SPRING BRANCH, TX – Creeping down a steep gravel grade into Spring Branch Creek without an ounce of pressure on the brakes of our ’14 Chevrolet Silverado pickup, it’s difficult not to marvel at the technological advancements by U.S. large trucks in recent years.

From electronic stability control to the latest-generation 4-wheel-drive systems and advanced powertrain and aerodynamics technologies, today’s pickups are safer and more powerful and fuel-efficient than ever. Interiors also continue to evolve, bringing to the segment luxury items and connectivity previously reserved for high-end sedans and SUVs.

Here in Texas hill country, the redesigned Silverado due at U.S. dealers next month plucks its way down to the creek using hill-descent control. Not new to the priciest trucks but in relative infancy among volume pickups, HDC eliminates the herky-jerky braking of working the pedal manually, thereby reducing the risk of skidding downward in a rush of gravel and dust. It works in reverse, too.

But HDC, offered by General Motors for the first time as standard equipment on higher Silverado trim levels, ranks as just one technology among a laundry list of advancements to appear on a widely reworked light-duty pickup that is more refined, fuel-efficient and capable than any in the auto maker’s history.

As first impressions go, the redesigned Silverado’s exterior design does not depart greatly from that of its predecessor. But to be fair, pickup buyers typically resist wholesale styling changes, and comparing a ’14 model to a ’13 makes little sense anyway. It’s more likely the buyer in the market for a new Silverado will arrive at dealers in a much earlier model truck, where the comparison redo will be more dramatic.

In fact, the average age for a pickup in the U.S. today eclipses 11 years.

Rather, styling enhancements are used to play up the Silverado’s wider track. For example, newly designed headlamps are pushed to the corners and stacked alongside the trademark vertical lines of a Chevy grille, which in this case is bigger than those on previous models, including the gold bowtie badge.

Power bulges on the hood are bigger, too, while wheels and tires are moved out slightly and fender flares are more pronounced for a broad-shouldered appearance. Designers also add more tumblehome, or greater curvature to the truck’s upper body, to further enhance brawn.

The lines of the Silverado are more angular and structured than any previous Chevy pickup, with wheel openings boxy at the edges instead of rounded. GM calls the design “a fist in the wind.” Well put, although the phrase belies a slippery design meant to slice through the air more like a tomahawk chop.

The new styling cuts exterior drag 5%, using tricks such as unique headlamp, taillamp and tailgate designs meant to direct air flow over and around the truck. A tighter seal between the cab and cargo box reduces drag, while a front air dam receives a center cutout. Underside body panels add to the Silverado’s aerodynamics, as do wind deflectors in front of the rear tires and a slightly greater rake to the windshield.

One nifty design element is the corner steps’ integrated into the rear bumper. Together with a stake hole on the cargo box that also functions as a hand grip, climbing into the cargo bed has never been easier. GM also carries over the easy-to-operate tailgate, but strengthens the torque rod inside it and adds a hydraulic dampener to further reduce the effort it takes to open and close.

The improved aerodynamics reduce wind noise inside the cabin. During a stint of interstate driving, only the truck’s remarkable ride and handling leaves a greater impression than its quietness at highway speeds.

Inside, the auto maker does particularly good work with the dashboard by breaking it up into logical sections without making the design look piecemeal. Controls on the upright dashboard are more visible and sit above the driver’s knees within reasonable reach. The “keyboard” switches at the base of the center console also deserve mention for their ease of use.

Overall, the switchgear improves by leaps and bounds from the previous model’s, which at times could be uselessly small. Now they are beefier and more truck-like. The steering wheel gains some much-needed girth as well, giving it a more substantial feel.

Interior storage space grows, too, highlighted by a 2-tier glovebox, a cavernous center console as optional equipment and big door pockets with recesses large enough to hold two oversized drink bottles each.

A full-color, 8-in. (20-cm) touchscreen sits atop the center stack of the well-equipped crew cab models tested here. The screen is home to Chevy’s excellent MyLink system, which links with a smartphone to combine information and entertainment options in a central interface with voice-command capability using natural speech recognition. The driver information center is now customizable.

GM makes a major design change by moving the B-pillar forward on the crew cab and double-cab models. Not only does it improve crashworthiness, but it also gives rear passengers more legroom as well as improved ingress and egress.

Whether the truck’s crew is a workforce of five or a family of five, they will travel inside this new Silverado in quiet, connected comfort.

GM will offer a High Country edition of the Silverado, a first-time premium pickup for the brand aimed at a fast-growing market for models loaded with comfort, convenience and luxury styling above $40,000.

The Silverado High Country distinguishes itself with a number of exclusive styling elements, perhaps most notably a rich saddle-brown interior and special billet grille treatment.

The High Country is a head-turner, no question. But the effort falls short of other luxe-trucks on the market, specifically the Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn Edition and Ford F-150 King Ranch. These two competitors make bolder styling statements and evoke an important sense of place better than the Chevy version. GM has not yet released pricing on the Silverado High Country.

Under the hood, the ’14 Silverado receives a trio of all-new Ecotec 3 engines. The lineup includes a 5.3L V-8, expected to make up a volume of Silverado sales, and a 6.2L V-8 coming later this year.

Both engines come off GM’s fifth-generation small-block architecture and leverage fuel-saving, power-enriching technologies such as direct fuel injection, improved cylinder deactivation and an advanced combustion system.

GM also brings to market with the Silverado an all-new 4.3L V-6 engine that uses many of the same breakthrough technologies as the V-8s. All three engines are mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

With no load and three passengers, the 5.3L V-8 delivers 19.1 mpg (12.3 L/100 km) on a 45-mile (72-km) run from downtown San Antonio to rural Spring Branch. Hitching a 5,500-lb. (2,495 kg) ski boat to the rear of the truck, the fuel economy sinks below 10 mpg (23.5 L/100 km).

But more importantly, the Silverado hardly breaks a sweat. Capable of towing a claimed best-in-class of 11,500 lbs. (5,000 kg) with a max-towing package, the pickup pulls the big boat up highway grades with ease and sway control keeps the trailer in check along curvy rural roads.

The V-6 performs remarkably well, too. Towing an unloaded, 5,000-lb. horse trailer, it labors more than the V-8 and a nominal price difference between the two likely will see most buyers who are looking to trailer pursue the bigger engine. But budget-minded personal-use consumers intending to pull or carry light loads will find a winner in the V-6.

Here’s one gripe: GM claims segment-leading V-8 fuel economy of 23 mpg (10.2 L/100 km), but imagine the distance it could have put between itself and the competition with an 8-speed, or greater, transmission. As such, the auto maker misses a big opportunity to one-up rivals despite seven years expiring between the model changeovers.

The new Silverado feels as solidly built as ever, owning much to the liberal use of advanced materials such as high-strength steel strategically placed to balance rigidity with lightweight, stronger axle-mounting brackets and more robust cross-members for the engine bay, cab and box.

On the trail here, there’s a distinct absence of shimmies and shakes over some of the choppiest, uneven terrain a trucker might encounter. The cab and box never yield to the twists. On the highway, there’s little freeway hop. GM also reduces brake travel without making the pedal grabby, and improves brake feel. Steering is direct and pleasantly weighted.

Look for regular-cab and double-cab body styles to arrive at dealers with a wider range of bed lengths than before.

GM’s varied but important changes vault the ’14 Silverado to the head of the herd, although Ford gallops to market next year with a redesigned F-150 boasting its own raft of new technology, including widespread use of lightweight aluminum.

Toyota and Nissan bring their next-gen large pickups to market soon, and the latest Ram 1500 is less than a year old, giving the segment five sturdy bulls in the coming months. For now, however, the Silverado rules the ranch.

jamend@wardsauto.com

’14 Chevrolet Silverado
Vehicle type Front engine, 4WD large crew-cab pickup
Engine 5.3L gasoline direct-injection V-8
Power (SAE net) 355 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque 383 lb.-ft. (519 Nm) @ 4,100
Bore x stroke (mm) 96 X 92
Compression ratio 11.0:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 143.5 in. (364.5 cm)
Overall length 205.6 in. (522.2 cm)
Overall width 80.0 in. (203 cm)
Overall height 74.0 in. (203.2 cm)
Curb weight (regular cab, 4WD) 4,707 lbs. (2,153 kg)
Base price $43,165
Fuel economy 16-22 mpg city/hwy est. (14.7-10.7 L/100 km)
Competition Ford F-150, Ram 1500, Toyota Tundra, Nissan Titan
Pros Cons
All-new, power-dense V-8 6-speed gearbox old hat
Lots of new truck tech Rivals hardly resting
Well-penned styling High Country comes up short