TUCSON, Ariz. - Brand managers at General Motors have their fingerprints all over the new 1999 Chevrolet Silverado and its sister truck, the GMC Sierra.
Their market research shows 40 percent of GM full-sized pickup buyers drive their trucks primarily for personal use. So hardware typically found on higher-end cars, such as four-wheel vented disc brakes and variable ride control, was added to the new model, known internally as the GMT800.
With ride control, drivers can change the shock absorber firmness depending on whether they are towing a boat or just cruising the highway.
The GMT800's three-piece modular frame and wheelbase were also stretched to accommodate the largest extended cab among its Big 3 competitors, the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram. Much of the extra space goes to rear passengers, who get 4 more inches of legroom and four more degrees of recline on the seatback.
Even the Silverado's name 'reflects a little bit of brand management,' says David Hansen, brand management director for Chevrolet. Currently, it is the name of the C/K's most popular trim level and will go on all Chevrolet versions of the truck.
'Numbers or letters aren't quite as romantic, and our customer research shows that (owners) are already using the name, so we don't have to spend a ton on (connecting) Silverado and Chevrolet,' Hansen said.
THREE, NOT FOUR
What the GMT800 does not have is four doors, currently offered on the Dodge Ram Quad Cab and expected next year on the Ford F series. Toyota's forthcoming T150, expected in showrooms in spring 1999, will have four doors. GM says the decision to carry over the current three-door configuration was made to hold down prices, but the option will be offered on future models. No introduction date was given.
GM wants desperately to hit a home run with the GMT800, critical to future profits. The 725,000 full-sized pickups it sold last year in the United States represent about one in every six GM sales. If it were a stand-alone GM division, the full-sized pickup would be second only to Chevrolet in sales volume.
Both Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. have introduced new trucks in the past five years, but GM's aging design, introduced in 1987, has held its own in the sales race.
This year, both the Chevrolet and GMC full-sized pickups actually gained ground, selling 258,846 units in the first four months of the year compared to 248,548 Ford F series. In the period last year, the Ford outsold the GM by about 7,000 units.
That is one reason GM is taking no chances with the GMT800's styling. It retains much of the current model's boxy lines, although the Silverado and Sierra will for the first time get their own unique looks with separate hoods, front fenders and front fascias.
'This will be the most important launch for Chevrolet this decade,' said General Manager John Middlebrook.
In customer clinics, current GM truck owners cited the radically restyled Ford F-150 and told GM,
''Don't do that to us,'' said Middlebrook.
But underneath the Silverado's conservative sheet metal, GM is trying a few new tricks:
Hydroformed front frame rails. Hydroforming uses high-pressure water injection to mold steel tubes into complex shapes. The resulting frame pieces are lighter than those welded together from two halves. GM first tried the process on the frame of the current Chevrolet Corvette.
Rack-and-pinion steering. A first among full-sized pickups, it is available only on half-ton two-wheel-drive models; others use the old model's recirculating ball system. Rack-and-pinion steering is considered more precise because of the tighter tolerances between the pinion gear on the steering shaft and the toothed rack that it drives. The 800's cast-aluminum rack housing saves weight, provides better road feel and shares some parts with other GM cars.
AutoTrac, a mode of the pushbutton four-wheel-drive system that electronically feeds torque to the front axle when it senses loss of traction. Optional on the Silverado LS and standard on the LT, the system functions in rear-wheel drive until its computer detects wheel slip. A solenoid engages a series of clutch plates in the transfer case to send varying amounts of torque to the front axle. A driver can lock out the system by selecting other modes, such as 2-high or 4-low.
Tow/haul mode. When engaged, the four-speed automatic transmission remaps its shift points to allow higher revolutions in each gear and easier downshifts for climbing hills.
Aluminum heads for gasoline V-8 engines. The new heads save weight, are easier to machine and allow new combustion chamber designs for better emissions and fuel economy.
ON SALE THIS FALL
The Silverado's and the Sierra's engine choices include the Vortec 4.3-liter V-6, a 6.5-liter V-8 turbodiesel sourced from Caterpillar Inc. and a range of gasoline V-8s based on the new Gen III small-block V-8 found in the Corvette.
They range in displacement from 4.8 to 6.0 liters. The largest generates 300 hp at 5,000 rpm and 355 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.
The GMT800 goes into production in June at GM's plant in Oshawa, Ontario. About a month later, production will begin at Pontiac, Mich., followed by Fort Wayne, Ind.
The pickups are expected to go on sale this fall, but GM has not been specific.