from RWD to all four wheels when slippage is detected.

Reviewers generally find the Work Truck’s V6 underpowered and its 4-speed automatic woefully dated. The two middling V8s, on the other hand, are considered adequate in the case of the 4.8-liter V8, with the 5.3-liter V8 garnering all sorts of praise for its refined performance and responsive acceleration. The Denali’s 6.2-liter V8, finally, is over-the-top potent, according to reviewers, with one test showing a 0-60 time of 6.6 seconds. The 6-speed shiftable automatic is noted by the vast majority of reviews as silky smooth with seamless downshifting for more power when needed. Many reviewers further praise the Denali’s steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters for their easy-up/easy-down maneuverability.

Ride & Handling

Though perhaps not as exhilarating as some, nor as jolt-free as others, the 2012 Sierra 1500 lineup nevertheless offers some distinctly pleasant driving characteristics.

The standard front independent suspension, with long and short arm configuration, is bolstered by a solid live-axle rear end, front and rear stabilizer bars and, in standard garb, touring springs and shocks. The 17-inch tires, standard on all trim levels except the SLT and Denali, give a good account of themselves over even the roughest roads, according to most reviewers, while the 18-inch wheels and tires standard with the SLT are only marginally less forgiving. The 20-inch tires now standard on the Denali are noted as choppier than they should be on bumps and cracks, with many reviewers wondering why GM switched from the once-standard 18-inch size.

Equipping the Sierra 1500 with the available Z-71 dedicated off-road suspension, of course, degrades ride comfort noticeably, in the opinion of virtually all reviewers, but off-road, it’s still hard to beat.

Steering, meantime, is considered by most reviewers as precise, if a bit too family-friendly, but a hefty amount of body lean is noted in hard turns. The Z-71 suspension, when on regular pavement, shows, in the minds of most reviewers, little improvement.

Finally, brakes are described by the majority of reviewers as powerful, true and lacking any dysfunctional pedal mechanics.

Cabin & Comfort

As a rule, pickup trucks are considered workers, not toys. Therefore, the aptly named 2012 Sierra 1500 Work Truck trim level is traditionally lacking in many of the usual standard appearance and comfort amenities. Steel wheels, vinyl upholstery, tilt-wheel steering, air conditioning and an AM/FM stereo, with 4 speakers in Regular cabs and 6 speakers in Extended and Crew cabs once again remain standard in this no-nonsense workaholic. One pleasant surprise in this base trim level, however, remains the standard cruise control, a convenience not often found in entry-level truck trims.

Stepping up a notch, the SL adds alloy wheels, cloth upholstery, remote power door locks, heated power-adjustable mirrors and power windows. Standard entertainment features include an MP3-capable single-CD player with 6 speakers, satellite radio, auxiliary MP3 input and OnStar Directions & Connections services.

The 2012 Sierra 1500 SLE enters the quasi-posh with standard premium cloth upholstery, simulated alloy door and dashboard trim, leather and simulated alloy steering wheel, remote engine start and floor mats.

The truly plush SLT tacks on a trailer hitch and wiring, along with some added truck features like auxiliary transmission fluid cooling and an engine hour meter, as well as leather upholstery, heated and power-adjustable front bucket seats, reverse-tilt outside mirrors, steering-wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, simulated wood trim, dual-zone climate control with Sun Sensor auto settings and memory for driver's settings. Seven Bose premium speakers, including a subwoofer, also grace this high-end trim level, as does a USB connection and Bluetooth hands-free technology.

In trumping its SLT sibling, the flagship Denali, available only in the Crew cab configuration, boasts standard skid plates, premium leather upholstery, power-adjustable pedals and a universal remote garage door opener, just for starters. Then there are the rear parking sensors, genuine wood and alloy cabin accents, heated steering wheel and audio memory settings.

The economy-minded XFE essentially combines features from the SL and SLE trim levels and then throws in a standard soft-top bed cover for good measure.

Options for this tough pickup include lower trims gaining a significant number of the standard features that endow higher trim levels. Nonetheless, all variations are eligible for a trailer towing package with heavy-duty transmission cooling, various rear axle ratios, a heavy-duty locking rear differential and an integrated trailer brake controller. The SLT and Denali are each eligible for a power sunroof and hard-drive-based navigation, while the Z-71 Off-Road package can be delivered with the SLE and SLT trim levels.

Stuff like an EZ-Lift tailgate and upgraded wheels, ventilated front seats and cargo management systems depend on the selected trim level for availability, as do optional features like a power-sliding rear window and rear-seat DVD entertainment.

Reviewers find the 2012 Sierra Work Truck’s cabin to be uninspiring, at best. Higher trims, however, get better marks for amenities and comfort. Seats in the higher trims are found by reviewers to be comfortable and supportive, with all dashboards boasting large, easy-to-read gauges. Some controls are a bit out of easy reach in the Pure Pickup cabin layout, while the available Luxury Interior features a more user-friendly placement, according to virtually all reviews. Most reviews further note that front-seat head and legroom are more than adequate in all cab configurations, while rear-seat room in Crew cab trims is noted as better than average. Alas, reviewers take a less sanguine view of Extended cab Sierras, noting a lack of adequate legroom and seatbacks that are a bit too steep. The rear suicide doors on Extended cabs open flush with the body, which helps loading and unloading in cramped parking lots, but remain all but impossible to close by seated rear passengers.

Finally, visibility is described as generally good by most reviewers, though a few note that thick roof pillars in the Extended cab versions could present some challenging sightlines to the rear corners.


In addition to its solid heft, the 2012 Sierra 1500 comes equipped with standard 4-wheel antilock brakes and electronic brakeforce distribution, with Extended and Crew cab variants also sporting emergency braking assist. Traction and stability control, of course, come standard, as do dual front side-mounted airbags, front head airbags and, in Extended and Crew cabs, rear head airbags. Daytime running lights are standard throughout the lineup, while the SL and higher trim levels sport a remote antitheft alarm and a post-collision safety system. The SLT and Denali additionally boast standard front fog/driving lights (optional on all others) and turn-signal-integrated mirrors. Alas, all trim levels but the Denali are burdened with rear drum brakes, which doesn’t sit well with a number of both reviewers and owners.

In any case, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives Jimmy’s half-ton its second highest rating of 4 stars in overall safety tests, front impact testing and rollover safety. The government agency’s highest 5-star award, however, was given in side-impact tests.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), meantime, awards the Sierra 1500 lineup its best rating of Good in front-impact testing, with side impact tests garnering a second-best Acceptable rating. In roof strength testing, this medium-duty hauler sagged to the Institute’s second-worst rating of Marginal.

What Owners Think

An overabundance of cabin plastics in even the top-shelf trims, along with comparatively uninspiring fit and finish, seem the most prevalent owner complaints with the 2012 Sierra 1500 lineup. The underachieving V6 draws the ire of a few owners, while those outmoded rear drum brakes have a number of others scratching their collective heads. Finally, the dearth of rear legroom in Extended-cab trims has a number of owners feeling cramped and irritable, and at least a couple of owners describe a frustrating numbness in this medium-duty pickup’s otherwise capable power-steering mechanism.

On a more positive note, owners are more than happy with the 2012 Sierra 1500’s selection of V8 powerplants, with the majority lauding the 6-speed shiftable transmission found on the two larger V8s. The flush-opening rear doors of the Extended cab versions pleases a number of owners, while others note the placement and simplicity of major buttons and controls, especially in the Luxury Interior trims. Finally, comfy seats and a smooth, quiet ride keep a majority of owners quite satisfied with Jimmy’s full-size half-ton pickup.


Have Laptop. Will Travel. I'm retired and travelling the country in a 34' motor home. I'm really digging meeting people . . and sometimes their cars . . . getting a sense of what makes this nation tick. The plan is to visit all the national parks in the continental US, then cruise to Alaska to visit Denali, and to Hawaii to check out Haleakala and the Hawaii Volcano's national parks. Anyhow, when I'm not horsing the motor home around the roadways, I'm tooting around in the 2012 Ford Focus that we tow behind, or making runs to Home Depot and various malls with the 2004 F-150 that just won't die.

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Sierra 1500

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