2008 GMC Sierra Denali AWD Review

By Chris Haak


People a little older than me – or even perhaps close to my age (I’m 33) might remember a simpler time, when pickup trucks were available with only sepvinyl seats, hand crank windows, and maybe an AM radio and heater if you were living large.  In fact, I was two years old in 1977 when GM first introduced power windows in its full-size trucks.  Cloth seats were the the upscale interior choice (leather was only found in Cadillac and Lincoln sedans for the most part) and there was quite a bit of exposed painted metal in the interior of trucks and SUVs.

Over the years, however, as Detroit realized that there was a lot of money to be made in selling large trucks – and even more money to be made in the sale of expensive options in those large trucks such as leather seats, Bose stereos, navigation systems, aluminum wheels, and more.  The combination of low gasoline prices and the macho image of pickup  trucks combined to make pickups extremely popular personal-use vehicles, and led to the creation of luxury pickups.

Now, I don’t necessarily consider the GMC Sierra Denali to be a true luxury vehicle (it’s missing a luxury brand name, and a luxury brand dealer experience, for example), but GMC’s Denali line has seen more success than some of its competitors both within GM (i.e., Cadillac Escalade EXT) and outside GM (i.e., Lincoln Blackwood, Lincoln Mark LT).  I recently spent an entire 1,200 mile road trip from eastern Pennsylvania to Detroit – and back – in a 2008 Sierra Denali, and was impressed by how far trucks have come over the past few years.  Moreover, the fact that the full-size pickup segment is so competitive means that while the Denali might have been the best half ton pickup on the road just 12 months ago, the all-new 2009 Ram and 2009 F-150 are going to give it a run for its money.

The Sierra Denali is the highest-level trim package on the GMC Sierra, and there is no equivalent in the Chevrolet lineup.  At launch, the GMC Yukon Denali and Sierra Denali were the only GM trucks light duty trucks that had the six-speed automatic and 6.2 liter V8 available other than the Cadillac Escalade lineup; that exclusivity has now disappeared with higher-trim Chevrolets and other GMCs having that powertrain available.

It’s interesting to spend time in a new Sierra Denali, having spent a good deal of time previously in the previous-generation (extended cab) model with QuadraSteer four-wheel steering.  When one considers the content changes between a 2003 Denali and a 2008 model, it’s hard to tell if today you’re getting more for your money.  On one hand, the new truck has a more powerful engine and two extra ratios in the transmission; my test vehicle also had a factory navigation system and XM Satellite Radio and plenty of airbags.  On the other hand, the 2003 model had a sophisticated QuadraSteer system (which enhanced the truck’s maneuverability in tight spaces as well as improving trailer control in towing) and also had a soft-touch dashboard with a leather wrapped passenger grab handle, not to mention Xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps.  The 2008 model settles for standard halogens.

Compared to a “regular” GMC Sierra, the Denali adds an exclusive front grille, the standard aforementioned upsized engine and six-speed transmission, heavy duty battery, alternator, and rear axle, remote vehicle starter system, Rainsense wipers, XM Satellite radio, power seats, 18″ chrome aluminum wheels, “sport” suspension, deep-tinted rear glass, and heavy duty trailering equipment (wiring harness with an independently fused trailer circuit).  For a base price of $44,995 (including destination), a 2009 all wheel drive model can be yours (the only significant differences between the 2008 that I tested and a new 2009 is the addition of Bluetooth and flex fuel capability in the 6.2 liter engine (so that it can operate on E85) on the new trucks).  Surprisingly, it’s possible to add even more options, such as a power sunroof, 20 inch wheels (both of which my tester had), a heated steering wheel, a rearview camera system, and an in-dash DVD-based navigation system.  Check a lot of these option boxes, and it’s easy to get an MSRP over $54,000 to go along with your very comfortable truck.  The good news is that GM is happy to cut some great deals on these today – they can be had for basically invoice price, less another $2,000 to $4,000 in rebates, depending upon whether you own a 1999 or new GM vehicle.

Still, as nice as the Denali is inside, aside from the standard equipment listed above, the interior doesn’t feel “special” like the old Denali used to.  Compared to a Chevrolet Silverado with its top-level LTZ trim, the only visible differences are fake wood for about a quarter inch around the entire rim of the steering wheel, and darker-colored fake wood flanking the navigation screen and HVAC controls and between the air vents on the passenger’s half of the dash.  The dash is made entirely of hard plastic, with very deep grains that lend it an unfortunately downscale look.  If Ford and Dodge can have pleather-wrapped dashboards, why do Toyota and GM insist on using hard plastic only?  The seats, however, felt supportive for a long trip, and I was never fatigued in spite of spending the entire day in them just two days apart.  Back seat room was surprisingly snug for the size of the vehicle; unlike with some mid-sized front wheel drive sedans, I was unable to adjust the front seat to my ideal location, then have someone as tall as me sitting behind me.

The factory navigation system in the Denali and in many other GM trucks was incredibly frustrating to use.  The screen resolution is very poor compared to some more modern competitors such as Toyota and even other new GM designs such as the one in the Cadillac CTS, and the navigation screen turns off if the radio is turned off (the CTS annoyingly does this as well).  Even when working properly, the screen was too small, too low on the dash, too slow to react, and too difficult to turn off upcoming exit information for me to be pleased with it.  The upcoming exit information displayed on the screen apparently cannot be turned off while the vehicle is in motion; whatever the case, I was unable to figure out how to do so, and found it difficult to view a map that was effectively only about three inches by three inches, especially when it’s placed so low on the dash.

The Denali’s styling is tasteful, yet the restyle of the GM full-size trucks and SUVs for the 2007 model year was probably done too conservatively.  Making the designers’ lives difficult is the fact that things such as front doors are shared between pickups and SUVs, while designers at Dodge, for example, don’t have that constraint, and were able to blend the curve from the front fender into the top of the door.  This means that the smooth-sided look of the Suburban – which, of course, requires smooth-sided doors – forced the Sierra’s designers to end the curvature of the Sierra’s built-in fender flares just in front of the doors.  The resulting styling compromises – Ford and Dodge stepping up their game – means that the Sierra (or the Sierra Denali) is no longer the best-looking full-size truck to my eyes; I’d have to tap the Dodge Ram for that title.  It’s also not surprising that Dodge is now bragging about having the most aerodynamic full-size pickup, because the Sierra is very boxy and upright.  In spite of its shape, however, I heard no wind noise at highway speeds in the cabin.

Acceleration performance was something I wouldn’t complain about, especially considering the vehicle’s weight.  While I don’t have any quantitative numbers, Car and Driver tested the same model and observed a 0-60 time of 6.2 seconds and a standing quarter mile time of 14.8 seconds @ 95 miles per hour.  There are +/- upshift/downshift pushbuttons on the column-mounted shifter that work surprisingly well (except that the truck has to be shifted to “M” (manual) mode to use them), and brisk acceleration is accompanied by a wonderfully sonorous small block V8 burble that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pontiac G8 GT – or even a Corvette.  The steering was reasonably precise for its class, and while I did not engage in any panic stops, the brakes never left me wanting for stopping power.  Meanwhile, the big 20 inch wheels struck an admirable compromise among handling, looks, and road noise.

Observed fuel economy during the 1,400-mile journey was 16.9 miles per gallon.  Of course, that’s nothing to brag about, but it’s close to the observed fuel economy from a 2007 Suburban with the 5.3 liter V8 (making far less power, a more aerodynamic shape, and cylinder deactivation).  Also, the Sierra spent a few hundred miles driving carefully through ice and snow enroute to Michigan, so that may or may not have had an adverse effect on mileage.  The EPA rates the AWD Sierra Denali at 12 city/18 highway, which is comparable to the slightly slower and slightly less comfortable Toyota Tundra 4×4 with the 5.7 liter V8 (the Toyota is rated at 13 city/17 highway).

If I was, say, a successful construction manager (I’m not) who needed a pickup (I don’t), I’d give the Denali some serious consideration.  As mentioned earlier, it’s not cheap, but also includes a lot of standard equipment that would be optional in “lesser” trucks.  If you’re someone who likes to have the top of the line in whatever vehicle you own, this is the best half ton GM pickup you can buy.  The Denali-exclusive chrome grille openings do a nice job of broadcasting that superiority to your fellow motorists.  Luxury pickup buyers definitely owe it to themselves, however, to check out the new Ford F-150 Platinum (particularly in 2010 when it is likely to have a more competitive V8 option) and the new Dodge Ram Laramie as well.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. i was always wondering the diff between the 08 and 09 probably just going to stick w the 08 now, thanks

  2. The 09 of this Truck is great i bought 1 and i love it, it is the best truck i have ever owned i had the 08 and traded it in but this Truck is great

  3. why would a 2008 denali be priced on craigslist as $7,600? i thought maybe it was stolen or something. it looked nice

  4. Have you ever heard the saying, “if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is?” That surely applies to a 2008 Denali for $7,600. It’s either a scam or a truck in terrible condition.

  5. Had nothing but trouble from the noises and thumps coming from my tranny to the water-filled door after heavy rainfall, to the peeling chrome door handles and smudged heater control decals, the dead A/C solinoids in the dash, to the broken door locks that needed to be replaced twice! On the bright side, the performance is absolutely the best of any truck on the road. It handles like a sports car and pulls like a semi.

  6. I just purchased a 08 denali and I love it this is the ultimate. Pick up I had a dodge 1500 laramie edition avalanche and the denali does not compare. The denali deliveres the feel of driving a car the luxury inside of a suv and the utility of a pick up and the sound that 6.2 litre what else can I say

  7. Your article was very well written and informative but your last sentence bothers me. Why would you think you can end with “if you’re in the market for a truck like this, you should check out these 2 newer trucks.” You did a great job of weighing the pros and cons of this vehicle throughout your article in a somewhat neutral position, but ruined it by telling a person in the market for a 40K truck to check out a 60K truck. (I do realize this article is 3 years old now)

  8. @Patrick – thank you for the compliment on my review.

    However, you need to look at the prices of the trucks I referred to. I just priced the three flagship pickups on carsdirect.com with basically every option (navigation, sunroof, big wheels where available, 6.2 liter engine, etc.). Here is what I found:

    2012 Sierra Denali: $57,705
    2012 F-150 Platinum: $53,795
    2012 RAM Laramie Longhorn: $51,740

    So are you ignorant of the prices of these trucks when new, or do you think my three year old article is comparing a 2008 model-year truck with a 2012? Either way, I don’t see anything wrong with the last sentence. Fact is, I think today’s F-150 is a better truck than the GMC or RAM, so I want someone considering a new Sierra Denali to check out the competition before buying a $57,705 truck. (I do realize nobody pays MSRP for any of these three, but comparing MSRP is more relevant than rebates and discounts that vary wildly from month to month and even dealer to dealer.)

  9. I own a 2008 sierra denali I’ve never gotten 12 or 18 miles mpg. More like 11 in town. But besides that I hands down own the best looking full size truck with a sexy grill. Thanks jwdetailco. Richmond, va.

  10. I have recently become interested in the Sierra Denali, after recently purchasing & driving my wife’s 2007 Escalade ESV, smooth as silk ride with all the features for the kids on a long trip. The 6.2 is impressive, to say the least.

    I am looking to replace my 2012 F-150 Lariat w/ 3.5 Ecoboost, 20″ chrome wheels, etc. every option. The truck’s acceleration performance is everything Ford says it is, besides the fact that it has been the shop 5 times over 9 months for engine problems. The intercooler had to be replaced, as the truck was losing power under a hard acceleration, after a sustained cruise. It took Ford 6 weeks to get the parts as this problem has become common to Ecoboost owners. Ford should be ashamed of the gas mileage claims. I average 13mpg by the truck’s computer. The Escalade is averaging 15.9 with me driving it.

    After driving GM trucks and SUVs for many years, I switched to Ford with a 2010 F-150 5.4, and then the 2012 F-150 Ecoboost. I am going back to GM. Ford products ride like a truck compared to the GM products, and the GM V-8’s outperform Ford’s in all categories including fuel economy. If you want V-8 performance, buy a V-8, because the the mileage on the Ecoboost is beyond bad, not to mention the service bulletins that Ford will not tell you about until after you buy the truck. The sound of the GM 6.2 is music to my ears after my experience with Ford and the Ecoboost for the last 9 months.

    I forgot to mention Dodge, considering the fact that every Dodge dealership in my area has closed up shop, what else needs to be said.

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