Behind the Wheel

2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Review: Comfortable, capable, and on the verge of being the best truck

Chrome details give the 2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali a luxe look.

Photo courtesy of GMC

The best truck is an excellent blend of capability, comfort, and tech. The 2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali checks most of those boxes thanks to a variety of upgrades for the new model year that make enough of a difference that the truck ticks up a few spots in the desirability rankings.

Sitting at the top of GMC's lineup, as tested the Sierra 1500 Denali seemingly had every bell and whistle. The CarboPro bed, MultiPro tailgate, and 3.0-liter Duramax diesel engine. That's the trifecta of GMC innovation, and it all plays very well with the idea of a luxury truck that the arm of General Motors is looking to project with the model.

2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali The Sierra tester came equipped with the truck's available MultiPro tailgate and CarbonPro bed.Photo courtesy of GMC

The strong stance of the Sierra 1500 Denali is complimented by a bright, multidimensional grille, chrome exterior accents, and body-color bumpers. The overall effect is elegant rather than beefy.

The real eye-catching aspect is the MultiPro tailgate, which during a week of testing (and a few stops at Home Depot) garnered more than its fair share of questions and displayed its functionality to a number of curious fellow shoppers. Attach that interest to the questions about the CarbonPro bed, and a trip to the hardware store gives a whole different meaning to Demo Day.

The true gem of the Sierra 1500 Denali is a bit more hidden. That's its strong, capable, and surprisingly quiet diesel engine. The Duramax is good for 277 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. Its power inspired confidence while simultaneously not annoying the neighbors with a startling grumble when it starts. The engine is paired with a smooth-as-silk 10-speed automatic transmission.

2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali The truck isn't just another pretty face. It is plenty capable as well. Photo courtesy of GMC

The available 4x4 drivetrain can be switched to Auto to take advantage of the functionality when needed but fuel savings when not. The EPA rates the 4x2 version of the truck at 23 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway while the 4x4 is said to get 22 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. Those estimates held true during testing resulting in the model being nearly twice as fuel efficient as the Toyota Tundra in the two-wheel drive variant.

GMC has made the truck easy to drive at low speed but on the highway, at higher speeds, the steering gets too loose for comfort, making you rethink quick lane changes. That's not an issue that effects the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 or HD, or GMC Sierra HD AT4, which were recently tested in similar conditions.

2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali The interior of the model isn't up to par with the luxury-level exterior.Photo courtesy of GMC

The model also falters in its cabin. Though the materials are an upgrade from the more pedestrian variants of the Sierra, the Sierra 1500 Denali doesn't feel like a true luxury truck the way the interior of the Ram 1500 does. Still, its seats are comfortable, there's good legroom in the rear, and the infotainment system is plenty responsive.

The truck has a host of easy-to-use tech including 15 camera views and adaptive cruise control, which is new for the 2020 model year. Those cameras, while helpful when driving and towing, are not as helpful when it comes to parking - parking between the lines is somehow much more difficult than it should be.

2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali The GMC Sierra is easy to drive but difficult to park, even with all the camera angles.Photo courtesy of GMC

A combination of wonky steering and lack of luxe cabin features keep the Sierra 1500 Denali from being truly great. However, it's one of the better pickup trucks on the market because of its carbon fiber bed, innovative tailgate, and engine. If the price tag is too high for your taste or if you want a beefier looking truck, check out the Sierra 1500 AT4, which adds a lift, black exterior accents, and other equipment to the typical Sierra 1500 setup.

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No, it didn't snow in June.

GMC

Testing trucks is always fun. Well, to be honest, testing any vehicle is fun and is absolutely a privilege, but I absolutely love putting trucks through their paces. My most recent tester was the 2021 GMC Sierra 1500 AT4, a factory off-road model with style and substance. Let's take a look at what makes it tick.

Off-Road-Ready Truck With a Stout Powertrain

Key upgrades here include a two-inch factory lift kit with Rancho Monotube Shocks, Goodyear Mud-Terrain tires mounted on 20-inch wheels, a two-speed automatic transfer case, and a traction select system with off-road and towing settings.

The net effect of all that gear is impressive. The AT4 rides as smoothly as many crossovers and maneuvers with relative ease for a truck its size. In town, there's little distinction in driving manners between this beefy off-road pickup truck and most family haulers, as long as being taller than nearly everyone else in traffic is ok with you. The truck handles well, and exhibits little instability over bumps at speed, which is a common challenge with pickup trucks and off-road vehicles.

My test truck was equipped with the optional 3.0-liter Duramax turbodiesel and a ten-speed automatic gearbox. With 277 horsepower and a stout 460 pound-feet of torque, it's the perfect companion for a truck meant to climb over and out of gnarly obstacles on the trails. In daily driving scenarios, the engine is quiet and refined, and shows little of the rattly, noisy diesel sound many people expect from the engines. With plenty of torque on tap, the AT4 feels somewhat lively, and is able to navigate traffic with ease. Reaching highway speeds and passing once there is also a breeze, and the truck remains surprisingly peaceful on the interstate.

Comfy Interior and Useful Bed Features

Inside, my test truck came equipped with leather upholstery and optional heated/cooled front seats. We had a rare heat wave in Maine during my week with the truck, and its powerful air conditioning combined with the cooled seats to create a much-needed oasis for this rare brutal week in northern New England. The front seats are wide and well-padded, but I found myself shuffling around, wanting more in the way of hip and thigh support. There's a tendency to slide to one side of the seat and stay there, which could easily be solved with a bit more bolstering on both the seat back and bottom.


2021 GMC Sierra AT4 The Sierra's cabin is comfortable and well-made.GMC


As all of my vehicle testing adventures do, the week with the AT4 involved plenty of kid transport. The full-size pickup's back seat is wide and flat, which makes it ideal for installing car seats, but I can't imagine that it'd be extremely supportive for an adult over a long-haul trip. The truck's lift means it's hard for kids to climb in, but they had a fun time trying. The novelty may wear thin over time, but it lasted for the week we had the AT4. Once inside, the kids (and anyone else in the back seat) had their own air conditioning vents and plenty of room to stretch out in their booster seats.

Normally, a truck bed would be an afterthought in a review, but GMC has gone to lengths to make its bed a standout. The Carbon Pro composite bed material is tough, as in there's no need to worry about throwing whatever you want into the bed tough. I hauled over 100 30-pound patio paver blocks over the course of a few trips, and never felt the need to add extra protection to the bed after the first trip. I tossed an old rug and some flat cardboard to protect the bed at first, but it proved to be as stout as GMC claims. Adding functionality is the MultiPro tailgate, which offers several options for steps and different cargo hauling situations. It makes an excellent step, and when the center section is folded down, it opens up much more access to the bed when standing on the ground. My tester also had an optional Bluetooth speaker system built right into the step system, which would make for an awesome camping or beach party.

Tech-Heavy Cabin

In terms of tech, the Sierra AT4 is up to speed but nothing to write home about. Its optional 8.0-inch touchscreen runs wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with an option for wired connections. There's also Bluetooth, SiriusXM Radio, and more. It's a cohesive system that is easy to use and intuitive, made even easier by clever behind-the-steering-wheel-mounted controls that allow volume and track adjustments. My truck also had an optional head-up display, which unsurprisingly is extremely difficult to see with polarized sunglasses. This is a common issue not unique to GMC, and could be solved by switching to non-polarized glasses.


2021 GMC Sierra AT4 The MultiPro tailgate adds ultimate functionality.GMC


Most advanced safety equipment is optional, and when I say most, I mean all. The Sierra AT4, and all Sierras for that matter, is available with automatic emergency braking, a bed-view camera system, forward collision alerts, front pedestrian braking, a front/rear parking assist system, blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist, lane departure warnings, and more. While I get the need to differentiate models with various features, the lack of some of these safety items is hard to swallow at nearly $60,000.

Bottom Line

I tend to become infatuated with full-size pickup trucks while I have them in for testing, but that feeling typically fades after a while. The Sierra AT4 was a little different. The diesel engine and comfortable interior make for a supremely daily-drivable pickup truck, and the Carbon Pro bed with multi-function tailgate makes a strong case for the GMC. Ultimately, it's too much truck for me, but it's a solid choice for those that can put it to work.

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The Nissan Pathfinder is just at home on the trial as it is on the road.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken". The message is about making choices and, how the road taken made all the difference. Often in life and on the road, we have to make one choice. Take one road. No turning back. I thought of this poem on my recent test drive in the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder in the hinterlands of Montana, when I could take two different roads—paved and dirt—and that made all the difference!

Nissan has redesigned and retooled its fifth-generation Pathfinder instilling greater latitude for buyers who want to travel both types of roads and expand their adventure footprint. After seven decades of off-road development, 35 years in the business of selling Pathfinders, and with more than 1.8 million sold in the U.S., this Japanese automaker has moved the needle with a ground-up revision of the previous-gen model.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is a capable off-roader.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The full-sized sport utility is available in four trims (S, SV, SL and Platinum) and two- and four-wheel drive versions; Nissan expects that nearly 60 percent of buyers will choose four-wheel drive. The Pathfinder is in a segment that has grown larger each year as more families want a vehicle for around-town, school and playdate runs and for weekend getaways with traction technology that allows travel in the backcountry and good towing capability. Direct competitors are the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Ford Explorer.

A day-long drive of approximately 150 miles on tarmac and over a variety of dirt roads and tracks provided the opportunity to assess the Pathfinder's updates. A late-spring snowstorm added slickness to all the road surfaces in the region and allowed the Pathfinder to show off its traction capabilities at both slow and higher speeds and with lane change and emergency-braking maneuvers, when towing. I concentrated my evaluation on the augmented hardware and software designed to enhance the crossover's capabilities for backcountry travel and towing.

What I found most notable over every road surface was the comfortable ride and responsive handling that come from a collection of upgrades—and, in particular, as a result of the following: the gearing on the new nine-speed transmission, with paddle shifters for personal and more precise shifting for sport driving and slowing over rough terrain; the new terrain mode system that's engineered for different driving conditions; the four-wheel drive system that moves torque more quickly to avoid wheel slip; the improved suspension system; and new tires with a larger contact patch and more aggressive tread pattern, among other changes.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Pathfinder's drive modes are designed to inspire confidence. Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The Pathfinder provided sure-footed motoring and comfort over uneven surfaces. Its 7.1 inches of ground clearance easily maneuvered over the small obstacles on the trail and hill descent control took the reigns without hesitation for steeper and longer downhills on traction-compromised surfaces.

I was also impressed with the Pathfinder's towing competence and appreciated the standard trailer sway control onboard all trims. It offered notably strong, mannered acceleration from a standing start and excellent straight-line braking without porpoising for either exercise.

The new 2022 Pathfinder brings off-road and towing attributes that are important to families who are seeking to spend time in the backcountry for days trips and longer and for overlanding in terrain that doesn't require a true off-road vehicle with a low range. It's will appeal to buyers who want don't want to have to choose only one road.

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