Commercial pickups finally reap the benefits of high technology

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to test-drive the new 2001 model-year heavy-duty pickups from General Motors. Not only did I like driving those 3/4- and 1-ton Sierra and Silverado pickups, but the experience gave me renewed hope that light-duty fleets are at last getting the same treatment as their larger counterparts in the medium- and heavy-duty markets.

Ford Motor Co. blazed the trail to a revitalized focus on light-duty fleets with the immensely popular retooled F-Series. A neighbor of mine - a construction worker by trade - relies on an F-350 Super Duty XLT powered by an International Powerstroke V8 diesel. Decked out with chromed-steel toolbox and double-whip antennas, he says it's one of the best trucks he's ever owned.

Power and comfort are the reasons he's so attached to his F-350. The Powerstroke gives him a lot of "oomph" to haul trailers, as well as debris from the job site. He's also comfortable in the cab, which sports a form-fitting bucket seat rather than the barely cushioned benches found in the old models - and lots of other pickups, for that matter.

GM is taking things a big step further by bringing the automatic transmission produced by Allison into the light-duty market. Yes, it will cost a premium. But after driving GM's pickups, I can see some of the advantages of having this transmission onboard.

First, it's a smooth-shifting package. You barely feel the shift while ramping up to highway speed or chugging around hilly back roads. By contrast, my 1989 Chevrolet S-10 Tahoe King Cab automatic - mileage to date, 132,000 - has clunked and chunked through the gears since the day I got it. (Don't get me wrong, it's still my pride and joy. But it sounds like Frankenstein's monster taking one lurching step at a time at every shift.)

Then there's the automatic downshift, a feature exclusive to GM's pickups, I'm told. It automatically downshifts going downhill on steep grades, giving the driver a lot more control. That came in handy during my test drive, since the back roads I was on in Missouri were deluged frequently with heavy rain.

Another nice feature is the low noise level of GM's Duramax diesel. At highway speed or idle, to my ears the Duramax really emits no more noise than a comparable gasoline engine. International has also developed a quieter version of its Powerstroke, one I saw demonstrated at the company's manufacturing facility outside Indianapolis.

Finally, let me tell you about Quadrasteer, a new steering package slated for model-year 2002 GM pickups. It will enable the rear wheels to turn in sync with the front wheels at high speeds for more control, or out of sync with them at low speeds for better maneuverability.

You can turn a Quadrasteer-equipped pickup about as tightly as a midsize sedan - and I'm talking about a King Cab pickup with a full bed, not some sport jalopy. Parallel parking, trailer maneuverability and cornering all improve handsomely with Quadrasteer.

The upshot of all of this is simple: Light-duty fleets are finally starting to reap some of the benefits of technology. No longer are all the goodies reserved for consumers, hauling their horse trailers and boats, or just trying to look cool.

Manufacturers are clearly putting more focus on light-duty commercial customers. And that's a good thing, no matter what nameplate you drive.