AUSTIN, TX – Premium fullsize pickup trucks priced above $40,000 are among the U.S. auto industry’s hottest-selling and most profitable products. Ford and Chrysler have seen spectacular success in recent years with their lavish F-150 King Ranch and Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn models fetching luxury-car prices.

Meanwhile, General Motors has struggled to compete in this luxury and horsepower-drenched niche with gussied-up versions of its regular Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra Denali trucks.

For the ’14 model year, GM is getting serious about luxury pickups and rolling out a new “High Country” trim level for the Chevy Silverado and more focused luxury and technology option packages for the GMC Sierra and Denali trim levels; moves aimed at competing directly with King Ranch and Longhorn models.

The least-expensive, rear-wheel-drive version of the High Country starts at $45,100, including destination charges.

Thanks to the underlying engineering and design strengths of the new GM pickup platform, the Chevy and GMC trucks are fully capable of going head-to-head with Ford and Ram rivals during comparison test drives here on rolling country roads outside the Texas capitol.

All versions of the new GM pickups have an extremely stiff frame comprised of advanced high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel that is the foundation for precise steering and superior vehicle dynamics.

The High Country and Denali simply steer, corner and brake better than the Ford or Ram in back-to-back test drives at the event here. Going over bumps and railroad tracks, the new GM chassis does not wiggle or shake like most pickups. Plus, triple-sealed doors, redesigned from the previous generation, provide an extraordinarily quiet cabin.

On the downside, the interiors of the GM pickups feature all the premium materials, high-end audio systems and advanced connectivity necessary to be competitive, but they lack some of the original design touches that really set luxury pickups apart from their lower-priced siblings.

The GM products are more modern-looking than the fake wood-grain intensive King Ranch, which now looks dated. The Ford F-150 is in the last year of its current product cycle and an all-new truck debuts next year. But the Chevy and GMC lack the attention to detail and design flair that distinguishes the Laramie Longhorn, which was named one of Ward’s 10 Best Interiors this year.

And attention to detail counts for a lot when buyers are shelling out close to $50,000 or more for a pickup. The High Country Silverado does have beautiful saddle brown leather upholstery and heated and cooled perforated leather front seats. Three types of faux wood trim also are available that look stylish and modern.

A techy, customizable LCD driver display and real aluminum trim gives the GMC Sierra Denali a decidedly upscale ambience. But both Chevy and GMC interior designs can’t quite match Laramie Longhorn features such as real wood trim with a wonderfully tactile low-gloss finish and floor mats and other interior surfaces with special barbed-wire and other design motifs. These extra touches give the impression of a custom-made, hand-built cockpit that truly sets the Ram apart.

However, after spending time in all three luxury pickups, we would like to give GM, Ford and Chrysler a collective slap on the wrist for chintzing on the plastic trim surrounding the center console and lower inner door panels. It appears they all decided to carry over the same low-cost high-gloss materials in this area that are used on entry-level pickups.

This strategy undoubtedly saves money, but it’s like a guy in an expensive suit wearing cheap white socks.  

But in the final analysis, even luxury pickups are about towing and hauling heavy loads. And in this respect, GM’s optional new 6.2L small-block V-8 trounces the competition.

We’ve already raved about the 5.3L V-8 and 4.3L V-6, but the 6.2L may be the best in GM’s overachieving small-block family. Making 420 hp and 460 lb.-ft. (624 Nm) of torque, it is the most powerful light-duty gasoline pickup engine available.

It can tow up to 12,000 lbs. (5,443 kg), and fuel economy is 15/21 mpg (15.7-11.2 L/100 km) city/highway for a 2-wheel-drive truck and 1 mpg lower for both city and highway for 4-wheel-drive versions.

The 6.2L has a deep, resonant exhaust note and it doles out huge gobs of torque with a buttery smoothness that even Chrysler’s potent Hemi V-8 can’t match.

We actually drove a 6.2L-equipped Denali for several miles before noticing it had a 1,200-lb. (544-kg) payload strapped in the box. The small block made it feel like we were hauling a load of cotton candy.

Because the cylinders are so large, providing a bigger bang with each down stroke than its smaller-displacement family members, the 6.2L also slips into 4-cyl. mode surprisingly often.

Active noise cancellation technology makes the frequent transitions from 4-cyl. to V-8 modes utterly seamless.

Pushrods and cam-in-block architectures may be mature technologies, but they are especially well-suited for pickup trucks where low-end torque is crucial and for accommodating cylinder deactivation, marketed as Active Fuel Management by GM. In the 6.2L V-8 EcoTec3 engine, the two technologies have evolved to their highest level.

dwinter@wardsauto.com

GM 6.2L EcoTec3 V-8
Material Aluminum block/head
Valvetrain Overhead valve/variable valve timing
Power (SAE net) 420 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque 460 lb.-ft. (623 Nm) @ 4,100 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 103.3 x 92
Compression ratio 11.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Fuel economy (2-wheel drive) 15/21 mpg (15.7-11.2 L/100 km)
Applications Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra Denali