1996 Chevy Silverado K3500 ExtendedCab

Most Wednesday afternoons you can find me on the back of a horse. Don't laugh, I've always wanted to learn how to ride and now I'm beginning to get the hang of it.

It's not easy, but with practice comes the discovery that even a single horsepower transmitted through four traction devices can be a lot of fun.

In the process of becoming a horse person, I've also discovered that the horsey set has specific tastes in pickup trucks.

Horse trailers are big, heavy loads to pull, room for as many as six animals and often incorporating palatial accommodations for their human companions. (Would you believe I saw a gas fireplace in one of 'em?)

The basic horse pickup is a heavy duty long wheelbase, long bed dual rear-wheel extended cab or crew cab urged on by the most powerful gas or diesel engine available.

On many, the bed is dominated by the over-the-axle mount for a "fifth wheel" trailer hitch. Others utilize what's known as a "goose neck" on the trailer, the hitch for which takes up far less room in the box leaving it free for general hauling. Most are two-wheel drive. Four-by-fours are uncommon.

A survey of horse event parking lots reveals that brand loyalties vary between English and Western riders. The Hunter/Jumper crowd spread their allegiance across the market. A few years ago it was roughly split between Ford and GM and they have subsequently embraced the new Dodge Ram.

In contrast, a huge number of Western Quarterhorse haulers are GM products. Ford is becoming a factor but the Rams, even given the turbo-diesel and V10 powerplants, are a rarity. Go figure.

Needless to say, General Motors' 1996 announcement that the Vortec gasoline truck engines would feature reduced emissions, put out more horsepower and use less fuel was met with considerable interest.

The gas that a 7.4 L V8 consumes when stressed by a 5000 kilogram load is outrageous. Single-digit miles per gallon figures are the rule. That's more than 26 L/100 km.

The Vortec system, as we have discussed here before, employs sequential fuel injection controlled by a sophisticated engine management computer. All of the other induction and exhaust components have been redesigned to take advantage of the precise fuel delivery.

Now labeled the Vortec 7400, the 1996 version of GM's venerable 454 cubic inch big block is capable of producing 290 h.p. in truck duty tune, a significant increase of 60 ponies over the old 7.4. The torque rating rises 25 poundfeet to a muscular 410 poundfeet.

This engine still sucks back about 16 litres in a hundred highway klicks and over 22 around town without a load on behind. But that's a 510 per cent improvement over last year's and the added torque and horsepower should help keep those figures from skyrocketing when a trailer is hitched up.

We had an opportunity to try the new engine in a truck that fit most of the horseman's specifications. Our K3500 Chevy Silverado ExtendedCab was a Cowboy Cadillac: carpet, power windows and door locks, sixway power seat on the driver's side and a fancy CD sound system.

Nevertheless, on a base price of $33,425, the fully optioned rig didn't break the 40-grand barrier, cresting at $38,850. Compare that to the inflated sportute market!

Plus, this is one huge truck for the buck. On a wheelbase of 395 cm (155.5 inches) long, the thing stretches out to 602 cm (237 inches) in overall length. Think 20 feet!

The width created by the "dooly" axle and fenders is truly impressive 239.5 centimetres, or 94.3 inches, or 7.86 feet. One must pick one's parking spots carefully.

On the whole, however, the driving experience was unremarkable. Once I got used to seeing those bulgy fenders in the side mirrors, the massive hauler drove like any General Motors C/K pickup. Quiet, easy handling.

And, I never cease to be pleased by the C/K's ability to deliver up a comfortable ride without a load in the box even when the truck features springs rated for a 2023 kg payload.

The engine, too, felt somehow ordinary no firebreathing monster. The Vortec engines are characterized by what is termed "driveability," which refers to a smooth flow of power under complete and easy control by the driver. The more an engine can be unobtrusive while still producing great gobs of power, the better its driveability. For towing, easing on the throttle and getting a smooth but positive response is a definite plus.

Stomping the pedal, however, produced no doubt that we were in the presence of majestic motivation. Fast. Big truck. Big motor. Big feelings.

There was one standout feature in the area of vehicle dynamics. I can best describe it as enhanced directional stability. In other words, on the highway, in fast turns, or at slow speeds on slick surfaces, the truck steered like an arrow.

The long wheelbase, the wide rear stance and a locking differential contribute to the creation of a chassis that likes travelling straight ahead best of all. Again, a desirous characteristic when towing a mammoth trailer that is subject to crosswinds and variations in the road. But, I'd think it would be hell to steer around in a muddy paddock or on winter's snow and ice.

Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that our pickup bears the "K" designation, indicating that it is 4WD, unlike most horse pullers. Somebody at GM had the good sense to break with tradition and ordered a truck that should be more controllable when the traction is minimal.

To get a second opinion, with Oshawa's blessing I lent the big C/K to Willow Crest Horseman's Centre's John McGrath. McGrath is a Western rider of some repute, a champion as a competitor and as a coach. McGrath also owns a previous generation 7.4 litre dooly Chev CrewCab pickup with many, many towing klicks on the odometer. He had no experience with modern four-wheel drive.

Not surprisingly, McGrath and his family were thoroughly impressed with the ride comfort and interior appointments offered by a contemporary pickup. But, they didn't think much of the Extended Cab that I'm always raving about.

Actually, it was the two McGrath teenagers, expert riders in their own right, that declared that there was simply not enough space in the back for a haul, say, to the world championships in Fort Worth. When John McGrath buys his next Chevy, it'll be another double-door.

I was amused by his reaction to the engine. "No big deal," I think is what he said. The earlier 7.4's like the one in McGrath's own pickup were fairly crude and abrupt much more noticeable without the tranquil driveability that masks the Vortec's true talent. Unfortunately, GM didn't supply us with a fifth-wheel hitch so we couldn't try it with Willow Crest's long trailer.

McGrath did give a major thumbs-up to the four-wheel drive system, describing it as easier to use than he expected, and noting that the truck "doesn't look like a 4×4." Like I said, these horse folk are particular about their pickups.

More to the point, Willow Crest's stables are situated on flat ground that can ice up which it was doing in a big way at the time of our testing. Selecting 4WD allowed the truck to manoeuvre around the skating rink-like driveways and parking lots where it would have been next to impossible with only the back wheels driving.

Incidentally, the GM CrewCab model is 653.2 centimetres, or 250.1 inches, long! Gotta try it.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on weeklong driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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