1999 Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra

ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. Lard tunderin' Gee, b'ys, did we have a time drivin' dem new GM pick me ups around Conception Bay, through Heart's Content, Heart's Desire and Come by Chance!

Actually, we didn't get to Come by Chance, but I'm pretty sure Boy Editor wouldn't print the name of the town we did drive through…

The occasion was the press preview for the new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, collectively code named GMT800.

Never mind that I am not a huge fan of full-size pickup trucks in their role as replacements for cars, these are the best selling things around.

By way of comparison, Chevy's Cavalier has been the top selling car in Canada for eight years running; about 43,000 are sold each year. Last year, GM sold 86,000 full-size pickups.

The new Silverado and Sierra are as all-new as vehicles get.

The styling, however, isn't much of a breakthrough. Interesting that when Ford, Dodge and GM all asked the same questions of essentially the same people at market research clinics, they

seemed to get different answers.

Ford and Dodge decided that personal use buyers wanted a dramatic, highstyle exterior. GM, on the other hand, concluded that truckers are basically salt of the earth types who don't

want to make a "statement" with their vehicles; they prefer them conservatively handsome.

There is more visual distinction between Chevy and GMC than before, with unique front-end sheet metal, grilles and headlights for each brand.

In the U.S., GMC is trying to establish itself as an upscale brand–odd, given that, to me, anyway, GMC implies "work truck," a designation used by Chevy.

In Canada, Pontiac dealers are always twinned with GMC, so they need to offer the same configurations to compete with the Chevy dealer down the street. That's why GMC gets a "base" truck here that is not available in the States.

IMPROVED HEADLIGHTS Speaking as I was of headlights, two cookies to GM for equipping these new trucks with substantially improved lighting. Maryann Combs, director of body engineering for the new trucks, says they toss light some 15 per cent further down the road on both high and low beam than their predecessors, and 25/55 per cent (low/high beam) further than Ford, 35/50 per cent further than Dodge.

The rear turn signals are separate amber lights for clearer communication with following drivers. This is law in some countries, and ought to be in ours, too. A third cookie to GM for going beyond the regulations.

Too bad they didn't go for the Grand Slam of Cookiedom by making Daytime Running Lights function at the rear, too. If it's important to warn drivers coming toward you, surely it's equally

important from behind.

GM worked hard to improve interior space. Engineers even held off developing a fourth rear door on the extended cab models (a right side third door is standard) to concentrate on giving

customers more hip, shoulder, leg and headroom.

They even looked at something as seemingly insignificant as the angle of the rear seatback. At 18 degrees, GM's is the most laid back, hence the most comfortable, of the lot.

NICELY STYLED DASH The new dash is nicely styled, with clean gauges and mostly easytouse minor controls save for the wipers, still embedded in the turn signal lever instead of using a separate steering column stalk on the right side and a new driver information centre that can flash a variety of messages warning about impending mechanical doom: "Transmission fluid hot;" "Change engine oil;" "Payment overdue" (okay, I'm kidding on the last one).

There is also a hierarchy of severity. Yellow messages are cautionary. Red ones mean stop the truck!

One complaint on the old trucks was seat comfort; the cushion was too short for many drivers. The new trucks have good to great seats. The fully powered thrones in upscale models rank

with the best anywhere.

Too bad they're only available in leather trim, hot in summer, cold in winter, slippery all the time.

All front seats have their shoulder belts attached to the seat itself. This provides better fit for most passengers and eases access to the rear.

A new modular frame, with front, middle and rear sections each of different crosssection and wall thickness, maximizes strength and minimizes weight.

Depending on powertrain and other option choices, you can spec a new GM pickup to a GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) of 7727 kg and a towing capacity of 5000 kg.

A new line of V8 engines displaces 4.8 L, 5.3 L and 6.0 L, each with as much or more power and torque than their predecessors, but with superior fuel economy.

The torque peaks of the 5.3 and 6.0 are a bit lower than the old 5.7 and 7.4 ,1,0 like Godzilla, size matters. But the shape of the torque curve means that the 5.3 beats a 5.7 in a

drag race.

These engines are based on the new 5.7 L Corvette LS1 V8, although blocks and heads are cast iron rather than aluminum.

The 4.8 and 5.3 have alloy heads, but the 6.0 stays with iron. Indeed, the fact that the highvolume trucks were getting the new engine made the new 'Vette mill possible.

Sports car fans, look kindly towards these trucks. Unlike Ford, GM has eschewed overhead camshafts for this new engine family. The main advantage of overhead cams is higher

r.p.m.; their downsides are complexity and size.

Since truck engines typically are low revvers, GM chose the simple, compact route.

Gerry Malloy, welcome back! will detail the differences between the new GM truck motors and the revised Ford units on July 4.

CARRYOVER V6 The carryover 4.3 L V6 remains the standard engine, although few buyers order it. A revised 6.5 L turbo diesel will join the fleet later in the year, once various unspecified glowplug issues are straightened out.

A five-speed manual is the base transmission, but most of these trucks will go out the door with new four-speed electronicallycontrolled automatics (different units for two and four-wheel drive models), now with a "Tow/Haul" mode.

This is effectively the "power/economy" switch we've seen on many passenger cars. Push a button in the end of the shift lever, and upshifts are delayed and made more crisply to improve

performance when lugging a heavy load. It also has the effect of delaying the shift into overdrive until about 95 km/h.

Four-wheel drive is chosen by more that half of full-size pickup buyers, a huge increase in recent years, thanks in part to personal use drivers in snowy climes.

PUSH BUTTON FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE The AutoTrac system, introduced last year on the old trucks, is a carryover option. Select this mode via a dash mounted push button and the front differential engages immediately whenever rear wheelspin is detected.

A conventional manually shifted transfer case is also offered.

Both systems have rear-wheel drive high, four-wheel drive high and four-wheel drive low ranges.

The only dramatic engineering in the suspension is the availability of adjustable shocks (called Electronic Ride Control). A dash mounted switch allows selection of soft or firm

ride, the latter being recommended for towing or heavy hauling.

Careful tuning of shocks, springs and bushings seeks to make these the quietest, bestriding trucks in their class.

GM is justly proud of the braking system on the GMT800s.

Four-wheel discs with four-wheel anti-lock control are standard across the board.

LESS PEDAL FREE PLAY The brake engineers also worked hard at reducing brake pedal free play. Get out the cookie jar again.

Dynamic Rear Proportioning is a new feature designed to direct the appropriate amount of brake force to the rear wheels, depending on variances in box load, even before the ABS feels

compelled to kick in.

A 401 km trek around Conception Bay offered a wide variety of freeways, two-lane roads and goat tracks to evaluate what GM's truckies have wrought. There can be no doubt these are pretty nice trucks.

I drove two extended-cab models a Chevy Silverado with the 4.8 L V8, and a GMC Sierra with the 5.3 L. The difference in performance was barely noticeable. Fully loaded, you'd probably

appreciate the larger engine.

We didn't have the opportunity to run instrumented acceleration tests, but GM claims each engine is quicker than the one it replaces, and offers better fuel economy as well a nice parlay for the end of the millennium, even if trucks this size tend to be part of the problem more than part of the solution.

I'm not certain the new unladen pickups rode any better than my '98 Suburban long-term tester. That vehicle's superior weight distribution really helps. But if the pickup rides no worse than

the Alberta Cadillac, then it surely must surpass the outgoing model.

Increased interior space is always welcome, and those relegated to the rear seat said it was genuinely habitable back there (I managed to dodge that particular bullet).

The two most noticeable plusses had to be the strong, solid brake pedal feel and the comfort of the upscale seats.

Yet as nice as these are, they're still trucks, and I still can't understand why someone would prefer to drive one of these over a car unless they had real truck reasons for so doing. But

it's your money.

Speaking of which, pricing won't be announced until closer to the trucks' September launch.

GM says value was always a strong factor in every decision made on these vehicles. The parts count is dramatically reduced, making them simpler and cheaper to build, so I expect price

increases, if any, will be modest.

Incidentally, most of these pickups will be built by your neighbours. Oshawa is the "lead plant" on these rigs the workers even assisted engineers with build issues.

You can choose from regular and extended cabs; short or long boxes (the former available in flush body side or the contoured Sportside style with plastic fenders); 1500 (halfton) or 2500

(three-quarter ton) GVWRs; rear-wheel or four-wheel drive; and three trim levels. The option list is equally long and wide.

FUTURE OFF SHOOTS A host of offshoots will appear in the future. I'm betting the fourdoor extended cab will be first, given that Dodge already has it, and we missed it whenever we changed trucks and had to switch our briefcases and lunch bags from one back seat to another.

Cadillac is introducing the Escalade, a GMC Denali double-dipped in gold this fall, based on the outgoing platform (and if GMC is supposed to be GM's upscale truck line, you can just imagine how delighted GMC managers are with that decision).

Apparently, the first Escalade will be replaced with an all-new model in 2001.

The Yukon/Denali, Tahoe and Suburban are scheduled to move to the new platform in model year 2000.

As wonderful and hardly overdue for replacement as the current Suburban is, it'll be a shortlived truck. It debuted in 1992, some four years after its "donor" pickup platform, and has only

been around for seven years, while the previous generation 'Burb lived for nearly 20.

While the styling of the new GMT800 pickups won't make the truck you drive now obsolete, the technological upgrades should be sufficient to ensure their success. Freelance journalist Jim

Kenzie, among a group of auto writers invited to Newfoundland, prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by GM Canada. You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.

Email:jbkenzie @

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