GAVIOTA, Calif. -- We're heading westward on the Pacific Coast Highway out of Santa Barbara, blue waters of the Santa Barbara Channel spreading off the California Coast to the left and brown ramparts of the Santa Inez Range stacked high on the right, while steering a new generational design of the 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 half-ton truck.
This is the ultimate pickup, stoked with power from a big V8 engine, stuffed with comforts inside the 4-door and Crew Cab compartment, then outfitted with sophisticated electronic controls that make the rig easy to maneuver on a multi-lane freeway, around town on crowded streets or even around a ranch on gravel trails.
The full-size Sierra 1500 for 2014 offers four trim grades: Sierra, Sierra SLE, Sierra SLT and ultimate Sierra Denali, plus Sierra All-Terrain special edition.
There are three different cab styles: Regular Cab (two doors and a bench or buckets), Double Cab (bench or buckets in front of a back bench with two new front-hinged rear doors tucked behind the front-hinged front doors), and Crew Cab (a generous 4-door cab with front buckets or bench and a back bench broad enough to hold three adults.
There are three different lengths for the rear truck bed: Short Box (69.3 inches), Standard Box (78.9 inches) and Long Box (97.8 inches).
There are multiple suspension setups and a choice of rear-wheel 2-wheel-drive (2WD) traction or the 4-wheel-drive (4WD) Autotrak system.
And Sierra 2014 offers three different EcoTec3 powertrains: 4.3-liter V6, 5.3-liter V8 and 6.2-liter V8.
We drive the trucks with different engine options and a variety of heavy loads aboard, following pavement and off-road routes wound around the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Mountains near Santa Barbara.
Our seat-time experience reveals evolutionary improvements for Sierra 1500 trucks, which wear new sheetmetal designs outside and contain generous space inside redesigned cabins, with strong engines pumping more power, and more safety gear aboard.
The architecture for 2014 Sierra trucks starts with fully boxed frame rails stretching the length of the vehicle for a rock-solid and rigid foundation using high-strength steel and hydroforming to provide more strength and rigidity with less weight.
Revamped cab structures integrate high-strength steel in both A and B pillars as well as roof rails and rocker panels, while ultra-high-strength steel segments show up in rocker panels to add more protection for offset collisions.
Sierra employs lightweight aluminum for some suspension components for added rigidity and weight saving, while new lightweight alloy wheels wear low-rolling-resistance tires to pare cabin noise and vibration.
Brakes consist of a disc at every wheel -- ventilated front and rear -- with Duralife brake rotors and linkage to a 4-wheel anti-lock brake system (ABS) with GM's StabiliTrak electronic skid controls.
A rack and pinion steering system gets electric power assistance, which contributes to powertrain fuel efficiency.
The exterior design appears more aerodynamic with smooth lines and, due to aluminum applications for body and engine parts as well as the aluminum hood, Sierra trucks weigh less than previous models, which translates to economy for fuel consumption.
EcoTec3 powertrains with lightweight aluminum blocks and heads include FlexFuel versions which burn regular unleaded 87-octane gasoline or E85-ethanol. All powertrains feature GM's Active Fuel Management (AFM) technology which cuts by half the number of cylinders engaged in the combustion process when boosted power is not needed in order to conserve fuel.
The 4.3-liter V6 nets 285 hp at 5300 rpm and torque of 305 lb-ft at 3900 rpm.
The 5.3-liter V8 produces 355 hp at 5000 rpm with 383 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm.
The 6.2-liter V8, exclusive to Sierra Denali, delivers 420 hp at 5600 rpm with 450 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm.
All engines utilize GM's electronically controlled Hydra-Matic 6L80 6-speed automatic transmission.
EPA fuel economy tests for Sierra rigged with the 5.3-liter V8 tally to 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway for 2WD issues and 16/22 mpg (city/highway) for 4WD versions.
Sierra's back bumper provides a notched-step platform on each corner designed as a handy leg-up step for climbing into the truck bed whether the tailgate is up or down.
Four movable upper tie downs are standard issue for Sierra's truck box and each holds a 250-lb load.
Sierra All-Terrain models in SLE and SLT trim carry an off-road suspension package with monotube Rancho shocks, hill descent control, front recovery hooks, transfer case shield, an automatic locking rear differential and special wheels and tires.
Sierra Denali Double Cab and Crew Cab models wear projector-style headlamps with LED daytime running lights, a chrome grille, stainless steel exhaust outlet and 20-inch chrome wheels. The cabin has real aluminum trim, heated and cooled leather front bucket seats, a heated steering wheel, 8-inch Color Touch navigation radio with Intellilink and a Customizable Driver Display plus front/rear park assist and a power sliding rear window.
GMC presents the 2014 Sierra 1500 truck in a broad spread of prices with MSRP points starting at $25,085 for Sierra Regular Cab 2WD and $33,210 for Sierra Crew Cab.