Chevy’s big truck ups its towing game, but is that enough?
Depending who you ask, the part of the truck universe getting the most attention is either the growing mid-size pickup segment (which has two all-new entries in the form of the Ford Ranger and Jeep Gladiator), or the popular half-ton full-size models getting light-duty diesels. We should note we just drove the 2020 Silverado 1500 3.0-liter Duramax and it’s pretty darn good.
Although all this is true, the real momentum and gravity in the pickup truck world is happening in the oft-ignored heavy-duty arena, what are commonly referred to as three-quarter-ton and one-ton pickups. (No, those tonnage descriptors don’t mean much anymore, but these are the biggest, strongest, normal-ish trucks you can buy.) There’s so much momentum in the segment that by the end of this year, the entire segment will have all-new, redesigned, or upgraded competitive offerings from each of the four key brands – Chevrolet, GMC, Ram, and Ford.
We recently had our first chance to get behind the wheel of several different 2020 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD and 3500HD models, driving through the mountains and valleys of central Oregon, and here are our first-drive and first-tow impressions of the new pickup.
The new look of the Silverado HD lineup will, no doubt, be difficult for some to swallow, mostly because of how high the competitors (namely Ram) have set the bar. These new Chevy HD trucks are bigger, taller, wider, and longer in just about every measurable way, and they have some of the most technologically advanced features ever seen in a pickup. (For a quick review of most of the new features and capabilities of the 2020 Silverado HD, take a look at our First Look piece from February.)
Visually, the exterior has nothing in common with the half-ton model, other than the large, all-caps CHEVROLET name across the length of the grille. (Top-of-the-line High Country HD models get the chromed grille and traditional Bow Tie.) The height of the hood in both 4×4 or 4×2 models almost prevents anyone under six feet from looking at the engine or closing the hood once it’s open. Chevy engineers and marketing folks told us their HD customers wanted the new 2500/3500 model to be bigger and more intimidating than the 1500. As a result, we reckon around 90 percent of Chevy HD buyers will need a stepstool to help them reach the engine compartment.
From our experience, there’s no question that there is a difference between half-ton and heavy-duty buyers, and we saw several Chevy presentations that drove that point home. According to Chevy, most 1500 buyers use their pickup for many types of everyday and every-weekend usage. HD buyers, on the other hand, have a very specific task (exclusively for work or hard play, but usually not both) that they’re looking to use their pickup for — commercial rig duty, fifth-wheel camper towing, or taking the horses to the next show.
And the common denominator across the range is towing both big and small loads. Since the majority of HD customers typically do some kind of towing, Chevy gave us quite a bit of time with these trucks with a heavy trailer; as a consequence, much of our discussion will deal with how they deal with heavy trailers.
As a result, some of the biggest improvements to this new Chevy HD (and likely the coming GMC) pickups are not easily seen or touched, but rather are underneath the truck. Every aspect of this new frame is stiffer and stronger, providing, we’re told, a better foundation for the stronger suspension pieces that offer a wider range of smooth-ride capability when driving in both empty and at full-payload capacity. That’s not something past engineers seemed to be concerned about; most people understand when opting for an HD pickup, you have to give a lot up in comfort and ride quality. Today’s buyers, they tell us, are looking to make fewer compromises.
The first of these new trucks we drove was a 2500 crew cab 4×4 mid-level Custom with the all-new 6.6-liter direct injection V-8 gas engine, rated at 401 horsepower and 464 pound-feet of torque. This engine replaces the aging 6.0-liter V-8 workhorse GM has kept around for almost two decades. The new mill is a vast improvement over its predecessor.
Although most of these HD models are likely to be ordered with the bigger and stronger Duramax turbodiesel (rated at 445 horsepower and 910 pound-feet of torque), every competitor in this segment has to offer a solid torque-biased gas V-8 for the old-school fleet and commercial buyers, as well as a small number of personal-use buyers that like the way a big gas V-8 sounds and responds.
Driving the gas V-8 with the six-speed on the winding two-lane roads through the open countryside and gradual slopes of the Northwest’s Cascade mountain range, throttle responsiveness and its willingness to scoot up a hill is impressive. All gas V-8s receive 3.73:1 axle gears, as the transmission seems pretty smart about knowing when and how quickly to drop a gear when needed. The 6L90 transmission is basically a carryover from the previous HD lineup, but we’re guessing there’s been a considerable amount of software integration work to prevent the harder gear shifts (especially during the 1/2 and 2/3 shifts) we’ve experienced with it in the past, especially under load.
With that said, we had quite a bit of fun during a few passing and merging situations where we hopped on the throttle and felt the 8,000-pound (3,629-kg) pickup move like sport truck. We also have to note that the lighter weight of the new engine (when compared to the Duramax engine) provides the front end with a nimbler feel when diving and carving through corners—not something we’re used to feeling in a truck this large.
All new Chevy HDs continue to use the familiar independent front suspension (the only one in the competitive set), but with an upgraded and retuned set of A-arms and torsion bar springs. Rear spring packs have also been redesigned and tuned to provide the most payload capacity for every model. We had the chance to do some bumper-hitch towing with the gas HD, pulling a Big Tex flatbed trailer with a Hitachi Zaxis 30U compact excavator lashed down, weighing in around 12,000 pounds (5,443 kg). Our test truck had the larger, split level, manual-pull tow mirrors (higher trim packages offer full electric extendable and foldable tow mirrors) and all-new integrated brake controller (newly located in the bottom left of the center stack), allowing us to keep track and control of the load behind us. In fact, we were on the road towing for quite a while before we found out how much the trailer actually weighed, and were surprised the load wasn’t several thousands pounds lighter.
From our unscientific calculations, there were almost 1,000 pounds (453 kg) of tongue weight on the rear hitch, yet we didn’t feel the slightest bit of wag or push from the trailer during our hard stops or higher speed cornering. We’ll also make the point here that GM engineers have done an impressive job tightening up the steering feel of this big truck, making it both quick to respond and consistent in the amount of road feel when cornering or driving down a road with a nasty crown. We’ve experienced both problematic situations with the old truck and found it to be a tricky thing to keep the truck smoothly taking a corner or staying pointed straight when the road is not dead level. Something about those conditions seem to make the previous steering setup come on and force us to make continuous, small adjustments, which were mentally exhausting over time. With this upgraded steering setup, we felt none of that.
We also had the chance to take a fully loaded High Country 2500HD 4×4 Duramax over some two-lane roads and highways around Mt Bachelor ski area. In this circumstance, we had a 24-foot bumper hitch box trailer perfectly balanced and loaded to provide us with 14,000 pounds (6,350 kg) behind us over the same course we drove with the gas V-8. And without any big surprises, as you probably guessed, the turbodiesel with a heavier load at high-altitude did exceptionally well, pulling stronger and harder than its gasoline counterpart.
Our tow rig also offered some of the newest towing features Chevy offers, which includes as many as 15 different camera views of your trailer. You can even hardwire a camera inside your trailer. We especially appreciated that many of the various camera angles are individually selectable while driving so you can check out what’s going on in the bed, behind the trailer, or even inside the trailer for up to eight full seconds. Chevy also equipped our trailer with an exterior rear camera that provided a transparent-view camera angle — which allowed us to see right through the trailer to what’s behind the truck.
One of our favorite features in the Duramax-equipped Silverado HD is the all-new, quick-shifting and quite flexible Allison 10L 1000 10-speed transmission. All axle gear ratios for all Silverado HDs equipped with the Duramax engine are an efficient 3.42:1, because the gears on this new 10-speed (the only in the segment to date) range from a 4.54:1 first to a 0.63:1 tenth gear (with a 4.54:1 reverse gear as well).
We had the chance to drive a pair of one-ton dually Duramax-equipped 3500s—both with more than 30,000 pounds (13,608 kg) of trailer weight behind them—and found the new transmission, with the closer ratio gearing, an amazingly smooth and controlled experience, even with dynamiting the brakes or flat-footing the throttle. (Of course, we wouldn’t recommend anyone doing that unless on a closed course, which we were.)
From what we’re told, there is very little change to the 6.6-liter Duramax V-8; however, with the addition of this new, more sophisticated Allison 10-speed transmission, the feel and responsiveness of the engine makes it feel like the truck has a whole new personality. In the 2500 model we drove back to our hotel from Mt. Bachelor, the powerband is clearly widened and deepened, but the addition of four more gears and a wider powerband, the results are stunning. During everyday (unloaded) driving through tight city streets or when merging onto highways, we found throttle response was never lagging and power was always on tap right where we needed it.
The 10-speed transmission made driving a weighty unloaded heavy-duty pickup more comfortable in traffic, as well as more relaxing to tow heavy loads by giving us plenty of power to climb the steeper grades, and delivering a strong exhaust brake control on the steeper descents.
Tow/Haul is activated by the new turn-dial and it seems to change the shift mapping significantly and engage the variable-vein turbocharger more aggressively when the exhaust brake is engaged. Our only quibble with this new setup is that (as noted with the gas V-8 transmission), we found ourselves wanting to know what gear our tow rig was in before we grabbed the column shifter to pull it down into a manual mode (necessary to get a gear readout). Likewise, we found ourselves wanting more settings with the exhaust brake (like Ford and Ram offer) to help keep better control of our downhill loads or when coming to a quick stop.
Diesel aficionados will note that GM finally relocated the diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tank so they could put the DEF filler spout behind a larger fuel filler door. Additionally, there is a selectable electronic DEF gauge that allows the driver to visually see how full that tank is at any given time. Of course, when the tank gets to one-quarter full, there will be stair-stepped audible warnings that become more annoying the closer to empty you get, until the truck will finally go into a federally-mandated limp-home mode where you won’t be able to ignore it any longer.
We haven’t said much about the interior, which for some buyers could be the most important and reflective of overall quality to a pickup (which makes sense since that’s pretty much where people spend most of their time). In that regard, because Chevy has not done anything earth-shattering or unique, this is where the 2020 Silverado HD is likely to take the most criticism.
Looking much like the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 interior (which seemed to get a rather lukewarm reception from many outlets, including this one), the HDs are clearly bigger in all ways to the vehicles they’re replacing; all cabs offer more legroom, headroom, and shoulder room, while the gauge cluster and pyramid-shaped center stack will instantly look familiar to anyone who’s been inside a 2019 Chevy half-ton.
Our Custom 4×4 test truck had a bench front seat that was a little flat and too firm for us, and only offered forward and back legroom adjustments, without any foot-pedal or shoulder belt adjustment ability. However, our High Country did deliver six-way adjustable heated and cooled seats and provided us with a more cushioned and side-bolstered feel, not to mention a well-placed and sizably inflatable lumbar support feature.
Storage slots both in the door and along the side of the center console are convenient and well thought out, as are the cupholders. In the rear of the cabin, there is not much storage creativity going on. We like the flatter rear floor, but we’d like to see some sort of additional problem-solving going on for those who need more than a small cutout under the rear seat (which houses the standard-issue bottle jack). That area looks like it couldn’t hold much more than a few yardsticks or wheel chocks. Our bottom line here is the interior layout and storage features leave us wanting. And while that is not likely to be the most important thing to buyers looking at these trucks, they are details that could be used as key competitive separators from the other players, who do seem to be taking these features quite seriously.
Do these powertrain and technology changes provide big improvements? Yes. Will these interior improvements run the Chevy to the top of the segment? No. Is this the best Silverado HD to date, likely to make any and all Chevy HD customers happier than ever before? Yes. Will this new Silverado HD lineup beat the competition? We’ll have to wait and see.
Pricing for the 2020 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 and 3500 models has been released, and in some cases provide a strong value proposition. Our 2500 crew-cab Custom 4×4 with the gas V-8 had an MSRP of $47,770 USD (all pricing includes Destination). And while our 2500 crew-cab High Country 4×4 with the Duramax (with the standard 10-speed trans) listed over $70,000 USD, our regular-cab 3500 dually 4×2 with the Duramax and 10-speed transmission was just under $50,000 USD. Yes, these can be pricey pickups (especially when you opt for the upper trim levels or most advanced technology packages), however, you are getting a lot of pickup for your money.