[REVIEW] 2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Duramax Diesel

Since its conception in the early 1900s, the pickup truck has evolved from a purely utilitarian purpose to a blend of style and substance. Manufacturers have adjusted to consumer and industrial needs and desires over the year, adapting the basic design from niche market to mass appeal.

The North American pick-up truck market has always been a hotly contested segment, with the Ford F-150 juggernaut ruling by a large margin.

In Canada, the Ford F-Series and Dodge Ram pickups are the top 2 best-selling vehicles respectively in 2019. The former has been the best-selling vehicle in Canada for 10 years on the go. It was only back in 2008 where the Honda Civic took the top spot.

The current demand for these go-anywhere do almost anything vehicles isn’t going away anytime soon and arguably, due to consumer adoption in powertrains and vehicle technology, the next 5-10 years of its evolution should be more interesting than the last 20 years.

More efficient engine choices

While “diesel” may be a bit of a faux pas in the passenger car segment after the infamous VW Dieselgate scandal, diesel pick-up trucks are more popular than ever.

These days, aside from the honking large displacement V8 diesel ¾ ton pick-up trucks, the Big Three domestic manufacturers all offer a lighter-duty 3.0L diesel option in a fullsize ½ ton pick-up truck.

These smaller displacement six-cylinder turbocharged diesel engines offer consumers the ability to have their cake and eat it too. They can enjoy the utility and towing capability afforded by a full-sized quad cab pick-up truck but with family car fuel efficiency.

Fashionably late but worth the wait

The new flint, MI-built all-aluminum light duty diesel engine is a testament to modern day engineering progress.

Designed by GM’s centre for diesel expertise in Torino, Italy, the one thing that separates the GM engine from the competition is that this is the only completely new light-duty diesel in the segment.

With 277 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque, the 3.0-litre inline-six cylinder turbo engine is worth the wait. 95 per cent of that torque is available at just 1,250 rpms thanks to the latest turbocharger technology.

Moreover, 460 lb-ft is the same amount of twist produced by another GM engine with more than twice the displacement, the 6.2L gasoline V8 that is also available with either the Sierra or Silverado.

Save for flooring the throttle at a stop, there is virtually no turbo lag. With a little bit of brake-torquing, 0-100 km/hr runs can be accomplished in roughly 8.7 seconds.

Compared to the V6 diesel engines from Ford and Dodge, the new Duramax’s inline-six architecture is naturally balanced, making it a smoother operator. This new engine debunks diesels’ growly image, with added smoothness and refinement achieved in part through common-rail direct fuel injection at 36,250 psi (2,500 bar) with an engine-driven twin piston pump.

This wizardry sends fuel to solenoid-activated injectors with nine-hole nozzles that stabilize combustion, resulting in a reduction of the clattering noise typically associated with diesel engines.

Indeed, this is the first time that the inline-six architecture has been combined with turbocharging in a GM fullsized pick-up truck. Unlike a V6, there is no need for balancing shafts as the engine operates only two camshafts and their associated valvetrain components, balancing primary and secondary forces.

Paired with GM’s 10L80 10-speed automatic gearbox, the Duramax is rated to pull a respectable 9,300 lbs pounds (4,218 kg). The flat torque curve means more pulling power for longer periods of time, always a good thing if you happen to be using your truck like it is intended.

Numbers aside, how does it drive in the real world?

Smooth, responsive, big. Those are the three words that come to mind as to how the Sierra Duramax feels on the road.

Like other GM trucks, there are several selectable engine/powertrain modes (Sport, Touring, Off-Road, and Tow/ Haul). Each of these deliver a unique feel, changing shift points, traction control settings, throttle response, and more. There is a good amount of adjustability between the modes, altering the personality of the truck depending on your needs or preference.

If you tow, the Sierra Duramax has a party trick up its sleeve as being the only light-duty diesel pick-up truck in the segment that uses its turbocharger to provide a healthy dose of back pressure, acting as an automatic exhaust brake of sorts.

While there is no dedicated exhaust brake button as with the bigger HD turbodiesel GM trucks), the 3.0-litre Duramax fully integrates this feature into its Tow/Haul mode, allowing the Sierra to hold its gear, keeping a constant engine rpm when towing a trailer downhill so as to not have to ride the vehicle’s or trailer’s brakes.

While we’re on the subject of towing, GM also offers a clever Invisible Trailer accessory camera which stitches together images from two cameras to make it seem as if you can see through your trailer on the infotainment screen. Perhaps in the future I will have an opportunity to see first hand how well it works.


Towing capacity with the light duty Duramax diesel is 9,100 pounds and payload is 2,240 pounds. The Sierra is certainly as much a workhorse as it can be a daily driver.

The healthy power and smart gearing from the 10-speed transmission means good fuel economy too. I averaged around 11.8L/100 kms in mixed highway and city driving, very respectable for a full-sized four door pick-up truck.

Whether or not it has a diesel engine, the Sierra’s ride quality and handling remains good. The cabin is quiet with fewer vibrations through the wheel and pedal than the F-150 and even the Ram.

Although it doesn’t ride as cushy as the Ram, the GMC Sierra (and its Silverado counterpart) steer and handle sharper than the F-1500 and Ram 1500. The GM’s choice of aluminum for diesel engine means that the GM trucks aren’t penalized by nose-heavy weight. Therefore, the ride quality isn’t any better or worse than its gasoline equivalents.

Like other GM trucks, the Sierra offers a fantastic “Auto” setting for its four wheel drive electronic transfer case. This setting allows the computer to automatically distribute torque to the front axle by anticipating the need for traction. For the rainy Pacific Northwest with alternating high and low traction road surfaces, this leave-it-and-forget-it mode is truly a godsend.

What about the rest of the truck?

My Sierra Duramax 1500 test unit was a Crew Cab model in Elevation trim with four-wheel-drive and the short box. Painted in the optional Satin Steel Metallic paint, it was particularly fetching.

The Elevation edition is mostly a styling package based on a mid-level SLE trim level. The idea behind this trim level is to keep the truck’s price affordable while still being able to offer consumers a fair amount of included equipment.

Accordingly, you won’t find things such as the optional CarbonPro carbon fibre bed or fancy the MultiPro tailgate. What you will find though, is a monochromatic appearance package with blacked-out body trim and wheels to give the vehicle a nice brash look. There are trim-specified blacked-out 20-inch wheels, black exterior accents, a blacked out grille surround insert, tow hooks, and side window trim.


The Elevation package also adds a 10-way driver’s seat with power lumbar support, heated front seats and steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, a trailer package, an auto locking rear differential, and rear wheelwell liners.

My truck was also equipped with the Preferred package adding an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a 120-volt AC power outlet, Bose premium sound system, and a much improved HD Rear Vision back-up camera. While a 15 viewpoint 360 surround view camera system is available on the Sierra, it wasn’t available on this trim level.


The Driver Alert Package 1 also added in Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Front and Rear Park Assist sensors, Lane Change Alert, and a Blindspot warning system.

This latest generation GM pick-up truck brings with it a revised interior. Thankfully, the off-centre steering wheel position has now been rectified. Other positives include large clear controls and switches that have high quality tactile feedback, comfortable front seats, plenty of cubby storage spaces, and GM’s excellent 4G LTE in-car WiFi hotspot.

There really isn’t much to complain about. However, the misses include some cheap-to-the-touch dark and shiny plastics around the cabin, surprisingly in areas that are touched frequently such as the upper dashboard and glovebox, as well as some areas of the centre console. The overall dashboard design is functional, but not particularly fancy.

Final thoughts

Truck buyers in Canada have dramatically transformed in the past few years and manufacturers have been adapting by offering more permutations and combinations to their mid-sized and full-sized trucks.

Times they are a-changing as diesel engines used to be strictly the domain of heavy-duty pick-up trucks. Today, GMC is on a roll when it comes to its light-duty trucks. With the belated introduction of the Sierra 1500 light duty diesel pickup truck, the decisions for consumers are more plentiful than ever.

The company tells me that the Duramax diesel model is intended to slot between the 355 horsepower 5.3-litre gasoline-powered V8 and the 6.2-litre V8 choices. Since the diesel option and the 6.2-litre V8 essential cost the same, it really comes down to full economy savings as the diesel is far and away the most efficient engine offered in any GMC Sierra pick-up.

For those who use intend on using their Sierra as a daily driver, drive long distances on a regular basis, or need some occasional towing capability, the GMC Sierra 1500 Duramax diesel is a refined alternative and a welcome addition to the marketplace.


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