EXPERT REVIEW

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Start ripping up the linen: there’s a war brewing, and it’s going to get bloody. I’m talking about the battle about to begin in the full-size pickup truck segment. Ford has been the self-proclaimed dictator for 29 years with the F-150. General Motors claims to be number one if you combine Chevrolet with GMC. The Dodge Ram, which briefly made strong advances toward the front lines slowly has been retreating, but knowing DaimlerChrysler, the Ram will come back carrying big guns.

Currently, the three domestic brands account for 2.2 million of the over 2.5 million units sold every year. The imports, Nissan’s Titan and Toyota’s Tundra, have not been able to keep up with the faster troops, and have been quiet content to play a supporting role. But even that’s about to change when the new Tundra appears next spring. The bottom line is that this is a great time to be a full-size pickup truck buyer.

The Ford F-150 all-new model made its debut in 2004, but as fast as this market is changing, that seems like a long-time ago. It did give Chevrolet a heads up so it knew what to do with the new Silverado. For 2007, General Motors has introduced a full lineup that truly delivers something for everyone.

What does the Chevrolet Silverado have that will lead it to victory? First, there are three cab styles: Regular, Extended, and Crew Cab. Then there are three box lengths: short (5’8″), standard (6’6″), and long bed (8′). Now toss in eight different powertrain combinations, five unique suspension setups, three trim levels, and a partridge in a pear tree (well, maybe not the latter, but that seems like the only thing missing). The bottom line is that if you can’t find the truck setup you want at a GM showroom, you won’t find it anywhere else.

We know offering all those different iterations can be a bit daunting, so we’ll break that list down in a bit. First let’s just look at the truck overall. Surprisingly, GM decided not to duplicate the more modern styling of the full-size SUVs. The Silverado’s fascia is more an evolution of the old truck design rather than an in-your-face fa├žade like the Ram was when it was redesigned, or like the new Tundra is with its oversized grille. GM’s goal was to separate the SUVs from the trucks so people didn’t think the pickups were just the SUVs with the back end hacked off. While there are some similarities between the GMT900 SUVs and the trucks, there are a lot of differentiators as well; plus there are many differences between the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC’s Sierra. The S/S siblings have unique front ends, hoods, front fenders, grilles, and headlamps, as well as different taillights and box designs. To keep this review from becoming the size of a thesis paper, we’ll focus on the Silverado, with mentions here and there of the Sierra.

The Silverado grille is taller and wider than the 2006 version, and the hood features a “power dome” look that every manufacturer seems to be touting nowadays. Plus, according to Gary White, General Motors North America vice president and vehicle line executive for full-size trucks, the new Silverado features the biggest Bowtie ever on a GM light-duty pickup.

Like the SUVs, though, the windshield has a steep rake (57 degrees), which helps the aerodynamics (0.43 Cd, compared to the Tahoe at 0.36 Cd) for good fuel economy. For the Silverado Extended Cab 4×2 with the standard box and the 6.0-liter engine, EPA numbers are running about 15/19 mpg city/highway.

The front-end appearance will differ depending on trim level. The LT gets a chrome bumper, while LTZ models will have body-colored ones. For stance, 17-inch wheels and tires are standard, while 18s (standard with Z71 package) and 20s (LT and LTZ) are available. Fenders on the Silverado are prominent, and help deliver the muscular look the designers were after. Overall body-to-wheel proportions have been improved as well; combined with the wider, lower stance, the Silverado sports a more aggressive overall image than the previous model. On the Extended Cab, while we’re not fans of rearward-opening doors because of the difficulty in accessing the back if parked in a tight spot next to another vehicle, it does open 170 degrees, and the rear windows go down all the way. This definitely makes life a bit easier for those who won’t get to enjoy the front-row amenities.

Speaking of amenities, those are something you’ll enjoy, since the Silverado lacks for nothing if you go the LTZ (high-end) route. You can get a power sliding rear window on Extended or Crew Cab models, the rear seats are theater-style (you sit higher so you can see over the front seats) and fold up quite easily, there’s more front-seat room than ever before since the designers moved the dash and instrument panel down and forward, and large controls and handles are easy to use even with gloved hands. In order, the WT trim is for serious truck guys who like to beat the heck out of their vehicles and not worry about “mussing” the pretty insides. Chevy calls it the “pure pickup” interior, but most of us would call it basic. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the LTZ because potential customers didn’t want it to. It even looks different, but not sad. And by sad, I mean you won’t find any blank plugs or holes where the good stuff goes. That’s been a GM edict since the SUVs appeared. Seriously, who wants to be reminded every time you look at the dash that you didn’t get-or couldn’t afford to get-all the options?

The next step up is the LT model, which also utilizes the pure pickup interior, but adds more available features, like leather trim and a six-way power driver’s seat. And while the WT only features a Dark Titanium interior choice, the LT lets you choose between Ebony or Ebony/Light Titanium and Ebony/Light Cashmere combo options.

The top-end LTZ’s interior is more familiar if you’ve seen the new SUV’s insides. The IP, door panels, and large center console storage box deliver good looks and functionality. The LTZ also features a 12-way power leather driver’s seat, Bose speaker system, heated washer system, and 6-disc CD/MP3-capable audio system. Choose the Crew Cab LTZ, and you get rain-sensing automatic wipers, rear-seat audio, and an oversized glovebox.

Overall fit and finish issues inside and out have been addressed, and addressed well. The goal was to reduce body gaps overall, and you’ll notice right away that tolerances are a lot tighter. For example, the cab-to-box gap has been tightened 50 percent, while the hood-to-bumper gap is reduced 9mm over the previous model.

Enough about the touchy-feely stuff; let’s get to the meat and bones. The Silverado/Sierra sit on the all-new full-size truck platform that has a fully boxed frame boasting a 234 percent increase in torsional stiffness and 62 percent better vertical bending control over the old model. The front section is hydroformed, and helps produce a controlled, confident ride, as well as maximum crush resistance. The frame had to be designed to support the Silverado’s max 10,500-lb tow capacity (Crew Cab Short Box 4×4 with towing package) as well as its 2,160-lb max payload (Extended Cab, Standard Box) rating. The mid- and rear-bay parts of the frame are unique to the pickup, and the nine crossmembers on the long box help it achieve that 90 percent increase in twist resistance.

The suspension story would fill volumes, since there are five different setups designed to provide five different rides. Here’s how they stack up:

Z83 – Solid, smooth ride Z85 – Enhanced handling and trailer towing Z71 – Enhanced off-road capability Z60 – Maximum street performance (offered with 20-inch wheels) NHT – Maximum-capacity trailering package

The suspension has been redesigned and now features a rear Hotchkis-type-setup with splayed shocks that are angled outward and upright. The goal was to provide improved damping characteristics as well as help carry more payload and improve feel while towing heavy loads. This outboard shock setup has been on the F-150 and works well, so it made sense for GM to adopt the design for the Silverado/Sierra. The new suspension setups helped the engineers achieve all those unique tuning targets. To provide additional lateral stability, the Silverado features stabilizer bars, but they’re different thicknesses depending on the suspension.

With a wider track front and rear (3 inches in front, 1 in the back-same as on the SUVs), the Silverado displayed impressive handling prowess on the autocross course the good folks at GM set up for the journalists to experience at GM’s Arizona Proving Grounds.

Along with the frame and suspension improvements come an equally efficient lineup of engines. The 4.3-liter V-6 (LU3) with 195 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque is a carryover from 2006, and is standard on the WT Regular Cab and 2WD Extended Cab models.

Next is the 4.8-liter V8 (LY2), now with 295 horsepower and 305 lb-ft of torque. The LY2 has a cast iron block and aluminum heads. It’s standard on WT 4WD Extended Cabs, LT Regular and Extended Cabs, and on WT and LT Crew Cab models.

The third engine in the lineup is the 5.3-liter FlexFuel V-8 (LMG) also from 2006. It bumps up to 315 hp and 338 lb-ft of torque, and is available across the model lineup. Engine number four is also a FlexFuel V-8 (LC9), with the same rated power, but the difference is this one is all aluminum, while the LMG has a cast iron block with aluminum heads. Both the latter engines are E-85 capable, and use GM’s Active Fuel Management system, or what we used to know as Displacement on Demand.

Next comes another 5.3 V-8( LH6) (still with us? We know it gets confusing…), but this one is pump gas only, with aluminum block and heads, Active Fuel Management. It does produce the same 315/338 numbers as the other 5.3s.You need to order the Crew Cab 4WD model to get this engine.

The last of the 5.3s is the (LY5), with an iron block, Active Fuel Management, and the same performance numbers. This is the standard engine for the LT and LTZ models, and is available across the board. Last, and certainly not least is the 6.0-liter VortecMAX V-8 with an aluminum block, Variable Valve Timing, and Active Fuel Management. It produces the most power in the Silverado lineup with 365 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque, and is available on LT and LTZ Extended and Crew Cab models as part of the maximum trailering package.

If you’re not scratching you head by now, you will be when we throw one more into the mix: a 6.2-liter V-8 (L92) that makes 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque. If you want it, you’ll have to go to the GMC Sierra Denali to get it. We hope you got all that; there will be a quiz later.

We know by now that you’re wondering: why do they need all those different 5.3-liter engines? (We know you’re asking that because we were, too.) The basis for using the different materials comes down to helping reduce mass to improve weight distribution as well as fuel economy.

The one area the new GMT900s fall short is in the transmission department. Only the 6.2-liter, found in the Sierra Denali, will come standard with a 6-speed automatic. The rest rely on the tried and true Hydra-Matic 4-speed automatics. Nissan’s Titan has a standard 5-speed, and the new Toyota Tundra will come with a heavy-duty 6-speed with its new 5.7-liter V-8 engine. The rumor is that the SUVs are sucking up all the production, so the trucks won’t get the six for at least another year.

In addition to the engines, suspensions, transmissions, and other choices, GM also added some cool technologies to the pickups. One we fell in love with on the SUV is the Eaton G80 rear-locking differential. Under regular dry pavement conditions, the system works like a regular open differential, but, as soon as wheel slip occurs, either in forward or reverse, the system immediately kicks in.

The way Eaton describes the system, the differential is set up with a flyweight governor that responds to differences in wheel speeds, and disc packs that are mounted between the side gear and the case. Whenever one wheel spins faster than the other, the governor spins rapidly, causing the flyweight to open. That flyweight catches on a latching bracket and the lockup process starts. During lockup, a self-energized clutch system causes a cam plate to ramp against a side gear. This ramping action compresses the disc packs. The ramping continues until both axles, and therefore both wheels, are spinning at the same speed. Now the system is at is full lock, which prevents any further wheel slip. (Note: Axle lockup only occurs at speeds below 20 mph.) The entire process occurs instantly, and is virtually unnoticeable by the average driver. When both wheels regain traction, unlocking occurs and things go back to normal.

The biggest benefit to the system is on slippery boat ramps or in serious off-roading conditions. Although we didn’t have a chance to try it out during our test drive, previous exposure to the G80 system with the SUVs shows that the rear locker really does provide grip without spinning the wheels.

Another added benefit to the Silverado/Sierra is the addition of safety features like StabiliTrak, GM’s oversteer/understeer stability control program with rollover mitigation technology standard on Crew Cabs and available on Extended Cab models. Also available are roof-mounted head curtain airbags, and GM’s industry-exclusive rear impact sensors for rear-end collision protection.

Driving Impressions

First, if you currently own a Silverado or Sierra, you’ll be impressed with the ride and handling improvements on the 2007s. Just as SUVs have stopped feeling truck-like, so have the full-size pickups. That’s not to say you’ll think you’re cruising down the highway in a Corvette, but gone is the wandering steering feel, the bumps and rattles, and even the unpleasant ride that most pickup owners had to compromise on to get the utility features.

Whether we were in the Work Truck or the LTZ, in either the Silverado or Sierra, we were impressed with the amount of sound-deadening throughout the cabin. The fit and finish all around was near perfect, and the ease of use of all the knobs and switches were equally welcome. Our one gripe inside was the door handle location is a bit low and awkward; if GM fixed that, this interior (especially on the LTZ) would be award winning.

At the Proving Grounds, we jumped in and out of a handful of different trucks, including a GMC Sierra SLT 2WD with the 6.0-liter engine and the MHT suspension with a 3.73 rear gear. We drove the Silverado Crew Cab LTZ Z85 loaded with a payload of wood, and then another Sierra 4×4 unloaded. We also did a towing exercise versus the competition. And a few weeks later we spent some seat time in the GMC Sierra as part of a combined ride and drive with the new Acadia.

We found that the Silverado/Sierra’s driving manners were impeccable. The slalom we ran though, the acceleration runs, and the emergency braking stops highlighted the rear suspension setup’s excellent design, even with a full payload in the bed. The tires stayed planted, the steering was responsive, and the body roll, or lack thereof, showed that the engineers spent their share of GM’s $1.5 billion investment money wisely. The VortecMAX engine was quick in the acceleration runs on the closed course; even for passing on the highway, the power was available all through the band. Under tow, the truck pulled the trailer effortlessly; we’re just sorry we didn’t get a chance to pull a boat off a ramp so we could experience the rear locking diff under that circumstance. Most of the time we found ourselves just saying, “Man, this is a nice truck,” as we cruised down the highway.

Now that you know the whats and whys, it’s time to find out the how much.

With over 40 different configurations to choose from, the prices for Silverado start at $17,860 for the Regular Cab Work Truck with the standard bed and the 4.8-liter engine. The 1LT same configuration jumps to $23,510. A mid-level LT1 4WD Crew Cab with a short bed and a 4.8-liter V-8 starts at $31,615, and the LTZ 4-door Crew Cab 4WD with a short bed will start at $38,990. We added The Z71 Off Road Suspension Package (46mm shocks, off-road jounce bumpers, 34mm front stabilizer bar, high-capacity air cleaner, Eaton rear locking diff, Skid Plate Package) for $275, the Rear Seat Entertainment Package for $1,295, the EZ Lift Tailgate Package (locking tailgate and reduced effort tailgate) for $95, XM Radio for $199, the side curtain airbags for $395, GM’s excellent navigation system for $2,250, and a power rear sliding window for $200. Just for fun we added a sunroof for $685, and 20-inch rims for $1,295. The grand total is $46,440, without tax, license, or delivery.

In other words: Ouch! Getting into luxo car territory with a pickup can be a bit painful, but if you use the truck for work and play, and keep your truck for many years, and many miles, as most Chevy truck owners do, you’ll get your money’s worth here.

According to GM’s Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, full-size trucks are the most important component of GM’s turnaround plan. Even in the 7th year of its lifespan, the Silverado Classic models (06 and earlier) have sold 935,000 units, which means the GM trucks are still popular and still respected by buyers. Just a few weeks ago, Bob Lutz announced that GM expects to sell one million or more pickups in the North American market in 2007. We’re sure both Toyota and Ford will do their best to make sure this doesn’t happen.

The battle lines have been drawn, the strategies are set, and the troops are ready to advance. We’ve now seen GMs armament; the next volley will be Toyota’s in early January. And Ford and Dodge lie in wait, spying on the new soldiers while they decide how to take the field. We’re really looking forward to 2007; the year full-size pickup trucks will get all the attention!

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