Trucks are the king of the road. When you can fit a 30-year-old full-size pickup into the bed of today’s full-size, yeah, they’re kinda a big deal. Trucks are also the king of the bank. In 2021, a slow sales year for a myriad of reasons, light-duty trucks still accounted for 75 percent of the vehicles sold. That’s roughly 11.6 million trucks to 3.3 million cars and a little less than half a million heavy-duty vehicles.
And the king of kings remains the Ford F-150, which is practically unchallenged for that rank. Second place is where the main event is, with the Ram 1500 duking it out with the Chevrolet Silverado for runner-up position. But always just off the podium is the GMC Sierra 1500. Even though it’s the spitting image and mechanical twin of the Silverado, GMC goes with the professional-grade mystique of the Silverado’s supervisor in the air-conditioned work trailer.
Because air conditioning is always a luxury versus standing in the oven-dry heat of a Southern California desert, which is exactly where I test drove the new-for-2022 GMC Sierra 1500 AT4X. You know, like the off-road-ready AT4 but more off-roady. Or so GMC says. In spite of our desolate location, I didn’t really get to try out that rugged stuff. But before I get to the why, let me cover the what.
Gallery: 2022 GMC Sierra AT4X: First Drive
The Sierra AT4X branches off from the AT4 much the same way the also-new-for-2022 Denali Ultimate separates itself from the Denali. Both models are elevated versions of their existing siblings. Cloning done right, shall we say? The automaker even says that 67 percent of segment buyers want convenience and on-road comfort but are also three-and-a-half times more likely to engage in outdoor activities.
The 2022 model year is a refresh year in GMC land, so all Sierra pickups are updated with newly designed grilles, front fascias, and headlights, as well as revised interiors for most trim levels.
The Sierra AT4X branches off from the AT4 much the same way the also-new-for-2022 Denali Ultimate separates itself from the Denali.
GMC does away with the previous model’s three-tiered mesh grille in place of a “tri-linear theme with cross-car inserts,” marketing jargon for “moar maw.” And the new grille is impressive in how it, along with the new lower fascia, elongates the overall look of the Sierra’s face. With the new split C-style integrated headlights, the truck appears authoritatively wider, leaner, and lower. But at 78.4 inches tall and with 11.1 inches of ground clearance, the AT4X certainly is not short and stout.
On the AT4X and other trims, the rest of the exterior is untouched and looks nearly identical to the 2021 Sierra from a side and rear profile view. There are three new premium-cost metallic paints to choose from (Titanium Rush, Dynamic Blue, and Desert Sand), new wheels for SLT and Denali models, and a grille design named Vader for the Denali Ultimate. Yeah, that reference is as subtle as the grille.
The Sierra interior is significantly updated for 2022 and now feels, frankly, cavernous. The soft, round edges of the previous model’s dash have been replaced with more “cross car” lines like the ones found in the new grille. Everything is more linear, straighter, or horizontally oriented.
Most notable is the more than 40 inches of real estate dedicated to screens. Now standard on all trims save the base Sierra Pro are a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and a 13.4-inch infotainment touchscreen. An available 15.0-inch multicolor head-up display brings the total diagonal measurement to 40.7 ticks. The displays are large but also feature big graphics and easy-to-read icons and fonts, enhancing user-friendliness without minimizing luxury feel.
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The screens are quick to respond and accurate, and the available Google built-in system is easy to use. Google compatibility is standard on all trims but the entry-level Sierra Pro. For AT4 and Denali models, three years of complimentary connected services are included. Despite all of the new screens, the cabin retains an exorbitant amount of buttons and knobs. GMC says the controls are unique to the brand but why so many? Was there a fire sale at the supplier? They don’t all make sense either. Ergonomics are also a bit wonky. Case in point: Why are the four-wheel-drive-specific controls placed in two different areas of the cabin?
The drive mode controller and 4HI/4LO buttons are located on the dash to the left of the steering wheel. The switches for hill descent and the front and rear e-locking differentials are the “piano keys” section of the lower center console. Is this so that both my hands are involved in the off-road process?
Despite all of the new screens, the cabin retains an exorbitant amount of buttons and knobs. GMC says the controls are unique to the brand but why so many? Was there a fire sale at the supplier?
There are other ergonomic issues. The screens, switches, knobs — they’re all placed a little too far down on the dash. When I wanted to adjust the climate, for example, I had to almost look straight down. The bulky knobs for drive modes and lighting also got in the way. I’m 5-foot-2 and my driving partner is 5-foot-11 and we both hit the controllers. At least I didn’t inadvertently change drive modes with my knee, but there’s strange placement of some frequent touchpoints that requires you look away from the road for longer than necessary.
Other tech and convenience bits include wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, wireless device charging, Wi-Fi hotspot capability, Bluetooth, voice activation, SiriusXM satellite radio with a three-month free trial, a 12-speaker premium Bose surround sound system, and an in-vehicle Trailering app.
Okay, if you stuck around this long (or scrolled down, you cheater), I suppose now I’ll tell you how the new Sierra drives. On the highways and byways of San Diego County, the new Sierra is great.
In terms of comfort, the best goodies are relegated to the upper-echelon Denali Ultimate, which provided much-need solace from the 97-degree outside temperatures. No skimping on the luxury-level comfort for the rah-rah AT4X either. There’s genuine leather everywhere, tasteful wood accents, and both front bucket seats feature 16-way power adjustment as well as a one-touch massage operation.
Still, I wish more trims were equipped with Super Cruise, because the already excellent semi-autonomous driving system has gotten even better for truck duty. In addition to its superbly smooth hands-free driving ability, Super Cruise now has trailering capabilities, can initiate automatic lane changes, and features an enhanced Super Cruise–optimized navigation display. Even more disappointing was that my time with the Denali Ultimate was limited to a 25-mile drive route, only of which three miles were on the interstate. I activated Super Cruise anyway, and it was a glorious two exits. So there.
The Sierra AT4X was my date for what was supposed to be a full day of adventure. Both the Denali Ultimate and AT4X come only in a crew cab, short box configuration with standard four-wheel drive. Where the Denali models are equipped with 22-inch wheels, the AT4X gets 18-inchers wrapped in 32 inches of Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac Mud-Terrain rubber.
Also, like the new Denali Ultimate, the AT4X comes standard with the most powerful engine available for the GMC Sierra. Paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission, the 6.2-liter V-8 produces 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. While this is the only engine for the AT4X, the Denali Ultimate can be optioned with the turbodiesel 3.0-liter inline-six.
The AT4X is being marketed as a premium off-road performance and there are plenty of mechanical features to show it off.
The AT4X features a two-speed Autotrac transfer case and 3.23 axle ratio. Selectable drive modes are Normal, Off-Road, and Terrain, which includes one-pedal driving. Its payload is rated at 1,420 pounds and its maximum towing is 8,900 pounds. Compared to other Sierra models, the AT4X has the least payload and is second-to-last in terms of trailering ability. But it’s not targeting long-haulers, even though its ride quality is surprisingly comfortable and complaint. The AT4X is being marketed as a premium off-road performance and there are plenty of mechanical features to show it off.
The AT4X’s an approach angle of 25.5 degrees and breakover angle of 22.7 degrees bests all other Sierra crew cabs. But its 23-degree departure angle, which it shares with the AT4, is one of the lowest. Exclusive to the AT4X are Multilmatic DSSV dampers and specialized springs. Compared to the AT4 suspension, they increase the maximum wheel travel by 2.0 inches in the front and 1.0 in the rear.
This equates to 9.8 inches and 10.6 inches of suspension travel for the front and rear, respectively. The chassis and suspension have also been specifically calibrated for off-road driving. Additionally, the AT4X is equipped with a larger steel transfer case skid plate and can be optioned with rocker guards, which my test truck had.
Dust To Dust
Suffice it to say, the Sierra AT4X is primed for some dirty fun. And it got dirty, alright, but the action was underwhelming. From the hotel in Encinitas, California, the drive was about 100 miles to base camp in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This expansive park traverses three counties and is a popular spot for 4WD activities. After a lunch break, I aired down the tires from 41 psi to about 25 psi, put the truck in Off-Road mode, and four-wheel drive, and convoyed on a few miles of smooth dirt to the Diablo Drop-Off. It’s as sketchy as its name suggests.
On a clear day with good weather conditions, it’s a technical and exhilarating 45-degree precipice that drops about 100 feet of elevation in a relatively short distance. And there are actually two sides to it. With the AT4X set to 4LO and the rear e-locker activated, we descended down the wide section of loose sand that presented a decent twist in the middle to showcase the AT4X articulation. The optional rocker guards came in handy to protect the truck’s underside.
The Sierra AT4X was certainly given all the right tools to meet and likely exceed customer needs, wants, and expectations.
After a U-turn and with both axle locks engaged, I proceeded up the more problematic section, which is much narrower and consists of large steps and deep ruts. With the short bed, the AT4X had less overhang to snag during the climb. Once ascended unscathed, that was it. The skills test lasted all of two minutes – with one minute spent waiting at the bottom of the hill for the “all clear’ signal. Then it was back to the hotel. On the freeway.
“What gives?” you ask. “But you drove through the unpaved, ungroomed desert!” you add. I know, right?! And I did! But how much sliding, drifting, climbing, and even low-key jumping I could do was restricted to our group’s pacing. And with a dozen trucks on the trail, there was a constant dust cloud that blinded my field of vision. Sure, I could keep driving straight but who knows into what or where? The grille-integrated front camera is meant for low speeds and will deactivate after those speeds are exceeded, either 10 to 15 mph.
The off-road trail did provide interesting topography with the dry lake beds and slotted canyons, but it wasn’t exactly in the boonies, in spite of the landscape. I had enough cellular service for check-in for my next-day flight. Outside of the Diablo Drop-Off, the predetermined route could easily have been conquered (if you can call it that) by a Subaru Outback or Forester.
This isn’t to say the Sierra AT4X is not capable of doing premium off-road things. I just don’t really know. The Sierra AT4X was certainly given all the right tools to meet and likely exceed customer needs, wants, and expectations. But from a test drive standpoint, I wasn’t given the right roadmap to truly experience the new truck’s capabilities. That’s where the disappointment lies. I’m not asking for steep drops around every blind corner. Just an adventure my neighbor’s Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road can’t do.
In the end, the most excitable and anxious I got was hypermiling the full-size pickup through the mountains when I realized the available range was less than the distance to the hotel. Oops. Well, I did say air conditioning was a luxury in the desert. For what I don’t know about the Sierra AT4X’s off-road prowess, I do know its on-road manners are civilized. And the survey said that’s what most buyers wanted anyway, right?
Sierra AT4X Competitors:
2022 GMC Sierra 1500 AT4X 4WD Crew Cab Short Box