HEARTS DELIGHT, Newfoundland, CA – In the design studios of the GMC Sierra large pickup, where the mission is to take truck-luxe to uniquely new levels, there always has been a 5,000-lb. gorilla in the room: The Chevy Silverado.
The Silverado is General Motors’ best-selling product, delivering more than twice as many units annually in the U.S. as the Sierra, so Chevy historically has called the shots when it comes to styling and limited opportunities for GMC input.
Differentiation is further handicapped by platform sharing, which traditionally only works with a high degree of common parts and components.
But Matthew Noone, exterior designer for the re-engineered ’19 Sierra and range-topping Sierra Denali trickling out to U.S. dealers, says the market has evolved in recent years to paint GM into a corner: In short, give Sierra a heavy dose of individualization or risk losing customers to one of the industry’s most profitable and fastest-growing brands.
“The market is changing, and to be successful in any market but especially fullsize trucks, you really have to bring it,” Noone tells Wards on the sidelines of an event here to launch the luxurious Sierra Denali and Sierra AT4, a new entry pairing premium truck attributes with off-road capabilities.
“Not only does GMC want to be separate from Chevrolet, but Chevrolet would like to go on their own, too. In the past you could argue we’ve overlapped each other and gone into market somewhat with a double-decker strategy and haven’t leveraged our brands as we should,” he adds.
“We’ve now separated them and built a selection of personalities between Chevrolet and GMC to attack the market, from high to low, and intelligently go after taking sales from Ford while keeping our customers.”
Separating the Sierra from the Silverado, as well as outside competitors, always has been the goal inside the brand’s design studio, Noone says, but only recently has GM management given it the latitude and tools to be successful. He says it builds off a corporate philosophy GM undertook after bankruptcy to put the customer first in its decision making.
“It’s easy for us to say it,” Noone says, admitting it sounds cliché. “But we can walk around this truck, and many of our other products, and show that the decisions we’ve made have been done with their voice in the back of our minds.”
Noone says meetings with customers early in the design process revealed intelligent, articulate buyers who know trucks and the GMC brand. They also showed a willingness to take their dollars elsewhere if the Sierra was not given more individuality.
“We received a very strong message that, if you would like the continued respect and admiration for GMC, we expect you to deliver us a truck that is its own truck – different features and different content,” he says.
GMC has been on a sharp growth arc in recent years, too. It doubled its sales volume to 477,980 units last year from 226,164 in 2009. The first six months of 2018 were its best since first-half 2015, and GMC marketing chief Phil Brook says brand health is at an all-time high.
So healthy, in fact, he hints GMC may take a run at Super Bowl television. He neither confirms nor denies the idea but tells Wards the event makes a good showcase for innovation and the timing aligns with Sierra Denali models arriving at dealers early next year with an exclusive first-ever, scratch-free and dent-free carbon-fiber cargo box and reconfigurable tailgate.
Denali sales comprised 29%, or 140,403 units, of GMC demand last year and to stretch its truck-luxe story further the brand added the Sierra AT4.
“We wanted to replicate Denali with a premium off-road offering,” Brook says at the event. “It will be a pioneer in the industry.”
But Ford and FCA also see opportunity in a large-pickup segment that has added nearly 500,000 sales in the past five years, so Noone says the brand knew it had to double down on the Sierra’s bold exterior design for the redesigned model.
The Sierra and Silverado share the cab body, roof, windshield, and rear door of crew-cab models, but the bodyside character lines are treated differently. Wheel openings also are different between the two; fender flares are uniquely integrated; and front tow hooks are vertical instead of horizontal.
“In the past, we basically got a (unique) front and rear fender,” Noone recalls. “It was very constraining and drove some of the negative connotations.
“We actually started the program with unique (rear) doors but decided for the better of the company we should probably share them,” he says.
A flexible architecture helped, too. For example, engineers created cutouts for the front lamps so GMC could employ a unique lighting design. The result is a swept-back, three-dimensional appearance. The hood comes off the windshield much flatter than on the Silverado and a one-piece grille gives the Sierra more of a heavy-duty look. The GMC logo is redone to catch light better and is distinctively crowned.
“GMC customers want a real bold, fist-in-the-wind front end,” Noone says. “We’ve got large decorative lamps, a very bold lighting signature that you see from a distance and you know it is a GMC. The front end is going to sell the truck.”