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GM’s new trucks get some major tweaks

Published January 3, 2013

Detroit, Mich.—There’s a lot riding on the brawny shoulders of the all-new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 1500 pickup trucks rolled out in a special media event last week.

Trucks are big business for GM, but they were last updated for 2007. These 2014 trucks have boxy, in-your-face styling, a cab redesigned for strength and reduced noise, revised steering and suspension, and most importantly, three new engines with fuel-saving technologies.

The updates are necessary because trucks have returned to their primary occupation as work vehicles, says James Bell, GM’s head of consumer affairs in Detroit. “There was the fuel price scare a couple of years ago, and by their nature they didn’t get great fuel efficiency,” Bell says. “(Drivers) were paying $200 a week when their neighbour had a compact car and was maybe filling it every two weeks.

“The average truck buyer isn’t using it as a commuter vehicle. They really need the truck, to tow their things, to move their tools. They’re very discriminating and looking at ownership costs, and the vehicle has to be updated.”

The three engine choices, known as the EcoTec3 family, will be a 4.3 L V6, 5.3 L V8, and 6.2 L V8. (There are no plans to continue the slow-selling hybrid version.) The displacements are the same as in the current model, but these engines are completely new. “You could put all of the carry-over parts from the old ones in a sandwich bag,” Bell says. All engines receive a six-speed transmission, which replaces the four-speed found on the current V6.

All three engines are equipped with three fuel-saving technologies: direct gasoline injection, continuously variable valve timing, and cylinder deactivation. That last one shuts off cylinders and reduces all engines to four-bangers when full power isn’t needed, such as at cruising speed. I really like the fact that the technologies will be included on all models, even base ones.

The actual fuel figures are still a secret, as are the horsepower and torque numbers. That’s partly because SAE testing hasn’t been completed yet, and also because numbers are everything in the truck business. Automakers typically keep torque, payload and towing numbers quiet almost to the on-sale date, because they’re important not just for capability, but for bragging rights, too.

The trucks are more aerodynamic, including inlaid doors that no longer reach up into the roof, improving fuel economy and wind noise. The extended cab’s rear doors are now hinged at the front, rather than the back, which will make it much easier to load if another vehicle is parked alongside.

There’s a step built into each rear bumper end, with a corresponding plastic hand-hold in the top of the box, for climbing in whether the tailgate is up or down. I expect it will jam up with snow in the winter, though. (Here’s a thought: why not just bring trucks back from the ridiculous size they’ve become, so we don’t need help to get in?) The tailgate is finally damped as well, so it doesn’t bang down when you open it, and there are available LED lights under the rail, handy for finding stuff inside if you use a tonneau cover.

The outgoing truck was burdened with a cheap-looking interior. The new one, while still not up to the standard set by Ram, is a vast improvement.

There are soft-touch materials, bigger controls that are easier to use with gloves, all sorts of storage compartments (some of them configurable), and a wide range of new options, including a heated steering wheel, and voice-activated infotainment system. There are also new available safety features, such a seat system first seen on Cadillac that vibrates to warn if you’re drifting out of your lane or about to hit something.

Wisely, the company kept some of the things it did right on the current model: rear seats that fold up or down with one hand, and roomy foot wells that accommodate big boots. I also like that if you don’t order a button-operated option, you get a reconfigured panel in that portion of the dash, instead of a chintzy-looking plug glued into the hole.

Alas, there was no driving this time, just a look-see. Production will begin in the second quarter of 2013, starting with the crew cab, which now accounts for some 60 per cent of sales. Regular and extended-cab models will follow. Later on, GM will introduce a new heavy-duty truck, and new versions of the Canyon and Colorado compact trucks.

Why two brands?

GMC is actually older than Chevrolet’s truck division. GM bought two truck companies, Rapid and Reliance, and consolidated them into the General Motors Truck Company in 1911. The first truck with a GMC badge appeared in 1912, while Chevrolet built its first truck in 1918.

GM has no plans to whittle it down to one. GMC is considered more upscale, and exclusively offers the top-line Denali trim. Both brands have loyal customers, many of whom believe “their” truck is superior, although they are mechanically identical. The Chevy Silverado vastly outsells the GMC Sierra in the U.S., but in Canada, sales are split almost 50/50.

wheels@thestar.ca

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