2011 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 HD – Road Trip To Winnipeg Avoids Poker Tables


It started off tongue-in-cheek.

It was a joke between Dave and I. “We should go on a trip”, he demurely proposed at one of the High Holidays this past fall. It sounded like a reasonable enough idea; Dave and I, once bosom pals, hadn’t seen much of each other since he moved to Saskatoon for a job 9 months earlier.

His pitch: Fly to Vegas. “Uhhh, I’m not convinced…” I replied. I figured that Vegas was the last place in the world that two former poker addicts, who supported each others’ habits for a destructive number of years, should travel. It would be like giving Charlie Sheen a pound of fluffy Colombian snow and telling him to use it responsibly.

Plan B: I would drive 600 km from Edmonton to Saskatoon, sleep on Dave’s couch, we’d drive 800 km to Winnipeg the next day, sleep on his friend Jess’ couch for 3 nights, then back to Saskatoon for a visit with Dave’s couch, before heading back to Edmonton the following morning. This pie-in-the-sky idea was supposedly a way for us to relive our glory days, minus the poker.

And then it actually happened.

We did this 5 times.

Three thousand kilometers and some 500 L of diesel later, the GMC Sierra Denali HD returned Dave and I safely home, leaving only blurred memories of the previous 6 days. Here’s what I’ve pieced together.

This is probably self-evident enough, but it’s worth mentioning that the Denali HD is absolutely vast. Vast like the Mariana Trench, vast like human ignorance, vast like the distance between the Milky Way and the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy. In the city, this size presented several problems, the most hampering of which was parking. Given the 6.1m overall length, like I said, this should be self-evident. But it wasn’t until the reality of a ¾ ton truck’s enormity hit me that it really sank in. Parking on my neighbourhood streets, my local grocery store, and any multi-level parkade was right out. Just like five.

The Prairies may be tranquil and toneless, but they can also be breathtaking.

But out on the open road, east on Highway 16 to Saskatoon, the Denali 2500 unfurled itself from the concrete cocoon of the city and came into its own. The heated leather seats presented themselves as thrones and turned miles into memories. Even after a 4-hour stint behind the wheel, the seats left me feeling as fresh as when I left.

Before the Denali HD, I didn’t even know that it was possible for seats to be so plush and agreeable on long-distance hauls. In that sense, the Sierra Denali 2500 changed the way I think about ginormous trucks.

There’s no point in having your hands at 9 and 3 when the steering wheel heater only works at 12 and 6.

On the highway, we had far too many hours to test the Bose speaker system in the Denali HD. We challenged the million-speaker unit with a range of music from The Beatles to Broken Bells and from Lil’ Wayne to Crystal Castles. The upper range was clear and light, the bass was deep and responsive, and in between was a murky haze that was the auditory equivalent of a foggy British swamp. I’m no audiophile, and neither is Dave, but we both agreed there was something amiss about the Bose’s sound quality in the mid-range. The sound system controls, on the other hand, were intuitive and well executed on the touch-screen navigation system. The screen was even sensitive to contact through a gloved hand, a surprising and useful feature when the truck’s thermometer was reading -24C outside. Ford’s MyTouch system is comparatively busier and saddled with too many features. MyTouch is also only responsive to glove hands when it feels like it, whereas the Denali HD’s system worked every time just as you’d expect.

At 765 lb-ft, the Duramax engine (complete with Diesel Particulate Filter) is somehow at the bottom of the pile compared to cross-town rivals Ford and Dodge. Car enthusiasts often talk about the German Horsepower Wars and the seemingly endless struggle for on-paper dominance between BMW, Mercedes, and Audi, but we seem to forget the American Torque Wars going on in our very own backyard. These kinds of feuds therefore seem to be symptomatic of the motoring industry as a whole, rather than just being an idiosyncrasy of Europe’s most powerful economy.

The result of the motoring industry’s relentless push for more is on startling display here. From a standstill, the 7,560 lb curb weight keeps the torque from demonstrating its full potential, but once the HD got rolling, the in-gear acceleration is nothing short of amazing. The 6-speed Allison transmission is programmed to shift earlier and more frequently than necessary, but this is done with towing and hauling in mind, not blasts from zero-to-the-electronically-limited-top-speed-of-160 kph.

The gang happily huddled together for ice tumbler drinks at the Festival du Voyageur.

Once in Winnipeg, the flashy truck with a dinner table-sized grille was used as the official transportation for Rhea (a former classmate), Dave, Jess, and I. If there was somewhere we needed to go, such as the Festival du Voyageur, The Forks (Winnipeg’s Granville Island), or a wedding social, we traveled in style. Lesser vehicles moved out of the way when we wanted to go fast, and no one bothered us when we wanted to crane our necks at Winnipeg’s implausible collection of architecture. Winnipeg’s assemblage of grand physical monuments seemed odd for a city smaller than my hometown, at least until I consulted with someone who knows a little more about these kinds of things. According to my family’s resident architect, Winnipeg is so richly endowed because the city’s economy has been relatively stable over the past 100 years, meaning that vacancy rates change little over time and there’s no incentive to tear down and start over. This is in stark contrast to Edmonton’s 20-year cycles of oil-driven boom and bust that have left my city sprawling ever further, culturally deprived, and grasping for an identity.

Perhaps that’s why the Denali HD worked so well in Edmonton, but felt out of touch in Winnipeg. When a city lacks its own character, perhaps the residents pick up the slack with bemotored recompense. When a city has an identity that it can leverage, its citizens defer to their architecture to make the statement. As a car enthusiast, Edmonton provides a canvas for vehicular expressionism, whereas Winnipeg offers greater architectural, and therefore cultural, depth.

There was a stark juxtaposition between a chrome-, leather-, and fake wood-clad $80,000 truck and its reliable yet rudimentary underpinnings. On one hand, the Denali HD was a blue collar truck with leaf-spring rear suspension and a brutish 6.6L diesel V8, and on the other hand it was wearing a black tuxedo complete with baby blue ruffle shirt. The epitome of General Motors’ truck division was embodied in that black hunk of cognitive dissonance; it was the culmination of 110 years of development and progress, dating back to Max Grobowsky’s one-cylinder commercial trucks for the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company. It was ostentatious, it was environmentally offensive, and it was downright empowering to drive.

In retrospect, Dave and I were caught in a classic game of chicken, with neither of us wanting to appear less spontaneous and uninhibited than the other. Neither of us caved, so I guess we both won. Winnipeg and the GMC Sierra Denali HD brought us back together to relive a more mature version of our glory days, thankfully minus the poker, and it was absolutely worth every drop of diesel along the way.