Expert Reviews

2021 GMC Sierra Review and Towing Test

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
  • Safety

Believe it or not, there are real-world owners who use pickup trucks for more than hauling air or schlepping the kids to soccer.

That’s why we chose to spend a week with the 2021 GMC Sierra Elevation towing trailers and carrying payload. After all, reporting on its ability to pop out to the shops for a socially distant jug of milk doesn’t truly put the capabilities of a machine like this to the test.

The Sierra soldiers on with few changes to its styling or interior, save for a remixing of options packages and the addition of a few new paint choices. The latter shows up in the form of this eye-popping shade of red – a pretty hue that should rank high on the selection list for anyone shopping a Sierra in this mid-grade trim.

Power: 7/10

The 5.3L V8 powering our test truck is a $1,795 option in this trim, and it’s good for 355 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque. If the displacement and output seem familiar to you, give yourself a gold star. This mill has been around in various iterations for ages, and it’s now teamed with an eight-speed automatic transmission that shifts better than the six-speed of old ever did.

However, the engine is down on output compared to V8-powered trucks from Ford and Ram, and it’s notable when accelerating with a trailer or payload – though to its credit, the engine did everything of which it was asked without complaint. Owners will simply have to plan a bit further ahead than their buddies in competing trucks when merging onto a busy highway, for example. With 3,175 kg (7,000 lb) in tow, or 363 kg (800 lb) of payload in the bed, the V8 may have felt ponderous but never strained; think of it as a weightlifter who slowly raises the barbell overhead instead of whisking them skyward.

Practicality: 9/10

General Motors (GM) did an excellent job of upping the cargo versatility ante in this most recent iteration of the Sierra and its twin Chevrolet Silverado. Pushing out the walls of its cargo box has created a notably wider space compared to boxes of the same length bolted to the backs of other half-ton trucks. This is good news for those of us hauling the likes of loose gravel or dirt, since it can spread out more easily and improve rearward sightlines by reducing the height of the pile. It also proved its worth when that extra width afforded the ability to easily store loading ramps next to a John Deere ride-on mower that usually hogs all the bed space.

Similar touches pop up inside, with storage cubbies built into the rear seatbacks and underneath the front bench seat’s centre cushion. This year the mid-tier Elevation trim now comes with the brand’s multi-function tailgate – an easy-to-use piece of metal origami that truly does help when transporting long items. While it can be folded into a step to assist with climbing into the bed, GM still has the most practical solution for this task in the form of simple steps moulded into the rear bumper corners.

Driving Feel: 7/10

The Sierra Elevation’s suspension is super soft, to the point where the truck actually rocks from side-to-side like a cruise ship as passengers clamber aboard and close their doors in unison. While this doesn’t inspire much in the handling department, it does soak up bumps and provides a welcome base for heavy hauling.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Most of our week with the Sierra was spent either towing or hauling significant loads, which provided real-world returns of 15.0 L/100 km calculated at the pump after 680 km of driving. Not bad, but it could be better.

Thanks to supply chain challenges blamed on the global pandemic and a shortage of microchips, GM is building some of its V8-equipped trucks without its cylinder deactivation system. This means the engine always runs on eight cylinders, instead of shutting some down when full power isn’t required. As such, the official ratings from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) for city and highway driving for our tester are now 17.4 and 11.7 L/100 km, respectively, compared to 15.2 and 11.1 with the deactivation tech. That means an estimated increase of $375 in annual fuel costs. GM’s answer? Provide a $50 rebate on the truck’s window sticker.

Styling: 9/10

The arrest-me-now Cayenne Red paint shown here is a new addition to the Sierra line for 2021, and one which should be selected by any customer with a pulse. To this author’s eyes, the Sierra is the handsome half of the GMC/Chevrolet fraternal twins, and its advantage only increases this year. The Elevation package imbues the Sierra with a colour-keyed grille surround and other exterior trim accented by black details on the wheels and wing mirrors, and it’s a great look – though the shape of the wheel openings is still odd.

Comfort: 8/10

There’s nothing wrong with the ventilation systems in a modern GM truck. Maxing out the heater is akin to throwing birch junks in a furnace, while the air conditioning will reliably generate icicles on your eyelashes. Following a day’s work in the summer heat (or winter’s frigid air), this is a welcome trait. The driver’s armrest is soft and squishy, like resting your elbow on a fat puppy, and invites a relaxed driving posture. Seats are comfy like an old sofa.

Features: 6/10

There’s little technically missing from the Elevation interior – infotainment is present on a decent-sized screen, heated seats are on tap, and a remote start is standard – but its design lags the competition, and irritating material cheapness appears. The driver’s side mirror on our tester vibrated like a paint shaker at any speed over 100km/h, a trait shared with the 2018 Sierra your author leased for two years, and the amount of rough plastic edges on this truck’s interior door handles was especially disappointing.

Height-adjustable seat belts vanished during the last redesign, and wireless charging is nowhere to be found at this price point. However, these are creature comforts not welcomed by all stripes of truck owners, and there’s a decent argument to be made that such frivolities won’t be missed. The optional trailer brake controller is a must-have, and the amount of information presented to the driver in the instrument cluster is very helpful for those keeping an eye on vital statistics while towing heavy loads.

User Friendliness: 8/10

The infotainment may be simply presented, but it’s also easy to use. Response times are fast and there is no need to dig through byzantine sub-menus to find commonly accessed commands. Gauges are the size of turkey platters and easy to read, while the baseball bat of a gear lever is reassuringly familiar. Work-related tools like the integrated trailer brake controller are logically placed and dead-simple to use.

So too is the multi-function tailgate. An easy press of the appropriate button near the tailgate’s release handle drops the mini-gate, creating a nice work surface or a flip-up backstop for helping to secure long items such as lumber. The whole works can then be dropped to either create something of a cove in which to step for easier bed access, or to deploy a long and wide step on which to help heave oneself up into the cargo area.

Safety: 7/10

The GMC Sierra 1500 receives mostly top marks in crashworthiness, including for roof strength and seat safety. The score on the passenger-side small overlap test is mid-grade. Its headlights are noted by official crash testers as LED reflectors whose low beams provide fair visibility patterns but can create some glare in certain conditions.

Value: 7/10

Trucks are always going to be big-ticket (and big-profit) items, and this machine is no exception. Despite occupying one of the lower rungs on the Sierra ladder, this lightly optioned Elevation model stickers at a shade more than $60,000. While this is par for the course in this segment, and will likely be tempered with rebates and offers in due course, it remains a very large sum for a rig whose cabin can’t match those of its crosstown rivals.

The Verdict

The phrase “dead simple” keeps popping to mind, and it neatly sums up the 2021 GMC Sierra Elevation. There’s nothing pretentious about its interior, its power team goes ahead and gets the job done without complaint, and its lantern-jaw styling will win more than a few friends. For many customers who are actually looking to use their trucks as tools and not fashion statements, or ardent GM fans who are trading in their last-gen model, these attributes will be more than enough for them to sign on the dotted line. Just be sure to spec the Cayenne Red paint, OK?

Engine Displacement 5.3L
Engine Cylinders V8
Peak Horsepower 355 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Peak Torque 383 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm
Fuel Economy 17.4 / 11.7 / 14.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 1,781 L
Model Tested 2021 GMC Sierra 1500 Elevation Crew Cab 4WD
Base Price $55,748
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,950
Price as Tested $60,488
Optional Equipment
$2,690 – 5.3L V8, $1,795; Cayenne Red Tintcoat Paint, $595; Integrated Trailer Brake Controller, $350; No Cylinder Deactivation, -$50