When You’re Towing Cargo Worth More Than the Truck, Use the New Denali

Auto grade braking, steering assist and wifi for hitchhikers

September 5, 2017 9:00 am

Growing up in lake country Minnesota, boats were less a luxury purchase and more of an extension of oneself.

If you didn’t have the funds for a high-end Chris-Craft, you’d settle for a slightly used, tower-equipped Nautique. Or there’s the hand-me-down bass boat. And if not that, well honey, it’s time to trade in the truck.

Because that spark of summer magic hooked up to the trailer hitch, that’s what makes life worth living. Problem is, if you can’t get the ship safely to the sea, it’s no use.

Enter GMC’s gentle giant, the 2017 Sierra 3500 Denali HD.

We recently met up with Eric Stanczak, chief engineer for full size trucks at General Motors, to test its towing capabilities. And since an empty trailer is no real trial, we drove to Desiderio Tranquillity Farm in Chester, NJ, hitched up a massive 4 Star horse trailer — then loaded an elegant white steed in the back.

(Mind you, this is after your correspondent trotted him around an outdoor arena for half an hour and got him sufficiently riled up.)

2017 Sierra Denali (2 images)

The anxiety of driving around a horse that’s worth more than a year’s salary was immediately diminished by the security the Sierra Denali offered, not simply in the driver’s seat bravado that comes with a top of the line turbo-diesel truck, but in the 2017 model’s technological advancements.

Stanczak broke down the basics: digital Steering Assist recognizes long and difficult turns, then counterweights so you don’t strain the vehicle or yourself by cranking the steering wheel. StabiliTrak with added Trailer Sway control keep tabs on the movement behind you, applying truck and trailer brakes and reducing engine power as needed to stop unwanted movement.

But the game-changing feature for anyone who’s ever hauled up and down mountains is the first-class auto grade and diesel exhaust braking.

“If you’re driving eight miles down a 7-percent grade and you’ve got 20,000 lbs. behind you [max trailering weight is 23,100 lbs.], you do not want to be riding your brakes,” said Stanczak. “So you can set your cruise control at 50 or 55 MPH or whatever speed you’re at and it’ll keep the vehicle at that speed on a downslope, you don’t even have to use your brakes — or use it very little. The engine’s doing the braking for you.”

Taking the horse and trailer on the open road, we tested this. Stanczak crested a hill and coasted down, feet clear of the brake pedal, and the speedometer didn’t flinch.

“Those little things like that, when you’re towing, take driver load off.” And whether you’re towing eight showhorses, a Malibu Wakesetter or your treasured Airstream — if your cargo costs more than the truck, you’re going to want assurances that you won’t have to white knuckle it.

Eric Stanczak
But the biggest change on this edition? 

“The engine,” Stanczak said matter-of-factly. “The new Duramax diesel [6.6L turbo-diesel V-8, to be exact], 90% of that engine is brand new.” That includes the block, fuel delivery system, turbocharger, even a patent pending induction system underhood.

“We actually breathe from the front,” he added, noting the muscle-car-esque hood intake. “It’s not just pretty, it’s functional.”

But say you’re a stand-by-your-truck man looking for a new pickup after running yours into the ground after 15 years of abuse — well stranger, it’s easy to be smitten by the newfangled comforts. Most impressively, wireless phone charging and an available 4G wifi hotspot that can connect up to seven devices.

Yes, there are only five seats, the other two are apparently for any hitchhikers you’re hauling in the truck bed. Welcome to 2017.

The going rate for this top-tier Denali package is $55,580. May seem like a hefty amount sitting at home, but heading into a tunnel through a mountain on a downslope with your Arabian horses bringing up the rear — it’s a steal.

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