Take a basic Chevy S-10 fleet-side pickup, lower the suspension, slap on body flares, add some custom rims and fat tires, and whataya got? A sporty, practical and, most of all, affordable little truck that's set up the way young dudes like them and that drives as well as many sporty cars.Not a bad way to spend 15 grand. It's cheaper and more practical than a sports car, with similar visual and sensory effects. Part of the budget price has to do with the budget driveline, a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed stick shift. Not exactly a hot setup, but competent, smooth-running, and with enough pull for most purposes. Plus, a lot better gas mileage than with automatic or the optional 4.3-liter V-6. The test truck was a two-wheel-drive street machine, definitely not appropriate for off-highway use, though it could handle a dirt road that's not too rutted. The little, red S-10 received many admiring looks from the campus crowd, but adult types who need a small pickup for work or chores should be glad to have one that looks so cool. It's fun to drive and fun to be seen in, which should take the sting out of having to tote a load of supplies in the pickup bed. This version of the S-10 demonstrates how Chevy has devised a broad array of inexpensive custom possibilities for its popular compact truck, ranging up to the high-performance SS model. GMC's version, the Sonoma, has similar packages. The Chevy I drove had the LS interior package, with nice upholstery, stereo, and other niceties, but without power windows, locks or mirrors. To this was added the ZQ8 sport suspension package, which includes performance tires; frame reinforcements; lower ride height; tougher shocks, bushings and stabilizer bars; and quicker power steering. This is what creates the truck's crouchy look, firm ride and improved handling. Load capacity is still 1,100 pounds, Chevy says. And just for appearances, a package of plastic side and wheel-well moldings is added on. I'm usually not too crazy about plastic moldings, but these are small enough and integrated well enough to be effective without being in your face. All told, a handsome pickup, with features that would cost a lot more for a driver to add aftermarket, and probably wouldn't be as well-done. The suspension tweaks cost just $455 over the base LS truck, with another $402 for a "preferred equipment group" of the aluminum wheels, stereo system and interior upgrades. The regular, non-extended cab is roomy and comfortable, more so than I expected, with a brawny-looking dashboard that was redesigned for '98 and carries over to '99. The bench seat allows three-across seating, if you're all slim. The regular cab has serious limitations when it comes to personal items, requiring just about anything you're carrying to land in the bed, subject to the whims of weather and thieves. The extended cab provides more stowage, stretch-out space and extra seating for passengers (little ones, anyway), but the short cab has a sportier look. The four-cylinder engine was surprisingly smooth. Acceleration was OK, though there were times that I longed for more gumption. I didn't carry any heavy loads or tackle any mountain grades, but I think it would get along without too much fuss. The five-speed shifted nicely, mating well with the engine. If equipped with a power-robbing automatic, the four-cylinder might be giving up too much oomph to be very responsive or enjoyable. Chevy rates towing capability with the four-banger at 1 ton, but I think that's a stretch. The four-cylinder comes only with two-wheel drive, with the V-6 standard on the four-wheelers. The steering and handling are much improved over the standard-issue S-10. Cornering is flat, but although the tires stick well, the light pickup bed threatens to step out and come around, if you're not careful. The test truck steered well but produced a clunk noise from the front end whe n the wheel wa s turned full-lock either right or left. The brakes were disappointing. The four-wheel-drive models come with all-wheel discs, but the rear-drivers have drums in back. The stopping distances are long, with high effort. On the plus side, anti-lock brakes are included in the base price, as they should be in every vehicle. I caught my 13-year-old son eyeballing the test truck, and I thought of how perfect it would be for him when he started driving. Besides, I'd get to borrow it. 1999 Chevrolet S-10 Vehicle type: Three-passenger, two-door pickup, rear-wheel drive. Base price: $13,179. Price as tested: $15,005. Engine: 2.2-liter in-line four, 120 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, 140 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed manual. Curb weight: 3,003 pounds. Length: 190.1 inches. Wheelbase: 108.3 inches. EPA fuel economy: 23 city, 30 highway. Highs: Sharp custom look. Nimble handling. Reasonable price. Lows: Weak brakes. Engine power. Front-end clunk.
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