Bob Lutz, the former Chrysler executive who found a second career as General Motors' vice chairman of product development, is pushing "design." In the automotive world, design is a synonym for styling, and it's one of the things that's emphasized in all GM's latest cars and trucks.
That includes its new 1500 series Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. They've been restyled inside and out, and extensively re-engineered to where you can both see and feel the difference.
Known internally as GMT900, the new light-duty pickups have bolder, chunkier looks that are more apparent in person than in photos. The trucks are now on dealers' lots, and you won't have any trouble spotting them if you haven't already. Silverado and Sierra each now have distinctive front-end styling, yet their overall appearance makes them resemble the previous generation of GM pickups.
The "driving experience" is another major attribute that Lutz and other executives emphasized during introduction of the new pickups last summer at GM's Milford, Mich., proving grounds, and again during driving sessions out of Phoenix, Ariz., in late fall.
And they're right. The trucks drove smoother and steadier than the older models, with less vibration felt through the floor on pavement, where the vehicles will spend most of their miles – whether two- or four-wheel-drive.
Steering was precise and had decent road feel. Rack-and-pinion steering gear is part of the reason, but so are refined front and rear suspensions and stiffer frames, which make springs work harder than frames that flex too much. The steering and suspension let us keep exact directional control, especially over rough surfaces.
The trucks rode smoothly on a gravel road we traveled part of the way between Phoenix and Prescott. In a Crew Cab 4x4, I made it a point to bang over several rocky places at a good clip, and the suspensions soaked up the bumps while the body stayed rather stable. My passengers braced themselves as I went into one dip rather fast, then braked before hitting the bottom; they weren't tossed around much and remarked at how well the truck took the bump. Several times my driving partner and I commented on how well the trucks rode, and complimented two chassis engineers, who were passengers on two separate legs of the trip, for their excellent work.
However, we also griped about an annoying lack of grab handles in the front-seat area. The driver has no assist handle except for the steering wheel's rim, and the passenger has only one, mounted above the window. GM pickups, even 4x4s, don't sit overly high, but it's still necessary for shorter folks to pull themselves in, and it's not easy with these trucks. Ford and Dodge put a handle on each A pillar, and they help. On the other hand, in the rear-seat area of GM's Extended and Crew cabs, there are two handles at each door – one above the window and one on the B-pillar – making it easy for passengers to climb in.
New switches and controls for HVAC, windows and side-view mirrors are part of the Silverado/Sierra's redesign. Push buttons arrayed in attractively rounded groups seem to mimic the large rotary knobs in the previous pickups.
An optional radio/navigation system includes a touch screen with images of push buttons and a keypad that allows you to input street addresses. The system guides you to any destination with voice prompts while an icon on the screen shows progress along a road. A long time ago I learned how to read printed maps and jot down directions, so I'd never order the nav system, but folks who like electronics might. I couldn't figure out how to turn on the system's stereo radio. That's how high-tech it is – and how hopelessly low-tech I am. A simpler radio does include a large on/off/volume knob, but I still had to study its LCD screen to figure out where to go from there.
New side-view mirror controls on the armrest on the driver's door also require your direct attention to operate rather than simply feeling and manipulating. As before, you can adjust the mirror glass for line of sight. An additional pair of switches allow you to fold the mirrors flat against the door – a new feature that lets you get closer to a mailbox or toll booth or squeeze through a tight garage door. But both mirrors, not just the one you need to get out of the way, fold or redeploy.
Otherwise, the interiors provide a pleasurable environment. The Luxury Inspired package includes a stack for the radio/nav system and HVAC controls, and that joins with a center console that includes an arm rest with storage bins and several cup holders. Panels have rich-looking coverings and the shifter on the console has brushed-metal trim. It all looks like the inside of a Buick.
The Pure Pickup package has a simpler, straight-across dashboard that looks like it belongs in a truck, and its plastic surfaces are nice without being fancy. Both have gobs of storage. For instance, there are two glove boxes in the dash in front of the passenger, and, with the Pure Pickup setup, a bin under his/her manually adjusted seat. Got stuff? These trucks can stow it.
Wanna go? These trucks do, with either the 315-horsepower 5.3-liter or 367-horsepower 6-liter V-8s. Both have Active Fuel Management, which cuts back to four cylinders under light load to save fuel, then back to eight when more power's needed. The info screen in the instrument panel tells you which mode the engine's in if you punch up that aspect of the many pieces of available engine and trip data. Two other engines, a 195-horsepower 4.3-liter V-6 and a 295-horsepower 4.8-liter V-8, are standard on base models.
The 6-liter Vortec Max is a new option, and raises towing capacities to as much 10,500 pounds – a level that most other competitors' half-ton pickups are now at or near. Equipped with a special NHT trailer-towing suspension package, a new GM pickup feels very stable and the engine pulls especially strong at 25 to 50 mph. The Max also propels a lightly loaded pickup with vigor, though it and the automatic transmission are so smooth that the acceleration sensation is underwhelming.
The Max has an aluminum block and cylinder heads, and it weighs about a hundred pounds less than a 6-liter V-8 with an iron block. The aluminum version is not built to lighten a pickup's front end – though it benefits a bit from this – but to put the truck in a slightly lower weight class where it more easily passes the Environmental Protection Agency's emissions tests, one engineer explained.
Auto writers have made a big deal out of GM's continued use of a four-speed automatic transmissions in its cars and light trucks when competitors have five- and six-speed automatics. I think the four-speed Hydra-Matic – a 4L60 with the 5.3 V-8 and a 4L70 with the 6-liter – does a more than adequate job, as it never seems to cause the engine to lug or overrev. It's also wonderfully smooth. But more gears equal greater efficiency and the competition has to be answered, so GM's got a six-speed in the works for this line of trucks. By the way, you can't get a manual tranny if you wanted one.
Most folks these days buy light-duty pickups for personal use, which is why most Silverados and Sierras have four-door Extended or sedan-style Crew cabs. The rear seats on both fold up for storage of fragile or valuable items. Rear-hinged back doors on GM's Extended Cabs now swing almost flat against the bed while opened, making loading and unloading easier in parking lots when other vehicles are parked closely alongside. Nissan originated this in its Titan pickup several years ago, and it's nice to see GM catch up.
Another Nissan idea, adjustable securement devices for the bed, are also newly optional from the factory on GM's new pickups. Several types of aluminum bars and tool boxes can be mounted on bars on the beds' interior sides, and can be slid fore and aft to hem in loose cargo. The tool boxes slide for easy access but can still be locked in the bed. Drop-in plastic liners are available, but there's no factory-installed spray-in liner, another Nissan Titanism.
The Titan is a minor competitor to the GM pickup line, as is Toyota's current Tundra. Sales-wise, both Japanese-branded but made-in-America pickups are now minor irritants to GM pickups, and, for that matter, Ford F-150s and Dodge Ram 1500s. Pickups are as vital to General Motors' financial health as they are to Ford's and DaimlerChrysler's, and for now GM is out ahead in features and, yes, design. Bob Lutz has preached well.