Byline: Barbara McClellan

BURLINGTON, VT - General Motors Corp. is flexing its truck-making know-how with its new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon compact pickups, introduced here in the picturesque Green Mountains.

"The Canyon and Colorado give us the same kind of scale of economy as our SUVs and large trucks," says John F. Smith, group vice president-North America Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing. "It's a very successful play we're going to be rerunning."

The new trucks, which replace the aging Chevrolet S-10 and GMC Sonoma lines, are built on an all-new architecture that provides a rugged welded-ladder H-frame, giving the vehicles far greater torsional rigidity - a 267% improvement for the Canyon and 250% for the Colorado, compared with GM's current compact trucks.

However, the comfortable, nicely appointed cabin and car-like feel were the first to get our attention. Adding to the distinctive styling, the lower beltline opening and larger window glass give a sense of more spaciousness inside. The responsive steering and improved brake system were apparent as we wended our way along the narrow Green Mountain roadways.

Canyon and Colorado offer a variety of specially tuned suspensions. Both provide coil-over-shock independent front suspension for 2-wheel-drive models and torsion bar front suspension for 4-wheel-drive versions. The rear suspension features a live axle with steel leaf springs. Brakes are disc in front and drum in rear. And there is an optional rear-locking differential with traction control. Antilock brakes are standard.

The standard engine in all models is the all-aluminum DOHC Vortec 2.8L inline 4-cyl., producing 175 hp and 185 lb.-ft. (250 Nm) of torque - more powerful, GM says, than any other 4-cyl. in its class. The 220-hp Vortec 3.5L inline 5-cyl., standard on the 4WD crew cab, is available for all models. Some 90% of peak horsepower on both engines is on a continuum.

We found our 5-cyl. model provided the necessary punch for both highway and mountain driving, although some critics say the lack of a V-6 will hurt sales. Actually, both engines are cut-down versions of the excellent straight-6 first introduced on the Chevy TrailBlazer in 2002. All the same, the competition offers an optional V-6, which holds appeal to buyers. GM executives insist buyers will get all the power they need from the new 5-cyl. Indeed, they say 40% to 45% of buyers will pick the 4-cyl. base models.

But GM's goal in designing the trucks clearly was to offer more than a work-a-day grunt vehicle. The "class-leading refinement" that it brags about is an allure to buyers looking for a lifestyle vehicle, including empty nesters and families shopping for a single vehicle to meet all their needs. That's why GM took a chance in reducing towing capacity from 5,200 lbs. (2,358 kg) on the older models to 4,000 lbs. (1,814 kg) on the new I-5 model and 3,000 lbs. (1,361 kg) with the I-4.

"The crew cab is a better bargain than an SUV and $10,000 less expensive," says Jerome Thiebaud, product manager-GMC Midsize Trucks, noting crew-cab buyers generally don't move up to fullsize. "They want something that handles better and that they can put in the garage. They don't have great payload needs," he says. "The message to us was clear."

Our test-drive Colorado 4WD crew cab featured rack-and-pinion steering, second-gear start on icy surface, optional Intelligent Start powertrain control module that receives remote signals and an OnStar safety and security package - all features GM hopes will put distance between the new lineup and the former, more entry-level models.

GMC in the first full year expects to sell 40,000 Canyons in the U.S. and 6,000 in Canada. The Chevy Colorado is targeting sales of 185,000 units in the U.S. and 6,000 in Canada. Both models will be built at GM's Shreveport, LA, assembly plant. So far this year, combined sales of the current GMC Sonoma and Chevy S-10 lag well behind segment-leading Ford Ranger, according to Ward's data.

GM says it is counting on its new trucks for conquest sales. Competitors include Ranger, Nissan Frontier and Dodge Dakota. By 2005, the entire segment will be refreshed with the exception of Ranger, which gets an overall in 2007.

Al Oppenheiser, assistant vehicle chief engineer-Colorado/Canyon Engineering, says the new trucks were not developed with alliance partner Isuzu Motors Ltd., as originally planned. GM broke off joint development several years ago when it saw the truck Isuzu was developing was aimed at the Asian markets and not suitable for North American tastes. All that's left in common is the 4-wheel-drive transfer case and the electronic 4WD push button.

We found the 4WD push button particularly handy weaving through some rugged back roads near Stowe, best known for its ski slopes. Handling and braking were impressive, especially threading our way along one narrow mountain peak with sharp curves and oncoming traffic straying a little too far into our lane.

Both trucks go on sale this fall as '04 models. The Colorado will price at $16,200 for the base 2-wheel-drive regular cab. The 2WD extended cab is $18,545; the LS 2WD crew cab is $20,670, and the LS 4WD crew cab is $23,230.

Canyon prices start at $16,530 for the SL 2WD regular cab and $18,875 for the SL 2WD extended cab. The SLE 2WD crew cab starts at $21,115, and the SLE 4WD crew cab runs $23,725. All prices for both brands include a $635 destination charge.

Both brands offer a number of configurations - three cab styles; three trim levels for fleet, base and upper level; three suspensions ranging from heavy-duty to offroad to sport, which is aimed at auto cross enthusiasts (2WD Chevy Colorado only), and extended beds.

Fuel economy ranges from 18 mpg (13L/100 km) city to 22 mpg (11L/100 km) highway.

2004 Chevrolet Colorado 4X4 Crew Cab

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-/4-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door compact pickup

Engine: 3.5L (3,460 cc) DOHC I-5, aluminum block/aluminum head

Power (SAE net): 220 hp @ 5,600 rpm

Torque: 225 lb.-ft. (305 Nm) @ 2,800 rpm

Compression ratio: 10:1

Bore x Stroke (mm): 93 x 102

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 125.9 ins. (320 cm)

Overall length: 207 ins. (526 cm)

Overall width: 67.6 ins. (172 cm)

Overall height: 66.5 ins. (167 cm)

Curb weight: 4,150 lbs. (1,886 kg)

Market competition: Dodge Dakota; Ford Ranger; Nissan Frontier; Toyota Tacoma

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