1995 Chevrolet S-10 (GMC Sonoma)

Generic Introduction: Light Trucks

In some businesses, pickup trucks can be handy for carrying bulky objects. While full-size pickups are expensive and don't fit well into tight spaces, the new breed of compact pickups offer a good ride, passable gas mileage, low prices, and plenty of space and power.

Most compact pickups start at about $10,000 with a torquey four cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission, and a driver's side airbag. Common options include longer beds, locking differentials, four-speed automatic transmissions, shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive, and a selection of suspensions and drive ratios. Single models have many options, most of which are rare on cars, so you can make many choices, each with its own trade off. For example, choosing drive ratios lets you trade off gas mileage and quiet highway operation vs. payload and low-end power.

The American compacts have three year/36,000 mile warranties and driver's airbags. If you don't normally carry heavy loads, the base four cylinder engines have enough power to propel the light pickups in everyday driving. The pickups' gas mileage is not usually advertised (even in showroom brochures), so buyers may need to consult the window stickers or the EPA mileage guide (all dealers should have one). Gas mileage adds up; at $1.20 per gallon and 12,000 miles per year (you may drive more, or drive in the city more frequently), the difference between the base S-10 and the Ranger XLT V-6 works out to $224 per year.

Compact trucks have some interesting traits. They might be the only surviving vehicles to combine foot-operated emergency brakes and manual transmissions. Some extended cab models have folding seats which might do in an emergency, but aren't well suited to everyday use. Pickup trucks are also not required to conform to the same safety and pollution standards as cars.

While compact trucks usually have optional off-road and heavy-duty suspensions, think carefully before ordering them, because they stiffen the ride considerably. Our test Ford, for example, not only gave us an intimate knowledge of every pebble and crease in the road, but had very poor handling, both presumably due to the optional off-road suspension. The optional four wheel drive on most pickups adds about 500 pounds to their weight, and often leads to higher maintenance or repair costs; if you don't need it, skip it.

The Chevrolet S-10

The Chevrolet S-10 was redesigned in 1994 to provide a more comfortable cab, better ride, and much greater reliability. Daytime running lights are standard; when the engine is running, low current (to conserve fuel and avoid irritating other drivers) is fed to the high beams. Our test vehicle was a base model with the LS trim package and a few goodies which brought the price up to $13,700 (from $9,655). Chevrolet provides free loaner cars during the warranty period if the truck has to be fixed.

There are three engines, starting with the 118 hp 2.2 liter engine and ending with the 191 hp V-6. For most driving, the base four-cylinder engine and the smooth five-speed manual transmission are sufficient. The engine and transmission were tuned to make hauling loads easier, so initial acceleration was quite fast. The engine ran out of steam as speed increased, but in most situations it is initial pickup that counts. On the highway, passing power required downshifting, a small price to pay for the acceptable (23 city, 29 highway) gas mileage of the 2.2 liter engine. The optional V-6 engines supply plenty of power at all legal speeds.

The S-10 was a good all-around performer. With the four cylinder engine, it had enough power to carry moderate loads up long hills. The handling and ride were much better than expected. The interior was fairly quiet and well laid out. The only flaws were the annoying warning buzzer and the rather unconventional interior design; from the ingenious but odd glove compartment to the confusing all-on-one stalk, it almost seemed as though the designers consciously tried to be different. However, the S-10 was high in creature comforts. The interior was seemed quieter and more comfortable than the Ranger's, and there was plenty of room for two in the cab. Unlike most cars, the S-10 (and the Ranger) came with useful touches such as an excellent between-seats cargo compartment and multipart sun visors (in case you happen to make a turn on a day when the sun strikes your eyes).

The S-10's top V-6 produces 30 horsepower and 40 lb-ft of torque more than the Ford Ranger's top engine. For most people, however, the base four-cylinder or the optional 3.0 liter V-6 (producing 145 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque) will be more than enough.

In its base form, the Chevrolet S-10 serves as a good commuter truck for those with occasional (or light) hauling or towing needs. It can be built up to handle heavier work, or left as is to save gas money and provide a smooth ride. There were no squeaks, rattles, or discernible flaws on our test vehicle, which seemed to be very well put together. Visibility was surprisingly good. In general, the Chevy was easy to grow (and stay) comfortable with. While only time will tell if GM has achieved long-term durability, the S-10's apparent quality led us to believe that we could be happy with it for a long, long time.

Alternatives

The Dodge Dakota is bigger than a compact and smaller than a full-size, so it has a bigger bed and payload than the compacts; it also gets less gas mileage and is harder to park. In brief, it runs the median in both good and bad.

The top-selling Japanese pickup is the expensive Toyota Tacoma. It has three engines, ranging from 142 hp to 190 hp. The Tacoma has a 6.3' bed (75"), and offers optional four wheel drive and an extended cab. Most Japanese automakers sell a compact pickup.

Some people find that a station wagon provides all the extra space they need. Several compact wagons have good mileage, spacious interiors, dual airbags, four seats, and a low sticker price; Subaru makes reliable station wagons with all wheel drive for those in cold climates. Minivans have incredible room (and can store that proverbial piece of plywood), with better mileage, handling, ride, and, oh yes, full-time all wheel drive!

Full-sized trucks are available for those with heavy loads and heavy wallets, with the new Dodge series setting the standards and GM, Ford, and Toyota trucks doing their best to meet them. Gas mileage is poor in this range, and most people don't need the extra size or weight capacity. Full-size trucks can also be awkward in tight spaces.

Within a single compact truck line, you have many choices. You can opt for a base model with a base engine, and get passable gas mileage, a comfortable ride, and a large bed for hauling boxes or large objects. You can opt for more power, a cap, or a heavy duty suspension. Just don't count on the extended cab to provide seating for four adults!

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