To auto manufacturers, compact pickups are the overlooked little brothers of their full-size all-stars. They look to their F-150s, Rams, Silverados, Titans and Tundras for their truck fame and fortunes. So what has been happening in the overshadowed midsize truck market lately? To be honest, not much. In a segment where stale designs and features that are trickled down from their full-sized kin are the norm, innovation is an uncommon thing.
This was especially true for Chevrolet until the introduction of the Colorado for 2004. Coming in as a replacement for the S-10 after a 22-year production run, the Colorado boasts an all-new design that isn't a scaled-down version of a Silverado or a chop-top TrailBlazer. The new Chevy pickup and its cousin, the GMC Canyon, are the result of a combined design effort between General Motors North America, Isuzu Motors Limited of Japan and General Motors do Brasil. Isuzu's version of this platform, the D-Max, is tailored for the Asian and Latin American markets, while the Canyon and Colorado are built with the North American consumer specifically in mind. GM has made a significant decision to change its focus with the Colorado and Canyon, as these compacts are designed from the ground up to appeal to customers who are looking for a truck that's an everyday driver, not just an everyday work truck.
Let's face it, automakers don't like to take big design risks with their truck offerings. In a segment that includes the Dodge Dakota, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma, the Colorado stands out with a fresh look that incorporates a modern and aggressive grille, stacked headlamps, flared yet angular wheel wells and an overall classic and clean shape. Our tester was equipped with the optional Z71 Off-Road Package that further improves its appearance with tubular running boards and protective wheel-well flares while achieving visual truck nirvana with meaty off-road tires and a raised ride height. Its striking lines turned quite a few heads, though we'd chalk some of those up to our tester's loud Sunburst Orange Metallic color. It did, however, get one park ranger to longingly eye its lines and declare, "That's one nice-looking truck." Coming from a guy who sits in the entrance booth and looks at trucks all day, that's saying something!
The inside story is a little different, however. While we found the aesthetics of the interior design appealing due to the simplistic uncluttered look accented by nice touches like leather seating and attractive gauges, the overall execution is poor. Hard, cheap-looking plastic abounds and loose, misaligned parts were easy to find. Even though the look is new, our gripes with GM interiors remain much the same as before, as the Colorado's cabin is mediocre compared to its competition.
Compounding this lack of refinement were the flat, unsupportive seats that we found reminiscent of most Toyota trucks. The seat frames are the only part the S-10 and our tester share, but GM should have dumped this design altogether. Though the interior of the Colorado is still far and away better than its predecessor, we wished Chevrolet had moved farther toward that everyday driver ideal than it did.
A crew cab, our tester could comfortably carry five passengers around everyday. Front passengers enjoy roomy accommodations with a class-leading 44 inches of front legroom, two inches more than any competitor. Rear passengers don't have the same abundance of space, as they are restricted by the second least hiproom width in the compact truck class and a tight 34.8 inches of legroom. Our editors found the snug quarters suitable for children and teens, but uncomfortable for adults over long distances. The problems don't end there as the small rear doors do not open a full 90 degrees, making it difficult to get in and out.
A welcome respite for those seated in the rear would be the optional XM Satellite Radio. At first we were a little skeptical of having to pay for radio service, but we're quickly becoming fans after a few long drives in XM-equipped cars. Once you get used to listening to the same programming for three hours without having to change stations, you'll be a fan, too. You may not see the value if you don't drive long distances regularly, but the wide variety of content broadcasting on 100 channels coast to coast can easily wipe away any reservations.
Other equipment highlights on our Colorado included optional four-wheel drive and the aforementioned Z71 package. The off-road package boosts the ride height by three inches over the base configuration and adds a torsion bar front suspension with heavy-duty gas-charged monotube shocks. The Z71 package, in combination with the four-wheel-drive option, supplies a frame-mounted aluminum skid plate that provides protection for the oil pan, front differential and transfer case. A standard rear locking differential should pique the interest of people who also want their truck to fling mud and be a weekend canyon crawler.
To power the Colorado, Chevrolet developed two fuel-efficient engines based on the 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder used in the TrailBlazer. Both feature a cast aluminum block with dual-overhead cams, four valves-per-cylinder and electronic throttle control. The base 2.8-liter, inline four-cylinder engine produces 175 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. Our tester was equipped with the optional 3.5-liter inline five-cylinder that produces 220 hp with 225 lb-ft of torque. That may sound impressive but it doesn't quite match the competition, given that the Dodge Dakota presents an optional 4.7-liter V8 that produces 230 hp and an authoritative 295 lb-ft of torque. Meanwhile, Nissan and Toyota are set to offer large V6 engines with approximately 270 lb-ft each in their redesigned 2005 models. Knowing all of this, we can't help but question GM's decision not to have a V6, though we expect that the future models may offer higher horsepower numbers to keep the Colorado on pace with its competition.
Right about now you're saying to yourself, "Those 220 horses still sound pretty impressive," and you're right, they do. But unlike most trucks, the Colorado flexes those muscles much higher in the power band and doesn't feel very quick off the line despite its decent torque rating (about average among current V6-equipped compacts). This results in a maximum towing capacity of just 4,000 pounds, but the trade-off comes in efficiency, as the Colorado earns very respectable EPA fuel efficiency ratings of 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. Those numbers compare very favorably with the Colorado's V6-equipped competitors, so if you're not boat towing or red-light revving, Chevrolet's pickup may suit you just fine.
The inline five-cylinder engine emits an unusual exhaust note when pushed, but that's about all you'll hear during city driving. We found the cabin surprisingly quiet and comfortable while zipping around town. Noise became an issue only when cruising on the highway, as the wind noise off the oversized side mirrors and a hum from our test vehicle's knobby off-road tires became readily apparent.
One of the Colorado's biggest improvements over the S-10 is the stiffness of its frame, as Chevrolet claims that the structure is 250 percent stiffer than before. We weren't about to take the company's word for it, so we gladly seized the opportunity to put the truck through its paces, traversing muddy ravines and conquering rocky inclines. The difference is truly night and day. Horrid memories of an S-10 floundering through pits and struggling over bumps were washed away, as our Colorado tester competently navigated the rough stuff without much effort. Contrary to what you might expect, the heavy-duty Z71 suspension gets the job done off-road without making the on-road ride quality harsh. We thought it was rather forgiving and comfortable overall, though sudden bumps in the road did tend to upset it. The driving quality is further improved thanks to a refined rack-and-pinion steering system and suspension-tuned body mounts which produce a ride that is smoother than what most people would expect to find in a truck.
What everyone does expect in a truck is cargo capacity. The bed on the Colorado crew cab measures 61.1 by 57.2 inches and has a total bed cargo volume of 36.7 cubic feet. This is a healthy amount of volume in comparison to its competition, especially the dimensionally larger Dodge Dakota which offers just 30 cubic feet. The Colorado also features a two-tier cargo loading system and a unique 55-degree tailgate opening that allows long items, such as 4-by-8 plywood sheets to be transported flat.
With the heightened focus on everyday driving, safety has become a higher priority even for trucks. Shoppers won't be disappointed with the Colorado's list of standard features, many of which aren't found on the competition. Such features include four-wheel ABS brakes, side-impact beams in all doors, dual-stage airbags for the front occupants and LATCH child seat anchors. An available roof rail-mounted side airbag system that protects all passengers in the event of a side impact is the first of its kind in the compact truck segment and debuts on the Colorado along with the OnStar satellite communications system. Traction control, another segment first, is also available on 2WD versions only. Crash test scores weren't available at the time of this writing.
GM is taking a calculated risk with the Colorado by building it with less traditional truck characteristics and more carlike qualities. The company feels that most people look to compact and midsize trucks as more practical daily drivers than their full-size counterparts and built the Colorado accordingly. A problem could arise, however, when Dodge, Nissan and Toyota release their next-generation small trucks which offer more power, better towing capacity and even bigger cabins. In the meantime, we see the Colorado's blend of useful features, enjoyable driving dynamics, eye-catching design, excellent fuel efficiency and safety firsts propelling it to the top of the midsize truck class if only by default. Nobody can say the Colorado isn't practical, but practicality isn't always the highest priority in a segment where more power, capacity and capability ultimately make the sale.
New Vehicle Reviews Editor Jeff Bryan says:
Thou shalt not fear color. Even if said color is Sunburst Orange Metallic. I must admit, I love colorful cars. They remind me of toy cars from my fleeting days of youth. While most pickup buyers would probably be horrified to be seen in our vivid Colorado, I actually looked forward to tooling around in something so different. However, I must confess my main attraction to this truck was a bit more deep-seated than color. I've always had a secret hankering for the mid-'90's S-10 ZR2. There was something about that truck that was just so cool, in a back-in-the-day kind of way, and I had hoped our Colorado Z71 would have some of that same bad-boy attitude. The S-10 ZR2 had some clearly unique features that set it apart from regular 4WD S-10s, like a wider track, increased ride height and beefed-up frame and drivetrain components. The Colorado Z71 has stickers. Well, maybe a bit more than just stickers. Still, I just can't help but feel a little let down. Perhaps a regular cab Z71 would feel a little more true to the original formula.
The Colorado may not fulfill my high school fantasy of a reborn ZR2, but it does perform its modern-day duties with ease and comfort. The crew cab size is a decent compromise between rear-seat roominess and manageable vehicle length. The five-cylinder engine is an oddity, though. It has decent power, but lacks a trucklike burly demeanor. The ride is just stiff enough to remind you you're in a tough 4WD truck, but still smooth enough to help avoid misdialing numbers on your cell phone.
Of course, I'd buy this truck just for its purdy paint job.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
After getting a brief taste of this truck several months ago, I was anxious to get behind the wheel again and see if my initial impressions held true. I still like the exterior style and its general practicality is solid, but several miles in the saddle reminded me of why I sensed a few vulnerabilities the first time around. For one, the drivetrain is just average. There's enough grunt for daily driving, but on the freeway, the four-speed automatic transmission makes it feel downright slow. I can forgive the somewhat bouncy suspension and vague steering (it's a truck after all), but when you have upcoming competitors offering more powerful engines hooked to five-speed transmissions the Colorado is only going to seem that much slower in the years ahead.
My only other real gripe concerns the interior design. Nobody expects luxury in this type of vehicle, but given its appealing exterior design you expect a little more when you step inside. Instead, you're greeted by acres of gray plastic and a look that will seem dated in the not-too-distant future. Contrast it with the Chevrolet Equinox SUV that costs about the same money but serves up a surprisingly upscale cabin and the Colorado just feels flat.
"First off, this is NOT for the full-sizer. GM's target market segment is the user who needs to occasionally carry loads from the local home improvement store. GM hit the mark. Good: Gas mileage, utility cabin space, BROAD power band & SMOOTH delivery. Accomplished ride, quiet cabin, drivability, aesthetic design. The inline 5 doesn't have the low-end torque of a V8, but that's not what I needed. It has enough acceleration and also has sufficient highway passing power. I am impressed with the deliver of the I5's power. The power band is very broad and smooth. It has a much more refined ride than expected in a compact truck. This truck really is practical." extremerider, Feb. 24, 2004
"It feels like a base rental car on the interior, with very hard plastics that tap instead of thud when you give them a thump. The driving position is impossible to get right. I'm 6'0" and if I have my upper body comfortable at the wheel then my legs are all bunched up, and if my legs are at a good stretch my arms can't reach the wheel. It's very loud, but I expected that from a truck. The auto tranny is prone to downshift even on the mildest interstate inclines. However the suspension is very good, the best I've been in for a truck." docgoku, Feb 17, 2004
"I have found the truck to be just what I wanted. It has a smooth, comfortable ride with excellent gas mileage. It offers the comfort and gas mileage of an automobile yet leaves me the option of using it as a truck. I don't have the need for a large truck but wanted something that would allow me the option of hauling a larger load than an auto and yet have something better than an SUV for gas mileage. I also wanted a vehicle that rode smooth and handled well. This vehicle fit the bill. It's just a fun vehicle to drive." Rarch, Jan. 1, 2004
System Score: 8.0
Components: When you think pickup trucks, you don't necessarily associate them with great stereos. Well, the Canyon is here to change your mind about that. All four doors contain full-range mounted driver speakers while the front doors have an additional tweeter placed high.
The head unit in our tester is one you'll find in just about every other GM product. It has an intuitive layout with large buttons and dials. It may not be one of the most aesthetically pleasing units you've ever seen, but its excellent functionality overcomes its unsightly looks. Helping to boost its performance is an in-dash six-disc changer and XM Satellite Radio. Both help you stay entertained for hours on end.
Performance: The Canyon's sonic package is probably one of the best available among compact trucks. The overall sound quality is surprisingly crisp and clear at normal volume levels; however, you might not want to crank the bass on the hard-hitting hip-hop beats as it quickly emits a loud buzz. The unit also develops a noticeable tinny digital harshness at higher volumes from the door-mounted driver speakers. Presets of Jazz, Talk, Rock, Classical and so on did produce richness to those specific genres but a custom manual adjustment of the sound was a little cumbersome with a small knob.
Best Feature: Its combination of an in-dash six-disc changer, XM radio and intuitive design.
Worst Feature: Not able to handle higher volumes with clear sound.
Conclusion: Probably the best factory-installed stereo available in the compact truck segment.