St. Johns, Newfoundland With the new 2019 pickup from Sierra, GMC moves in the Uptown Zone, setting a clear distance between itself and the working-class Chevrolet Silverado.
With unique features, eye-catching wardrobe and transaction prices that make Mercedes envy, GMC is establishing itself as America's only premium truck brand. At a time when truck profits are critical to Detroit Three's investment in autonomous and electric vehicles, GMC is adding an expensive off-road offering called AT4 to its delicate Denali and SLT menu.
"We find customers from Mercedes and BMW sedans want to get into this beautiful premium high-performance motor car," said GMC design chief Matt Noone in Newfoundland's St. John's Port, where the Sierra was presented to the media , "Denali's success has exceeded all our expectations and we are focusing on the (market) appetite for premium trucks."
General Motors' success in promoting GMC and its Denali badge, analysts say, is a wise reading of a marketplace where truckers demand luxury – but still appreciate the ruggedness of trucks.
GMC succeeds where Cadillac and Lincoln failed in the early 21st century by providing a pickup truck that competes with German luxury car makers in profit margin.
Named after the largest mountain peak in the United States (also known as Mt. McKinley), the 1999 Denali Trim was introduced on the GMC Yukon SUV to supplement the palatial Cadillac Escalade SUV, which was unveiled a year earlier. The badge was added to the Sierra lineup in 2001.
When the market moved into SUVs after the Great Recession, the General has positioned GMC – and Denali – to catch the wave with its mid-size Acadia and compact terrain.
Denali's growth was meteoric.
Since 2013, sales almost doubled from 74,795 units to 140,403 last year. The average Denali transaction price in 2017 was $ 55,656 – higher than at Mercedes, BMW and Audi.
"The people who came out of the recession were ready to pay for technology," says Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS Market, after driving in the new Sierra. "They opened their checkbooks to buy content and that helped GMC and Denali."
Ford and Ram compete against the Sierra with successful premium trim such as the F-150 Platinum and Ram 1500 Limited.
So much sought after is the premium image of GMC that it has changed the brand. Where the standard, $ 40,000 SLE Retail Trim was once 40 percent of sales, it shrunk to just 9 percent of Sierra's volume. Meanwhile, the posh SLT and Denali cuts account for 75 percent of sales, says marketing director Phil Brook. Denali alone – starting at $ 59,495 – accounts for 20 percent of Sierra's sales.
No one says Sierra Sierra gave the clean sheet in 2019 gave the truck maker the chance to push the envelope over its Chevy kin.
"Customers have told us – you have this great brand, you have to do more with it – we want the truck to look different, feel different, have features you can not get on a Chevy or any other truck. "
GMC follows a path known to luxury car makers like Lincoln, Acura and Lexus: it shares a base architecture with the mainstream Chevy Silverado pickup – and adds styling and unique features.
"This is the biggest separation between GMC and Chevy that we've seen," says analyst Brinley. "The only plate they share is a rear door, a roof and a rear bumper – and GMC gets technology ahead of Chevrolet."
The Sierra's exclusive MultiPro tailgate is a technical marvel – essentially two tailgates in one, which can be configured into a standing desk, a wooden loading stop or an entrance staircase into the pickup bed.
The new AT4 off-road trim wins a 6.2-liter V-8 over its 5.3-liter V-8 Chevy Trail boss cousin. It is also equipped with a carbon fiber bed, a lightweight, durable material normally found on exotic performance cars.
"Denali has focused on premium, luxury," Noone said. "But we also have 100 years of experience in providing ruggedness, so we're bringing an AT4 focused on capabilities – the carbon fiber bed is the strongest box we've ever made."
While Cadillac has prevailed against German luxury manufacturers, GMC is building luxury-style sales. The Denali sales alone were only 14,000 units behind the entire Caddy division. According to the Bloomberg News figures, the average GMC vehicle is sold for around $ 44,000, nearly 40 percent more than the average US transaction.
The pickup from Sierra Denali will cost over $ 67,000. But while the Cadillac Escalade SUV can push $ 100,000, do not expect luxury manufacturers to move into the pickup area in the near future.
Both Cadillac (the Escalade-based EXT) and Lincoln (the Blackwood and Mark LT) introduced pickups in 2002. They were discontinued after bad sales earlier this decade.
"When it was a luxury brand trying to deliver a pickup, it was not successful," said Gläsery of IHS Market. "Pickup shoppers want to have confidence in their abilities, but they do not want a Cadillac truck, they want their truck brand, and then they want to reward themselves."
Even Mercedes, which sells its mid-range X-Class pickup in Europe and Latin America, is not about to defend itself against Detroit's premium titans in the US market.
"I think Mercedes would fight here," says Brinley.
Henry Payne is a car critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch "Car Radio with Henry Payne" from 12 to 14 o'clock. Saturdays at 910 am Superstation.
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