1996 Hummer, Ford F150, Ford Explorer, Mazda MPV, and Nissan Pathfinder

Regular readers will know that I don't like trucks.

Well, it's not that I don't like them – I just don't get them. At least, not as a substitute for passenger cars, which is why about 90 per cent of trucks are bought today. (That percentage includes minivans – they are officially trucks but nobody thinks of them that way.)

I'm talking personal-use pickups and sport-utes which, to a car guy, make little or no sense. Too big; too heavy; too wasteful of gasoline; too uncomfortable.

Yes, I rather enjoyed the Toyota T100 4×4 pickup a few weeks back. But that was a special case: the Hornet had died, and anything would have looked good.

Cam McRae, of course, loves trucks. That's why he covers them. But since trucks are so important – more than 40 per cent of Canadian "car" sales, and rising – it's incumbent on even car guys to keep up.

It turns out I've been driving quite a few trucks lately, of a quite astonishing variety. I thought I'd give you a few short takes on some of these, a counterpoint, if you will, to Mr. McRae's expert opinions:

The Hummer

Let's start with the Hummer. Now, here's a truck I like.

Like it? I love it. Everybody loves the Hummer.

Everybody except Lady Leadfoot, which I sort of expected, and Bill Gardiner, which I didn't. Hey Bill, it's a truck, and it has a General Motors engine. Isn't that all it takes?

New for 1996 is a turbocharged version of GM's 6.5 litre V8 diesel engine. It bumps horsepower from 170 on the base non-turbo 6.5 diesel to 190, and peak torque from an already impressive 290 pound-feet to a Grand Banks trawler-like 385 pound-feet.

GM's 5.7 litre gas V8 (190 horses; 300 pound-feet) is the third engine choice.

Does the turbo-diesel make the Hummer fast? Ah, no. With nearly 3000 kg to push around, nothing short of a space-shuttle booster rocket could make this thing fast. Its 0to96 km/h is down to 18.0 seconds, a full 1.5 seconds better than the factory-claimed times for the other two engines.

But when you're this big and this tough, you can go any speed you like.

Just about any where you like too. If the fulltime four-wheel drive isn't enough, lock the differentials. If that isn't enough, select low range. If that isn't enough, lower the tire pressures a little with the onboard tire inflater/deflator system. No, I'm not kidding.

If that isn't enough, try running half-throttle and half-brake pedal at the same time, just one of the tricks in the off-road techniques manual that you get free when you buy a Hummer. Apparently this locks up the reduction drive gears in the hubs or something.

Listen, if you've just got to get to Baghdad, you can't let little things like sand dunes or burned-out tanks stand in your way. Or as a friend of mine would say: "Have you driven over a Ford lately."

Our neighbors raise horses; they have training steps for the horses to climb – I have no idea why. Even covered in snow, these half-metre high obstacles were mere pimples to the Hummer.

Isn't it hard to park? Not at all. That's what low range is for. Snuggle the brush bar up to that Camry or Taurus, a nudge here, a nudge there. No problem.

Or, you can fit rooftop lights to it, switch them on, park any place you like, and the parking ticket squad will think you're shooting a movie.

Despite the alleged addition of extra sound insulation, the 1996 Hummer is still LOUD – we don't have big enough type to make the appropriate impression. It gets marginally better as the big lump of an engine warms up. But it's sitting right there, between you and your distant passenger – so LOUD it is.

There's not as much room inside as you'd think, because of the massive central tunnel, which conceals the mechancials. But the seats are quite comfy.

Ride isn't all that bad. Steering is light enough, although on hard-packed snow, the truck tends to wander a little.

So maybe you slide off the road. Big deal. Low range, remember?

Hummers start at $65,900 for the two-seat, two-door pickup, and leap in four to six-thousand dollar increments through various two and four-seat configurations to the four-door, four-passenger wagon at $89,900.

No, a gun turret is not a factory option, but just about anything else you can imagine, including the tire inflator system and an in-car CD changer (take that, Lexus and Range Rover) is.

Would I have one in my mythical 10-car garage?

In a heartbeat. It might even make the five-car cut.

Y'know, maybe there is something to trucks after all.

Ford Explorer

Ford's Explorer is the surprise hit of the surprise segment.

Sport-utilities continue to sell like crazy, and I use that word advisedly. And from the moment Explorer emerged Phoenix-like from the ashes of the Bronco II, it has ruled the category.

Why? Good question.

In the first Explorer, the engine – an ancient German V6 – was anemic and coarse. The Twin I-Beam front suspension – no good when new about 400 years ago – gave a lousy ride. Four-wheel drive was part-time only.

Almost all these flaws have been addressed in the 1996 model. But why was Explorer so hot before?

Easy. Styling sells. Explorer's big-windowed look, plus clever marketing and lavish luxury appointments on the Eddie Bauer edition, made Explorer the must-have vehicle.

The 1996 Explorer gets further styling enhancements, inside and out. The massive grille looks suitably tough and macho – you could play night baseball in the glow of the gigantic front turn signals.

The interior is still a shade narrow, but its length yields class-leading rear-seat legroom, an easy showroom selling point over Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Some of the ergonomics are weird: the rear window wiper switch is way over in front of the passenger.

The new double-wishbone suspension gives markedly superior ride, and allows the truck to sit noticeably lower. This eases step-in, an increasingly important issue for the aging buying public.

An automatic suspension height adjustment system levitates the body upwards when you select low range and head for the mud. The 4.0 litre V6 still vibrates at 3000 r.p.m., plus or minus a couple grand – right where most driving is done. Power-wise, it's not close to Jeep's inline six or GM's Vortec V6.

But Ford's venerable 5.0 litre V8 is now offered in rear-drive Explorers, and will soon fetch up in 4x4s too, for those who just can't spend too much on gasoline.

Loaded to the gunwales, as most Explorers seem to be, you can run one of these puppies well over $45,000.

But man, it's still a truck. As a Ford engineer once told me, in an entirely different context, you can put lipstick on a pig, but . . .

A loaded Explorer, for half the price of a loaded Hummer?

Yes, but I get the Hummer; I still don't get sport-utes.

Ford F-series

You spend a couple billion developing a new vehicle, and you can't open its doors.

If you do get inside, you can't wind the windows down.

What gives?

The exterior door handles on Ford's new F-series pickup truck are so shallow and angled so sharply that most hands – mine, Lady Leadfoot's, especially the kids' – slide right off them.

"Mom, the door's locked!"

No it isn't. You just can't get a good enough grip on the handle to open it.

And the window winders are so close to the seat that your hand bangs against the cushion when you try to turn them. A good case for power, I guess.

Surely, during the multi-billion-dollar, multiyear development process, someone, at some time, must have tried to get into one of these things, or tried to wind the windows down.

Don't engineers drive the prototypes? Or are journalists the first people to drive new vehicles?

Apart from these two egregious flaws – and some indifferent assembly quality on my test truck, especially where the dashboard trim meets the windshield – the new F-series is quite the beast.

The styling is controversial. Some say it's too smooth, too aero, too modern, for the macho pickup buyer. I'm hardly that, so maybe it doesn't matter that I rather like it, if for no other reason than it doesn't look much like Ford's Triton concept truck from the 1995 Detroit auto show, which drove crazed attendees screaming into the streets of downtown Detroit – an unwise move at the best of times.

As with Ford's recently redone large vans, the new F-series's ride quality is exceptional. The truck feels solid and well built. The light steering makes handling a breeze.

The overhead camshaft V8 engine it sounds odd to say "overhead camshaft" in relation to a full-size American truck sounds, well, odd, with a high-pitched whine instead of the deep rumble we expect. Off-the-line acceleration suffers marginally compared to a big-bore pushrod engine, but overall, this engine works pretty well. The four-speed automatic shifts impeccably.

My test truck was a SuperCab, meaning a three-seat bench in the back and a standard rear-hinged, extra door on the right side.

A similar feature is optional on Chevy's stretched-cab full-size pickups. Ford has chosen to attach the right front seatbelt to the roof; GM puts it on the third door, which means the right front rider has to undo the belt before anyone can get in the back. GM has its reasons – which escape me at the moment – but Ford's approach seems to make greater initial sense.

We'll see how the market reacts, to the third door debate and to the rest of this truck. Ford's got a lot riding on it – F-series has been the bestselling vehicle (and the source of much of Ford's profit) over the past 20-odd years.

Nissan Pathfinder

Every once in a while, a carmaker will spend gazillions of dollars building an all-new vehicle that nobody but its designer can tell apart from the one it replaced.

That's my initial reaction to Nissan's new Pathfinder.

Then again, in complete contrast to the norm, the old Pathfinder sold better the older it got. Maybe Nissan figured the market was just starting to come around, so why mess with it?

Mr. McRae has already given all the dope on this rig. A couple of impressions from me:

First, my right knee banged the steering column, every time I got in. This is not the part that tilts with the tilt wheel, so changing that didn't help. Lowering the seat might have, but that's a pain in the neck.

Second, the Pathfinder's all-new and exclusive 3.3 litre V6 engine is rough. Really rough. Especially between 3000 and 3800 r.p.m., right in the heart of the most common engine speed range.

This will be tough enough for a Nissan-badged vehicle; at least it has the low-end torque to do the job.

But if the same engine survives into the Infiniti version of Pathfinder, the vibration will make it a tough, tough sell as a luxury car.

Finally, the new body may not look any different, but it feels a lot different. Strong, solid, substantial. It helps ride quality and interior quietness too.

Pathfinder starts at well under $30,000, and loads out to about $35,000. In today's sport-ute market, that's a relative bargain.

But I wonder whether Pathfinder has enough panache to find its own, um, path.

Mazda MPV 4×4

Nissan Quest, Mercury Villager, Chrysler Town & Country notwithstanding, the best minivan when it came to ride quality and rolling feel was Mazda's MPV.

I found out only recently that, once again, the reason for this is that the MPV had a inordinately strong structure. Just as it does for passenger cars, strong bodies make for nice-riding trucks too.

But strength often means weight. Weight always means leisurely performance and high fuel consumption. Factor in a relatively tight interior, absence of features like removable rear seats and ever-increasing price, and the MPV went from top-selling imported minivan to near-obscurity in a few short years.

So Mazda has reconfigured the MPV into a hybrid van/sport-ute. Four-wheel drive is now standard (the base rear-drive unit is cancelled). A new front end, with real grille and everything, adds a bunch of length with no increase in interior space.

Inside, however, the third bench is now foldable and removable. A new instrument panel isn't a huge improvement over the old one, only because there wasn't too much wrong with the old one.

A fourth door is added to the driver's side. As with the right-rear portal, it's hinged, like Honda's Odyssey or (ahem) like a sport-ute. The rear windows roll all the way down too.

This door was an easy engineering task for Mazda, since the home-market MPV always had its third door on the left, and all MPVs were built with the supporting structure for a rear door on either side.

The added weight of four-wheel drive, plus the extra differentials and drive shafts bouncing up and down underneath, detract slightly from the MPV's performance never a strong point in the first place and from the rolling feel and ride quality, at least compared to the former rear-drive.

But compared to other sport-utes, the MPV makes loads of sense. More spacious than most, more comfortable than most, less expensive than most.

But we're talking sport-utes here, and "sense" doesn't seem to play a big part in the purchase decision.

And it's always difficult for a carmaker to change the public's perception of a vehicle.

If Mazda can pull it off, they'll earn a spot in the marketing hall of fame.

There, some thoughts on trucks, from a car guy.

And the fun never stops. Due to a schedule conflict, Cam McRae can't make it to Arizona for the launch of the new littlest Jeep, the TJ.

Three days in Arizona? After the winter we've had?

Glad to fill in for you, Cam.

See you again next week, truckies.

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