Here in truck country, loads of folks drive big pickup trucks just because they want to. Wide-open spaces and all that.
Sure, the gas mileage is grim and they're hard to maneuver in Phoenix's increasingly urban environment, but this Western tradition won't go away until the drivers are forced, by economics, fuel scarcity or social pressure, to trade in Ole' Bessie for a car.
Meanwhile, truck people know that driving a pickup no longer means you have to rough it. Pickups can be gussied up with all the comfort and amenities of a high-end SUV or luxury car. Leather interiors, high-end audio systems, DVD players, power everything, the whole deal.
The pickup I drove, a GMC Sierra 1500 SLT Crew Cab, came with all the trimmings and a price tag to match. This brawny four-wheel-drive truck was set up for off-roading, but more than that, it was equipped as a luxurious family transport.
This way, you can hit the high country with everybody on board riding in supreme comfort, with a motor home, boat, ATV or horse trailer in tow. Around town, the cushy cabin offers all the lush features of an upscale sedan.
In 2007, General Motors reaped tons of praise for its revamped versions of the Sierra and corporate twin Chevrolet Silverado, mostly because of their much improved ride and drivability. Sure enough, despite Sierra's mammoth size and bulk, I found the handling to be first-rate.
Truck sales have been off since the downturn in construction and related trades, so GM has not found the rousing success it had hoped for with its new full-size pickups. Silverado is the top-selling vehicle in GM's portfolio, just behind sales-leader Ford F-150, but the whole market is flat.
So for truck adherents, there are plenty of good buys out there on even the highest-end pickups.
GMC Sierra 1500 SLT Crew Cab
Vehicle type: Five- or six-passenger four-door pickup, four-wheel drive.
Engine: 5.3-liter V-8, 315 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 338 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm.
Transmission: Four-speed automatic.
Wheelbase: 143.5 inches.
Overall length: 229.9 inches.
Curb weight: 5,326 pounds.
EPA rating: 14 city, 19 highway.
Highs: Superior drivability, interior comfort, sharp styling.
Lows: Short bed, mileage still paltry, pricey with options.
Performance: The 315-horsepower V-8 provides good acceleration and response, with a smooth refinement that is decidedly un-trucklike.The engine is equipped with Active Fuel Management, which deactivates four cylinders while cruising for improved fuel mileage. The system works seamlessly, though I managed only about 15 miles per gallon in a mix of urban and highway driving.
Drivability: Surprisingly easy to drive, this behemoth really does handle like a passenger car, although the unladen back end gets jittery over rough surfaces, a solid reminder that this is, after all, a pickup truck. Safety features include Stabilitrac stability control and rollover mitigation, plus seat-belt pre-tensioners that also activate in a rear-end collision. The critical safety feature of side-impact-curtain airbags comes as an option rather than standard on all Sierras except the top-end Denali. Obviously, it should be standard for all.
Styling: The chunky good looks of the Silverado are pretty much the same on the Sierra, aside from the GMC's good-looking grille. Somehow, it manages to look somewhat sporty in spite of its looming size.The 5.75-foot bed length seems small.
Interior: This roomy cabin is all set for a road trip or a fancy night out, with nicely tailored leather seats and a plethora of luxury features. The buttons and gauges retain their truckiness, feeling solid and easy to use.
Bottom line: A well-engineered and luxurious pickup, although the nearly $45,000 final price had me wondering.
Base price: $37,850.
Price as tested: $44,755.
All-terrain package, including Z71 off-road group, Rancho shocks, 18-inch alloy wheels, heavy-duty towing and leather interior trim, $2,195.
SLT preferred package, including remote starting, audio upgrade with six-CD player and MP3 format, adjustable pedals, park assist, $1,045.
Side-curtain airbags, $395.
EZ lift locking tailgate, $95.