Used to be that two-seaters were exclusively sports cars, but nowadays many of the two-seaters we see prowling the roads are compact pickup trucks.Why are they so popular? In may ways they have taken the place of sports cars because they're fun, different and an expression of individualism, if you will. Plus, they can be used for light hauling, should the need arise. With the sports-car image in mind, GMC has come up with a ZQ8 suspension package for the two-wheel-drive Sonoma that tames most of its truck vices and serves up handling more at home on a twisty road than a construction site. It drives like you've welded a pickup bed onto the back of your Firebird. The sports suspension package consists of 8-inch wide aluminum wheels, Goodyear Eagle GA tires and recalibrated springs, shocks and anti-roll bars. Structural reinforcements in the form of a center driveshaft bearing support and a single-piece rear shock absorber cross member keep the frame from flexing, which helps keep the wheels in solid contact with the road. Even the power steering gets more road feel and a quicker ratio. The optional 4.3-liter V6 engine is mandatory with the sports suspension package, but you'd want that anyway for this kind of a truck. Since the GMC and Chevrolet compact pickups are nearly identical, Chevy has a similarly equipped S-10 for diehard Bowtie fans. I was skeptical about the handling improvements until I tackled my favorite strip of abandoned, curlicue asphalt road and found that the Sonoma could be hustled through turns almost as confidently as a muscle car. The back axle hopped around a little, but for the most part its behavior in turns was friendly and benign. It was during this little exercise that I realized that this 175-horse engine gets a bit noisy and coarse when revved to 5,000 rpm or so. Prior to that I had not been revving it hard because it produces maximum torque, or pulling power, at only 2,800 rpm, and that means you tend to shift early and let the engine pull without winding it up like a rubber band. The five-speed transmission is de rigueur for back-road follies, but this one is not the smoothest. The foot-long shift lever seems to transmit lots of vibration and noise into the cabin when you're using the engine to its max. With that in mind, I would forego the five-speed's versatility and choose the automatic for everyday use. One important feature of our extended-cab test truck was the optional third door. Located on the left side, it swings out easily for putting dogs, kids or groceries behind the front seat. The extra space is pretty tiny, and the fold-down seat is only good for a very small child, but the practicality of the extended-cab makes it the overwhelming choice. The rest of the cabin is rather small compared to a full-size truck, but for daily commuting, or use as a second car, it fills the bill. It has bucket seats and a center console with cupholders a nd storage pockets. At this time there is not yet an airbag for the passenger side, which means you could safely put a young child or safety seat there. The Sonoma's instrument panel is still not as thoroughly refined as it could be. While its instrumentation is cleanly designed, some of its secondary switches, such as those for the headlights, click noisily and feel rough. Price Some Sonomas, including the model I drove, recently had a $100 price hike. The base price is now $14,814. Our test vehicle was equipped with options of air conditioning, tilt wheel, cruise control, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, AM/FM stereo with compact disc player, V6 engine, sports suspension, sliding rear window, third door, tinted glass, leather-wrapped steering wheel, locking differential and remote keyless entry. The sticker price was $20,028. Warranty The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long st drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: If you want a compact truck with the personality of a sports car, pick the Sonoma with the sports suspension package and you will be pleased. Counterpoint: The manual transmission is a bit noisy, as are some of the switches on the dash. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 4.3-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: automatic WHEELBASE: 122.9 inches CURB WEIGHT: 3,168 lbs. BASE PRICE: $14,814 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $20,028 MPG RATING: 18 city, 25 hwy.
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