All right, I'll admit it. After a lot of years of road-testing new cars and writing about everything that's new and coming in the industry, I was vulnerable to a new surprise. When sport-utility vehicles, and then trucks, took over the market domination in recent years, even outselling cars, I thought there was nothing more that could catch me unawares.
The level of competition shown by truck builders is a surprise, and specifically the new-for-2004 Chevrolet Colorado. This is the mid-size pickup truck that replaces the long-running and durable S-10, and it is designed to face the competition from the aging Ford Ranger, the Dodge Dakota with its just- introduced replacement for 2005, and the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, with Nissan also coming up with a new Frontier for 2005.
These trucks are getting bigger and better, following up the full-size pickups from Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, Nissan and Toyota. They have grown and advanced to carry the large load of the truck takeover.
In case you doubt that it's a takeover, Ford sold more than twice as many total trucks as cars in 2003, almost three times as many. General Motors also sold well over twice as many trucks as cars. Toyota sold almost as many trucks as cars for the last model year, when Toyota sold more cars than either Chevrolet or Ford branded cars.
Truck buyers are a loyal lot, which is what forced the Japanese challengers to build truly exceptional vehicles in order to penetrate the Chevy guys, the Ford folks or the Dodge fanciers. That, in turn, forced the U.S. companies to improve their lot in an attempt to hold the market share that is so vital to their profit-making.
Flash back a couple of years, when I first drove the Toyota Tundra just after its introduction. I was extolling its virtues to a friend and truck owner, when he asked me how much it was. I told him it was just over $31,000, and he blew up, saying that was why Ford or Chevy types would never buy the Toyota -- it was far too expensive. I then checked back and told him that I had driven eight or 10 new full-sized pickups the previous year, and all of them were over $30,000, except one stripped-down truck for $29,000-plus.
My friend was astounded, but then he hadn't bought a new pickup for about four years, which was the amount of time it took for pickups to take the cue from SUVs and boost sticker prices somewhere over the rainbow.
So, flash-forward to last week, when I got a chance to drive the new Colorado. I had driven one very briefly at an all-model GM introduction in Texas last fall, and General Motors put a lot of work into revising this truck, which has a sister ship in the GMC Canyon. The frame is more than twice as stiff as the old one, which is partly due to new technology and partly explained by how many years it's been since Chevy redid the S-10.
The test Colorado was the LS Crew Cab, which means four full doors and a full rear seat that can house more than small children in bolt-upright posture. It has typical GM interior amenities, which means everything works fine, with a good audio system and comfortable enough seats, which have lumbar support on the front buckets.
I particularly like the styling, which is contemporary and a definite step up from what we shall call "old-square" pickup styling to smoothly rounded corners, and a front end that copies from the full-size Chevy Silverado's split grille and angular headlights.
As any parent knows, your kids can offer you a perspective that often contrasts with your findings. It's that way with my older son, Jack, a car purveyor since birth by familiarity if not by choice. He rode with me and drove it a bit and was less impressed than I was, although he later warmed up to the Colorado. "At first," he said, "I thought it was a little Cavalier-like." By that he meant less than rock-solid. Since Chevrolet's ad campaign continues to insist its big trucks are (cue the music) "Like a Rock," Jack figured the Colorado was not exactly a chip off the old rock.
I thought it handled well, and I like the new in-line five-cylinder engine, a powerplant that might shock some purists. Chevrolet built an in-line six a few years ago, to power the then-new TrailBlazer. An engineer I asked explained that they chose an in-line six instead of a V6 because of building cost - it takes two heads to be machined for a V-anything, and only one for an in-line. That engine has exceptional power, and has all the high-tech goodies, such as dual overhead camshafts, multiple valves and variable valve-timing, that the older conventional V8s lack.
So for the Colorado, Chevy lopped the end piston off the in-line six and made an in-line five. It measures a large 3.5 liters, and develops 220 horsepower with 225 foot-pounds of torque. That's more than enough to let you launch and sail the truck on its appointed tasks, or to pull fairly large things along behind.
After Jack came around to be as impressed with the Colorado as I was, he said as much, and then asked me how much it was. I scavenged around for the statistical sheet and said: "$29,820."
That's where the surprise hit. I'm not sure which of us was more startled by the number, but we both recoiled. Base price for the Colorado in 4x4 fashion is $24,080, and the test truck added $1,000 for the neat engine, $1,095 for a four- speed automatic transmission, and $1,495 for a package that included the heated leather seats with power adjusters, and $695 for OnStar navigation and mobile valet service, plus $325 for XM Satellite radio.
Standard equipment has a four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission. I would like to test the system to see if you could get the neat five-cylinder with a stick. Front disc brakes and rear drums are standard, and, apparently the only brakes available.
Dual-stage airbags, antilock brakes, a locking two-position tailgate, air conditioning, a driver information center, six-speaker audio with CD player, cruise control, and a 60-40 rear seat for inside hauling, also are all standard.
The vehicle also has standard suspension and side curtain airbags. So all in all, it is a pretty complete and competent truck. It undoubtedly will impress Chevy zealots for its significant improvements and features, and its good looks and new name might acquire some new customers.
And I'm not saying the price is unconscionable, and maybe it shouldn't even be shocking. It's just that I hadn't driven a midsize truck for over a year other than the Colorado, and for some reason, while SUVs and full-size pickups skyrocketed in price to $30,000, $40,000 and beyond, I was blindsided by the fact that midsize trucks had now crept up to fill the "void" left behind by the "old" $30,000 trucks.
The Colorado undoubtedly will do a noble job of carrying on where the S-10 left off. It is good looking, strong, filled with features, and provides adequate comfort and utility, particularly in crew cab form. But if you go shopping for trucks because you remember when midsize pickups cost only about half as much as cars, forget it.
John Gilbert writes weekly auto columns and can be contacted at email@example.com.