Chevrolet’s redesigned Silverado picks up the pickup pace

Chevrolet’s new Silverado pickup truck is at home on the ranch, splashing through rivers, dealing with riverbanks, and traversing rocky fields and pastureland. (Bill Griffith)
Chevrolet’s new Silverado pickup truck is at home on the ranch, splashing through rivers, dealing with riverbanks, and traversing rocky fields and pastureland. (Bill Griffith)

SPRING BRANCH, TX — On the drive to the Knibbe Ranch, about a half-hour north of the San Antonio Airport, it was apparent that Texans love their pickup trucks. Seemingly half the vehicles on the road were pickups.

The saying is that “Everything is bigger in Texas,” and thus it is with Texans’ trucks. Their pickup of choice clearly is a full-size American model, the majority of them being crew cabs. Going further, many of those are premium models with sturdy brush bars in the front.

However, most of the pickups here are two-wheel-drive as opposed to the 4WD versions preferred by northern truck buyers.

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Trucks are such big business here that the Texas Auto Writers Association makes the “Truck of Texas” its major annual award in the same way the New England Motor Press annually recognizes Winter Cars of the Year. The organization’s testing and judging take place at Knibbe Ranch.

So it was appropriate that Chevrolet selected the ranch to introduce its redesigned 2014 Silverado to the media.

If you had any doubt that you were in Texas, the longhorn steer in his pen by the main gate served as the ranch’s one-animal welcoming committee.

Chevrolet had its own welcoming committee on hand, too, headed by Jeff Luke, executive chief engineer, and Maria Rohrer, marketing director for the Silverado.

Their presence emphasized how important the Silverado is to Chevrolet. It’s the best-selling Chevy model with 418,312 sold in 2012 and represents 24.3 percent of the brand’s sales. It also annually ranks No. 2 in US light vehicle sales, trailing only the Ford F-Series, which has been the country’s top-selling vehicle for 31 consecutive years.

“Pickup trucks are the fourth largest segment of the US auto industry,” says Rohrer. “This is a great time to be introducing a new design. Sales are up and they project to keep increasing with the housing market coming back and pent-up demand. The average age of pickups on US roads is 11.3 years.”

Rohrer’s presentation emphasized the same pickup trends that we were seeing firsthand on the roads of Texas.

“Trucks now are multipurpose vehicles. They work from 9-to-5 then become family vehicles from 5-9 p.m. Crew cabs had no share of the market in 2001. Ten years later, in 2011, they represented 59 percent of sales.”

Pickup owners don’t generally embrace change; design is more evolutionary than revolutionary, so you’ll still recognize the Silverado’s dual-bar grille and square-ish cab design.

When Patrick McCarthy, my driving partner and the associate editor of Truckin magazine, posted photos of the new Silverado on the magazine’s Facebook page, he predicted the first comments would be negative, followed by some voices of reason. He was right.

On the highway, first impressions were that the new Silverado is exceedingly quiet. It rode well even unloaded, and the electric power steering had a good feel. We carried on a conversation in normal tones with Carl Hillenbrand, Silverado’s product manager, who was riding in the back seat.

Tackling the ranch’s off-road course, we completed the loop in 2WD, though one rutted, muddy, and rocky climb caused the automatic 4WD to kick in if you lost momentum.

If you’re not a pickup person, towing capacity and payload are vague terms. But they mean a lot to truck people.

The new Silverado has a maximum available payload capacity (passengers and cargo) of 2,102 pounds. The 4.3-liter V-6 can tow up to 7,200 pounds and the 5.3-liter V-8, with a max towing package, will have a towing rating of 11,500 pounds, which Chevy says will be more than any light-duty pickup currently on the market.

We drove a V-6 with 1,200 pounds in the bed over a hilly 26-mile course. It performed well in accelerating, braking, and handling. Chevrolet performance engineer Jeff Vogt later accompanied me as I towed a 5,000-pound camper trailer over the same course—a new experience for me. Trailer sway wasn’t a problem, but big bumps let you know there’s serious weight riding on the hitch.

“You’ll be OK as long as you always keep in mind that the trailer is behind you,” Vogt counseled. “Don’t make any sharp turns, and always check out gas stations before you stop to gas up. You almost always have no trouble pulling in, but sometimes there’s not enough room to make a turn and drive out without complicated maneuvering.” Some of the Silverado’s notable changes and features:

Updated EcoTec3 engines: 4.3-liter V-6, 5.3-liter V-8, 6.2-liter V-8. All have direct fuel injection, active cylinder management (will run on four cylinders under light loads) and variable valve timing.

Pickup box: There’s a step built in to each corner of the rear bumper and it’s big enough for a steel-toed work boot. In addition, there’s a combination hand-hold/stake holder in the standard rail cap to help haul you up. Ten adjustable bed hold-downs help you organize cargo, and LED lights under the bed rail help you locate it, especially under a tonneau cover. All models have an easy-lower, easy-raise torsion bar system that makes one-handed tailgate operation easy.

Heated cloth seats are available, a first in the segment.

Duralife coated brake rotors should come close to doubling rotor life.

Safety alert seat has different vibration patterns to buzz a driver when the available lane-departure warning or forward collision-alert systems kick in.

The seven models—two work trucks (WT1, WT2), LT, LT Z71, LTZ, LTZ Z71, and coming luxury High Country edition—all have individually tuned suspensions.

The first impression is that the redesign has been well thought out, many features combine styling and utility without adding cost, interior controls are intuitive, with plenty of technology. We liked Chevy’s description of the interior quality as “truck luxury.”

We’ll be interested to see if it’s as at home on New England’s roads as it was in Texas.