SAN ANTONIO -- Like a lot of boys growing up on the Canadian Prairies, I learned to drive at age 13. Only just able to reach the pedals, I was, over the course of one summer, quickly taught how to steer an old grain truck with a manual transmission, a V-8 Impala SS and a red-and-white half-ton Chevy truck.
That pickup, however, holds a special place in my memory. Long, tall and square, the Scottsdale was much more than a working farm truck: It was the gateway to manhood, to liberty, freedom -- the coolest thing I'd ever driven. There were not enough hours in the day for me to be at the wheel of that truck.
For many men, and indeed many women, the affection for pickups runs deep, partially explaining why about 55 per cent of all vehicles sold in this country are trucks, with the Ford F-150 the most popular vehicle overall. The Ram 1500, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra fall close behind, and competition in this segment is as fierce as Christine Sinclair in a gold-medal match.
Chevrolet, however, has the newest truck of all -- the 2014 Silverado 1500, which is all new from the front grille to the tailgate. Revealed just ahead of this year's Detroit auto show, the truck was greeted initially with little more than a yawn because it didn't seem, after seven years, revolutionary enough to compete with the almighty F-150 and continuously updated Ram.
But here in Texas, seeing the truck in the wild, it looks so much better than on any auto-show stand or in pictures. At 20 millimetres wider, it has not grown so grotesquely as to be a locomotive on wheels, keeping its stature as a family-sized truck that can still fit neatly in the garage -- even if crew cab models now have an available two-metre box for the first time, in addition to the standard 1.75-metre box.
Clearly still a Chevy, the new Silverado is a much more sophisticated pickup than any before. It looks tough without being overbearing, chiselled without being too angular, modern without being futuristic. With the Silverado accounting for 26 per cent of all Chevy sales, it is equally clear this is the most important vehicle in the Chevy fold.
And so, the workhorse earns a new presence from its wide get-outta-my-way grille, stacked quad headlamps with projector lamps on some models, sculpted body panels and a nicely shaped dual power dome hood that funnels wind over the wipers. Gone is the awkward extended cab model, replaced by a double cab whose rear doors now hinge from a new B-pillar, eliminating access frustration and improving safety.
The doors are now inlaid, meaning the top seams run along the side of the cab roof to reduce wind noise. The double cab is, of course, joined by the four-door crew cab, which gains an extra 50 mm of rear-seat legroom inside, and a better look with bigger rear doors. The traditional two-door regular cab with 2.4-metre box also remains -- though it is the crew cab where Chevrolet sees the growth in pickups, charting crew cab growth from having almost no takers in 2001 to grabbing almost 60 per cent of sales in 2011.
Climbing inside the new Silverado, it's obvious things on the farm have come a long way. Close the door and the outside world is silenced. The upright dash panel houses a neat six-gauge instrument cluster. Other controls are grouped by function, are easy to reach and, thankfully, controlled by good old-fashioned knobs and decently sized switches. A MyLink system displays on either an 11- or 20-centimetre screen and can be controlled by voice commands. The middle console is almost big enough to cradle a sleeping baby, with a superb execution of storage and connectivity, including five USB ports, three 12-volt outlets and one 110V outlet. There's even a secret cubby under the cup holders.
The Ram's interior may still be a notch above, but the Silverado's is finally first class.
The engines, too, are new, the old Vortecs replaced by three new EcoTec3 engines, all using direct injection, variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation to allow the engine to switch to four-cylinder operation under light loads to boost fuel economy by about 10 per cent. And try as I might, I could never detect the switch from eight to four cylinders or vice versa, such are the improvements made to Chevy's system.
Engines now include a 4.3-litre V-6 with 285 horsepower and 305 pound-feet of torque, a 5.3L V-8 with 355 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque, and a 6.2L V-8 coming later this year expected to have in excess of 400 hp. GM says the 5.3L V-8 will return 8.7 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway in two-wheel-drive models. Chevy officials would not rule out a diesel engine down the road.
Start the V-8 engine and slip the six-speed automatic (still with a clumsy column shifter) into gear and the total absence of noise or vibration makes me wonder whether GM forced Cadillac engineers to execute the chassis tuning, so quiet and smooth is the drive.
The cab feels vastly stiffer. While the truck still feels its weight, it handles relatively well considering the heft, the electronic power steering feeling neither too light nor too heavy. Even during some pounding on an off-road course, the new Silverado felt supremely tight. The four-wheel disc brakes, using GM's Duralife rotors, also felt good, stopping three metres better than the old steel hats.
Towing a skid steer weighing some 3,900 kilograms, it was obvious the truck was saddled with a big load, but the Silverado nevertheless felt up to the task. The 5.3L engine can tow a maximum of 5,200 kg (under the old rating system), while the new V-6 can tow up to 3,200 kg. Ford's F-150 maximum tow rating is 5,100 kg.
But the new Silverado is not just smooth, it is smart. The tailgate, for instance, opens easily and drops with a smooth landing, much like the damped gate in the Toyota Tundra. The bumpers have, as standard equipment, built-in corner steps. The wheels are wider and available in 17 or 20 inch. The bed rail has built-in pockets to grab onto when climbing into the back. The cargo bed has its own light switch, plus gets two useful LED lights as an inexpensive option, hidden under the lip of the bed where they won't blind the eyes at night. Nine upper tie-down spots join four others in the bed. The rear glass can now be optioned with a power rear-sliding window -- and defrost. A raft of modern safety features have been added as options, including forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning (giving a buzz to the seat if you drift off line) and front and rear park assist. StabiliTrak with trailer-sway control and hill start assist are standard on all Silverados.
Despite the total overhaul, pricing for the new truck remains almost the same as outgoing models, with regular cabs starting at $25,540, double cabs at $29,435 and the crew cab at $30,995. 2014 Silverado crew cabs start arriving in June, followed by other cab styles later.
When it does land on dealer lots, those brand loyalists who have steadfastly kept their trucks since the redesign in 2007 will see this is the best pickup GM has ever produced, partially because it was created by people at Chevrolet who use trucks every day, who grew up with trucks, even by some who undoubtedly learned to drive in a truck.
In addition to the WT, LT, LTZ and Z71 models, the Silverado gets a new High Country model to compete with Ford's King Ranch and Ram's Long Horn. The High Country gains a unique chrome grille, halogen projector headlamps and body-colour front and rear bumpers. Unique 20-inch chrome wheels with P275/55R20 all-season tires are standard, as are chrome body side mouldings, door handles and mirrors.
Inside, the High Country ups the ante with an exclusive saddle-brown interior and more authentic materials. Features include heated and cooled perforated premium leather front bucket seats with High Country logos on the headrests, Chevrolet MyLink connectivity with a 20-cm touchscreen, Bose premium audio and front and rear park assist. The standard engine for the High Country is the 5.3L V-8.
High Country options will include the 6.2L V-8, a chrome rear bumper with CornerStep, integrated trailer brake controller, sunroof, navigation, and a rear-seat entertainment system. A premium package adds a heated steering wheel, driver-alert package, adjustable pedals and integrated trailer brake controller.
-- Postmedia News