Here's one reason why many automakers can't keep up with consumer demand for compact trucks these days: They are among the most affordable vehicles on the market. Consider, for instance, this week's test vehicle, a base model Chevy S-10 pickup
with just two options - air conditioning and mag wheels. It's priced at $11,364 - a little more than half the price of an average car. If a buyer were to make a $1,500 down payment and finance the remaining $10,000 or so balance over five years, the
monthly payment on our sporty purple S-10 would be just $207 a month at 9 percent interest. That's well within many people's budgets. The S-10 is sporty, snazzy and comfortable enough to be used for more than its traditional role of as a hauler.
Indeed, Chevy's marketing department says that most people are using small trucks for commuting. As a economical commuter and a light hauler, the S-10 is well worth serious consideration. PERFORMANCE The least expensive version of Chevy's S-10
comes with a rugged-but-quiet 2.2-liter, 118-horsepower in-line four-cylinder engine that is mated to a five-speed manual transmission. An automatic is optional, and there also are two V-6 engines from which to choose. I found that the four-cylinder
engine and five-speed delivers reasonable performance in city driving as well as when the truck was hauling light loads. The drive train is geared to deliver good low-speed power. That is, the engine need not be revved much to get moving quickly from a
stop. However, performance falls off quickly when the engine is run at speeds of 5,000 rpm or more. You have to shift to the next gear to accelerate briskly. On the highway, the four-cylinder runs quietly and smoothly in fifth gear at cruising speeds.
The five-speed manual gearbox in our test truck was easy to shift. The gears are spaced fairly widely apart - meaning you have to move the lever what seems like a long way to change gears - but the transmission shifts smoothly and the clutch pedal
requires little effort to operate. Though few people prefer driving vehicles with manual transmissions, this truck can be driven for long periods in heavy traffic without tiring the driver. Fuel economy came in slightly below the S-10's EPA rating
of 23 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway. With the air conditioner running most of the time, the test truck delivered 21 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway. It uses the least expensive grade of unleaded. HANDLING Although the
S-10 isn't affected much by bumps, the first time you negotiate a corner, you'll be reminded you are in a truck. The body leans considerably when you try to hustle around corners, not dangerously, but enough so that you instinctively slow down, a
common trait of many pickups. As far as small trucks go, the S-10's suspension system consists of fairly standard equipment: a leaf-spring solid rear axle and i
ndependent front suspension with coil springs. This setup helps give the S-10 a well-built and sturdy feel - just like a truck should have. The S-10's steering and brakes are excellent. The truck impresses with its easy maneuverability. The
power-assisted steering is crisp and positive, despite the fact that the S-10 comes with fat 15-inch tires. The truck can turn a circle in a respectable 36.9 feet. The front disc/rear drum brakes bite hard when you step on the pedal. Our test truck
came with a standard anti-lock brake system that is active only on the rear wheels. Generally, I don't care for rear-wheel-only ABS brakes, but the system on the S-10 is designed well; the truck stops quickly and in a straight line in an emergency.
FIT AND FINISH From every angle, the S-10's body looks brawny, even stylish. Its rounded edges are cleanly designed, giving the S-10 a unique appearance. You won't confuse it with a Ford Ranger or a Toyota Tacoma. I
especially like the view from the driver's seat. The hood has a crease down the middle. You really notice it because you sit lower in the cab than you do in other small pickups. The big windshield, the shape of the hood and the simple, neatly arranged
dash make you feel as if the S-10 is bigger than it really is. Chevy's interior decorators have crafted a simple, easy-to-use dash that houses an attractive set of analog gauges and rotary controls for the air conditioning system. Our test truck
came with a driver's air bag and daytime running lights, two safety features not found on many competitor's small trucks. The base model S-10 is furnished with a comfortable cloth-covered bench seat that offers good support. I felt no fatigue after a
two-hour trip in stop-and-go-city traffic. This week's S-10 is the only vehicle I've had in six years of testing that didn't have a radio. It also didn't have carpeting - it had heavy vinyl floor mats. One would think that for the $11,300 asking
price, Chevy could toss in an at least an AM radio. Oddly, our test truck did have an expensive ($340) set of alloy wheels. It seems to me that a buyer looking for inexpensive transportation would pass on the mag wheels and go for a decent radio.
In any case, I like the S-10. It is rugged, economical, comfortable and affordable. Truett's tip: Chevy's least expensive truck, though not a sizzling performer, is handsome, well-built and easy on the wallet.