Photo by Jim Fets, courtesy of General Motors
Over the past century, they’ve built planes, trains and automobiles, but the people at General Motors always save their best for their full-size trucks. While the emphasis lately has been on small cars and advanced alternative propulsion technologies, GM’s 2011 heavy-duty pickups seem to prove this rule true once again.
At first glance, it’s difficult to tell that much has changed from last year. The 2011 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 2500 and 3500 pickups look almost identical to the 2010 trucks, although sharp-eyed GM truck spotters will be alerted by the larger air intake in the front bumper, new hoods and grilles and larger optional wheels. Underneath, however, these rigs are virtually all-new, with fully boxed frames, re-engineered suspensions and the most powerful clean-diesel engine available in the segment.
But it’s when you get behind the wheel and work the trucks that it quickly becomes apparent that GM’s engineers and product planners have delivered the goods, as we found out last week driving the trucks in the hill country of Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Photo by Jim Fets, courtesy of General Motors
2011 Chevrolet Silverado 3500 HD LTZ Crew Cab DRW With 6.6-Liter Duramax Diesel V-8 ($58,900) towing a 9,000-pound camper
Waiting for us at Baltimore/Washington International Airport was a Chevy Silverado 3500 crew cab with a 9,000-pound, 35-foot camper that was conventionally hitched for a 135-mile road trip to the hotel where we’d stay for the rest of GM’s HD ride and drive program.
The strongest HD pickups are 3500-class trucks. These 1-ton trucks add extra leaf springs compared with lighter trucks and often come configured with dual rear wheels to handle the heaviest trailers and payloads with maximum stability. In the Silverado’s case, it’s rated to tow up to 21,700 pounds and haul up to 6,635 pounds.
Only the 1.5-ton Ford F-450 pickup can out-tow the Silverado 3500, pulling trailers up to 24,400 pounds, but its maximum payload is only 4,920 pounds. The Silverado’s 13,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating (the maximum allowable weight for a fully loaded pickup, including passengers, cargo and trailer tongue weight) is only 50 pounds less than the F-450’s 13,050 pound GVWR.
The Silverado’s big numbers wouldn’t be possible without its 6.6-liter Duramax V-8 diesel engine that makes 397 horsepower (at 3,000 rpm) and 765 pounds-feet of torque (at 1,600 rpm).
The eight-cylinder oil burner, dubbed “LML" internally, is the fourth generation of GM's HD diesel since it was first introduced in 2001 under the LB7 code name. The LML is 97 hp and 245 pounds-feet stronger than the original Duramax. It’s also the first time GM has owned all of the design and engineering work for the Duramax, which is produced in a joint venture with Isuzu at a factory in Ohio. Sixty percent of the LML Duramax’s parts are new, and on paper GM says it's 11 percent more fuel efficient than the previous LMM Duramax.
Making sure all of that power is efficiently sent to the wheels is an updated Allison 1000 six-speed transmission. It has a stronger case and new clutches that are engineered to handle up to 860 pounds-feet of torque (if and when that becomes possible), plus a new output shaft.
With three of us in the truck (two journalists and Jim Mikulec, GM’s lead development engineer for full-size HD pickups), we hopped in the backseat for the first leg of our drive to get a feel for the truck as a passenger.
In addition to pumping power up to levels that seem like they could rip the fabric of space and time, GM put special effort into reducing noise levels up to 50 percent in the 1,500-1,600 rpm peak torque operating range. It’s accomplished by using a method similar to what Ford uses in its new 6.7-liter Power Stroke V-8 that injects two pilot injections into the cylinder before the main combustion injection. From our rear perch, that meant we could easily talk with people in the front row at just about all speeds. Wind noise was more of an issue than diesel clatter. Ford’s more extensive use of sound-proofing material seems to keep things a bit quieter in the 2011 F-Series Super Duty than the Silverado.Wi-Fi Inside
HD trucks are often used as mobile offices at job sites, so while we were in the backseat, we tried out GM’s new dealer-installed Wi-Fi system from Autonet Mobile. It turns the Silverado into an Internet-connected hotspot that broadcasts a 150-foot Wi-Fi bubble around the truck.
Autonet’s in-truck router costs $199 with a two-year service agreement, and monthly 3G network data plans start at $29 a month for 1 gigabyte or $59 a month for a 5GB subscription.
That’s a good deal compared with Ford Work Solutions, which uses an optional in-dash computer that costs $1,195 for Wi-Fi service via Sprint's 3G wireless network. Sprint costs $49.99 a month for up to 5GB of total data transfer, and $25 a month for up to 25MB of total data transfer.
Chrysler also offers in-vehicle wireless internet connectivity from Autonet for Ram HD pickups through its Mopar parts division, but that dealer-installed system costs $499 for the Wi-Fi router. Data plans cost the same as GM’s.
The Wi-Fi system performed well in the Baltimore metro area, even moving along at highway speeds. We could get on the Internet quickly with data transmission rates that were acceptable for reading websites, checking email and updating Twitter. But as we started climbing into hill country, Internet access became as spotty as cell phone service. There were times on backcountry roads when we couldn’t get online at all or only at much slower speeds. Mobile Wi-Fi still isn’t ready for rural work that takes you off main highways.
The only thing missing from this setup was a 110-volt outlet in the console, like what Ford offers in the Super Duty, so that backseat occupants can plug in a laptop. We’d also like to see USB ports for rear passengers to recharge phones and other portable electronic devices.Interior Quality Falls Behind
Soon enough, we took our turn behind the Silverado’s wheel.
GM hasn't updated the Silverado’s interior, which is now the weakest part of the truck. It continues to offer a choice of two distinct treatments for both the Silverado and Sierra. The “pure pickup” interior for WT and LT trims features large controls, traditional looks and cloth seats, but our high-end LTZ Silverado had the luxurious “low and forward” instrument panel with navigation and leather chairs that are shared with GM’s full-size SUVs.
In 2007, when these interiors debuted, they were near best-in-class for fit and finish. Just three years later, GM has fallen to third place behind the newer high-quality interiors offered in the 2010 Ram HD and 2011 Super Duty pickups.
Although our Silverado had a navigation and entertainment system with an excellent map, a larger screen in the head unit is desired for improved readability. The Silverado and Sierra also need sophisticated, high-resolution, multifunction in-dash computers that provide rich information and data to the driver, like the Ram and Ford Super Duty offer. Ford’s 4.2-inch productivity screen is the benchmark in the segment.