The second-best-selling vehicle in America takes a bow.
by Robert Ahl
You’re looking at the 1999 Chevrolet Silverado, the soldier of the future in the largest and longest running new-vehicle war in the United States - the battle of full-sized pickups between GM and Ford.
Ford’s F-150 and GM’s Chevy/GMC C/K pickups have occupied the top two slots in vehicle sales (cars and light trucks combined) for the last 10 years. (Dodge’s Ram has made strong inroads in the pickup market and ranks in the top 10 in vehicle sales in the U.S.) Why are big pickups so popular here? One reason is low gas prices that allow U.S. customers to indulge freely in their preference for larger vehicles. Another, more important reason is that full-sized pickups are genuinely versatile vehicles - ones that can seat up to six while also hauling thousands of pounds of bulky cargo.
The Silverado, and its twin at GMC, the Sierra, replaced GM’s 11-year-old C/K pickups last year. Like the full-sized rivals at Ford and Dodge, the Silverado can be can be ordered thousands of different ways. Four different wheelbases are available, and three different cabs - a “regular” two-door, an “extended” three-door (with a cramped rear seat), and a “crew-cab” (with four full-sized doors and a full-sized rear seat.) Short (6.5-foot) and long (8.0-foot) cargo beds are available. A short “Sportside” bed, with steps in the side for easier loading, is also available.
The list continues. You can choose either rear- or four-wheel drive. There are five engines - a 4.3-liter V-6; a 4.8-, 5.3- or 6.0-liter V-8; or a 6.5-liter turbodiesel - and two transmissions - a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. Dual rear wheels (two per side) with extended-width fenders are available for towing heavy trailers - up to 11,000 pounds.
Inside, the interiors run from the most basic, with rubber floor mats and vinyl seats, to opulent, with leather seats and thick carpets. Detroit’s cars used to be sold like this too - with thousands of option combinations - but those days are gone. Pickup trucks, though, must appeal to a much wider cross-section of buyers - from plumbers and carpenters to old folks looking to tow a vacation mobile home to luxury-car owners looking to make a fashion statement.
Make that a conservative fashion statement. GM’s new pickups don’t look much different than the boxy trucks they are replacing. This is a sharp break from the styling trend set by the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram, and critics have already labeled it a mistake. But GM is confident that conservative styling sells, and it points to its hot-selling minivans as proof. GM also notes that the current Chevy/GMC pickup is still hot on the heels of the F-150 in sales, despite its 11-year-old styling.
GM’s trucks may not be the sharpest-looking full-sized pickups on the road, but they may be the nicest to drive. The first thing you notice is just how stiff this truck is. Full-size and midsize pickup bodies, with their separate cabs and beds, tend to flex a lot over large bumps. To make it stiffer, GM applied car technology (such as hydroforming, from the Corvette) to the truck’s ladder frame. The new frame is 23 percent stiffer, but lighter than the previous one. The cab is also much stronger than before. This is the first GM full-size pickup to be designed completely on computer.
The stiff frame allowed the suspension to be tuned more precisely. Four optional suspensions are available. There’s a suspension for off-road use, and one offering a firmer, sportier ride. There’s also a heavy-duty suspension for plowing snow, and one with electronically controlled shock absorbers with driver-adjustable damping. Two-wheel-drive models get rack-and-pinion steering, while four-wheel-drive models have a recirculating-ball setup. Our test truck, a two-wheel-drive extended-cab model, handled nimbly for its considerable size. The steering was light and pleasantly quick and made the truck feel smaller.
GM also invested considerably in the Silverado’s brakes. Big vented discs on all four corners, with ABS, are standard equipment. The company benchmarked BMWs for brake feel, an almost laughable goal for a vehicle of this size. But the firm pedal did have better feel than that on any other truck we’ve experienced. There also wasn’t much fade after numerous high-speed stops. These are excellent brakes for a truck.
Emissions regulations finally killed off Chevy’s famous small-block V-8s, the engines that powered GM’s pickups for decades. The new cast-iron V-8s in their place are based on the aluminum LS1 V-8 in the Corvette. The 5.3-liter V-8 will likely be the most popular engine in the Silverado. With 270 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque, it pushed our 4600-lb test truck to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds (with the four-speed automatic transmission.) These 16-valve V-8s may look like simple designs, but they’re probably the most sophisticated pushrod engines in the world. The 5.3-liter idled so quietly, we ground the starter twice trying to start it, thinking it was off. The V-8s can even be run without coolant - if the engine overheats, the computer alternates fuel delivery between each cylinder bank. While one bank cools with air, the other powers the truck, allowing it to limp home.
The four-speed automatic shifts expertly, something we’ve come to expect from GM transmissions. It has a selectable “tow/haul” mode that upshifts the transmission more firmly and at higher rpm for better control at low speeds with heavy loads. The base four-wheel-drive system can only be used off-road. An optional “Autotrac” on-road system distributes torque to the front wheels only when slip is detected.
The interior is about as exciting to look at as the exterior. It also has too much cheap-looking hard plastic, a common problem with many GM cars. But the controls are exactly where you would expect them, and the dashboard has a full complement of instruments. Included is a small “driver message center” that can read out 18 different messages, from “transmission fluid hot” to “change oil” to “cargo lamp on.” The Silverado’s rear seats in the extended cab have properly reclined seatbacks, head restraints, and ample knee room and thigh support. The Ford and Dodge seats, in comparison, seem like design afterthoughts.
At first, Chevrolet was alone, lacking a “clamshell” rear door on each side of the extended cab as have the Fords and Dodges. GM misjudged the competition and introduced the extended-cab Silverado with just a passenger-side rear-entry door. That’s about the most obvious mistake it made with this truck. By 2000, the Silverado will come with two rear doors like its competitors.
Bet you never imagined that such minor details could matter so much in a truck. But full-size pickup buyers - particularly those that rely on their trucks for their businesses - take such details very seriously. With 1,700,000 sales a year split among just three automakers, so do the automakers.
Base Silverados will start at about $17,000, while loaded versions will top out at about $33,000.
© The Car Connection
The way they used to be made isn’t so bad, after all.
by Robert Ahl
Want to know how Detroit used to build large cars? Just look at the Lincoln Town Car. Its body is made of conventional stamped steel. There’s a separate full-length steel frame underneath, rubber-isolated from the body. Under the hood is a big cast-iron V-8 engine that drives the rear wheels. Inside, there’s room for six.
Thirty years ago, that would have described nearly half of the new cars sold in the United States, but today, Ford is the only domestic automaker left that offers a large, body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive car. (Chrysler and GM switched to unit-construction bodies and front-wheel drive years ago.) With a base price of $38,500, the Lincoln Town Car is the most luxurious and expensive large car Ford offers. (The Navigator costs more, but it’s a truck, after all.) It may represent the way Detroit used to build cars, but the Town Car is not an antique, thanks to significant revisions this car received for 1998.
The most glaring change to the Town Car in recent memory has been its new and quite radical styling. The former squared-off fenders and roofline have been replaced with a much swoopier body, incorporating some Ford design themes we’ve seen before. The arching roofline and curved C-pillar recall the Lincoln Sentinel show car from 1997. In front there are “cat's-eye” headlamps (another favorite Ford theme) and a prominent chrome grille, following the tradition of Lincoln’s Continental and Navigator.
Photos don’t do this car justice. On the street, it’s more enticing, although we still wouldn’t call the Town Car beautiful. “Bold” is more like it. (You’ll recall we said the same of the Navigator when it came out last year.)
Slide behind the wheel, and other changes are obvious. The previous Town Car had lifeless, over-boosted steering; a limp suspension; and a live rear axle that had the tendency to step out around bumpy corners, all of which conspired to discourage brisk driving of any kind. With so much room for improvement, it was easy for engineers to address these problems without increasing the Town Car’s costs very much.
They started by stiffening the frame. They also reduced friction in the recirculating-ball steering, and removed the Town Car’s awful adjustable-feel system. In back, a new “Watt’s linkage” was installed to more precisely locate the rear axle. The end result met Ford’s goals - the new Town Car handles more precisely, with less body roll, dive and squat, while maintaining the previous Town Car’s very good ride. Vertical bobbing over large bumps has been virtually eliminated, too.
Our test car had a Touring Sedan package, with monotube shock absorbers, stiffer front and rear anti-roll bars, stiffer front springs, and larger 235/60R-16 tires. This package does little to shrink the Town Car’s immense feel. It does provide some steering feel, however. The body motions seem better damped, which allows the Town Car to be driven fast around curves without embarrassment. The Michelin Symmetry tires are capable of 0.78g of grip, which feels like plenty in a car of this size.
The Touring Sedan package also includes a 3.55 rear axle ratio (up from 3.08) and dual exhausts for the standard 4.6-liter SOHC V-8. The dual exhausts increase the horsepower of the V-8 from 200 to 220. With this package, our Touring Car could accelerate to 60 mph in just over eight seconds. Keep the throttle planted, and the Town Car reaches its 112-mph speed governor 25 seconds later. The standard four-speed automatic transmission is an improvement on most Ford automatics and is capable of quick downshifts and smooth upshifts. A steering column-mounted shifter and the lack of a tachometer in the instruments quell any thoughts of performance-shifting, though.
Fuel mileage isn’t too bad. The Town Car gets 17 mpg on the EPA city cycle, and 25 mpg on the highway cycle. Those numbers allow the Town Car to barely avoid gas-guzzler taxes.
The Town Car’s brakes consists of four discs, ventilated in front, solid in the rear, with ABS. The brake pedal has good feel, and none of the “mushiness” that infected the brake pedals of American luxury cars of a few years ago. On the other hand, we noticed significant fade after four or five stops from 70 mph.
The Town Car’s standard leather interior is spacious and even tasteful, but once again, not very sporting. The standard power front split-bench seat has an inflatable lumbar support but has no side bolsters, so you slide around a lot in corners on the slippery leather. (A Ford engineer showed us that if you pull out the center ashtray, you can use it to brace your knee during left-hand corners. No kidding.)
The dashboard’s uninterrupted horizontal hood makes this car feel really big inside. There’s no convenient center console because of the center seating position, although the center seatback folds down to make an armrest (with storage inside for CDs and cassettes). The steering wheel has convenient stereo and climate controls, and the instruments - just fuel and temperature gauges and a speedometer - are easily visible. Rear-seat room is ample, as you would expect, and rear-seat access is easy through the Town Car’s wide doors.
If you’re wondering how Lincoln can make a full-sized, leather-lined luxury cruiser for half the price of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between a Town Car and some of the world’s best luxury sedans. The Lincoln’s chassis, for example, lacks an independent rear suspension and isn’t capable of the high speeds of the Mercedes. Its automatic transmission has just four gears, too. Safetywise, the Lincoln lacks the Benz’s side airbags, its rear head restraints, and its sophisticated stability-control system.
Still, the Town Car is roomy, it drives competently, and it gives the impression of a lot of luxury car for the money. Cars like this especially appeal to older Americans. Last year’s typical Town Car buyer was 67 years old. Lincoln hopes the new version will reduce the average age to more like 63. And the Town Car’s lack of sophistication is actually to its advantage in some respects. Its tough body-on-frame construction makes it popular for limousine and funeral-hearse conversions, and its low price makes it attractive for rental car fleets.
Like the Buick Park Avenue and the Cadillac DeVille, the Lincoln Town Car is a uniquely American approach to automotive luxury. Spend some time out in the land of wide-open spaces, or on a local golf course, and a luxo-boat like the Town Car is easier to understand.
© The Car Connection