WHEELS: The Brawny Silverado

With the exception of assorted El Caminos and certain 1960s Ford Falcons, I've never thought that pickup trucks were very attractive. There's only so much you can do with a square box attached to a functional cabin. For 1999, the Chevrolet full-sized pickup got its first major redesign since 1988, and I barely noticed.But now that I've got one of these big, square-shouldered rigs looming over my driveway, I can see where GM softened the lines here and there. There's no doubt the huge success of the incredibly macho Dodge RAM pickups affected the look here, which is brawny, with a very full grille treatment.After the Acura 3.5 I had last week, the Chevy just seemed huge. As tested in 4X4 extended cab form, it (it)was(it) big, and a 4,700-pound heavyweight, too. The feeling of immense size never really went away. I had to be very careful in parking lots, because the Silverado didn't easily slot into a normal parking space. When I pulled up next to my wife's Subaru in the driveway, I could barely open the door for fear of hitting the front steps.And it's a funny thing: big as it was, the truck didn't have very much usable passenger space. (Kudos go to the huge storage bin between the front seats.) The extended-cab back seats are comfortable enough, but there's very little legroom. By most dimensional measures, however, the '99 Silverado is roomier than its predecessor. Another problem: while there's a useful second door on the passenger side, there's none on the other, and crawling over the driver's seat is necessary. Both Ford and Dodge manage a fourth door in competitive models.The truck did come in handy for moving my grandfather's old easy chair down to the reupholsters. But I'm dumb about securing loads and the poor old chair bounced around like a ping pong ball. I was poised to spring into action when, later in the week, we bought a dishwasher, but the store delivered the darned thing. I'm contemplating taking a load of brush down to the dump, but I wouldn't want to scratch that nice new bed. It reminds me of the fact that many sport-utility buyers are afraid of hurting their SUVs by taking them off-road.A variety of V8s are available in the Silverado, all based on the powerplant in the Corvette. They move the truck, heavy as it is, around with considerable alacrity though with substantial fuel economy penalties. It's actually surprising how well the 1500 handles. It is not a chore to drive, and offers fairly light steering. The King of the Road perspective offered by these elevated cabs is a sales asset, but I'd rather be a little closer to the pavement. Hit a Civic with this thing and you'll be scraping windshield glass off the front bumper.No doubt these big Silverados make great work trucks. I don't think they're great car substitutes, though, no matter how many people cast them in that role. A family of four will be hurting after a while. Perhaps one of the incentives is economic. Silverados are a pretty big bargain, really. A regular-bed two-wheel-drive model, equipped with a 200-horsepower V6, sells for just $15,355. That would barely buy one of those Civics that, as a Silverado owner, you'll happily intimidate.

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