Tow-testing Chevrolet's New 6-Speed Silverado

We’ve complained about Chevrolet’s lack of a five- or six-speed transmission in its light-duty pickups. It’s been a competitive disadvantage against trucks from Detroit as well as those from overseas parent companies for more than five years.

Where we grew impatient is that GM had a great six-speed transmission in its light duty trucks and full-size SUVs; but it was limited to the company’s upscale GMC Denali and Cadillac Escalade nameplates.

While it was slow to migrate to the Silverado production line, when made available for 2009 we put one to the test to see if its impressive, on-paper, 9,500-pound towing capacity was well matched to the performance of the chassis and driveline.

Another Thousand Pounds

Because of the increased capability from the HydraMatic 6L80 six-speed auto transmission, the Silverado 1500 Crew Cab gained more than 1,000 pounds of towing capacity when turned by the 5.3 Vortec flex-fuel-capable engine.

To get to the high tow rating, our test model had a heavy duty cooling system. We also tried the $200 optional integrated trailer brake control that eliminates the need for an aftermarket, under-dash mounted unit. The controller is linked to the truck’s ABS system and automatically distributes correct braking force to trailers equipped with electric brakes. Like the systems from other manufacturers, it’s slick and worth every penny.

Even though the axle is a 3.42 ratio, the transmission provides a wide, 6.04:1 gear ratio that includes two overdrive gears. There isn’t a 1:1 ratio in the specs; the closest is fourth with a 1.15:1. Fifth gear is a 0.85 overdrive and sixth is a 0.66 ratio.

Because of its tow rating, we gave the truck a serious workout and pulled a load estimated at 7,500 pounds. The low, grunting, 4.04 ratio first gear was able to get the heavy trailer moving easily. Compared to normal driving without towing, shifting up through the gears was slower than when empty, but precise and solid.

With ambient air temperatures hovering right at the freezing point, transmission operating temperature from the driver information center indicated 115 degrees F. While towing heavy, the temp increased to 155 degrees when ascending grades or in higher traffic areas, but held at 147 degrees on the open road. It would be a better test in warm weather, but the truck was nowhere near 215 degrees, a common benchmark of “normal” transmission operating temp.

We liked the user-control feature of the 6L80 transmission. A column-shifter-mounted toggle switch allows the driver to manually select gear position. It’s especially useful for manual downshifting to get the engine to peak power before losing power ascending a grade, or to increase the engine braking effect when loaded or towing on downhills.

Even in the full-auto mode and the tow/haul mode engaged, the engine braking was impressive. The driveline senses acceleration without throttle and holds gears without upshifting to maintain better control.

We expected the load to push and buck the truck. But thanks to a well-balanced load and a stout tow vehicle, handling and stability during cornering was excellent despite riding on P-rated tires. The truck was confident towing the 7,500-pound load at speeds greater than 60 mph.

Refined Driver

Aside from the improved towing performance and capability thanks to the new transmission, the Silverado’s refinement improved, too, with a quieter cab and improved mileage at highway speed.

When we weren’t towing, it seemed the wider ratio of the new transmission allowed the engine to make better use of its cylinder deactivation mode. The subtle V4 pulse was felt more frequently and for longer durations than previous drives in half-ton Silverado trucks both in town and during highway drives.

Another big improvement is roll-on acceleration for passing or other needs for rapid acceleration. The transmission’s ability to select six different gears gets the engine to its 320 hp peak in a hurry.

At 70 mph, the truck’s tach indicated about 1750 rpm and we heard only wind and tire noise — nothing from the driveline. The reduced engine workout at highway speed should equate to the engine requiring less fuel, but any gain should be marginal.

Thankfully, Chevrolet decided that truck buyers waited long enough for a transmission better suited to towing. The additional towing capacity and improved refinement are welcome additions.



2009 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Crew Cab LT1


Base Price: $32,965

Price as tested: $37,750



Vortec 5.3L V8 w/Active Fuel Management and Flex Fuel Capability

Net Torque: 338 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm

Net Power: 315 hp @ 5200 rpm

Fuel Delivery System: EFI

Fuel Capacity: 26 gallons

Fuel Requirement: Regular Unleaded, ethanol blends to E85


Transmission: Hydra-Matic 6L60, 6-speed automatic

Rear Axle Gears: 3.42:1


Body/Frame: Body on frame

GVWR: 7,000 pounds


Front: Independent, coil-over shock

Rear: Solid axle with semi-elliptic, variable-rate two-stage springs


Front: 13-inch disc

Rear: 13.5-inch disc

Assist: 4-wheel ABS w/Dynamic Rear Proportioning


Steering Ratio: 16.73:1 variable ratio

Turning Circle: 47.2 feet

Wheels (optional): 17-inch aluminum

Tires (optional): P265 all-season


Wheelbase: 143.5 inches

Track (front/rear): 68.1/67 inches

Overall Length: 230 inches

Overall Width: 79.9 inches

Overall Height: 73.7 inches

Curb Weight: 5,386 pounds

Payload: 1,714 pounds


Maximum Tow Rating: 9,500 pounds


EPA Mileage (city/highway): 14/20

Average Daily Driving,

Non-towing: 16.1 mpg

Overall Towing: 9.8 mpg

3 thoughts on “Tow-testing Chevrolet's New 6-Speed Silverado

  • Avatar for Gordon Hartshorn

    I had a 2009 equipped as indicated. I towed a camper from central FL to Savannah. The camper was basically empty ( well under 7200 lbs). That truck couldn’t stay in 6th gear even on the flat roads of FL. Anticipating a trip to upstate NY I swapped the truck for a 2009 Silverado 2500. Still extremely disappointed. I weighed the camper enroute. The trailer was under 7K lbs, the truck under gross and under the combined weight. This thing moaned and groaned all the way up and back.
    Traded the trailer for one with 5200 GVW. Took a short trip, camper practically empty. Still would not stay in 6th on flat hwy. Looks like you have a point on the front of the trailer. Is that what you call a real test?? How many people tow one of those?

    I always say if you want to tow the max weight to the dump, OK, but if traveling, have a margin. I thought a 2000 lb+ margin was enough. Apparently not. Give me back my 1999 Suburban 2500!!

  • Avatar for Taylor

    I have a 2013 Silverado 1500 extended cab short box 5.3 326HP 348TQ. It has 6spd auto and 342 and Iv exceeded the towing capacity a few times 12000 pounds of pissed off bulls that were in heat being septerated from the ladies. The truck was in 5th and 4th gear at all times don’t think it hit 6th once and drank 80liters on 180km trip. My 2008 6.0 vortex 2500 HD with the 373 6spd auto extended cab short box did way nicer job pulling if my 1500 had 373 gears it would do way better.

  • Avatar for Gene Manno

    2010 Tahoe has 5.3 and 6 speed 3.42 gear. Nice truck as long as I DON”T TRAILER. I bought this new for trailering and It SUCKS. Trailer is 6000 lbs. Always down shifting on perfectly flat highways at any speed between 45 and 70. RPM goes to 4500 rpm and stays in I think 3 gear. I have a hell of a time getting it to 70MPH on flat highway. It sucks gas, best it does towing is a bit over 8 mpg. It makes no matter what mode, in drive, in manual, and or in towing mode. All just suck. Dealer can’t find anything wrong. This computer controlled transmission is just terrible idea to torque control what gear its in. Without the trailer this is a wonderful vehicle.


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