Detroit's "Big Three" automakers were blindsided by the popularity of small imported pickup trucks during the 1970s. While Ford, GM and Chrysler sold millions of large pickups every year, they never seemed to even consider that there might be a market for smaller trucks in the United States — or that those trucks could actually be considered "fun." In fact, they were so unprepared for the success of Datsun (now Nissan) and Toyota's tiny trucks that the only way they believed they could respond rapidly was to import Japanese trucks and rebadge them as their own.
But that's hardly the end of the story. Because the small pickup market isn't just a story of import success, but the eventual conquest of that market by larger products designed for, and made in, America by both domestic and Japanese manufacturers.
A good example is Chevrolet.
General Motors was still the world's largest corporation and the dominant force in the American car and truck markets in the early 1970s. But the company was sensitive to any erosion in those positions and the popularity of small import pickups — particularly among young, entry-level West Coast buyers — was developing into a threat. After all, it's not like GM wanted the youngsters to get used to buying Toyotas and Datsuns.
GM's immediate, minimal-hassle, low-cost, no-brainer answer to the Japanese truck challenge laid in its partial ownership of Isuzu Motors Ltd. of (no surprise) Japan. By simply buying trucks from Isuzu and slapping some Chevrolet badges on them, GM had a somewhat viable contender in the mini-truck melee. The too-adorable name it pinned on this new "trucklet" was LUV for "Light Utility Vehicle."
In fact, this was such an easy solution to the import threat that Ford was doing exactly the same thing at almost exactly the same time by launching a Mazda-made pickup it rebranded as the "Courier."
The LUV went on sale in March of 1972 in select Chevrolet dealerships, serving markets with a high percentage of import truck buyers and was instantly recognized by the press as nothing special. "As a truck, the Chevy entry is quite similar to the Ford entry," wrote Road & Track, "even down to an identical payload rating of 1,400 pounds, just as the Ford-bought Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) truck is similar to the Datsun and Toyota trucks."
Conventional in its engineering, the 102.4-inch wheelbase LUV was built atop a ladder frame with the suspension consisting of unequal A-arms up front and a solid rear axle on leaf springs in the back. The four 14-inch wheels were wrapped in skinny bias-ply tires and sat outboard a quartet of drum brakes. The steering was by a recirculating ball system. The only engine was an SOHC inline four displacing 1.8 liters which, breathing through a two-barrel carburetor, was rated at just 75 hp at a screaming 5,000 rpm and 88 pound-feet of peak torque at 3,000 rpm. The sole transmission was a four-speed manual.
Despite its extreme ordinariness, for a limited-release product the LUV sold well for Chevrolet. By the end of calendar year 1972, dealers had put 21,098 into customers' hands.
Except for some slightly reshaped (squarer) bezels for the four headlights, the 1973 LUV carried over intact from its inaugural season and calendar year sales rose to 39,422 trucks as availability expanded to more Chevy dealers.
For 1974 the truck's taillamps moved from under the rear bumper to the fenders and were now vertically oriented. Beyond that there was a new "Mikado" trim package that included striped upholstery and a three-spoke steering wheel. Sales drooped to 30,328 units during the calendar year. Still, there were virtually no changes to the LUV for 1975.
A three-speed automatic transmission was available on the LUV for 1976 which, when combined with new front disc brakes and revised trim, led to an increase in sales to 46,670 trucks during the calendar year. Though there were few changes to the LUV for 1977, a new bed-less chassis cab version was offered to attract mini-motor home builders and buyers who wanted, say, a small stake bed truck. Revisions to the carburetion also had output of the 1.8-liter four rising to 80 horsepower. Sales rose again to 67,539 LUVs during the calendar year.
Substantial revisions came to the LUV for 1978 as the headlight count dropped from four to two (in a new grille), and the number of bed lengths increased from one to two. While the standard six-foot box rode on the same 102.4-inch wheelbase as previously, the new 7.5-foot bed was atop a new chassis that put 117.9 inches between the front and rear axle centerlines. Inside the cab was a new instrument panel. Sales reached a robust 71,145 trucks.
Four-wheel drive was added as an option to the LUV line for 1979 and that addition was so impressive that Motor Trend named LUV 4x4 as the magazine's second "Truck of the Year." "One of the heavy components in many four-wheel drives is the transfer case," Motor Trend explained. "The new LUV has the standard four-speed transmission and two-speed transfer case combined in a single unit housed in a die-cast aluminum case. It is very quiet, free of the usual whine of the front-drive gears and shifts easily with the floor-mounted control lever that is clearly marked for four-wheel high, four-wheel low and two-wheel high."
Unlike the pioneering Toyota small 4x4 pickup that was introduced a few months before it, the LUV 4x4 used an independent front suspension similar to its two-wheel-drive brother incorporating torsion bars as a springing medium. "With the unsprung weight greatly reduced and the geometry of the independent front suspension," Motor Trend wrote, "the LUV handles like a small sports car. The rear end with no load aboard can be flipped about at will, but the driver still has a lot of control of just how much he wishes to 'hang it out.'"
Truck of the Year or not, the LUV 4x4 was less than swift. Motor Trend measured it traipsing from zero to 60 mph in a bleak 17.4 seconds with the quarter-mile going by in an unbearable 20.7 seconds at just 64.3 mph. By the standards of the 21st century, the LUV was incredibly slow. Except, that is, in showrooms, as Chevy dealers pushed 100,192 of the tiny pickups through them during the year.
Changes were scant for the 1980 edition and, in the ninth year of its U.S. run, the archaic nature of the vehicle was undeniable. Car and Driver drove a two-wheel-drive LUV that year as part of a small truck comparison test, ranking it seventh out of seven. "Worse yet," wrote the magazine after complaining about the LUV's scant interior features, "the 1.8-liter engine (no alternative), matched to an automatic transmission, set up a horrible boom during 70-mph cruising, registering an annoying 86 dBA on our sound meter. Furthermore, the LUV has one of the crudest rides this side of a farm wagon, partly due to its bias-belted tires. And its interior volume lies at the low end of this class. Ventilation is only fair." Sales dropped to a still respectable 88,447 trucks.
Love for the first LUV was practically nonexistent by the end of 1980. But a new LUV was on the way.
If there was anything endearing about the first LUV's appearance, the second LUV buried it under sheets of bland, featureless metal. No truck has ever been more generic-looking than the 1981 LUV.
While the boring (if antiseptically clean) skin was new, the substance of the new LUV was familiar. Up front, the same 1.8-liter four making 80 hp was still the only engine available. Underneath, the standard wheelbase now stretched 104.3 inches (up 1.9 inches), but the suspension was still A-arms in front and a solid axle on cart springs in the rear. Fortunately, some of that additional wheelbase was used to extend the cab, slightly improving legroom. The long-bed models still used a 117.9-inch wheelbase, and the 4x4 models carried over as well.
"Though we're sorry a bigger engine was not on their list," wrote Car and Driver about the new LUV, "Chevy designers took time to make a few functional improvements to this year's LUV. Rubber has replaced plastic in the front suspension bushings, so it hurts to be in the LUV somewhat less than it did before, especially if you leave the hay bales at home. The front disc brakes are larger this year, and the LUV now has electronic ignition, doubling spark plug longevity to 30,000 miles."
Nevertheless, with minimal changes overall, the second LUV was no match for its import peers, and Chevy was pulling back on promoting it in anticipation of its replacement. So, to no one's surprise, sales of the Isuzu-built pickup dropped to 61,724 units during the calendar year.
The LUV would live to see 1982 almost unchanged from the previous year and with almost no one caring. With its replacement already selling alongside it, sales dribbled down to just 22,304 trucks and some LUVs lingered on dealers' lots well into 1983.
Isuzu would market the truck that Chevy called LUV as its own in the '80s, but the LUV name was dead. GM was building its own small trucks now. And it was building them in the United States.
Edmund.com's own Kevin Smith (then writing for Motor Trend) summarized the introduction of the S-10 succinctly: "In the biggest advertising launch in GM truck history, a new-generation pickup is described as 'not too big, not too small.' And the Chevrolet Division expects an entire 20 percent of its 1982 truck customers to look at the ground-breaking S-10 and declare a Goldilocksian 'just right.'"
So GM was betting big on the S-10 (and its nearly identical brother, the GMC S-15) to take over where the LUV left off and directly challenge Toyota and Nissan, who were firmly entrenched in the market. And just as GM and Ford paralleled one another by introducing imported small pickups at the same time, they did so again by debuting their domestic-built small pickups at virtually the same time — the S-10 and the Ford Ranger went on sale within months of one another.
Like the LUV before it and GM's full-size trucks, the S-10 was a strictly conventional design. The ladder frame used a double A-arm front suspension and the rear suspension was a solid axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs. The steering gear was a recirculating ball setup, the brakes consisted of discs up front and drums in the back, and radial tires were standard even on base trucks.
Two engines were offered initially, a 2.0-liter pushrod four making a puny 82 hp while breathing through a two-barrel carburetor. The optional engine was a rear-drive version of the 60-degree, 2.8-liter, OHV V6 that had been introduced two years earlier in GM's X-Cars, including the Chevrolet Citation. Also inhaling through a two-barrel carb, the V6 was rated at a so-so 110 hp. But in an era when all the Japanese makers offered were four-cylinder engines, the V6 was still a significant competitive advantage. A four-speed manual transmission was standard with a three-speed automatic optional on all models. A five-speed manual would be available with the inline four at midyear in a package intended to appeal to mileage stretchers. At least for '82, all S-10s were two-wheel drive.
About the only interesting thing about the S-10's engineering was that the front suspension was basically a direct lift from GM's "A-car" line, which included the Chevrolet Malibu and El Camino. This trivial fact became apparent a decade later when aftermarket spindles intended to lower the front of the S-10 were found to also fit the A-cars.
Initially, the S-10 was only offered in a regular cab configuration on either a 108.3- or 117.9-inch wheelbase. While those 108.3 inches were a full four more than the comparable LUV's, the 117.9-inch dimension was identical to the longer LUV. Meanwhile, the shortest full-size '82 Chevy truck used a 117.5-inch wheelbase and the longest (a dually crew cab) was a full 164.5 inches.
"Examining the actual bed dimensions and overall lengths for both the S-10 and LUV, it becomes clear where the new truck's extra space lies: in the passenger area," Smith explained at the time. "In the standard six-foot bed configuration, the S-10 and LUV have almost identical cargo box lengths (73.1 and 73.0 inches), but the S-10 is longer overall by 3.7 inches (178.2 versus 174.5). Comparing long-bed styles, the S-10 is 2.5 inches longer overall, but its cargo box is actually an inch shorter (89.0 versus 90.1). The distance from the front bumper to the cab's rear bulkhead measures 100.2 inches on the S-10 and 95.8 on the LUV (regardless of chassis length). So what Chevrolet has done is accept the cargo capacity of its small imported LUV as sufficient for the domestic truck of this new age, [while building] in new levels of passenger comfort."
And that's exactly what Chevy emphasized in its marketing, pushing the new S-10 as a recreational lifestyle enhancer rather than a determined workhorse. After all, if you needed a work truck, Chevy had plenty of full-size pickups ready to be tailored for any job. So the S-10 was offered in a number of high-comfort civilian guises, including a top-of-the-line Tahoe package that included bucket seats and a comprehensive gauge package. Two-tone paint was also a popular option.
Motor Trend measured a 0-to-60-mph time of 12.7 seconds for its V6-powered, automatically shifted S-10 Tahoe long bed — this wasn't so great but it was still much better than any LUV. Throw in the S-10's soft ride, comfortable cabin and handsome appearance, and an instant hit was born.
That didn't mean that Chevy would stand still for 1983. Extended cab, 4x4 and diesel models were part of the mix for the pickup's sophomore year, and an S-10 Blazer SUV joined Chevy's lineup.
The extended cab S-10 (Chevy's first extended cab pickup) rode on a new 122.9-inch wheelbase with 14.5 inches of that being added to the cab length. Jump seats in the back could accommodate passengers for short trips, though they had to squeeze themselves in through the two doors and past the front seats to get there. The longer wheelbase also helped the S-10 ride even better than before.
Unlike Chevy's full-size pickups, which still used solid front axles at that time, the S-10 4x4 used a system similar to the LUV's, which featured an independent A-arm front suspension with torsion bars for springing. Part-time four-wheel drive, with a separate transfer case, was available on all S-10s including extended cab models and the new Blazer sport-utility.
Chevrolet didn't sell many S-10s powered by the optional Isuzu-built 2.2-liter, four-cylinder diesel. That's probably because with just 62 hp on tap and most S-10s weighing 3,300 pounds or more, the diesel option was just too scary to contemplate.
With the S-10 line now spanning so many variations, sales rose to 179,157 trucks during the '83 model year, not including another 84,672 S-10 Blazers.
A flurry of detail changes came to the S-10 for 1984, including a hydraulic clutch on manual transmission models, an improved trip odometer and an optional "sport" suspension for short-wheelbase 4x2s. Sales leapt up to 209,377 S-10 pickups and 149,047 S-10 Blazers.
Except for new badges on the fenders and a revised tailgate that put the "Chevrolet" name to one side, it was tough to tell a 1985 S-10 from the '84. But 4x4 models did get a 2.5-liter, OHV four as their standard engine — the famous "Iron Duke." That was enough to keep sales humming through the year.
The 2.5-liter Iron Duke four became the standard engine across the range, and electronic fuel injection was now part of the package for the 2.8-liter V6 for 1986.
Rated at 92 hp and equipped with a two-barrel carburetor, the Iron Duke four represented a significant improvement over the old 2.0-liter four, even though it still wasn't as slick as the fours being offered by Toyota or Nissan. The fuel-injected V6, on the other hand, was vastly more drivable when equipped with fuel injection and, now rated at 125 hp, substantially more powerful.
Those engine changes were accompanied by a new instrument panel in all S-10s and a revised electronically engaged transfer case on 4x4 models called "Insta-Trac" that allowed switching between two- and four-wheel drive on the fly. Sales of S-10 pickups came in at 172,955 units for '86, while an astonishing 132,977 S-10 Blazers were sold.
Fuel injection migrated onto the 2.5-liter four for 1987 along with a revised cylinder head. While the engine was still rated at 92 hp, its drivability was much improved. The 2.8-liter V6 was also revised with a new serpentine one-belt drive system for the engine accessories, but its output remained 125 hp. The diesel four was finally gone from the lineup after continued disinterest from the buying public. All the other changes were even less significant, and sales rebounded to 224,026 S-10 pickups and 174,797 S-10 Blazers.
The big news for 1988 was that the new 4.3-liter, 90-degree, Vortec V6 became an option on all S-10s at midyear, supplementing the returning Iron Duke four and 2.8-liter V6. Rated at 160 hp and 235 lb-ft, the fuel-injected Vortec was both smoother and much more powerful than the 2.8-liter V6. It was also lashed to GM's four-speed automatic transmission that made it even more attractive. Other changes were restricted to trim and color modifications, and sales jumped again to 258,717 S-10 pickups and 157,264 S-10 Blazers.
Every 1989 S-10 pickup featured rear wheel antilock brakes as standard equipment, and an electronic instrument panel was now optional, but the remaining changes were minor. The expanded availability of the 4.3-liter Vortec V6 kept sales strong despite the S-10's advancing age. Chevy sold 249,758 S-10 pickups this model year and another 184,656 S-10 Blazers.
The Vortec 4.3-liter V6 was available hooked up to a new Getrag-designed five-speed manual transmission for 1990, making for the quickest S-10 yet. But other changes were slight. Sales slid to 202,240 S-10 pickups this model year as the truck was — quite rightly — seen as aged in the marketplace. Another 175,450 S-10 Blazers also found buyers.
Chevrolet put a new grille on the S-10 in an effort to update the 1991 models. The new grille stretched from one side of the truck to the other and incorporated the square headlights into its design. There were also new badges throughout the trucks and a new Baja off-road appearance package. Mechanically, the most significant changes were revisions to the Vortec 4.3-liter V6 that included modified cylinder heads and a new fuel-injection system; output remained at 160 hp. Since the 1991 S-10s went on sale early in 1990, sales were helped by the elongated model year and went up to 253,953 pickups. The S-10 Blazer, which was now available as a four-door in addition to the two-door, saw its sales drop to 81,267 units.
A stripped-down "EL" 4x4 pickup joined the 1992 S-10 lineup and a few upscale options (such as leather seating and a CD player) became available. But otherwise, the S-10 carried over unchanged. Chevy sold another 191,960 pickups and 124,965 S-10 Blazers.
With an all-new S-10 soon due, Chevy could have left well enough alone. However, for 1993 revisions to the 4.3-liter Vortec V6 (that included a new internal balance shaft) increased its output to 165 hp. There was also a new center console with a 12-volt power outlet, and extended cab models were treated to a new cargo net. But the end was near, and the last of the first-generation S-10 pickups shuffled off stage selling another 180,342 units, while 139,555 S-10 Blazers found homes.
While the S-10 Blazer would last one more year, after 12 model years the S-10 pickup was more than played out. By virtue of its long model run alone, the S-10 had to count as a success, but it was consistently beat by the Ford Ranger in the sales race. Could the next S-10 change that?
Second-Generation S-10 (1994-2004)
"The S-10 is all-new for 1994," reported Motor Trend upon the next-generation truck's introduction, "and according to Kurt Ritter, marketing manager for Chevy trucks, this redesign represents the most extensive use of customer input in GM history." What GM's customers wrought was a vehicle more rounded in shape, more spacious in accommodations, noticeably quieter and generally more powerful. But it was pretty much the same truck as before under the skin.
As before, the new S-10 was offered with two different cabs (regular and extended) and two bed lengths (6.1- and 7.4-feet long). Those different body-and-box configurations sat atop the same wheelbases as the previous-generation truck as well, starting at 108.3 inches for the regular cab/short-box model, moving to 117.9 inches for the regular cab/long bed and finishing up at 122.9 inches for the extended cab/short-bed model. Although the wheelbases were the same, the new S10 was larger in every other key dimension, growing about 10 inches in length, 3 inches in width and 2 inches in height as a regular cab/short bed.
The chassis design was also basically a carryover with a slightly revised version of the first generation's A-arms up front and solid rear axle on leaf springs in the back. The most significant change was in the braking department where a standard antilock system now acted on all four wheels, not just the rears as before. Tires, wheels and suspension tuning were grouped into seven different packages depending on application — three for the 4x2s and four for 4x4s.
In the engine bay, the standard truck came with a new 2.2-liter, OHV four built around a cast-iron block and topped by an aluminum cylinder head. Equipped with electronic fuel injection it was rated at 118 hp — eight more than the optional V6 in the original '82 S-10. Two versions of the 4.3-liter Vortec V6 were available as options in the '94 S-10, one rated at 165 hp and the other (an "Enhanced Vortec") at 195 hp with the most significant difference between them being a more advanced fuel-injection system on the more powerful engine. All three engines were available with either five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions.
Two additions to the S-10 line appeared for '94; an off-road-oriented ZR2 4x4 model featuring oversize tires and a lifted suspension and a Super Sport 4x2 model with a lowered suspension for better on-road handling. Motor Trend drove a regular cab Super Sport, writing that "Chevy's Enhanced Vortec 4.3-liter V6 provides all the convincing needed. With 195 hp and 260 pound-feet of torque, it delivers more output than any other V6 in its class. Only the Dodge Dakota's 230-horse, 295 pound-feet 5.2-liter Magnum V8 offers more bang, but, on the flip side, is also somewhat thirstier in fuel consumption." The automatic-equipped test truck ripped from zero to 60 mph in just 7.9 seconds for the magazine and completed the quarter-mile in 16.1 seconds at 85.0 mph. Less impressive was the handling that relied on 215/65R15 BF Goodrich Comp T/A radials to interface with the pavement.
"The Super Sport is a real-world sport truck," Motor Trend concluded. "But chasing Porsches through back roads isn't what it's all about. It's about style, identity and fun." Not bad things for a compact truck to be about.
Though still fresh on the market, there were significant updates to the S-10 for 1995 as a driver-side front airbag and daytime running lights were now standard. Other changes were minimal. A new Blazer SUV also went on sale this year and, although it was clearly derived from the new S-10, it no longer carried the S-10 label.
A third door was available for Extended Cab models during the 1996 model year. Called the "Easy Access System" by Chevrolet, the third rear-hinged door was put on the driver side to facilitate loading cargo and/or make it easier for rear passengers to enter the truck. Interestingly, Chevy also offered a third door on full-size trucks that year, but placed it on the passenger side so that passengers could be loaded into the rear seat easily. Opting for the third door on an S-10, however, meant giving up one of the two fold-down jump seats usually found in an extended cab S-10.
Also new for '96 was an upgraded version of the "standard" Vortec 4.3-liter V6 so that it now used sequential fuel injection and a redesigned accessory drive system to produce 175 hp. At midyear, a Stepside bed joined the S-10 option sheet that clearly sacrificed utility for style.
Interestingly, Isuzu began selling a version of the American-built S-10 as its own "Hombre" in the U.S. during the '96 model year. The introduction of the Hombre completed the circle begun back in '72 when Chevrolet began selling the Isuzu-made LUV. The Hombre also replaced the P'Up, the last Japanese-made compact pickup truck sold in the United States, as both Toyota and Nissan had set up shop in the U.S. for production of their small trucks.
Fleet customers could buy an electric front-drive S-10 during the 1997 model year — if they could stand having a fleet that couldn't go very far and took hours to recharge. In other news, the excellent ZQ8 sport suspension package was now available on both regular- and extended cab models and included five-spoke 16-inch wheels and Goodyear high-performance tires. Smaller changes included a new transmission fluid pump for the automatic, a revised clutch plate for the manual.
The Edmunds.com editors drove a '97 S-10 extended cab Stepside 4x4 and we were unimpressed by the build quality — so much so that we subtitled the test, "Chevy Trucks Like a Maraca." "As the tongue-in-cheek title of this article implies," wrote our correspondent Greg Anderson, "we are still not satisfied with the build quality of the General's trucks. It boggles the mind to even consider why it's so hard to design an interior that won't rattle, squeak, click and annoy passengers to the brink of insanity. This newest Latin dance impersonator is the Chevy S-10 LS Extended Cab. The name gives it away. Our Extended Cab came with the optional third door, which is like adding the percussion section to the orchestra."
The S10 got a new grille for 1998 that incorporated flush-mounted headlights above a large horizontal bar. The dashboard was redesigned to accept a passenger-side airbag (which could be switched off) and many of the buttons and dials were updated to improve their operation, quality and feel. The result was an S-10 that looked more sophisticated both inside and out.
Other mechanical refinements were minor, however, with 4x4 models now getting rear disc brakes and the Enhanced version of the Vortec 4.3-liter V6 now carrying a lower rating of 180 hp in 4x2s and 190 hp in 4x4s. Why? Some things will always remain mysteries.
Truck Trend magazine drove an extended cab, ZQ8-equipped '98 S-10 and was impressed. "The ZQ8 Sport Chassis Package cribs many components from the Camaro parts bin. Those 16x8-inch wheels were originally used on the '92 Camaro Z28 and the P235/55HR16 Eagle GA tires are the standard tires on the current Z28. Beyond that are frame reinforcements, front urethane jounce bumpers, 33-millimeter front and 23-millimeter rear anti-sway bars, de Carbon shocks, rear axle vibration dampener, a retuned variable ratio 15-13-to-1 steering box and a 2-inch lower ride height. This same suspension is used under the S-10 SS, and it remains stable and surefooted during some maneuvers that send sports cars into conniptions . For those of us who drive a truck every day, and don't need the ultimate ability of a full-size hauler, the effortless grace of the compact S-10 is compelling."
And the ZQ8 did perform pretty well. Truck Trend measured it accelerating from zero to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds, dashing down the quarter-mile in 16.7 seconds at 81.5 mph and orbiting their skid pad at 0.82G. Earth shattering? Nah. But solid numbers nonetheless.
Misspelling is always a good way to attract attention and Chevy did that for the 1999 model year by introducing the S10 Xtreme package.
The Xtreme was basically an appearance package of fancy wheels, foglamps, monochromatic paint and ground effects plastic body panels that went atop a regular or extended cab S10 (with either the Fleetside or Sportside short bed) equipped with the ZQ8 suspension. If that fits your idea of what "Xtreme" is, then you probably already own one of these trucks.
Other changes for '99 included a flash-to-pass feature for the headlights, new folding sideview mirrors and — this was exciting — a "larger corporate key head" for the ignition key. The new key alone had buyers swooning in dealerships. There were some minor mechanical refinements, too, but they were essentially imperceptible to the buying public.
If you could tell the difference between a '99 and 2000 S-10 you probably actually worked at the Shreveport, La., plant where they were built. An alternate fuel version of the 2.2-liter four was offered to fleet customers and the extended cab model was now available in the bare-bones base trim if buyers wanted, but there otherwise wasn't much to get excited about.
Big news came in 2001 with the introduction of a Crew Cab model S-10. "This little truck is as comfortable and familiar as an old shoe," wrote Edmunds' Phil Reed upon his first encounter with the new Crew Cab. "And, while there's a lot to be said for an old shoe, there are some new-fangled styles and features that Chevy has flat-out ignored when adding this crew cab to the venerable S-10 line of pickups." He then went on to knock the styling for being boring and the bed for not having an extender, among others. "These objections aside," he continued, "there are some pleasing features in this 190-hp, V6 truck that will probably satisfy Chevy fans. After all, the current S10 was introduced in 1994 and has built a loyal following over the years. Maybe Chevy just figured, why mess with success?"
The Crew Cab rode on the same 122.9-inch wheelbase of the extended cab truck and that left it with a shriveled 55.2-inch-long cargo box. It also weighed in at more than 2 tons and that smothered much of the truck's performance potential as well. "Maybe we started with high expectations because we knew it had a hefty 4.3-liter, 190-hp V6 engine," Reed reported. "That should be plenty of muscle to move this thing down the road. Low-end torque was good, but it thinned out quickly and struggled to post a sluggish 10.3 seconds in the 0-to-60 mph blitz. The two-valves-per-cylinder Vortec engine delivers 190 horsepower at 4,400 rpm and 250 pound-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm. Given the lack of performance, the gas mileage (on the sticker at 15 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway — though our figures were lower) was unjustifiably low."
Considering its unimpressive first impression, it was no surprise when the '01 S-10 Crew Cab finished fifth in our comparison test of compact crew cab trucks later that year. "We know GM can offer better than the S-10," we concluded after the staff reached a general consensus that this truck was now archaic and uncompetitive. "In fact, the company will soon offer an all-new version designed and engineered by Isuzu and likely named the Colorado. Our advice? Wait for the new one."
But even though the Colorado was on the way, the S-10 soldiered on for another three years. For 2002 the third door was now standard on all extended cabs, all retail customers got air conditioning and a tachometer as standard, and the regular cab, 4x2 long box model was eliminated. About the only change for 2003 was some revised cloth upholstery, and about the only thing that changed on the 2004 S-10 was the VIN number.
The second-generation S-10 was, like the first, a success. But it never passed the Ford Ranger in sales. In 1997, for instance, Ford sold 298,796 Rangers and Chevy pumped out 192,314 S10s. In 2000 Ford pushed 330,125 through its factories while Chevy could shove only 211,587 S-10s.
Just as the LUV sold alongside the first S-10 during 1982, the S-10 sold alongside the Colorado during 2004. But the LUV was doomed and this time so was the S-10.
Except that it is a compact-to-midsize truck built on a ladder frame and having four wheels, the 2004 Colorado had virtually nothing in common with the S10 it superseded.
The Colorado (and its twin brother, the GMC Canyon) is slightly larger than the S10 in virtually every dimension. Regular cab Colorados ride on a 111.3-inch wheelbase (3 inches longer than the comparable S10) while extended and crew cab versions are atop a 125.9-inch wheelbase (again 3 inches longer). Overall lengths are also up a bit more than 2 inches, and the Colorado is taller and wider, too.
While the Colorado still uses a ladder frame, that frame is stiffer. And though it uses double A-arm front and solid axle on leaf springs rear suspensions similar in general specification to the S10's, it's a more refined and contemporary design. And it's those improvements in solidity and composure that showed up when Edmunds' Ed Hellwig first drove the Colorado and Canyon.
"Drive either truck and the improvements over their predecessors are obvious," Hellwig wrote. "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." The ZQ8 handling package is back for 4x2s and now sports 17-inch wheels and tires. 4x4 buyers can opt for a rugged Z71 suspension and appearance package.
In the engine bay, the Colorado is equipped with either the 175-hp "Vortec 2800" all-aluminum, DOHC, 16-valve four or the 220-hp "Vortec 3500" all-aluminum, DOHC, 20-valve five. Both engines are derived from the Vortec 4200 inline six that powers the current Trailblazer SUV. "With 220 hp," Hellwig wrote, "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."
If there's one area where the Colorado is in for severe criticism, it's interior quality. "The dimensional differences are slight, but anyone who has ever spent much time in the previous GM compacts will notice the added room," wrote Hellwig. "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."
A few months after Hellwig's first drive, Edmunds tested a Colorado Crew Cab equipped with the five-cylinder engine, automatic transmission, four-wheel drive and the Z-71 package. While the test mostly confirmed Hellwig's initial impressions, testing did reveal solid performance with the truck making it to 60 mph in 9.9 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 17.3 seconds at 80.8 mph. Not bad for a 3,800-pound truck.
A new Xtreme option for the Colorado was the only significant addition to the line for 2005 and its equipment very nearly parallels that of the S-10 Xtreme package.
With Ford pushing any significant updates to its Ranger off into the indefinite future, the much more contemporary Colorado stands a decent chance of outselling it. But will the Colorado be able to keep up with even newer trucks like the all-new 2005 Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier and Dodge Dakota? Especially since all of them will offer either more powerful V6 engines or V8s?
The Colorado is in the fight. But it's going to be a tough fight.