GM's 2011 HDs Go from Basic to Posh

By Tom Berg, Truck Editor | November 10, 2010

Maybe General Motors folks know that I’m kind of a plain guy, because at the very start of a ride-and-drive event last summer, they put me in a plain-vanilla truck: a 2011 GMC 3500HD cab-chassis with the basic W/T (for work truck) trim and a steel flatbed, called a service body in some regions and a “ranch body” in Texas and other places out on the frontier. This was shortly after touchdown at civilized Baltimore-Washington International Airport and a classy buffet lunch at a nearby hotel, from where we motored to a resort in western Maryland.

Get in there and head west, they said, and I did, after shaking hands with Mark Cieslak, GM’s chief engineer for full-size trucks, who took the shotgun seat. He good-naturedly endured about two hours of my comments about the company’s vehicles and questions about its product plans. He said he appreciated the feedback about GM cars and trucks, but deftly fended off my future-tense queries.  

For now, some present- and past-tense observations: This Class 3 model 3500HD is the heaviest truck now offered by General Motors, which killed off its Class 4 through 7 (and Baby 8) vehicles more than a year ago after unsuccessfully trying to sell its medium-duty business. That was part of financially troubled GM’s move to return to its “core business” of cars and light trucks, and never mind that it had built hefty commercial trucks starting more than 90 years before. Times have changed.

GM’s pickups are sold as the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, with light and heavy-duty models sharing cabs, interiors, body panels and, of course, overall styling. Hoods differ slightly and GMC Crew Cab HD pickups can now be had with a plush Denali trim package, but otherwise the Chevies and GMCs are clones. In the mid-1950s, GMCs used Pontiac engines and had unique styling. But those days are gone, along with the Pontiac division that GM scuttled during its recent bankruptcy.  

Compared to the current 1500 series, the 2500HD and 3500HD pickups and cab-chassis models get stronger frames and suspensions, which for 2011 were extensively refined and further beefed up. For example, main rails are now fully boxed and use high-strength steel, and cross members are larger, making the frame stiffer. Rear leaf springs are 20 percent wider, and this truck had a three-stage leaf pack. These and many other changes allow higher payload and tow ratings—another topic of leapfrogging between GM and Ford that takes some studying of numbers in given models to make sense of.

Fresh styling was applied to the 1500s for the 2010 model year, and the HDs got it for ’11.  Exterior styling is streamlined with chunky bulges over the wheel cutouts. The windshield remains steeply sloped to smooth air flow over the top. There are gobs of chrome in the grille, and hoods have bulges suggesting lots of power and torque.

Indeed, the gasoline and diesel engines used in the HD cab-chassis trucks have high ratings—322 horsepower and 380 lb.-ft. for the Vortec 6000, which this GMC 3500HD had, and 335 horsepower and 685 lb.-ft. for the Duramax 6600. Pickup versions of the engines make more—397 horsepower/765 lb.-ft. for the Duramax, which, at the time of this event, was the most in its class. But Ford has since pushed its new PowerStroke diesel to higher numbers. Bragging rights are important to some buyers.

The Duramax V-8 diesel was enhanced with greater combustion efficiency and equipped with exhaust-fluid aftertreatment to scrub out most oxides of nitrogen to meet federal limits for 2010. But the latest changes, along with those applied in 2007 and 2004, have greatly boosted the diesel’s price premium. It’s now more than $7,000 above the HD pickups’ standard Vortec 6000 gasoline V-8, which GM planners think more people might choose.

The Duramax diesel might be the better choice for constant heavy loads and serious towing. But the Vortec gasser is a gutsy and fine-driving engine for a truck of this size and weight, and it felt more than adequate to carry whatever loads an owner might reasonably stack aboard the flatbed on our test truck. However, the bed was empty on this trip, so the stiff springs didn’t flex much and the truck jounced continuously on all but the smoothest pavement. I commented on this to Cieslak, who answered, “You think it rides rough?” Yes, I do.

It’d ride better if Regular cabs like this one got the new hydraulic rear mounts that are used on the longer Extended and Crew Cabs—another change for 2011. Experience with those soft mounts on other trucks later this day makes me think that the hydraulic mounts should be optional even on work trucks. But tie two or three thousand pounds of hay, lumber or cement bags onto the bed, like owners do, and the ride would settle down just fine.

The heavy front and rear suspensions boosted the 3500HD’s chassis skyward and put the cab’s floor about 2 feet off the pavement. I’m a short guy with short legs and I struggled to get aboard, which led to my oft-repeated rant against GM: Why no grab handle at the driver’s position? “You think one’s needed?” Cieslak replied. Yes, I do.

Ford and Dodge put big, useful handles on the A pillars of their F-series and Rams for the driver as well as the passenger (which GM does supply). Is that driver-side handle so expensive that GM can’t afford to? “The steering wheel’s there,” he reminded me. Yes, I know it’s there, and that’s what I used to pull myself in, but....

But enough griping, because this 3500HD was otherwise really nice to drive. Its base W/T trim included cloth-covered bench seats that were shaped like buckets and comfortably supportive. The gauge package was fairly complete and handsomely trimmed, while controls were easy to see and manipulate. With windows up, the interior was quiet at freeway speeds. And the 366-cubic-inch Vortec 6000 was smooth and gutsy and the Hydra-Matic 6L90 six-speed shifted smoothly every time, so much that I could hardly feel it work. The stronger Duramax, by the way, uses an Allison 1000 six-speed.

Over the next day and a half I drove other GMC and Chevy HD pickups with diesel and gasoline power, all with heavy loads and one with a long trailer. They were very capable and, fitted with more upscale trim, were more comfortable to boot. Our hosts had mapped out courses that used mostly curvy and hilly U.S. and state highways, with jaunts into West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

On one occasion we missed a turn and got lost, and calls to On-Star operators got us some help that was bested by simply asking directions from locals. On-Star would’ve proved more valuable if we had crashed into a tree and sat there bloodied and dazed, because a remote voice would’ve told us that help was on the way, like in the TV commercials. Happily, that didn’t happen.

Before I let Cieslak get out of the GMC, I asked him about reports that GM executives were considering a return to Class 4 and 5. The idea would be to use pickup-based cabs like this truck’s instead of the wider van-based cabins of the now-defunct C-series conventionals. And the chassis would come from—what, Mark? He wouldn’t say except that, “we’re looking at a number of things.” If it happens, the rumors say, it’ll be within a year, and then he might have to put up with me on another drive in another, stronger truck.