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1997 Chevrolet Sierra

Looks like we've got ourselves a work-truck comparo series going.

It started with the vinyl-floored base model Ford F150 in May. Today we'll see how the equivalent Chevrolet stripper stacks up. And Dodge has promised a minimally equipped Ram sometime over the next few weeks.

As I suggested in the Ford piece (Wheels, May 18, 1996), the entry-level pickup is an integral, and indispensable, part of the North American economic machine. Get to the root of much of today's business and you'll find a pickup hauling something.

I also pointed out that the base model gives us a view of the vehicle unobscured by fancy fittings and options. Pure truck.

Well, almost pure. Like the Ford tester, our Chevy Sierra long-wheelbase did have a few extras. On a $19,888 base price, GM's press relations pixies had added an appearance package, chrome bumpers, a sliding rear window, an upgraded AM/FM cassette and cloth on the bench seat for the sum of $805. Air conditioning tacked on another $1,045.

More interesting were the choices of the Vortec 5000 V8 ($645) plus five-speed, instead of the 4.3 litre V6 and the addition of such functional items as a locking differential ($330), front tow hooks ($55) and heavy-duty Bilstein gas shock absorbers ($295). Total, with the "destination charge," was $23,965.

My eyes grew wide with surprise and then narrowed to suspicious slits when I saw that V8 and the Bilsteins. "What is this, a ringer tricked out to fool the gullible reporter?"

Nah, the engine choice was probably just an astute realization that the Vortec six-cylinder, while super in GM's mini-pickup, would be no match for Ford's burly new 4.2 V6 when installed in a full-size truck.

The shocks are another story. "Might there be something wrong with the stock units?" Nah, just adequate, which is to say not quite good enough like the ones on the Ford.

I'm always dismayed that the truck manufacturers go marginal on something as basic to ride and handling performance as shock absorbers. As we confirmed in working with the Wheels Project Truck series, Bilsteins are a welcome addition to any pickup. That $295 price is less than two-thirds of the retail tag a bargain.

The big Chev's ride was noticeably less bouncy than the Ford's, with or without a load in the bed. Part of the more subdued action can be attributed to better balance between the front and rear springing.

I'd have to give the F150 the edge in handling, however. The C1500 zipped around with ease and predictability that we would have thought impossible for a pickup prior to this truck's introduction in 1988. But, the new-for-97 Ford has a steering mechanism responsive enough for a sport coupe.

In contrast, the Chevy felt big and heavy. Moreover, our test of the F150 revealed that Ford has done something with the locating of the rear axle that adds a new dimension of control on rough roads.

Again, in contrast, when I wheeled the Sierra through my favorite section of rural twisties, it stayed with the program until the bumps hit it in the middle of a corner. Then, the rear end would step out and try to steer the front. But, never to the point of no return; only enough to get the driver's attention. And, never as badly as the previous Ford F150.

It just might be that the new Ford's extra-long 353 cm wheelbase may have something to do with its ability to ignore washboard-like surfaces. The Chev's wheelbase is 334 cm , the old Ford spanned 338.

Chevrolet does get a Wheels Gold Star for the Vortec 5000 engine. The comparison of the V6 to V8 is not as much apples-to-grapefruit as you might think. The Ford motor puts out 210 h.p. and 260 poundfeet of torque. The Chev almost mirrors that at 220 and 285.

To determine how much of a performance differential those small differences might create would require extensive testing, and in the world of the workaday truck, the answer is probably irrelevant.

What does matter is the fact that Ford's V6 is rough and noisy. The Chevy V8 is so smooth, so quiet, sooo tractable. There is power distributed all along the rev range. And, does it take care of business! A 0-to-100 dash took a mere 9.25 seconds. If I'd taken the time to figure out the launch, that figure might have snuck under nine.

Out on the highway, if you make the effort to downshift to third, a 90-to-120 km/h pass will take a rocket-quick 5.5 to six seconds. In fourth it took only a tad longer than eight seconds.

To those who keep writing me to ask why the heck I care whether a truck is boyracer quick or not, may I point out that a truck that is slow when unladen will be dangerously slow with a load onboard.

After comparing the interiors of the two trucks, I gave 'em a tie score. The Ford's bench set presents a better curve to your back and its upholstery did not grab the lint like the Chev's did.

Neither gives us much of a glovebox, but the Chev's useful dash top, multiple cupholders and nifty power point layout will be welcomed by anyone who has to spend a lot of hours in their truck. The graceful, contemporary shapes of the F150 dash would also be pleasing to live with. But, in terms of driving function and convenience, they are identical.

Chev did have the good sense to include a tachometer as standard equipment. Ford did not. Again, no boyracer deal here. When using a lower gear to move or tow a big load, a free-revving engine demands the use of a tach.

I did chuckle when I discovered that the Sierra's manual window winders were located low and to the front of the door, similar to the ones I'd severely criticized on the Ford. Amazingly, I'd never been in a non-power window GM pickup before! A back-to-back evaluation of the two trucks revealed that the Chev winder position just, I mean just, makes it in terms of reachability. The Ford winder, unfortunately, is just on the other side of the envelope.

Back in the Chev's bed, we find little in the way of innovation, just a tidy box with the requisite dents for installing crossbeams and a set of stake pockets that harken

back to another era. Fordstyle lockability has not yet come to the C/K tailgate and there are no rumors to suggest that it will.

The floor and sides are simple stamped sheets meeting at a sharp angle, welded together and seamed with a bead sealant. The crisp corners make for efficient load space, but we might question the assembly's rust resistance and mechanical integrity over time.

In truth I did question that, so I drove around and inspected the beds of a few well used (abused) C/K pickups. There is plenty of surface rust from the scrapes and dings, but most of the seams were fully intact and corrosion-free. Only when the unions were torn open by physical damage did Father Rust have his way.

Consideration of the C1500's styling creates in me a knee-jerk urge to dump on it for being old and stale. After all, we are close to the C/K's ninth model year. That is a long time without significant revisions. But, nah, I can't do it.

A classic the day it rolled out, the pickup looks as good as it ever has, even with millions of them on the road and in our visual space every day. We can wonder whether the Ford's pneumatic swoopiness will have the same staying power. Only time will tell.

What I can tell you is that a new or substantially revised General Motors pickup has been kicking around the Truck and Bus Division's drafting boards for a number of years. Does it swoop, or will straight lines prevail?

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