Call it high school behavior, but it was an honest mistake. It could have happened to anyone.
A bit too much pressure on the gas pedal and my vehicle’s rear tires overpowered the pavement with a resounding squeal of burned rubber.
Heads turned to identify the source of the display of bad street manners. A Chevrolet Corvette? Ford Mustang GT? Dodge Viper?
The answer is none of the above. But would you believe a pickup truck?
Yes, and a compact pickup truck at that. In particular, a CMC Sonoma pickup, the all-but-identical twin of Chevrolet’s S-Series truck.
And as we said it, it could have happened to anyone. Aided and abetted by an optional 4.3-liter V6 engine, the Sonoma is just about the most robust compact pickup on the market. The only tuck in this size class with more punch is the Dodge Dakota, which has a V8 option.
But the Dakota lacks the refinement of the Sonoma and S-Series line. That’s what makes these trucks so appealing. They offer a blend of style, sophistication, performance and model variety that rate up at the top of this very competitive class.
A complete redesign for the 1994 model year gave the Sonoma/S-Series the freshest face in its section of the market. Although there are no cosmetic changes for 1995, this is still true because the competition didn’t change much either.
Recognizing the expanding role of the pickup as all-around transportation, General Motors decided it was time to send its compact twins to charm school, to smooth off the hard edges.
The new nose is smooth and rounded, the windshield is raked back and the glass is mounted almost flush. Besides giving the truck a more contemporary appearance, these aerodynamic design elements also help to reduce wind noise.
Like their primary competitors, particularly the Ford Ranger and Dodge Dakota, the GM twins come in a number of variations. Riding a 108.3-in. wheelbase, the basic Sonoma/S-Series pickup has a standard cab and short cargo bed, with a 118-hp, 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive.
The optional variations include an extended cab, a long (8 ft.) cargo bed, longer wheelbases, and an on-demand 4-wheel-drive system, plus trim levels that expand amenities well into the region of passenger car comfort and convenience.
Extended cab models lead manufacturers to optimistic capacity claims, and the Sonoma/S-Series trucks are no exception. With two jump seats in the rear, GM claims seating for five in its extended cab models, and we assume that means all five would be seated inside the cab.
We consider this unlikely. Although the extended cab of our Sonoma SLS tester was roomy, stuffing two adults into the rear seats would require cooperation and perhaps a little Mazola. Small children might be able to tolerate traveling back there, but you’d better bring bribes.
Although the base engine is adequate, GM’s optional V6 engines really bring the Sonoma and S-Series to life. Both are 4.3 liters, the milder edition rated at 155 hp and 235 pound-feet of torque, the top of the line version producing 191 hp and 260 lb.-ft.
Like virtually all compact trucks, the transmission choices are a 5-speed manual (standard) or 4-speed automatic. Manual transmissions for V6-powered models have had some refinements for ’95 to enhance driveability and shift feel.
Although the latest editions of the Sonoma and S-Series are about the same size as before, their interiors feel roomier, even in standard cab models.
This is a thoughtful and comfortable design with good ergonomics, and expanded glass area. Gauges are easy to see. Controls are easy to find and operate. No challenges here.
Another plus, new for ’95, is the addition of a driver’s airbag. The redesigned Sonoma and S-Series already included side impact door beams and structural reinforcements around the cab, so the passive safety story is pretty much up to date with the competition.
In fact, GM is attempting to give its products an edge in passive safety with another new-for-'95 feature. It’s going to be known as DRL for Daytime Running Lamps, and GM plans to make it standard in all of its vehicles in the next few years.
DRL means that your vehicle’s headlights come on when you start it up. The idea is that having your headlamps on all the time makes you more visible to other drivers.
We’d prefer to be in control of our headlights and decide for ourselves when to turn them on. If you feel the same, buy your Sonoma or S-Series truck early - DRL won’t come on-stream until midway through the ’95 model year.
On the active safety front, the Sonoma and S-Series trucks are in step with the competition. The basic truck comes with rear-wheel antilock brakes (ABS) as standard equipment, and V6-powered models have 4-wheel ABS - another good reason for indulging in V6 power.
Our Sonoma’s seats were quite comfortable with attractive cloth upholstery. As trim levels advance, the seats go from the vinyl-clad bench to reclining high-back buckets.
There’s also an optional center console with plentiful storage and a couple of extra cupholders. You get several sound system options and the choice of dual 12-volt accessory plug-ins for electronics.
Two other 1995 improvements bear mention. First, GM has finally gone to a one-key system. Second, the switches for the power windows are back-lighted for night driving.
On the road, our Sonoma’s interior was relatively quiet, and the ride was pleasant.
Several suspension packages are available for uses ranging from suburban cruising to climbing every mountain, giving you a chance to tailor your truck to its intended use. But even the most aggressive off-road package is fairly civilized.
On rough road surfaces, with the cargo box empty, our Sonoma did occasionally let us know that it was a truck, not a Cadillac. However, its overall ride comfort was as good as any truck in its class, and better than all but one or two.
The power-assisted steering was tight, with virtually none of the on-center slop common to so many trucks - another big improvement that came with the ’94 redesign. It’s quick, too, giving the Sonoma a sporty feel.
That feel can be a little deceptive, though. The Sonoma was reasonably agile, but the driver who thinks this is a sports car will find that there are definite limits that are easy to find.
In particular, the tail of our 2WD test model was easy to wag during hard cornering, especially on low-traction surfaces such as gravel roads.
Depending on your motoring perspective, tail-friskiness can be either entertaining or terrifying. In either case, think of it as Mother Physics offering a little warning that some restraint is required when driving a nose-heavy pickup.
Our test truck had the version of the 4.3-liter V6 that GM calls "enhanced." In GM-speak, it appears that enhanced actually means wow. Even with a 4-speed automatic, it offered nearly instant response and strong acceleration.
How good are the Sonoma and S-Series? Real good. GM has created a state-of-the-art compact pickup, attractively styled and attractively priced.
But don’t just take our word for it. In a recent interview, Chrysler Vice President of Vehicle Engineering Francois Castaing said that he had driven a Chevy S-Series and thought it was a terrific little truck.
Now that’s a pretty compelling compliment.
|Model Line Overview |
|Base Price (MSRP) |
|Model lineup: |
|2.3-liter OHV V6¾ 155 hp, 235 lb.-ft. |
4.3-liter OHV V6¾ 191 hp, 260 lb.-ft.
|4-speed automatic |
|Safety equipment (Standard): |
|Safety equipment (Optional): |
|Basic warranty: |
|3 years/36,000 miles |
|Assembled in: |
|Linden, New Jersey; Shreveport, Louisiana |
|Specifications As Tested |
|Model tested (MSRP): |
|Standard equipment: |
|Options as tested: |
|Destination charge: |
|Gas Guzzler Tax: |
|Price as tested (MSRP) |
|2.2-liter 4-cylinder |
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm): |
|118 @ 5200 |
|Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): |
|130 @ 2800 |
|5-speed manual |
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: |
|108.3 (Optional: 117.9, 122.9) in. |
|189 / 67.9 / 62.2 in. |
|Track, f/r: |
|54.5 / 54.6 in. |
|Turning circle: |
|Seating capacity: |
|Head/hip/leg room, f: |
|39.5 / 57.2 / 42.5 in. |
|Head/hip/leg room, m: |
|Head/hip/leg room, r: |
|Cargo volume: |
|Towing capacity: |
|6000 lbs. |
|Suspension F: |
|Independent with coil springs, antiroll bar |
|Suspension R: |
|Semi-floating axle, leaf springs, antiroll bar |
|Ground clearance: |
|7.2 in. |
|Curb weight: |
|2822 lbs. |
|Brakes, f/r: |
|10.0-in. diameter discs/9.5-in., drums, rear ABS in. |
|Fuel capacity: |
|20.0 gal. |