How convenient. Just when General Motors decides to manhandle all the institutional baggage that it has allowed to accumulate for several decades, the company’s biggest, baddest, boldest pickup rolls onstage to lend a helping hand. I’m referring specifically to the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, which, along with a GMC variant named Sierra, represents GM’s first head-to-toe remake of its profitable pick-’em-up product line in 11 years.
Just how profitable are these trucks? Well, consider this line from a story in last week’s Wall Street Journal: “As a whole, trucks and minivans represent roughly half of GM’s total 1997 revenue of $178 billion, but a staggering 90 percent of its 1997 profit of $6.7 billion.” When you consider that, combined, the identical twin pickups from Chevrolet and GMC account for 37 percent of the company’s truck sales (a category that also includes vans and SUVs), it turns out that pickups are a $2.25 billion profit-center for GM, responsible for exactly one-third of annual earnings. And that’s just for ’97, the latest complete year on record.
Suddenly it dawns on any close observer that pickup profits can pay for a great deal of GM’s piled-up institutional baggage. Certainly the United Auto Workers were watching closely this summer. Their decision to strike was strategically planned to delay production of the new ’99 pickups; the nationwide shutdown of virtually all other GM plants in North America merely provided a convenient media distraction to obscure the sly ransom demand that was predicated upon all those truck profits.
Although settling the strike solved some of GM’s institutional issues while simply deferring some others, it did at least get the new trucks rolling into showrooms. The reward, for prospective pickup buyers patient enough to wait ringside for the strike fight to end, has been worth the several-month delay. Despite certain media grouches waving bony fingers and crowing, “Don’t fix what ain’t broken,” the new Silverado is new in many significant ways (that is, technically and cosmetically) and almost old-fashioned in one important other: A base-version ’99 Silverado costs a microscopic $5 more than the 11-year-old design it replaces.
Anyone who has ever attempted to price-out a pickup knows the spread-sheet nightmare posed by moving-target variables like short-bed vs. long-bed frames; two-wheel-drive vs. four-wheel-drive powertrains; regular vs. extended cabs; half-, three-quarter-, and one-ton GVWRsnot to mention the engine, tranny, and suspension permutations. Suffice it, then, to say that Silverado prices range from $15,355 to $30,988. I tested a two-wheel-drive Silverado LS 1500 with a three-door extended cab and a starting price of $22,200. The LS package includes A/C, power windows and mirrors, a remote key fob with alarm, leather steering wheel, and a swell 40/20/40 front bench seat for three. After adding $1,295 for the 5.3-liter V8, plus extra fees for fog lamps, cast aluminum wheels and a few other these-’n’-those items, I stickered out at $25,882.
What I test-drove for a week was a lot of truck, representing a lot of significant changes and “firsts.” Ironically, these do not include a lot of alterations to the Silverado’s external appearance. In contrast to the Marvel Comics styling of the Dodge Ram and to the pseudo-sophisticated sleekness of Ford’s F-150, Silverado retains much of the homespun, boxy look of its predecessor. It’s just a bit rounder, and the contoured wheel wells show a little “thigh” under the fenders; but you’ll have to look twice to distinguish a ’98 from a ’99.
People also complained last year that the new C5 Corvette didn’t seem different enough from the old C4until they drove it. Then they realized what a difference a year makes. Ditto Silverado, and believe it or not, that new Corvette has a lot to do with this new truck’s driving appeal.
Silverado’s ladder-frame is 23 percent stiffer than last year’s, yet it weighs less, thanks largely to a high-tech metal-working process called hydro-forming that Chevy pioneered for Corvette. Boasting a five-motor lineup that includes a 200-horsepower 4.3-liter V6 and a 215-horse 6.9-liter turbo diesel V8, Silverado makes its most “powerful” news with three new gas V8 “Vortecs.” They’re lighter and more potent than any comparable predecessors in the GM truck line: the 255-horse 4.8-liter beats out last year’s 5-liter by 25 horsepower; a 5.3-liter makes 270-horses compared to the 5.7-liter/255 HP motor of yore; a new 6.0-liter swamps all with 300 horsepower. And, yep, they’re all based on Corvette’s spiffy LS1 sports car motor.
Silverado inherits a number of other refinements from the vast brain trust that is General Motors: Its auto transmissions get programmable shift-selection to reduce hunt-and-peck gear changes while towing heavy loads. Optional electronic control of suspension firmness is available for the first time in a pickup. Silverado is the first pickup with standard four-wheel disc brakes, including ABS; factory tests report stopping distances from 80 miles-an-hour to be 26 percent shorter.
Inside, a new instrument cluster incorporates a message center for displaying warnings in pixels of text rather than by semaphore flashes of idiot lights. As for passenger room, an extended-cab Silverado is a certifiable space-cadet: The third door yields unrestricted access to a cushy rear bench with surprising legroom. Up front, a three-section bench simulates bucket seats when a card-table-sized console is lowered; raise it, and there’s ample room for an extra passenger up front.
The aforementioned media grouches are crabbing about Chevy’s amazing inability to match Dodge, Ford and, now, Toyota with four-door access into a full-size truck cab. I’ll pettifog about a few other annoyances as well: The new shoulder belt retractors incorporated into the front seats manage to jam occasionally; an otherwise smooth-riding independent front suspension nevertheless groans unduly when driving at parking lot speeds; the humongo front-and-center cupholder looks and works like a window tray at a burger drive-in, but doggone if it doesn’t rattle.
In spite of it all, Silverado is just the new recruit Chevy has been waiting for as the truck wars lurch their way into the next century. It’s a clean-cut, hardworking, dependable Cal Ripkin of a truck in a world with a few too many “Neon” Deions. What’s new isn’t especially flashy but is exceptionally smart. Even better, it’s priced particularly right.
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