Eight-speeds for all! GMC extends upgraded transmission to all 2017 Sierras

2017 GMC Sierra 1500

2017 GMC Sierra 1500

What changes will make the 2017 Sierra 1500 different?

Wider availability of the 8-speed automatic transmission, along with minor trim and detail updates. This full-size pickup is GMC’s mechanically similar, but generally more expensive, version of the Chevrolet Silverado. This report covers the half-ton Sierra 1500 line; heavy-duty 2500HD (three-quarter ton) and 3500HD (one ton) versions also are available. Like its corporate cousin, the Sierra 1500 received a significant refresh for the 2016 model year that brought updated styling and new features. Sierra ranks 4th in overall sales among full-size pickup trucks behind the Ford F-150, Silverado (which outsells its sibling nearly 3 to 1), and Ram 1500. Where GMC has a leg up on Chevy is at the high-end of the market with its high-end Sierra Denali. Denali has morphed into its own sub-brand, accounting for roughly 25-30 percent of GMC’s overall sales. Every GMC model is available this way and comes equipped with specific styling cues and more high-end features than their mainstream counterparts.

Why should I wait for the 2017?

To get a Sierra 1500 with an 8-speed automatic transmission without having to pony up for a Denali or one of the other expensive trim levels. We expect this new transmission to replace a 6-speed automatic across the entire product line. As with the Silverado, availability of the 8-speed for the Sierra commenced during the 2015 model year. Initially offered only on the flagship Denali and later the uplevel SLT, the upgraded transmission should become standard on these models, as well as the base trim (called Sierra) and volume SLE.

Returning body styles will include the 2-door regular cab, extended 4-door Double Cab, and roomier 4-door Crew Cab. The latter will be the most popular with retail customers. Available bed lengths should ascend through 5-foot 8-inch, 6-foot 6-inch, and 8-foot, depending on cab selection.

Should I buy a 2016 model instead?

Yes, if you want to avoid the inevitable year-over-year price increase that will accompany the 2017 models. It will also be your last chance to purchase a Sierra with the “old” 6-speed transmission if you really want it. The 8-speed, however, is a well-engineered unit that matches well with either of Sierra’s two available V-8 engines. Throttle response is better with the 8-speed, and fuel economy may improve slightly, too, depending on which trim level and cab/bed configuration you select.

Its 2016 styling updates should carry forward until its next redesign, which won’t be until at least model-year 2019. Rumors abound of a 10-speed automatic transmission coming online for 2018, though we’d expect it to appear later in the redesigned model. It may depend on what its rivals do, as Ford is expected to come out with a similar gearbox in the very near future. A 2016 Sierra will also be appealing for the myriad of financial incentives that GMC-parent General Motors offers. One spring 2016 promotion promised buyers a 15% discount from MSRP on some Sierra 1500 Crew Cab models, which translated to savings of up to $10,000.

Will the styling be different?

Unlikely given the refresh Sierra 1500 received for 2016. Like the Silverado, Sierra’s fundamental engineering heralds back to the 2014 model year. Though a bit more aggressive than the Chevy, Sierra’s overall design was still a bit too staid. Its 2016 updates help, but buyers continue to flock to the Ford F-150 in record numbers, while Fiat Chrysler’s sophisticated Ram 1500 is widening its sales lead over the Sierra.

Any mechanical changes?

Aside from the 8-speed transmission becoming standard equipment, no. Base and SLE models would continue to come standard with a 4.3-liter V-6 engine producing 285 horsepower and 305 pound-feet of torque. Standard on the SLT and available for about $1,200 on the base and SLE is GM’s smooth 5.3-liter V-8 with 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque. For roughly $2,500 on the SLT Crew Cab and Denali, you can get a 6.2-liter V-8 that produces 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. Rear-wheel drive is standard. Full-time four-wheel drive (4WD) is a $3,150 option that can be left engaged on dry pavement and includes low-range gearing for off-road use.

In early calendar 2016, GMC introduced a version of the Sierra 1500 with GM’s “eAssist” technology. Available exclusively in California and only on certain rear-drive SLT Crew Cab models, the eAssist system supplements the gas engine via a 13 horsepower battery-powered electric motor. It provides engine-idle stop/start functionality, an electric power boost for more muscle during acceleration and passing maneuvers, regenerative braking that recapture kinetic energy to recharge the 0.45 kWh battery, and a 6 percent improvement in aerodynamics. The system allows the eAssist Sierra to achieve EPA estimated fuel economy of 18/24/20 city/highway/combined – a best-in-class number for a V-8 full-size pickup truck.

Will the fuel economy improve?

Count on it for 8-speed base and SLE models due to curb weights that are lower than the luxury-themed SLT and Denali. When the latter two models first offered the 8-speed, their EPA estimated fuel economy numbers dropped slightly. The whole lineup should be re-evaluated for 2017. Those figures were not available in time for this report, but we think the ’17 Sierra with the V-6 engine and new transmission will do better than 20 mpg combined with rear-drive and 19 with 4WD. We hope the 5.3 V-8’s scores with the 8-speed in 2017 will be better than they were for ’16: 18 mpg combined with rear-drive and 17 with 4WD. For comparison, models equipped with the same engine and 6-speed automatic rated 19 mpg combined with rear-drive and 18 with 4WD. The 6.2 V-8’s mileage should remain unchanged at 17 mpg combined with either rear- or 4WD.

V-8 Sierras will continue to come with GM’s Active Fuel Management cylinder deactivation that shuts down half the cylinders in light-load and cruising situations in order to save fuel. GM recommends, but does not require, premium-grade 91-octane gasoline for the 6.2-liter V-8. The V-6 and 5.3-liter V-8 can use regular-grade 87-octane and/or E85 ethanol-blended fuel.

Will it have new features?

Most likely not. Sierra’s 2016 update saw the addition of several new technology, safety, and convenience items. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto joined the lineup, along with LED exterior lighting, and an optional remote locking tailgate. Automatic steering to help keep you in your lane was added to the SLT and Denali’s Driver Alert Package. The Elevation Edition Package, available on Base Double Cab models, includes 20-inch black painted wheels, body-color bumpers, grille surround, door handles, mirror caps, and side moldings, and more. An All-Terrain Package includes an off-road suspension, underbody protection, rear-obstacle detection, sill plates, and other specific trim pieces.

Among the myriad standard and optional features, depending on trim-level selection, are power-adjustable pedals, rear-obstacle detection, a power sliding rear window, leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats, rear DVD entertainment, and power running boards. The Denali is the diva of this lineup, with its classy exterior styling and luxury-sedan interior appointments.

How will 2017 prices be different?

Count on at least a modest increase over prices that are already a few hundred to a few thousand dollars more than a comparably equipped Chevy Silverado. A 2016 Base Sierra with the regular cab and rear-wheel drive starts at $28,910, including GMC’s $1,195 destination fee. Expect a fully loaded 4WD Denali with the 6-foot 6-inch bed; $6,005 Ultimate Package (22-inch wheels, power sunroof, trailer brake controller, power side steps, lane keep assist, front- and rear-obstacle detection, forward-collision alert, and GM’s Safety Seat Alert); extra-cost paint ($395-$995); and rear DVD entertainment system ($2,095) to top out at about $65,000. The bulk of sales will likely come from a more modestly equipped SLE Crew Cab with the 5-foot 8-inch bed. Expect those to carry a sticker price of about $47,500.

When will it come out?

Release date for the 2017 Silverado 1500 is fall 2016.

Best competitors

Ford F-150, Nissan Titan, Ram 1500, Toyota Tundra

What change would make it better?

A Double Cab model with the 8-foot bed and availability of the eAssist system expanded beyond California.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]