A personal pickup for work or play. by Sue Mead
In 1994, GM debuted an all-new family of pickup trucks, the GMC Sonoma and Chevrolet S-Series. Since then, GM has continued to upgrade the lines.
Last year's models came with stronger engines, more options and an extra door. Refinements make this year's models even more sporty, fuel-efficient, comfortable and user friendly.
GMC offers one of the greatest variety of options on the market with two- and four-wheel drive models, regular and extended cab versions, short and long beds, seven different chassis packages and SL, SLS and SLE trim levels.
Last year, a model with a third door debuted along with performance improvements under the hood and a new ZX8 chassis package.
Now a popular choice, the third-door option for extended cabs was an industry first for compact trucks when GMC introduced it. A driver-side panel swings out to make it easier to load personal gear, pets and people.
The ZQ8 suspension is now available for regular and extended cab models. Designed for performance enthusiasts, this street suspension package enhances on-road handling and goes a long way toward making the Sonoma ride and handle more like a car. The $700 ZQ8 package comes with springs that lower the ride height, high-performance gas shock absorbers, urethane bounce jumpers, front and rear stabilizer bars, specially tuned variable-ratio power steering and wide eight-inch aluminum wheels with Goodyear P235/55R-16 tires. A locking differential enhances traction on paved surfaces.
Also new this year is an improved frame design on 2WD models, enhancements to both the Vortec V-6 and 2.2-liter four-cylinder engines, automatic transmission upgrades for improved fuel economy and revised front half-shafts on 4WD models.
Competitors for the GMC Sonoma and Chevrolet S-Series are the Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Pickup, Mazda B-series, Dodge Dakota and Isuzu Hombre.
Our test model was the Sonoma SLS 4X4 short cab which came with the $256 heavy duty suspension package that includes heavy duty springs and shocks.
The Sonoma has a pleasant body style with a smooth, aerodynamic hood that wraps around the front end. The stiff, four-sided ladder-type frame dips in the center to make it easier to step up and step down when getting in and out, yet keeps ground clearance at a maximum for off-pavement driving. The frame was reinforced this year. The increased stiffness allows the suspension to do its job properly, which results in an improved ride quality and better handling.
Buyers have a choice of suspension packages to best suit their needs, called Smooth Ride, High Payload, Off Road and Highrider. Distinctions are size of shocks, wheel and tire package and the size of cab and cargo box.
The Sonoma we tested came with GMC's $2127 option package that included the Vortec V-6, aluminum wheels, wideside body, SLS Sport decor, air conditioning, tilt steering column, cruise control, high-back front bucket seats, and an AM/FM stereo with CD player and clock.
The Sportside Box adds flair and functionality. The floorboard is capped in steel for greater durability. Special transparent tape protects the vulnerable areas of both the box and the wheel wells to prevent stone chipping. Like the regular box, the Sportside design features four 2x6-feet plank pockets, which can be used to create a raised deck for hauling wider loads. This option is available with both regular and extended cabs and with either two- or four-wheel drive, but is not available with the High Rider off-road package.
Also new for '97 are plug-in half-shafts, which simply plug in to the differential unit to save seven to ten pounds in 4WD Sonomas. A serviceablility and fuel efficiency benefit: a drain plug that has been added to the front differential housing making it easier to change the fluid at home.
New exterior paint colors for '97 are Fairway Green, Smokey Caramel, Radar Purple and Bright Teal.
The Inside Story
The Sonoma's interior is roomy, comfortable and functional. The long, wide body along with a thinner door design translates to greater shoulder, hip and head room. Seat options include high-back bucket seats for two passengers or a standard bench seat or reclining 60/40 split bench for three.
Extended-cab Sonomas with automatic transmissions and bucket seats now have the shifter located at the center console. Seats, as well as door panels and carpet, are a Scotchguard stain-resistant fabric.
Models vary with the number of comfort and convenience features. In addition to the features noted as a part of the Marketing Option Package, ours was equipped with dual lighted visor mirrors, cup holders, passenger assist grip and full floor carpeting with mats. Solar Ray tinted glass ($72) protects folks and fabrics from sun exposure and reduces heat. Sunvisors with extensions for additional glare protection are a thoughtful addition. A glovebox, door pockets, and space behind the seats provide spartan but basic stowage needs. Options for our test model also included power windows, door locks and dual outside mirrors ($535) and an upgraded remote keyless entry system ($140).
The Sonoma offers good visibility and an open, airy feel. A sloping hood, narrow A-pillar and unobstructed views to the rear make for clear views in all directions.
Analog displays of all engine functions are easily visible to the driver with switches that are bold and easy-to-operate for sound and climate controls. Although there are a variety of modern safety features in the Sonoma series, including GM's standard daytime running lamps, only a driver-side airbag is available. The C/K full-size trucks received them for '97 and they will be standard equipment in the compact pickups next year.
Ride & Drive
There was a lot we enjoyed about the Sonoma 4X4. As expected, ride quality was a bit jouncy with the heavy duty suspension package. These trucks ride much better with a cord of wood in back. The suspension does its job well though when in its element -- driving on rough terrain, carrying heavy loads or pulling a trailer.
The V-6 engine provided healthy throttle response across the power band, which made everyday driving enjoyable and assisted with passing maneuvers. Sonoma's two V-6 engines were upgraded with sequential central port fuel injection and now offer the best available combination of power and torque in the compact pickup truck class. Our Sonoma 4X4 served up a robust 190 hp at 4400 rpm and 250 lb-ft of torque at 2800 rpm.
The base 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine has an improved, yet simplified powertrain control module, which improves reliability and simplifies troubleshooting. An improved starter motor enhances reliability.
Our SLS was equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive and electronic control, a $1070 option. The transmission has been improved this year with a new hydraulic pump that delivers up to 20 percent more output. Aluminum valves help reduce leakage and improve internal oil flow and a new clutch-plate design increases efficiency.
Sonoma's electronic transfer case called Insta-Trac is a dream to operate. Simply push a button to shift into high or low range and you're ready for tough terrain. A high ground clearance, a locking differential, aggressive tires, gas-pressure shocks and heavy duty multi-leaf rear springs produced positive results during our off-road excursions. The Off Road Package is designed for the serious.
The brakes worked well, though the pedal felt soft at the top third of its travel, a trait common with GM trucks. The truck will stop, but the driver learns to use the brake pedal with authority. The four-wheel anti-lock brakes work well when engaged.
The Sonoma line is one of the most versatile compact trucks on the market with models and options to suit a wide range of drivers.
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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.