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It's a pickup, not a sports car

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Just because you can drive a pickup fast doesn't mean you should.

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Last week, a group of us from the Automobile Journalist's Association of Canada gathered at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. to conduct the annual Canadian Car of the Year tests.

Representing the Free Press were Paul (Willy) Williamson, Jim Kerr, Haney Louka and myself. We had a bit of time to do some high-quality bonding, share notes and discuss the test vehicles.

At the track one day, I told Willy about an observation from earlier in my travels. While waiting for my flight in Prince George, I noticed that just about everyone in the departure lounge was wearing practical clothing and footwear. The one or two people in suits, with polished shoes, stood out as oddities.

There were good reasons for wearing light hikers instead of four-inch heels. At that airport, passengers walk to their plane across the tarmac. It was a wet, windy morning, a good place for traction instead of elegance.

But those light hiking boots would be less useful if it came to running a sprint or playing tennis. That makes perfect sense. Paint them pink and they still wouldn't be ballet slippers; paint them white and they would not be suited to a basketball game.

In the airport's long-term parking area, I noticed that pickup trucks outnumbered cars -- again, a choice of practicality and utility. But, here again, it occurred to me that it's not possible to escape both the benefits and limitations of certain choices.

Pickups have a particularly high rate of fatalities in rollovers, and generally have a less-than-stellar occupant-protection record. Part of that is due to their large frames, which help with loads and towing but make it harder to build in good crash-worthiness.

Then there's their higher centre of gravity. While modern pickups meet the letter of the law in terms of rollover protection, they don't come close to the crash-worthiness of a good road car. In many part of the world, large external rollover protection systems are being fitted to pickups used in mining, exploration, and so on. Look it up by typing "pickup truck ROPS" in a search engine.

Does this mean pickup trucks are unsafe? Of course not, if they're driven as what they are -- utility vehicles, not sports cars. But it's very easy to drive a pickup quickly in a straight line, feeling invulnerable and advertising campaigns promote this cultural mythology. Just because you can drive a pickup fast doesn't mean you should.

The hard truth is that, no matter how you dress it up, a pickup truck is just that, a truck. It will not and cannot perform as well as a car on pavement. It's more awkward in corners, takes longer to stop, and has inherent handling quirks from the front-heavy design.

Test numbers notwithstanding, that includes all the cool tuner trucks. If I were trying to outrun the bad guys on a twisty road, none of them would be my vehicle of choice.

I enjoy my truck for what it is. A BMW isn't much use for hauling firewood, but even the best pickup is a bit of a pig in the corners. Skilled driving means adjusting to each vehicle's characteristics.

In case you were wondering, our resident truck guy Willy agrees with this.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca

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