The national appetite for trucks passed the 5 million mark last year for the second year in a row. Just about every manufacturer has cashed in on the huge demand for trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles.

Chevrolet's S-10 Blazer has been one of America's best-loved trucks since its introduction in 1983. Almost a million have been sold. The addition of the four-door last year broadened the vehicle's appeal.

With bragging rights on the line (not to mention millions of dollars), Chevrolet has been locked in a tough sales battle with Ford. This is one instance where the consumer wins. Both companies are building world-class trucks.

ENGINE, TRANSMISSION, PERFORMANCE

Chevy has greatly simplified engine choices: The only one available is a fuel-injected, 160 horsepower, 4.3-liter, V-6. Powerful, torquey, smooth and fuel efficient, the V-6 is ideally suited for life in the S-10 Blazer. If you want anything bigger, such as a V-8 or a diesel engine, you have to opt for the full-size Blazer.

The V-6 started instantly, but when it was cold, it had a tendency to run at high RPMs for a moment. The test vehicle came with Chevy's four-speed automatic, and that meant I had to wait a few seconds before putting the S-10 in gear. I didn't find this bothersome, because it is always best to let a cold engine run for 30 seconds or so before driving. The delay ensures oil will be circulating to all vital engine parts.

The automatic must have received a considerable beefing up for its installation in the S-10. It felt like a tough, durable unit. The shifts were strong and positive and gave the impression that a boat or heavy trailer could be towed easily. The S-10 can tow up to 6,000 pounds. A five-speed manual transmission also is available.

In city driving with the air conditioning on, the S-10 returned 20 miles per gallon. I averaged 24.5 mpg on the highway. The best way to describe the Blazer's performance up to about 65 mph ismuscular. It has ample passing power.

STEERING, HANDLING, BRAKING

I drove the S-10 Blazer for a week, and I can say that Chevy's legendary reputation for building tough trucks is well-earned. If you are looking for a smooth, sedan like ride, you won't find it in the Blazer. The suspension is unfailingly firm over all types of surfaces, and it gives the S-10 Blazer a bouncy-jerky, truck like ride. This vehicle feels as much at ease off the road as it does on it. I found a muddy dirt road riddled with potholes, puddles and bumps. The Blazer easily churned through.

This year Chevy improved the S-10's suspension system by adding new spring and shocks. There's also a heavy-duty rear axle.

All four-door S-10 Blazers come equipped with a four-wheel, anti-lock brake system. It does an excellent job stopping the Blazer. There is no pulsing in the brake pedal and no loud clicking noises as with other anti-lock brake systems.

You have to adjust to the way a sport utility vehicle handles. You don't race around corners; you approach curves with a foot poised over the brake pedal - there's a warning to a effect posted on the driver's sun visor. But whatever the S-10 loses to cars in cornering ability is more than atoned for in the solid, safe, and steady ride it delivers through nasty urban terrain.

FIT, FINISH, CONTROLS

The S-10 is not luxurious. The interior is strictly a blue-collar, middle-class affair. It is rugged, durable and functional.

The test vehicle came equipped with a pair of bucket seats covered with gray cloth. The rear seat is designed to hold three adults comfortably. There is ample foot-, leg-and headroom, and the rear seats belts are nicely laid out and easy to use.

I have a gripe about the tail section behind the seats: The full-size spare tire gobbles up a considerable amount of cargo space. Unlike other trucks, the spare is not stowed underneath the body or outside on the tailgate. It is located on the left side of the otherwise spacious tail section. Chevy does off er an outside spare tire carrier. I would opt for that if using the vehicle to transport large objects.

However, with the passenger seat folded down, the S-10's cargo capacity approaches cavernous.

The instruments were easy to read and placed well within the instrument cluster. The test vehicle sported a $2,374 option package that included, among other things, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt wheel, intermittent wipers, electric windows and door locks, power mirrors, a snazzy set of wheels and a first-class stereo. Though expensive, the package really made the S-10 Blazer a breeze to drive.