Smooth ride

The dirt and gravel road winding through the desolate northern high country of Arizona would not make for smooth travel or so I thought.

The dirt and gravel road winding through the desolate northern high country of Arizona would not make for smooth travel — or so I thought. Dipping and bucking over pits and torso-sized rocks at 20-25 mph in several different General Motors ‘07 Sierra and Silverado pickups during a media ride-and-drive event, I didn't have to fight the steering wheel nor get bounced around nearly as much as I had anticipated.

Later, we drove up winding, two-lane paved roads into the mountains to Prescott. Again, I didn't expect the trucks to hold the road as well as they did. And I didn't expect the cab to be so quiet during the ride back to Phoenix, cruising on the highway at 70 mph. The Rolling Stones came through nice and clear, even at low volume.

At GM's proving grounds outside Mesa, I pushed those same trucks through some tight curves and salmon courses. I quickly got the sense that if a driver had to swerve in one of these pickups to avoid an accident — even in a four-door crew cab — he'd be able to do it without losing control, even at higher speeds.

I attribute that to the truck's new, stiffer frame, as well as its Stabilitrak suspension system. In addition, pre-tensioning seat belts and air bags, including optional roof pillar ones, raise the vehicle's safety profile.

But who cares what a reporter thinks? Let's face it, I tooled around for six to eight hours in these trucks like a tourist. Saw some beautiful scenery, stopped for a nice lunch, and didn't have to pay for a drop of gas or worry about getting the oil changed. Pretty sweet deal.

But you're going to own these trucks for years and run them on far more wretched roads. The fuel and maintenance bills are all yours. Why should my impressions be of any value to you?

Let me say this. Light trucks are tools for fleets — they must be dependable and long lasting, strong enough to take a lot of abuse, able to provide enough power for hauling or pulling the required load, and have cabs roomy enough so your workers don't feel cramped. The Sierras and Silverados have all that, plus a much more refined driving experience.

What I mean is that they're easier to handle, thanks in part to rack and pinion steering that's lashed to one of the engine crossmembers, taking all the play out of it. The dashboard is 3 in. lower and 3 in. longer, creating more forward visibility for drivers.

Then there's better functionality. Rear seats in the extended and crew cab configurations fold up with one hand. One trim option offers an under-seat storage bay for laptops and cellphones, complete with a ready-made charger port.

Let's go back to engines for a minute. A V8 is a must-have for any work truck. You need 300-plus horses to pull trailers and also give you that low-end torque for four-wheel driving in mud, snow, etc. Now you get a 5.3-liter V8 with active fuel management (AFM), a system that shuts down and reactivates four cylinders on an as-needed basis. So while cruising at 60 mph on the highway you start sipping fuel at 30 mpg or more.

And it's seamless. I watched the AFM go on and off about 20 times on one stretch of highway without feeling any change in vehicle performance. And the fact that these trucks are 200 pounds lighter than their predecessors helps the fuel economy profile, too.

Best thing is, the costs aren't going to change all that much. In fact, upgrading to a 5.3 liter V8 is getting cheaper. It used to cost $1,500 and it's dropping to $600, including the AFM system.

Choosing the brand and model that's best for your fleet is always a very individual decision. But I can tell you that GM has a much-improved package for you to look at. It's one that can help the bottom line, as well as improve driver performance.

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