GMC is simultaneously trying to plant its flag as a premium brand and develop more off-road cred with the updated 2022 Sierra 1500. To do so, the company is building off the truck's most popular models: the king-of-bling Denali and the off-road-oriented AT4. Previously, those two represented the lineup's classiest and most capable trim levels, but those titles now belong to the newly introduced Denali Ultimate and AT4X, respectively.
Along with a noteworthy makeover that includes a reshaped front end and redesigned interior on most 2022 Sierras, the Denali Ultimate and AT4X arrive with exclusive features intended to solidify their preeminent statuses and justify their lofty price tags. For instance, they alone get the new 12-speaker Bose sound system and front seats with more adjustments and massage functions. Compared with the regular Denali, the Ultimate's cabin is lined with richer leather upholstery, a microsuede headliner, and real wood trim etched with topographical maps of Mount Denali. For its part, the AT4X has added underbody protection, electronic locking front and rear diffs, greater suspension travel, and ingenious Multimatic spool-valve dampers that aren't offered on the regular AT4.
Here's the rub: the AT4X starts at $77,395 and the Denali Ultimate has a starting price of $82,795. That's between $14K and $18K more than the least expensive AT4 ($63,395) and Denali ($63,695). That sounds like a lot of dough for mostly nicer interior materials and upgraded off-road hardware, so to see if the new chart-topping Sierras are worth the ask, we traveled to Southern California, where we had a turn behind the wheel of each truck.
Dynamically, the Denali Ultimate could be mistaken for a 2019 Sierra 1500 Denali we tested. The '22 model has the same naturally aspirated 420-hp 6.2-liter V-8, 10-speed automatic transmission, and selectable four-wheel drive. We can't confirm the new truck hits 60 mph in the same 5.4 seconds, but its deliberate acceleration and baritone exhaust note felt familiar. For folks who want to avoid the V-8's $1005 upcharge, a Duramax diesel 3.0-liter inline-six with an equivalent 460 pound-feet of torque is available on the Ultimate. The diesel also raises the Ultimate's EPA combined rating from 17 to 24 mpg. Like its half-ton Chevy Silverado twin, the Sierra 1500 handles well for a truck. Its steering is direct, its brake pedal is firm, and the Denali's standard adaptive dampers help control body motions and isolate the ride despite the 22-inch rims.
We also got to try its Super Cruise hands-free driving tech on I-5. The system worked great in busy traffic, staying steady around corners at 75 mph and smoothly changing lanes on its own. Still, we'd need a longer test drive to contradict Ezra Dyer's uneven experience.
From any seat in the Denali Ultimate, it's obvious how much better everything looks than before. The dash layout is more horizontal, and the new 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and 13.4-inch touchscreen give GMC an answer to competitors' big displays. In fact, the Denali and Denali Ultimate's new and improved interior is a necessary response to the luxurious cabins in the fanciest Ford F-150 and Ram 1500 models. The snazziest Sierras now have more stitched leather surfaces and sturdier switchgear throughout that effectively elevate the aesthetic, putting them on the same plane as ritzy rivals. However, GMC still trails when it comes to the details. The leather looks shoehorned in some places, and the metallic trim piece that spans the dash feels hollow. The sunroof cover isn't microsuede like the headliner, and even though the sunroof is power operated, the cover is manual.
The AT4X isn't quite as posh as the Denali Ultimate. The Sierra's premier off-roader isn't offered with Super Cruise, it has less open-pore wood inside, and chrome is nonexistent. Like the Ultimate, every AT4X has a crew-cab, short-box configuration. Unlike the Denali, the 6.2-liter V-8 is mandatory. Our time with the AT4X included a romp around the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and an encounter with a steep, rocky obstacle called Diablo Drop Off. The latter demonstrated the value of the truck's electronic locking diffs that helped it effortlessly crawl through the sand and over the treacherous terrain. The Sierra's multitude of camera views ensured we could clearly locate nearby obstacles, the rock rails prevented serious body damage, and Terrain mode made creeping easy by simulating one-pedal driving in 4HI or 4LO. Its deceleration level can be adjusted with the steering-wheel-mounted paddles.
We drove the desert portion with the truck's 275/65R-18 Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac Mud-Terrain tires aired down to 15 psi. The gnarly rubber worked great for our purposes, but it's different than what's on the new Silverado ZR2. More obvious is that the AT4X's front bumper also isn't as aggressive as the Chevy's. We wondered why GMC made the most badass Sierra looks less badass than its bowtie-badged brother. We're told the AT4X misses out on the ZR2 bumper because GMC believes customers like how the Sierra looks and didn't want to jeopardize that. And due to clearance issues, the ZR2's slightly larger 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler Territory Mud-Terrain tires are too big for the AT4X. As a result, the AT4X's 25.5-degree approach angle is 6.3 degrees less than the ZR2's.
Despite the compromises in bumper design and tire size, the Sierra showed us it's the most capable pickup GMC has ever built. Its spool-valve dampers did wonders to smooth out the desert's washboard sections, and we never hit the bump stops even when we crashed over dirt mounds and ditches. Still, the Sierra's rear leaf springs cause the truck's back end to bounce and shudder more than the more sophisticated coil-spring setups on the Ford F-150 Raptor and Ram 1500 TRX. Those trucks are both better suited for high-speed desert runs. They're also better at peacocking. The new 2022 Sierra 1500 AT4X is more subdued and practical, and its narrower width makes it easier to wield on tight canyon trails or on crowded streets. Longtime GMC fans and newcomers alike should appreciate the truck's expanded capability and improved interior, but with that they'll have to stomach its bloated bottom line, which occupies the same price bracket as the more extreme Raptor and TRX.
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