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A close-up of the Duramax badge of a blue 2024 GMC Sierra 1500 is shown.

GMC Sierra: Diesel’s Last Stand

Diesel engines in light-duty or half-ton pickups are a bit of a contentious issue, with a fair amount of debate on either side of the argument. No matter where you fall on this subject, however, the industry and auto market is making a clear statement: diesel is for heavy-duty only. At least, that’s what most of the industry is saying. Ram announced last year they were ending production of their diesel engine for the Ram 1500, while Ford dropped the diesel from the F-150 a couple of years back. That leaves the 2023 GMC Sierra 1500 as one of only two remaining options for a light-duty or half-ton truck with a diesel engine.

The other option is, of course, the Chevy Silverado 1500, which is the Sierra’s sibling; they share platforms, engines, and a lot of other features, given that they’re also both GM brands. So GM is keeping the half-ton diesel truck alive—at least for now—while everyone else has abandoned it in favor of Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) options and diesel exclusivity for three-quarter- and full-ton trucks. Why is this, and is this a smart move? These are both excellent questions, so let’s dig into some details and see if we can get to the bottom of this decision and where it leaves the GMC Sierra 1500 in the truck market.

Diesel Engines That Were

To get a feel for this situation, it can help to start off by checking out how things looked not too long ago, when all three of these major brands had a diesel engine to offer on their full-size, light-duty trucks. You can still find a Ram 1500 with a diesel engine, but production on them has come to an end, so this won’t be the case for much longer. With the Ford F-150, however, you’d have to go back to a 2021 model—which isn’t that long ago—but even a couple of model years can seem like a geological age when looking at how quickly things can change in the auto industry.

If you go back to a 2021 Ford F-150, it was offered with a 3.0L Power Stroke Turbo Diesel V6 engine that could provide just 250 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque. I’ll be honest—that’s an underwhelming amount of horsepower; it was then, and it still is. So Ford really had two options: either improve their diesel on the F-150 to try and keep up with the other engines they offer, or ditch it. You already know which solution they chose.

The Ram 1500 has had an available 3.0L EcoDiesel V6 engine that delivers 260 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque for quite some time now, though it’s gone unchanged ever since Ford dropped its offering. Just like the diesel engine for the F-150, this is the lowest horsepower available for any engine on the Ram 1500, although the torque is definitely impressive and makes it a good option for some. By comparison, the 5.7L HEMI V8 with eTorque that’s available for the 2023 Ram 1500 delivers a substantial 395 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque—less torque, to be sure, but a more balanced overall driving experience.

A black 2023 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali is shown from the front at an angle.

Diesel Engines That Are

Now that both of those engines have been dropped by their respective brands, there’s just one option on the market for a light-duty pickup with a diesel engine: GM (or two options, if you consider Chevy and GMC separately). When Ford brought its diesel engine to its end for the 2021 model year, the GMC Sierra 1500 had an available 3.0L Duramax Turbo Diesel I-6 engine that delivered 277 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. You can see that even then (against Ford’s 250 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque) the GMC offering already came out on top—and it’s only become better.

Starting with the 2023 model year, GMC has improved the performance of the diesel engine on the Sierra 1500, and it now puts out a very respectable 305 hp and 495 lb-ft of torque. This improved engineering means it’s not only more enjoyable to drive, but it can also handle up to 13,000 lbs of towing capacity, just as much as the 6.2L V8 gas engine that’s also available. While someone looking for greater towing will want to check out a heavy-duty model like the GMC Sierra 2500 HD or 3500 HD, this opens a huge door for a lot of impressive power and capability with “only” a half-ton truck.

Towing capacity is only part of the picture, sure, but it’s worth mentioning, particularly for the diesel engine on the Ram 1500 that’s on its way out; for the 2023 model, it offers just 9,600 lbs of towing, while the available V8 gas engine can handle up to 12,750 lbs. That’s a huge difference, and it showcases not only how good the engineering has become on standard gas engines but also how far Ram has let their diesel engine fall behind. Even for people who prefer the feel of diesel and how reliable it is, it’s hard to justify losing 130 hp and 3,000 lbs of towing capability just to get 70 lb-ft of torque. It’s no wonder that Ram has decided to let their diesel option take a bow rather than force it to keep limping forward.

What Does This Mean Going Forward?

Considering the current push toward BEV models for full-size trucks from all of the major brands, I doubt we’ll see diesel engines make a return on the F-150 or Ram 1500, even if they launch a new generation. They’d have to see a massive loss in revenue from drivers who specifically want a light-duty pickup with a diesel engine, and I’m just not sure the market is really there for it. We’ll have to see if the GMC Sierra 1500 gets a boost from people who want this option and have only one truck to choose from that can deliver it.

For heavy-duty options like the Ram 2500 and the Ford F-350 Super Duty, I don’t expect the diesel engine to go anywhere any time soon. These upper classes are clearly where they’ve prioritized their efforts for developing diesel engines. They expect drivers who want a diesel to go with a heavier-duty model, while those looking for a half-ton truck will have to choose between gas engines and BEVs. Will that make drivers happy? That’s a difficult question—and I don’t currently have the crystal ball that holds that answer—although I’m sure many will not be pleased about losing their preferred option.

A black 2023 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali is shown from the rear at an angle.

What Does This Mean for Drivers?

For drivers and people shopping for a vehicle, there’s a clear message here: if you want a new half-ton truck with a diesel engine, then you’re looking at a GMC or Chevy. I’m sure that GM is more than happy to take on new customers who might’ve preferred Ford or Ram in the past but who are more loyal to their driving experience (light-duty trucks with a mighty diesel engine) than to any name brand—but we’ll have to see if there really is a shift there. Moving up to a heavy-duty truck can be a major jump in price, let alone size and handling, and is likely more than a lot of people are willing to adjust their lives around just to get access to a diesel engine, particularly if they don’t need the boost in capability that comes with it. I know there are plenty of truck owners who aren’t ready to go with a BEV model just yet, especially for long-distance towing—something diesel engines excel at—so for now, GM is in a prime position to corner the market on these such drivers.

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