With trucks and sport-utility vehicles now accounting for about 50 percent of all new vehicles sold, each automaker is trying to carve out a niche for itself.

The GMC division of General Motors wants to be known as a manufacturer of rugged, classy, upscale trucks and sport-utilities.

The extended cab Sonoma four-wheel drive pickup that I tested for a week is just that. It has a plush, comfortable and roomy interior, a firm suspension system and plenty of power and traction for slogging over bad terrain.

But all this comes at a fairly hefty price for what is still a small truck.

PERFORMANCE, HANDLING

The Sonoma is available with a number of engines and transmissions. Base trucks come with a 120-horsepower, 2.2-liter four-cylinder and five-speed stick shift. Our test vehicle came with a beefy 4.3-liter V-6, four-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive.

It has 180-horsepower -- and enough power to spin the tires on dry pavement. The engine makes little noise, even when you make it work hard. GMC engineers have done a fine job eradicating noise, vibration and harshness from the drivetrain.

I've tested four-cylinder versions of the Chevy S-10 (basically the same truck), and I like the muscular performance of the V-6. It gives the Sonoma a tough demeanor -- which is what a truck should have, no matter how plush its interior.

The four-wheel drive system is a no-brainer. All you have to do is press a series of buttons on the dash to change from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive high or low. There are no more shift levers to work.

In four-wheel drive mode, the Sonoma is not unlike a sport-utility. It churns over bad terrain with the greatest of ease. But there is a downside: Four-wheel drive affects the steering. A tight, slow turn strains the underpinnings and provokes some kind of mechanical distress. I heard some strange noises and felt inconsistencies in the steering wheel.

Also, the extended cab, four-wheel drive Sonoma has a very wide turning radius, 43.3 feet compared with 36.9 feet for a regular cab, two-wheel drive model. What that means is that U-turns might be a struggle, especially on a highway.

With its heavy-duty suspension, the Sonoma's ride is a bit on the firm side, but that enhances handling. The Sonoma steers easily and crisply. This truck zips through curves just like a sports car would.

Our test truck came with excellent four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes.

GMC says the V-6 Sonoma can tow up to 5,000 pounds, which is enough for most boats and work trailers and near the best in class.

FIT AND FINISH

The Sonoma is handsome and well-made. In more than 400 miles, I detected no flaws and heard no squeaks or rattles -- despite some wild off-road maneuvers.

Our extended cab test truck featured the optional ($375) driver's side third door, which gives the vehicle an added measure o f versatility.

I used the rear area behind the seat to store things I wanted to lock inside the truck. With the third door open, I found I could easily load and unload such things as big boxes and suitcases.

There is a small jump seat that folds down on the passenger side that can accommodate one person in a pinch. But it had better be a short ride because the seat is almost floor-level -- not real comfortable.

The seats have attractive cloth upholstery and are firm but comfortable. The armrest in between the seats opens up and contains a coin holder plus enough room to store items such as sunglasses and a wallet. Two cupholders are located in front of the armrest. If need be, you can flip the armrest up and out of the way and squeeze a third person into the front.

This year, the Sonoma has a key-activated air bag cutoff switch on the dash that turns off the passenger-side bag, so that infants can travel safely.

For $22,000 and change, our test truck seemed a bit sparsely equipped. It didn't have power windows, mirrors or door locks. It was somewhat bothersome leaning over to roll down the passenger-side window to adjust the outside mirrors.

But the air conditioner is powerful enough to make the interior of the Sonoma cold as a meat locker.

The Sonoma is a decent truck, but without the power accessories, I have to question its value. I think $22,000 is a heck of a lot of money for a small truck. It ought to come with everything for that price.

Specifications: Base price: $19,773. Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. Price as tested: $22,386 EPA rating: 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway Incentives: $1,000

Truett's tip: The four-wheel drive Sonoma is a conservatively styled compact truck that offers a comfortable ride and has plenty of power. But it can be pricey.