There is no tougher vehicle arena than full-size pickup trucks. Competitive? You bet. It is where the 2021 GMC Sierra 1500 slugs it out with the big boys: the Ford F-150, the Ram 1500 and GM sibling Chevrolet Silverado. You can toss Nissan Titan and Toyota Tundra into the mix, as well. Because full-size truck owners tend to be rabidly brand loyal, truck makers usually stay in their lane, playing to the owner base. Consequently, generational life cycles (periods between sweeping redesigns) are historically longer than those of cars. Sierra and Silverado are in the midst of their most recent life cycle.
Arguably Sierra’s major enhancement for 2021 is a suite of trailer technologies. Among them are Jack-Knife Alert and a Trailer Length Indicator, warning when there isn’t room for changing lanes. The Rear Trailer View now includes guidelines to help back the trailer into position.
In truth, there isn’t all that much daylight between Sierra and Silverado. Sierra is a somewhat more gussied-up truck than Silverado, but the bones are about the same. Differences mostly boil down to styling and price.
In preparing to write this review of the 2021 Sierra 1500, I spent a week each in a four-wheel-drive Crew Cab AT4 and a 4WD Crew Cab Denali. Powering the AT4 was the 277-horsepower 3-liter 6-cylinder turbodiesel, delivering a muscular 460 lb-ft of torque. Under the Denali’s hood was the 420-hp 6.2-liter V8 that meets the turbodiesel’s torque output. Powertrains on both include a 10-speed automatic transmission.
Government-estimated fuel economy for the RWD turbodiesel is 23 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined. Opting for 4WD lowers fuel efficiency to 22 mpg city/26 mpg highway/24 mpg combined. The 6.2L V8 is only available with 4WD. Estimated mileage is 16 mpg city/20 mpg highway/17 mpg combined.
GMC offers three other engine choices: a 285-hp 4.3-liter V6 paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission; a 310-hp 2.7-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder bolted to an 8-speed automatic transmission and a 355-hp 5.3-liter V8. The available transmission for the 5.3L depends on the drive wheels. With RWD comes either the 6-speed or the 8-speed tranny; while the 10-speed switches the cogs in 4WD versions.
Pricing begins at $31,295 (including the $1,595 factory destination charge) for the RWD regular cab in Sierra (base) trim. In addition to the base grade, GMC offers SLE, Elevation, SLT, AT4 and Denali trim levels. Pricing is not only influenced by the trim level, but also by the cab style (Regular, Double or Crew), the bed length and the engine. All of this isn’t interchangeable throughout the lineup. All trims aren’t available in all cab styles, all engines aren’t available in every trim and so on. It’s far too complex to parse here.
Pricing out at a whopping $72,410, my GMC Sierra Denali had $12,115 in options heaped on its $60,295 base price. The extras included 22-inch high-gloss black wheels and the 6.2L V8. Tacking nearly $5,000 to the bottom line was the Denali Ultimate Package providing a multi-color head-up display (HUD), an exterior-camera array (HD Surround Vision, trailer camera, bed-view camera and rear camera mirror), forward-collision alert, automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, front-pedestrian braking, automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control and a few other goodies.
Although GMC offers 4WD in every trim level, the AT4 grade assumes the role of GMC’s off-road specialist. Separating its standard gear from other grades are a 2-in boost in ground clearance, an off-road suspension, 2-speed Autotrac Transfer case, 3.23 rear axle, heavy-duty battery, heavy-duty air filter, hill-descent control and red recovery hooks. With the 3L Turbo Diesel, its $57,535 base price increased to $62,430 after $4,895 in add-ons. Significant among the options were the Technology Package and the Driver Alert Package. The Technology and Driver Alert packages combine to provide most of the features in the Denali’s Ultimate Package.
Both of my test Sierras provided GMC’s Multipro Tailgate as standard equipment. Thinking it more of a gimmick than a practical feature, I was surprised at how much versatility this 6-setting multi-folding tailgate provides. Offering practical alternatives to carrying cargo loads, it also allows for easier access to the cargo bed and a bench position with footrest for tailgating. My Denali test truck even had the dealer-installed Multipro Kicker audio system ($645), further enhancing the tailgating experience.
You can’t talk full-size pickup trucks and not include towing capacities in the discussion. Maximum towing capability for the 2021 GMC Sierra 1500 is 11,800 pounds, requiring the 6.2L V8 and Max Trailering Package. This isn’t segment leading, but it’s pretty darn good. GMC also managed to boost the turbodiesel’s towing capacity to 9,300 lbs. This is a 1,900 lb gain. Trailering capability of the turbo-four is close behind at 9,200 lbs.
Sierra’s interior is roomy and highly functional. Systems are easy to access and control. Simple to use, the infotainment interface operates with an 8-in touchscreen. OnStar and 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spot capability are standard, as are front-and-rear USB ports, Bluetooth connectivity and a multi-speaker audio system.
Although the interior’s layout is convenient, the operation intuitive and the seating comfy, the overall impression isn’t one of upscale luxury. This is even more apparent in Sierra’s top-of-the-line Denali grade. As I wrote earlier, there isn’t a lot of daylight between Silverado and Sierra.
Despite a nit or two to pick, the 2021 Sierra 1500 is a solid pick among full-size competitors. Improved towing and payload capabilities for 2021 boost its resume. Shoppers with a specific must-have, such as increased performance or luxurious interior, might do well to shop around. However, for a handsome, practical, full-size pickup, the 2021 Sierra 1500 is a smart choice.
Russ has covered the automotive industry for more than 30 years. He is also a long-time bourbon and craft-beer drinker who also produces the BEER2WHISKEY channel on YouTube.