More crew cabs and new GM heavies are big news for 2001.

Although nearly every manufacturer has worked on prototype models of compact crew cab pickups for several years, and several have sold small crew cabs outside North America, the floodgates began to open in late 1998 with Nissan's announcement of its Frontier crew cab. Just a few months later, at the 1999 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), a handful of production, concept and soon-to-be production crew cab pickups pretty much stole the show. Some are being marketed as SUV crossovers, while others make no pretense, and are identified as actual crew cab pickups.

Regardless of the applied marketing angles, all of these trucks share a common layout, with four conventional doors, two full rows of seating and a shorter-than-average pickup bed. Nissan's Sport Utility Truck (SUT) concept vehicle made its public debut a few years ago as a working prototype, with a fifth "door" in the form of a rear-window liftgate that, when combined with fold-down rear seats, allows long cargo to be carried when necessary.

Chevy has gone one step further, announcing a production model hybrid in the form of its new Avalanche. To be certain, many manufacturers have experimented with pickup/SUV hybrids for the past several years, and some personal-use crew cab pickups are even being passed off as crossover trucks. However, apart from Nissan's SUT, which is strictly a one-off concept truck, the Avalanche represents the first "production-ready" example of a true hybrid. Although the Avalanche will be badged as a 2002 model, sales are expected to begin in early 2001.

What separates the Avalanche from the everyday crew cab and SUV crowd is Chevy's Convert-a-Cab System. The Convert-a-Cab features a midgate and a storable rear window between the rear seat and the cargo area. Combined with folding rear seats, these features allow the Convert-a-Cab to reconfigure into any of several permutations in seconds, by one person, without tools.

In its standard configuration, the Avalanche provides the Silverado/ Tahoe with comfortable seating for up to five passengers, as well as a 5-foot, 3-inch cargo bed. A lockable tailgate and storable three-piece cargo cover allow for SUV-secure storage in a pickup-durable cargo area.

The rear seats and midgate can be folded out of the way to extend to a full 8-feet, 1-inch capacity, with the tailgate closed. Using the cargo cover in this mode provides weathertight protection for your building materials when Mother Nature isn't cooperating with your project schedule.

Crews In The News

During the past several months, a record number of new crew cab models has been introduced, greatly increasing the available choices among these popular jobsite trucks. The biggest growth in the crew cab segment is within the compact pickup offerings.

GM used the Chicago Auto Show venue to unveil its 2001 Chevrolet S-10 and GMC Sonoma compact crew cab models. Sharing a nearly identical powertrain and chassis, the S-10/Sonoma crew cabs' preliminary specifications include four-wheel drive, a 190-horsepower Vortec 4300 V6 engine, a 4-foot, 6-inch long cargo bed and a payload capacity of 1,125 pounds. Forward-opening rear doors and an adult-sized rear seat make the S-10 or Sonoma crew cab a great choice when passenger capacity and nimble maneuverability are required.

Toyota answered Nissan's earlier Frontier launch by introducing its entry into the compact crew cab market with the Tacoma Double Cab. Preliminary specifications for the Double Cab include four-wheel drive, the choice of a 2.7L 150-horsepower four-cylinder or a 3.4L 190-horsepower V6 engine, and a 5-foot, 1-inch long cargo bed. Like the other compact crews, the Tacoma Double Cab is based mostly on its regular cab counterpart.

Dodge's Dakota again is finding a spot as a segment-buster with the new Dakota Quad Cab, landing right in between the traditional compact and full-size offerings.

Heavy-Duty Models

After several years of testing work trucks, it becomes so easy to find flaws in a new design that a model review frequently reads "This is a nice truck, but É" A few years ago, when GM introduced its T800 Sierra/Silverado pickup line, there was nothing to fault, but É the new line lacked a contingent of seriously heavy-duty offerings.

As of late this fall, "buts" no longer will be necessary when describing GM's pickup offerings for the work truck market. The addition of the 2001 Heavy Duty (HD) Series means Chevrolet and GMC now will have the whole package, from half-ton to one-ton, from luxury to brawn. As for the HD Series itself, the whole package is an equally accurate description.

Many truck lines talk about ride quality, payload capacity, towing strength, horsepower and style, but frequently these terms are mutually exclusive, each describing different trucks within that particular line. Our initial testing has us convinced that choosing the HD Series will not require sacrificing one or more of a pickup's attributes to obtain best-in-class performance in another area.

Power & Payload

Although there are many important attributes for a work truck, the most important is the truck's ability to work. Work skills can be summed up easily with two P's - power from the engine and payload carried in the truck.

Ranging from the most powerful standard engine to a purpose-built diesel to the strongest available gas engine in the pickup truck market, GM's new HD Series has the "power" side of the equation more than covered. With 300 horsepower, the standard Vortec 6000 V8 enjoys a wide lead over the 5.4L Ford or 5.9L Dodge offerings. At the opposite extreme, the Vortec 8100 V8 delivers 340 horsepower, a significant increase over both of the competitor's V10 engines.

It's also important to note that the Vortec 8100's V8 configuration uses approximately 20 percent less moving parts than a typical V10 engine - a big difference when looking at maintenance and overhaul costs.

If maximum torque is a key consideration, then the Duramax Diesel 6600 V8 is the answer. Rated at 520 lb./ft. of torque, the Duramax 6600 has the advantage over the competitive diesel engine options. GM called upon Isuzu's automotive diesel experience to co-develop the Duramax engine, specifically for the HD Series pickups. Both of the competitive diesels were adapted from applications outside of the pickup truck market. While this distinction may be subtle in several aspects, an important difference becomes obvious the minute the engine is started.

Unlike its competition, the Duramax allows a normal conversation to be carried on, in or out of the truck, with the engine running. Current and past diesel owners are all too familiar with the need to shut off their engine in order to be heard while ordering their morning cup of coffee at the local drive-thru. During our testing, every time somebody wanted to look under the hood, we were able to chat across the engine compartment with the engine running and without raising our voices.

All the horsepower and torque in the world won't do you any good if you can't use it to carry a load. Again, GM's HD Series has a strong lead over its competitors in terms of gross vehicle weight rating (GVW equals weight of truck, passengers and cargo) and actual payload (passenger weight and cargo).

In the heavy three-quarter-ton range, the 2500 HD has a 9,200-lb. GVW rating, 400 pounds more than Ford's Super Duty F-250 or the Dodge Ram 2500. The payload capacity in this range is 4,029 pounds, again a significant improvement over the competition. In the one-ton 3500 models, GVW jumps to 11,400 pounds and payload increases to 5,753 pounds, exceeding the competition in all areas except the payload when compared to Ford's dual-rear-wheel F-350, where the difference is less than 100 pounds.

Here, it's important to note that ride quality hasn't been sacrificed to achieve these GVW and payload ratings on GM's HD Series. Many work trucks carry their load with little consideration to how much the driver is being "worked" at the wheel, especially when the truck isn't fully loaded. Our testing included driving while fully loaded, partially loaded and empty, except for passengers, and in every case, the ride was comfortable and sure-footed.