When it comes to full-size pickups, both Toyota (TM) and Nissan (NSANY) remain laggards. And if you're shopping for a real behemoth, a heavy-duty pickup truck for towing big boats and trailers, the Japanese companies are completely out of the game. Your choices all come from the Detroit three: Ford Motor's (F) F250, Chrysler's Dodge Ram 2500, and General Motors' Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD and its sibling, the GMC Sierra HD 2500.
Dollar for dollar, the Chevy is probably the best of the bunch, and it just got a lot better for the 2011 model year. The Silverado 2500, the model I recently test-drove, and the even heftier Silverado 3500, have a new fully boxed ladder frame, beefed-up brakes and suspension, greater towing and payload capacities, more convenience and work features, and a massively powerful optional diesel engine. It's also safer and gets better mileage than before.
The Silverado has two engines to choose from. Standard is a 6.0-liter, 360 horsepower gasoline Vortec V8 paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. The engine of choice, if you want more power, is the new 6.6-liter, 397-hp Duramax turbo diesel V8. The big Duramax generates an incredible 765 lb. ft. of torque, 105 more lb. ft. than the previous diesel and about twice the 380 lb. ft. the gasoline engine puts out.
The catch is that the diesel engine costs an extra $7,195, and even more if you also opt for the truly excellent optional six-speed Allison 1000 automatic transmission ($1,200). Rear-wheel drive is standard, but four-wheel drive is available on every trim level for around $3,000 extra.
Like other big pickups, the Silverado comes in an astonishing variety of configurations, more than two dozen in all. There are Work, LT, and LTZ trim lines, and each one is available with a 78.8 in. or 97.8 in. bed, as well as a regular, extended, or crew cab.
Starting price is $28,960 for a basic Work truck with rear-wheel drive and a regular cab, rising to $44,250 for a four-door crew-cab, all-wheel-drive LTZ. Options can push the price into the $60,000 range if you go with the diesel engine and Allison transmission.
Heavy-duty pickups don't have government fuel economy ratings, but GM says the new diesel engine is 11 percent more fuel efficient than the previous one, despite its greater power. The company says the diesel's 36-gallon tank gives it a range of 680 miles, which suggests the truck gets 18.9 miles per gallon. In 260 miles of mixed driving, I got 15.8 mpg in our diesel-powered test truck. The drawback right now, of course, is that diesel fuel costs about as much as premium gasoline.
GM doesn't break out sales of its heavy-duty pickups, but overall Silverado sales increased 16.7 percent, to 267,716, during the first three quarters of this year compared with the same period in 2009. Overall Sierra sales were up 13.6 percent, to 90,236, during the same period.
Behind the Wheel
There are two basic reasons to buy a heavy-duty pickup: A) You love the feeling of power you get behind the wheel of a massive vehicle that commands the road like a mini 18-wheeler, or B) you really need one.
The key measures of performance in this segment are towing and payload capacity. The 2500 HD can pull up to 17,800 lbs. with a fifth-wheel hitch mounted in the bed, the 3500 HD 21,700 lbs. with a fifth-wheel hitch and dual rear wheels. That's a huge amount of weight—nearly 11 tons in the case of the 3500.
More practically for most weekenders, the Silverado 2500 will tow up to 13,000 lbs. with a regular ball trailer hitch. That's more than the RAM (12,500 lbs.) but less than the Ford F250 (14,000 lbs.). Any of the three can handle most boats and trailers.
Haul Your Car in Your Truck
In addition, you can stow up to 4,192 lbs. in the bed of a Silverado 2500, which means the truck can easily hold the weight of, say, a BMW (BMWA:GR) 535i. Maximum payload capacity of a Silverado 3500 is 6,635 lbs., which is more than the weight of a Cadillac Escalade.
The Silverado 2500 HD has been substantially upgraded to handle such heavy loads. The shock absorbers and frame are stronger, and the brakes are bigger, than before. It also has a beefier asymmetrical leaf-spring rear suspension that minimizes axle hop and improves the truck's ride. Trailer sway control is standard.
The diesel engine and Allison transmission further add to the truck's capabilities. The Duramax's exhaust brake is an 18-wheeler-style system that uses engine compression to generate backpressure the driver can use to slow the vehicle without applying the brakes. The system operates automatically when cruise control is on. The Allison transmission reduces shift cycling for better control and cooling when you're pulling a heavy load.
If you think of diesel engines as loud and smelly, you need to update your thinking. From inside the cabin with the windows rolled up, the Duramax is as quiet as a gasoline engine. The only time you're likely to notice any difference is in the dead of winter. The engine idles higher when the temperature drops below freezing.
You don't buy a truck like this for its ability to accelerate, but GM says that with a diesel engine and Allison transmission, the new 2500 HD will do 0 to 60 in less than nine seconds, which is very quick for a vehicle this size. There's plenty of oomph when you punch the gas at highway speed.
Nothing is especially memorable about the truck's interior, except that it's extremely roomy—with the crew cab it can hold up to six people. The styling is standard big pickup, with oversize door handles and relatively utilitarian features. One nice touch in the crew cab is that the rear seats fold up to create a big space that's very handy for hauling dogs or groceries. You can jazz up the cab with a sunroof ($995), rear seat entertainment ($1,480), leather front bucket seats ($1,795), and a navigation system ($2,250 to $2,850), but it still won't have the luxurious, living-room-on-wheels feel of a Dodge Ram crew cab.
This isn't a truck to drive in city or suburban areas. With a crew cab and long bed, it's 259 inches long and has a turning radius of nearly 55 ft. It barely fits into standard parking spaces and is a bear to maneuver. I heartily recommend paying extra for a backup camera ($450) and parking assist and adjustable foot pedals ($370). Unless you're an acrobat, the tubular chromed running boards, a dealer-installed option costing $495 to $689, are essential for getting up into the cab easily.
Maybe my age is showing, but one of my biggest gripes about the Silverado HD is that there's no assist handle to aid the driver further in hoisting into the seat.
Buy It or Bag It?
The first thing to decide is whether you really need a heavy-duty pickup. You can save 10 grand or so by going with a regular full-size pickup, which can tow 8,000 lbs, to 11,000 lbs,, depending on the model and configuration.
If you do need a heavy-duty hauling capability, the Silverado 2500 HD offers excellent bang for the buck. It sells for an average of $41,548, according to the Power Information Network, compared with $44,761 for the 2011 Ford F250, $43,530 for the GMC Sierra 2500 HD, and $42,780 for the Dodge RAM 2500. The diesel engine and Allison transmission are well worth the premium you pay. Diesel engines last longer than gasoline engines and increase the resale value of a heavy-duty truck. In any case, if you're going heavy-duty, you might as well opt for the most powerful truck in the segment.
Click here to see more of the 2011 Chevy Silverado 2500 HD.