The truck world was waiting with bated breath after the release of Ford and GM's newest HD trucks for 2011 to learn just how much power would be available from the updated diesel powerplants. As you've no doubt heard, Ford released their numbers first, then GM released their figures, upping the ante, and Ford answered with an updated ECU modification to claim the bragging right to the tune of three more horsepower and 35 lb-ft of torque. Numbers are nice, but we wanted to get to the bottom of how each truck would perform in everyday use.
For our testing, we had an F-250 Lariat and a GMC Sierra Denali, both diesel and both optioned to nearly $60,000 MSRP. We also nabbed two gasoline-powered 3/4-tons, both considerably less expensive, and put them through a week's worth of daily driving and identical towing tests. Our initial plan was to hitch each truck up to the biggest, heaviest trailer we could find and flog them up and down the steepest grade around. Then we considered what we typically see being towed behind an HD truck at any given show we travel to. With that thought in mind, we hitched each truck up to a Jimglo trailer with our Project Drift King Suzuki Equator strapped aboard, but we still kept the steep grade portion of the plan, heading to the Cajon Pass on Interstate 15 in Southern California. Here's the result of our week-long evaluation.
GMC Denali HD
Denalis have always been one of the best looking trucks on the market, but the HD hood, with its plastic insert in the center, was seen as an unnecessary bit of trim. We'd rather it be painted body color or not there at all. The GMCs new suspension provides a taller stance than before, almost like a 1500 with a leveling kit, with deep framerails that are easily visible under the rockers and add to it's heightened stance. The new 2011 HD GMCs finally have an appearance worthy of their capability. Speaking of capability, the diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tank hangs as low as the frame, just behind the passenger-side wheelwell, with no skidplate for protection. We worried that it was in a bit of a vulnerable spot.
Overall, the GMC Denali was our hands-down favorite for looks. We gave the Denali high marks in this section for having the most elegant layout and comfortable driving experience. The driving position, visability, and ergonomics were all great, possibly due to the time we've spent in other '07+ GM trucks. The only real complaint we had was the position of the seat controls, which are so close to the door panel that it makes it a tight squeeze, especially if you're wearing a watch on your left hand. We liked the GMCs simple, easy-to-read gauge cluster, but we were hoping that they would have come with an additional transmission temperature gauge in the cluster to further separate it from the 1/2-tons, at least in Denali trim, as Ford did with their Super Duties. Another item on our Denali wish list is the navigation unit from the Escalade, which is a step above the typical GM truck navigation. The GMCs also had a DIC that displayed important engine and drivetrain information, but in green LCD that seemed plain and outdated by comparison. That's fine in the lower trim levels, but again, we wished the Denali had stepped up in that regard.
Moving on to the powertrains, the throttle return spring on our Duramax diesel-equipped Denali was particularly firm, as if it were trying to tell us we didn't need as much throttle as we thought we did. During the tow test, the Denali HD pulled with vigor once the boost reached its limit and thanks to the Allison transmission, the HD had no problems finding the right gear to get the job done. The GMC's exhaust brake wasn't intrusive, one driver even felt that it was nearly imperceptible, which he didn't like. However, toggling the exhaust brake switch on and off showed just how much work it was doing to slow the vehicle. During our trailer tow test, the GMC Denali HD proved quicker in our 40-65 mph passing test, clocking in at 15.67 seconds to make the pass, while the Power Stroke accomplished the same acceleration in 17.28 seconds. Before the data was retrieved, the two editors riding in the trucks felt that while the Duramax in the Denali had better top end, the Power Stroke pulled harder on the low end. It turns out that the Allison transmission might have been the biggest factor, as the engines should have been closely matched.
2011 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 4WD
It was the one that...could haul a load and the mail while wearing a tuxedo
Down to business:
6.6L V-8 turbo-diesel
397 hp @ 3,000 rpm
765 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
Allison 1000 six-speed automatic transmission
MSRP, including destination: $58,144
5-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty
40-65 mph tow test: 15.67 seconds
We all agreed that the GMC Denali HD was the best-looking truck in our shootout.
Ford F-250 Power Stroke
2011 models share a lot with their 2010 model year predecessors, but received updates in capability and styling. The Ford's new [=] grille has yet to grow on us, but it took a while for the '08s and their larger headlights to fully sink in, so that might still be the case. The Fords had several low-hanging obstacles that concerned us, as their lower four-link mounts, while sturdy, are the first thing that would drag on an obstacle, while a crossmember and the fuel tank also dipped far below the protection of the framerails, which are tucked up under the Ford's rockers. Even though the bold style and interesting color options on the Super Duties won it several points, it couldn't compete with the GMC's elegance.
When it came time to commandeer the Power Stroke, the light throttle and short First gear made it feel peppy. The Power Stroke was quieter than the Duramax, but both had a good idle and full-throttle sound, as did their gas counterparts. We recorded nearly 20 mpg from both diesel trucks. As far as we're concerned, that's nothing short of amazing. Climbing 3,000 feet from San Bernardino to Hesperia on Interstate 15, the Cajon pass is a demanding stretch of road. The pull up showed all four trucks had no problem keeping up with the flow of traffic, while the diesel trucks didn't even break a sweat. It sounds cliché, but we often found ourselves saying that the Super Duty didn't even notice the 6,000-pound load behind it. On the way down, the Power Stroke had a chance to show off its integrated trailer brake controller and exhaust brake. Overall, the Super Duty diesel did an exceptional job of making the driver feel supremely confident.
While we are familiar with the nav unit in the Denali, the SYNC system in the Ford Lariat has amazing resolution and the additional features available with SYNC, like voice activation, and Ford Work Solutions, set it a notch above the competition. The Ford's pre-wired auxillary switches found in the center stack are another brilliant idea that will no-doubt be adopted by other manufacturers. We were split on the color of the Lariat's upholstery inserts, a mottled blue gray leather, but we all appreciated the additional rear legroom and the extra overall space of the Super Duty cab. The center console is just plain ginormous, with a large main compartment, side map pockets, and four cupholders that can be removed to hold even trough-sized Uber-Gulps. The Driver Information Center (DIC) mounted low just above the steering column in the gauge cluster allows for a staggering amount of information in easy-to-read formats. In this contest, SYNC was the tipping point, giving the Lariat the edge over the Denali by a slim margin.
2011 Ford F-250 Lariat 4WD
It was the one that...stole the test after two minutes of driving
Down to business:
6.7L V-8 turbo-diesel
400 hp @ 2,800 rpm
800 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
Six-speed automatic transmission
MSRP, including destination: $60,525
5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty
40-65 mph tow test: 17.28 seconds
Final Thought: Powerful, poised, and perfect for everyday duties.
Ford F-250 Gas
There is great excitement in the Ford camp for the new 6.2L engine available in the Super Duty, but equally important is the transmission.
Both gas and diesel Fords share the same six-speed automatic, and both benefited from the short first gear to get their bulk up and moving. The Ford's 6.2L engine, with its all-new design and massive heads, has more power than ever, but it also had more weight to haul around. As we were somewhat used to 5.4L Super Duties, the 6.2L was a welcome burst of power and had us tossing the big Ford around like it was a much smaller truck. This is definitely the gas engine the Super Duty has been waiting for. Since all four trucks had different driving routines over the course of commuting and heading to photo locations, we weren't able to get firm fuel economy numbers, but both gas-powered trucks returned low teens in MPG when hammered on. One unnerving moment during the testing was watching the 6.2L Ford's tachometer climb to 6,000 rpm and then feeling extreme harmonics as it seemed the Ford was ready to scatter engine parts on the freeway. Thankfully, it stayed together.
The solid front axle-equipped 4WD Fords provided a smooth and comfortable ride and it was just as easily maneuverable as the GMCs equipped with IFS. Even though the Ford's wheelbase was longer, two of our drivers swore that the Fords were more nimble in tight turns. If going off-road is a common occurrence for you, the Super Duty's solid front axle is a great choice. Both of our high-end diesel's interiors looked much better than their mainstream counterparts, as the gasoline-powered trucks featured interiors that were rather boring and monotone. We can't really fault them though, as they got the job done, and for a work truck that's really all you can ask for. We mentioned the Ford's vast interior, but the flip side of that extra space is the dash is a long reach away, even for taller drivers. In the higher trim levels this is less of an issue, as steering wheel controls and voice activation eliminate the need to remove your hands from the wheel, but it was annoying as a new driver not fully adept at SYNC, where we often had to lean forward out of our driving position to reach the dash controls.
2011 Ford F-250 XLT 4WD
It was the one that...proves Ford is tired of losing the performance battle
Down to business:
385 hp @ 5,400 rpm
405 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
Six-speed automatic transmission
MSRP, including destination: $46,370
5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty
30-60 mph tow test: 22.38 seconds
GMC Sierra HD Gas
As our only non-crew cab tester, the Sierra HD gas was up for every challenge we threw at it, just with tighter rear leg room. Spartan compared to the leather-clad Denali HD, the Sierra still impressed us with good power, a smooth ride, and a functional, albeit vanilla, interior. The variable valve timing and new cam profile on the GMC's 6.0L emphasize low-end torque and really help to get the truck up to speed easily, helped in no small part to the 6L90's low First gear. The one test that surprised us was our passing tests while hauling up the grade. With our gas trucks, we pulled the trailer up the grade and slowed down to the pace of the big rigs, around 30 mph, and then simulated passing, mashing the throttle and climbing to 60 mph. Down on horsepower and torque compared to the Ford's 6.2L, the GMC 6.0L still managed to hit 60 mph over two seconds faster, partly because of the Ford taking a full second to make the proper shift midway through the simulated pass.
Examining ride quality, the IFS on the GMCs gave it an advantage and it received high marks for comfortable daily driving characteristics. After critiquing the numbers and driver impressions, we have to give the nod to the GMCs for ride quality. Priced at $40,000, the Sierra HD came in as the "budget" truck in the test and for a monthly payment of $650, you get a truck that is capable of hauling, towing, and cruising in comfort, without the perks of leather, navigation, or a Duramax.
2011 GMC 2500 SLE 4WD
It was the one that...did everything well and we could almost afford
Down to business:
360 hp @ 5,400 rpm
380 lb-ft @ 4,200 rpm
6L90 six-speed automatic transmission
MSRP, including destination: $40,706
5-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty
30-60 mph tow test: 20.22 seconds
And Then There Was One...
When it came time to pick a victor for our shootout, we debated that there was no clear-cut winner, but after verbally assaulting each pro and con, one truck did emerge as the winner. Pound for pound, the Duramax/Allison combo was our pick for best powertrain, claiming the top spot in performance, delivering great fuel economy, and bringing with it a proven track record. An added benefit is its 5-year/100,000-mile warranty that gives added peace of mind for the extra $8,395 you have to shell out for the engine/transmission combo. As for the gas powertrains, the 6.0L Vortec in the GMC also shined. The Ford's 6.2L seemed strong, and was our favorite of the gas engines initially, but it didn't perform as well as its numbers would have indicated. Perhaps it was a victim of our high expectations, but for a completely new engine with higher power and torque ratings, we couldn't help but be a little disappointed when the smaller 6.0L beat it in several categories.
With those accolades said, the two drivers that had spent the most time towing were impressed by the Power Stroke's strong locomotive pulling power, linear brakes, smooth steering, and intuitive transmission that brought the truck and trailer to a reassuring halt. However, even after the performance data showed that the GMC towed the quickest, the confidence of pulling with the Power Stroke Super Duty, combined with its extra size and commanding stance, earned it the win. We were only able to scratch the surface on the abilities of the SYNC system, but we felt it would prove to be even more useful as time went on and using it became second nature. For road trips and long-haul driving with a cab full of passengers, the extra cab volume would also give the Ford an edge. Congrats to the engineers of Ford for pushing the limits of a 3/4-ton truck and developing an incredible machine that won our 2011 HD Truck of the Year.
From the Editors:
Before you concede that the Power Stroke had the deck stacked against it because the Duramax had a steeper rearend gear that would help it out in acceleration, keep in mind the gear ratios of both truck's six-speed automatics. The GMC's Allison 1000 transmission has ratios of 3.10, 1.81, 1.41, 1.00, .71, and .61. The Ford's 6R140's gear ratios are 3.97 2.32 1.52 1.15 .86 .67. Multiplied by each of their rearend ratios to get the final drive ratio, the GMC was at 11.56, 6.75, 5.26, 3.73, 2.65, and 2.28, while the Ford was at 14.09, 8.23, 5.39, 4.08, 3.05, and 2.37. That explains how the Ford was able to feel quicker off the line, but it should have had an acceleration advantage at every gear. The fact that the Duramax/Allison transmission was able to level the playing field despite the Ford's gearing advantage was why we picked it as our favorite powertrain combo.
By now, there are probably several of you out there reading this article wondering why we nit-picked so many little aspects of these four trucks. The reason is that we had to search to find faults in each of them. Maybe 100,000 miles of hard work will separate them further as little annoyances become serious pet peeves, or squeaks and rattles show up, but after a week of driving the trucks we had no real major complaints. Even small quirks that some drivers didn't like were appreciated by other drivers, so take our review as a stepping-stone to make your own call.
How we got our numbers:
We mounted a Racepak G2X data logger to our Suzuki Equator that was strapped to our Jimglo trailer (jimglo.com) to eliminate the variable of different mounting locations from truck to truck. The Racepak G2X uses GPS signals to track the location, speed, and acceleration of the vehicle. It can do much more, but for our purposes, that's all we needed. We compared the acceleration times on each truck from the same section of highway with the same grade on the same day. All tow tests were done using Softride's new Quietride anti-rattle aluminum ball mount with locking hitch pin. Visit softride.com to learn more.