Sierra 1500

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2021 GMC Sierra 1500 Test Drive Review

Unless you can’t live without the deeply-satisfying rumble of a V8 engine, the 2021 GMC Sierra 1500 is at its best when equipped with the affordable Duramax turbodiesel inline-six.

5.7 /10
Overall Score

GMC is the “professional grade” brand at General Motors, but that’s just marketing mumbo jumbo. The 2021 GMC Sierra 1500 is the same thing as a Chevrolet Silverado 1500, but with different styling and a handful of unique features, like an optional carbon-fiber composite cargo bed. This year, GMC makes several changes to its full-size light-duty pickup truck, none of them earth-shattering. This remains a fundamentally appealing truck in need of attention to the details.

Look and Feel

6/ 10

The main reasons to buy a 2021 GMC Sierra instead of a Chevy Silverado are for its styling and the upscale Denali trim level. In truck circles, saying you got the “Denali” is akin to telling people you got the Mercedes. And if you don’t want all of the Sierra Denali’s chrome bling, don’t worry. You can still option other variants well into that same boast-worthy pricing territory.

Take our Sierra AT4 test truck, for example. It priced out at $66,695 MSRP including a mandatory destination charge of $1,695. The AT4 (All-Terrain 4WD) is the off-road-ready version of the Sierra, essentially the same thing as a Silverado LT Trail Boss but with a name that doesn’t remind you of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Sierra AT4s have a factory-installed 2-inch suspension lift, an off-road suspension using Rancho monotube shocks, skid plates, a two-speed Autotrac transfer case, a locking rear differential, and unique design details like red front recovery hooks and body-color trim.

Aggressive mud-terrain tires are available, along with multiple option packages and individual upgrades. Our truck had the AT4 CarbonPro Edition Package with a CarbonPro carbon fiber composite cargo bed and a MultiPro Audio System for its six-position configurable tailgate. Badges identifying the truck as ‘extra’ graced each front fender.

Our black-on-black Sierra looked good but stayed clean for all of five minutes. Choosing this color combination for a truck designed to get dirty is a special kind of self-torture. The available mud-terrain tires broadcast the AT4’s intent loud and clear, and their incessant whirring is a constant reminder to the owner that off-roading adventure beckons.

Inside, save for some spiffy caramel seat trim and stitching and the Sierra’s standard metallic accents, the truck was a sea of black plastic. Rubber floor mats with easy-to-clean, snap-in carpeted inserts provide grip for your feet and protection for the underlying carpet. Otherwise, the cabin reflected standard-issue Sierra quality coupled with an industrial-themed design that looks lifted from another era.

A truck that can reach higher than $70,000 in Denali trim deserves better.


9/ 10

If the GMC Sierra’s cabin comes across as cheap, its affordable Duramax 3.0-liter turbodiesel six-cylinder engine strikes us as a genuine bargain at $995. In comparison to what Ford and Ram want for their diesel trucks, you can forgive the Sierra’s interior materials. Almost.

Tuned to make 277 horsepower at 3,750 rpm and 460 pound-feet of torque starting at just 1,500 rpm, the Duramax delivers the same amount of twist as the Sierra’s available 6.2-liter V8, but 4,100 rpm sooner. Effectively, then, you get maximum thrust after a momentary delay as the turbocharger spools up and then spits out the 420 lb-ft.

GMC pairs the Duramax to a 10-speed automatic transmission that proved flawlessly adept at choosing gears and putting the engine in the thick of its generous torque band whenever necessary. Similarly, the automatic four-wheel-drive (4WD) system is easy to use when you want to run the truck in rear-wheel drive (RWD) to save fuel or when you need 4-Hi or 4-Lo gearing.

We tested the Sierra in Auto 4WD mode, driving from sea level to a mountain summit of 5,160 feet and then back down again. Weather conditions ranged from warm and sunny on California’s coast to windy and snowing in the mountains, and the truck not only maintained impressive traction in the wet, but it also effortlessly averaged fuel economy of 21.1 mpg. That’s less than the EPA’s official rating of 24 mpg in combined driving, but we weren’t babying the Duramax like those dweebs at the EPA.

The AT4’s suspension handles tough topography with a confident nonchalance, yet it doesn’t beat you up when all you need to do is trudge into Los Angeles on the 405. In fact, this off-roading setup is far preferable to the standard suspension General Motors bolts into its full-size light-duty pickups. We tested a Chevy Silverado LTZ earlier this year that regularly caused motion sickness on L.A. freeways.

Due to the weather on testing day, we couldn’t explore the Sierra’s handling on a twisty road. But that’s OK because the test truck’s all-terrain rubber isn’t meant for that kind of driving. A brief off-roading excursion on wet terrain put the LT275/65R18C Goodyear DuraTrac mudders to proper use, plastering the Sierra’s flanks with bits and pieces of Mother Earth.

If you’re planning to tow and haul with a GMC Sierra equipped with the Duramax diesel, know that when you’ve got it properly set up it can handle up to 9,300 pounds of trailer and 2,150 pounds of payload. Our crew cab, 4WD, short bed, AT4 mustered 8,800 pounds of towing capacity and a payload rating of 1,810 pounds.

Form and Function

6/ 10

When it comes to well-equipped, full-size, crew-cab trucks, seat comfort isn’t really a problem. Invariably, the front chairs are large, wide, and supportive, and covered in fabric or leather. The back seats are typically huge, easily capable of seating three burly guys across with a minimum of discomfort.

This holds true of the 2021 GMC Sierra. Our test truck had stiff leather that is almost certainly durable but doesn’t impart a sense of luxury. Both front seats offered a range of power adjustments, as well as heated and cooled cushions. The heated steering wheel came in handy, too, thanks to the blast of cold (for California) due to the winter storm.

Family members along for the ride enjoyed the heated rear seats. Normally, Southern California weather would make them happy about the Sierra’s rear air conditioning vents and power sliding rear window, but not this time.

Special high-clearance side rails made climbing into and stepping out of the Sierra easier than it otherwise would’ve been, and the wide step built into the innovative six-position Multipro tailgate simplified climbing into the cargo bed. The Sierra’s standard rear bumper steps are also helpful.

The test truck’s CarbonPro Edition option package adds a carbon fiber composite cargo bed that saves 60 pounds of curb weight while improving dent, scratch, and corrosion resistance. That saved weight is added to the payload rating, bumping it up by 59 pounds.

GMC says the Sierra’s bed holds between 62.9 and 89.1 cubic feet of cargo, depending on length. That makes it more accommodating than any other light-duty full-size pickup except for the Silverado. Add up to 12 cargo tie-downs with 500-pound ratings at each corner, and you’ve got a workhorse.

Storage space in the cab isn’t as impressive. Compared to a typical car or SUV, it’s generous. But compared to other full-size pickups, the Sierra’s available storage is smaller, or narrower, or less innovative. An exception might be the cubbies built into each rear seatback, but they don’t lock, limiting their usefulness for storing things that ought not to be readily accessible.

Tech Level

7/ 10

Our test truck came with numerous camera-based technologies to improve visibility. They ranged from the standard reversing camera to a surround-view camera, trailer- and bed-view cameras, and a rear camera mirror. Collectively, they made it easier to maneuver this big rig, especially through tight coffee-shop drive-thrus.

Hey, we know what these trucks are made for. Latte runs!

The upgraded camera-based technology is, appropriately enough, part of the optional Technology Package. It also includes a huge 15-inch head-up display and an 8-inch driver information display nestled into the instrumentation cluster.

Separately, the 2021 Sierra offers a robustly featured infotainment system with a choice between a 7-inch and an 8-inch touchscreen display. Aside from the small screens, these are impressive systems running the latest hardware and software. That makes them fast to load, quick to respond to input, and graphically pleasing.

The test truck had the 8-inch display, which offers large volume and tuning knobs for the stereo as well as physical menu shortcut buttons to make using the technology easier. Plus, the Sierra’s voice recognition technology is excellent, responding swiftly and accurately to commands.

Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto came standard, along with SiriusXM satellite radio, a 4G LTE WiFi hotspot, and a navigation system. The Sierra AT4’s Bose premium sound system is adequate but is no match for the Ford F-150’s Bang & Olufsen or the Ram 1500’s Harman Kardon audio components.

Due to near hurricane-force winds in Ventura County, California, we lost electricity and internet service for more than a day. The Sierra’s 4G LTE WiFi hotspot and 115-volt in-dash electrical outlet kept the home office humming right along, though. All we wished for was a flat work surface on the center console, similar to what the F-150 offers.


4/ 10

For a so-called “premium” truck brand, GMC sure is stingy when it comes to safety features. For example, forward collision warning, front pedestrian braking, and automatic emergency braking are options. On the one hand, it’s nice that GMC offers them on the most basic version of the Sierra. On the other hand, why aren’t these features standard on the luxed-up Denali?

The Denali does include blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic warning, which are optional on other Sierras. Depending on the trim level, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, and a Safety Alert Seat that vibrates to help get the driver’s attention when necessary are also available on the Sierra.

Adaptive cruise control is an option for the Sierra SLT, AT4, and Denali. Our test truck had it, along with all of the aforementioned driver-assist tech. It worked beautifully, smoothly maintaining distance to traffic ahead and maintaining its composure when other motorists cut into the gap. It was, however, slow to accelerate after switching lanes to get around slower vehicles.

As part of a 2022 model-year refresh, the Sierra is getting GM’s Super Cruise technology. This is an acclaimed Level 2+ ADAS that allows hands-free driving on hundreds of thousands of miles of limited-access highways in the U.S. and Canada. It will definitely step up the Sierra’s safety tech game.

Heaven knows the Sierra needs all of the help it can get. This truck’s crash-test ratings are hard to understand considering it was a clean-sheet design for 2019.

In testing conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the truck earns a four-star overall rating due to four-star protection levels for the driver and front passenger in the frontal-impact test. The top rating is five stars.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) finds the Sierra to offer "Marginal" levels of protection for the front passenger in the small-overlap frontal-impact test and gives the truck’s headlights a "Poor" rating. If you’re planning to install child safety seats in a Sierra, know that its LATCH anchors rate "Marginal" for accessibility.

Among the Sierra’s competitors, and excluding the Chevy Silverado, which gets the same ratings, only the positively ancient Toyota Tundra fares worse. Hopefully, the changes coming for the 2022 Sierra will address these less-than-stellar crash-test scores.


2/ 10

The most cost-effective thing about the 2021 GMC Sierra is its affordable diesel engine option. Otherwise, from the skimpy free trial subscriptions to satellite radio, WiFi, and GMC Connected Services to the fact that any paint color except for Summit White costs extra, before you know it the Sierra can nickel-and-dime you well into the $60,000 range.

Most buyers will want to strongly consider the Elevation trim level. It offers a custom appearance and access to a variety of options, allowing you to keep a $43,000 lid on the price if necessary while making it possible to approach $60,000 if the budget allows.

Still, the Sierra Elevation isn’t a Sierra AT4, even when equipped with its optional X31 Off-Road Package.

The rugged and rough-hewn AT4 looks great, is roomy and comfortable, and exudes capability, especially when equipped with its Duramax turbodiesel six-cylinder engine. But until GMC fixes the Sierra’s flaws, it’s impossible to recommend it over competitors from Ford and Ram.

Updated by Christian Wardlaw

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