Let's get the formalities out of the way first, then get to the one glaringfault the full-size GMC Sierra pickup truck is saddled with--a problem thatmust be resolved. Soon.The 1997 Sierra 4WD extended cab pickup we tested rides and handles morelike a car than a pickup. Smooth and quiet with minimal jostling when the roadis uneven. More than ample space inside to stretch feet or legs and wiggle thehead, if you so choose. As much room and comfort as your family sedan, onlybeing an extended cab with seats for the kids, it's a family truck. Being an extended cab, there's a large bench seat in back to place visitorsor packages, and with the optional ($420) rear-access (some call it third)door on the passenger side, it's very easy to slip into or out of coach whileMom and Dad enjoy first-class upfront. The 5.7-liter V-8 has plenty of power though the 13-mile-per-galloncity/17-m.p.g. highway rating clearly indicates there's a price to pay for anyand all energy boosts. Thank goodness the fuel tank holds 25 gallons, you'llneed each and every one of them. The optional ($225) bed liner keeps the metal from being scratched whileserving as a sound deadener when you carry items in back. With 4WD the Sierra will go anywhere, anytime, and with an electronic shifttransfer case, all you do is push a button on the dash to engage all thewheels. A no-brainer. If an infant or child is in the front seat rather than in the back, whereinfants and children belong (belted, of course, as with any adults travelingwith you), you only need place the ignition key in the switch on the dash,give it a turn and deactivate the bag so it won't deploy in a collision. And therein lies the problem with Sierra. Passenger-side air-bagdeactivation is supposed to be a cure-all for the problem of an infant orchild being in the direct path of a deploying air bag. The folks at GMC are to be complimented for adding two bags to Sierra (samevehicle as the full-size Chevrolet C/K pickup). The compact GMC Jimmy (ChevyBlazer) doesn't get dual air bags until the 1998 model year, starting thisfall. But GMC interior designers should be ordered back to the drawing boardfor that air-bag deactivation switch. The problem: You can't always see the switch or the light on the switchthat tells whether the bag is activated because the switch is in theinstrument panel, behind the steering wheel, which blocks the view. Also, the system is designed so that whatever mode you left the bag on yourlast trip--on or off--that's the mode the bag stays in the next time you getin and drive away. Deactivation switches are supposed to protect infants and small kids fromthe potential problems of air bags making contact with undeveloped heads andnecks. But if you can't see the switch and the light, you're asking fortrouble. You don't want to have to ask, "Did I or didn't I?" while traveling at 60miles per hour. And you don't want to have to duck your head and peer aroundthe wheel to spot the light, either. Perhaps those insisting that deactivation switches are the answer don'tunderstand the problem. In an attempt to solve one problem, they've createdanother. Too bad, because GM's dealer consolidation plan that merged GMC and Pontiacis getting GMC and its products the recognition they deserve. Used to be that to find a GMC store, you needed a road map and a lunchbox--the map to find the store, the lunch box to tide you over until youreached the store hidden in the boonies. At least 65 percent of all GMC stores are combined with Pontiac facilities,making them easier to find and use. And it helps that a GM division withoutits own pickup truck or sport-utility vehicle can display a full product lineby pointing at the GMC entries. So we admit that GM marketing guru RonZarrella, who pressed for the consolidation, h as had at least one good ideasince joining the GM fold. The Sierra SLT extended cab with 4WD we tested starts at $20,896. Itdoesn't take much to option it up to $30,000. One non-traditional item that's standard is a video that explains howanti-lock brakes work. It's must viewing for the entire family in that itexplains what ABS does and doesn't do and enlightens you to the sound(chatter) and feel (pedal pulsation) of ABS so you aren't surprised when youencounter it. We hope more folks will take the time to watch the video thanthose who take the time to read their owner's manual, which is virtuallynobody. >>1997 GMC Sierra SLT 4WD Wheelbase: 141.5 inches Length: 218 inches Engine: 5.7-liter, 255-h.p. V-8 Transmission: 4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 13 m.p.g. city/17 m.p.g. highway Base price: $20,896 Price as tested: $29,820. Includes $7,519 for option package 1SG with SLTdecor, power windows and locks, leather-wrapped steering wheel, airconditioning, tilt wheel, speed control, remote keyless entry, AM/FM stereowith CD/cassette/clock and cast aluminum wheels; $420 for third door; $225 forbed liner; $204 for trailering package; $180 for two-tone paint; $154 forrear-window defogger; $150 for electronic shift transfer case; and $72 fordeep tinted glass. Add $625 for freight. Pluses: ABS and dual air bags standard. Electronic shift transfer casemeans you engage 4WD by simply pushing a button. Third seat allows easy accessto rear seat for kids or packages. Very carlike ride and handling as well ascomfortable cabin with room to stretch. Cutoff switch deactivatespassenger-side air bag when child is in that seat. Minuses: Can't always see the cutoff switch light to see whether bag isactivated or deactivated. The mileage rating is nothing to write home about,unless you're writing home for gas money.>>
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