Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
If you've been in this country for more than, say, a day or two, you probably already know about GM's full-size trucks. With advertising campaigns equal in size to the GDP of small countries, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra enjoy almost endless exposure on billboards and television in a quest to assure that every American is well aware of their powerful engines and sturdy construction.
While those full-sizers have become national celebrities, General Motors' compact pickups haven't enjoyed quite the same level of attention. With smaller sales numbers, less powerful engines and limited ability to tear a tree stump out of the ground, the Chevrolet S-10 and GMC Sonoma soldiered on for a nearly a decade under substantially smaller spotlights.
For 2004, those spotlights will get just a little bit brighter with the introduction of the all-new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon compact trucks. Larger in most dimensions than their predecessors, the Colorado and the Canyon were designed to be as comfortable as they are tough. New engines and class-exclusive features are also part of the mix to help give both trucks the edge they need to compete in a category filled with strong domestic and foreign competition.
Drive either truck and the improvements over their predecessors are obvious. They're stiffer and smoother on the road and more spacious inside. It doesn't quite feel like 10 years' worth of development work went on, but there's at least a good three or four years of solid engineering under each skin. It's not the kind of overwhelming goodness that will vault Chevrolet and GMC directly to the head of the line, but as compact trucks go, the Colorado and Canyon are two of the best currently available.
Prominent on the list of improvements is a significantly stiffer frame that allows for more precise suspension tuning and less flex under stressful conditions. Unlike the previous trucks that flopped and wobbled over rough terrain, the Colorado and Canyon maintain their composure without compromising ride quality. In fact, on smooth pavement the overall feel is softer than you might expect for a pickup. A revised rack-and-pinion steering system further contributes to the more refined feel of the new trucks, but numbness on center keeps them from feeling truly connected to the road.
Three different suspensions are offered: the standard heavy-duty setup, an elevated Z71 off-road package and a lowered street performance design. Despite its rough-sounding name, the standard heavy-duty setup is quite forgiving, making it ideal for everyday driving. Four-wheel-drive models sit 2 inches higher than their two-wheel counterparts but otherwise use the same basic design.
If you plan on having your truck dirty as often as it's clean, the Z71 option is worth considering. Available on both two- and four-wheel-drive models, the Z71 suspension raises ride height three inches over a stock two-wheel-drive model. Also included in the package are larger tires, an underbody skid plate, heavy-duty shocks and a locking rear differential. The ride is slightly soggier than the standard suspension mostly due to the larger, more heavily treaded tires, but it's still better than previous GM compacts.
For those looking for the ultimate in street performance, the Colorado offers a ZQ8 sport suspension on two-wheel-drive models designed to deliver sharper handling and a slammed custom truck look. Reduced height springs drop the ride height two inches lower than stock, while Bilstein shocks, a quick-ratio steering system and 17-inch wheels and tires provide added control. The stiffer setup is instantly noticeable behind the wheel, but it's not so harsh that you curse it over every bump in the street. Not only will it give Toyota's Tacoma S-Runner a run for its money in the handling department, it has well-defined looks to complement its performance.
As well sorted out as both trucks are when it comes to their suspensions, the two available engines might leave power-hungry drivers wishing for more. The base engine is a 2.8-liter inline four-cylinder rated at 175 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, while the optional power plant is a 3.5-liter inline five-cylinder that generates 220 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are scaled-down versions of the 4.2-liter six-cylinder engine found in the TrailBlazer and Envoy SUVs. A five-speed manual is standard on all models; a four-speed automatic is available as an option.
With 220 hp, the optional 3.5-liter engine gives the Colorado and Canyon the highest horsepower rating in the class, but like its six-cylinder cousin, the power is situated higher in the power band than on most truck engines. Off-the-line grunt is just average as the engine fails to deliver much of a pull until nearly 4,000 rpm a far cry from the old 4.3-liter V6 that delivered plenty of power down low but ran out of breath quickly thereafter. A unique growl at full roar and a smoother power delivery give the new five-cylinder an overall edge, but those looking for the trucklike feel of a large-displacement V6 may find the 3.5 a bit lacking.
Such a drawback might seem inexcusable on a pickup truck, but GM designed the Colorado and Canyon to appeal to a wider range of buyers than the typical work truck market. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cabin where larger dimensions and additional amenities add more passenger comfort and convenience. The truck's overall length remains virtually unchanged, but a longer wheelbase stretches the cabin for added legroom front and rear, while a wider body adds slightly more hip- and shoulder room. The dimensional differences are slight, but anyone who has ever spent much time in the previous GM compacts will notice the added room.
Less impressive is the overall design and quality of the interior, as it still wears the drab gray plastic panels of its predecessors. The gauge cluster is slightly better but not great, and the build quality still isn't very impressive as most of the trim pieces flex and move when pressed upon. The flat seats lack much contour, and even the upgraded leather upholstery fails to elicit an upscale look and feel. In all fairness, there are few compact trucks on the market that could be called plush, but if GM really wants to court personal-use buyers, a more stylish and higher-quality interior would have helped.
That said, there are some areas in which these trucks excel. They are the first compact trucks to offer side airbag protection as well as OnStar and factory-installed satellite radio. The optional 3.5-liter engine may not have the torque all buyers are looking for but with EPA fuel ratings of 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, it's a more efficient power plant than most of its competitors' V6s. Then there's the styling, a subjective matter for sure but one in which both trucks seem to garner the same positive results.
Pushing the new Colorado and Canyon as personal-use trucks rather than true workhorse pickups may prove to be a smart move for GM. Most buyers fall into that category and are more likely to appreciate a more refined ride and extra passenger space than big-time tow ratings. However, doing so with such bland and unimpressive interiors and smaller displacement engines may threaten the automaker's ability to attract new customers. With all-new compact trucks coming next year from Dodge, Nissan and Toyota, the Colorado and Canyon are going to have their hands full. Both GM trucks offer levels of refinement and comfort that are as good as anything currently on the market, but if you were hoping for serious power or a modern cabin design, these trucks come up a little short.
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