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Ford may have the best-selling pickup in America, but a whole lot of Americans still prefer a Chevrolet. While Dearborn's most recent light-duty pickup has taken on a windswept, aerodynamic look, and Dodge has carved a niche with its vaguely retro, little big-rig theme, Chevrolet has stuck with a more conservative shape, bluff in the nose and square in the shoulders. Chevrolet feels its customers are more comfortable with traditional truck styling. So when the Chevy pickup was totally re-designed, re-engineered and even re-named for 1999, its styling was updated but not radically changed.
At the same time, however, Chevrolet caught up with (or even surpassed) the technology and refinement of the more radical looking Ford and Dodge. The Silverado, as Chevy calls its pickups now, is a great achievement, better than the previous "C/K" truck in every respect. It rides better, handles better and stops quicker; it's faster and it's more comfortable. In fact, the Silverado ranks as one of the most luxurious pickups we've ever driven.
For 2001, Silverado adds even more power, convenience and durability. All extended-cab models now have two auxiliary rear doors, rather than just one on the curbside. Extended-cab 1500s with four-wheel drive are available with a Pro-Tec fully composite box that's virtually impervious to dents or corrosion. OnStar is available on newer LT models. Finally, the 6.0-liter V8 that is standard in 2500 models has been given aluminum heads and more aggressive valve timing, for a nice, round 300 horsepower at 4400 rpm, and 360 pound-feet of torque at 4000.
Silverado's frame is the stiffest and lightest truck frame General Motors has ever built. The front frame rails are hydroformed, a new process that uses high-pressure hydraulics to shape relatively large and complex components that used to be fabricated from smaller stampings. Tubular crossmembers and roll-formed mid-rails increase rigidity further. This stiff structure enhances handling and ride quality immensely, while improving crashworthiness.
The front suspension comprises aluminum short-upper and long-lower control arms, with coil springs on two-wheel-drive models and torsion bars on four-wheel-drive models. Brakes are large, heavy-duty discs on all four corners, and ABS is standard on all models.
All three V8 engines are based on the new GM SB-2 small-block architecture that was introduced on the Corvette three years ago and extended to the Camaro and Firebird in 1999.
A five-speed manual gearbox is standard in the base truck, but most buyers will opt for the 4L60 and 4L65 four-speed automatics. These feature a delayed-upshift mode for towing. They are excellent transmissions.
As with the exterior design, the Silverado interior reflects traditional Chevrolet thinking. The doors and door openings are now the largest in the industry, while the cab is the roomiest.
The instrument package looks like a cross between what is found in the new Corvette and what was used in the old C/K trucks. It comprises a large speedometer and tachometer flanked by four smaller gauges. All use pleasant white-on-black graphics.
The sound-system control panel is located above the climate controls. The climate control system uses a rotary-dial layout that works perfectly. There are three 12-volt outlets at the bottom center of the dashboard for radar detectors, cellular telephones, laptop computers, and other accessories.
Our test truck was an LT Extended Cab, which comes with six-way power front bucket seats with seat heaters and memory. The doors lock automatically as soon as you pull away, a security feature that can be de-programmed at the dealership. The LT also comes with a lockable floor console large enough to hold a picnic lunch for a family of four; it comes with a reversible, removable cup holder tray and a storage nook in front of the lid. Air conditioning outlets and a set of drop-down cup holders are built in for rear-seat passengers. A compass is incorporated into the LT model's overhead console, along with three storage areas for sunglasses, garage door opener, and small items. The door trim is a nice combination of vinyl panels and dotted velour that is soft and warm to the touch.
We were pleasantly surprised when we climbed through one of the rear-opening auxiliary doors of the extended-cab Silverado and into the back seat, which has been redesigned and remounted for far greater room and comfort. When cargo capacity is more important than hauling passengers, the entire rear seat assembly can be removed with a wrench and lifted out through the side door.
About the only thing we didn't like was the design of the interior door handles, which operate in an up-and-in arc and felt loose whenever we used them. We'd prefer more resistance and a more positive feel.
OnStar, which is available on LT models, is a communications and location system that allows customers to call for 24-hour assistance. The system calls for assistance automatically if the truck's airbags have deployed.
We loved every mile we put on the Silverado LT. It drives like a luxury car and is supremely smooth and quiet. That smooth, quiet, unified feel is largely due to the new chassis, which provides a 23-percent increase in stiffness. New mounting and isolation hardware reduces noise and vibration. A cast magnesium beam behind the instrument panel and a lateral steel beam between the magnesium beam and the right side of the dash further reinforce the stiff body. Squeaks and rattles have been eliminated. This is one strong truck, and its chassis rigidity allows the suspension to soak up and manage bumps and ruts and tar strips so well that its overall ride behavior is near luxury. A long, 143-inch wheelbase improves the ride further and enhances high-speed stability.
A big four-spoke steering wheel connects to a rack-and-pinion steering system on 1500 4x2s; other models have recirculating ball steering. Even the rack-and-pinion system has a fairly wide dead spot in the center when cruising, which Chevrolet says is designed to minimize steering corrections on the highway. The steering feels a bit too light, but Silverado still tracks beautifully and handles well on pavement, loose dirt, deep dirt and off road.
Although the 4.8-liter small-block V8 is the most popular engine for this truck, our Silverado LT had the optional 5.3-liter (324 cubic-inch) engine, rated at 285 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. That's enough to smoke the rear tires at will. The fat torque curve is useful for light towing and hauling, but it's also a lot of fun for commuting and touring. The new engine is a much better small-block than before, and we recommend the 5.3 over the smaller 4.8-liter version.
The brakes are substantially improved over the old C/K brakes, and it's a welcome improvement. The four-wheel disc brakes are huge and powerful and come standard with ABS. Braking force comes into play only an inch into the pedal travel, a welcome improvement over the mushy pedal on the previous pickup. A new feature called Dynamic Rear Proportioning improves stability under heavy braking, whether the truck is loaded or empty. Chevrolet promises huge improvements in fade resistance, pad life and heat dissipation; we worked the brakes on our truck very hard and experienced no fade.
The Chevrolet Silverado is by far the best among full-size pickups. And it is the newest design from the Big Three Detroit manufacturers. The Silverado LT we drove is the smoothest, quietest, most civilized, best equipped, and most enjoyable pickup truck we've driven in many years. If you're shopping for a full-size pickup truck this year that you'll still want to be driving in 2009, check out the Silverado.
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