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2004 Chevrolet Colorado

An all-new compact bids the S-truck adieu

It's had a great run-22 years, in all-but eventually all things come to an end (unless you're talking about the Suburban), and that holds true for the venerable Chevy S-truck. Introduced in 1981, the S-series helped to redefine the small-truck segment by grafting the handling and performance characteristics of a midsize sedan (MacPherson IFS, V-6 power) onto a compact pickup platform. The S-10 will still be available for 2004 as a Crew Cab model before going completely away next year.

Enter its replacement, the all-new Colorado. Originally planned as a joint venture with Isuzu, and sharing some common architecture with Isuzu's D-Max pickup, the Shreveport-built Colorado-and its stablemate, the GMC Canyon-has morphed through the R&D stages into its own unique entity. The only parts the new Chevy shares with the D-Max are the transfer case and dash-mounted 4WD pushbutton panel. (The D-Max, built in Thailand, isn't offered for sale in North America.) Chevrolet plans to manufacture 175,000 to 200,000 units annually.

At the heart of the Colorado is the 211ci Vortec 3500 I-5, basically five-sixths of the modular 4200 straight-six found in the Trailblazer/GMC Envoy SUV. Rated at 220 hp at 5,600 rpm and 225 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm, the sequentially injected DOHC five-banger employs dual balance shafts to counteract the effects of the vibration inherent with any oddball cylinder count. Acoustic-foam-treated induction manifolds and isolated cam covers also help to reduce noise, vibration and harshness, and a trick three-stage catalytic converter that's integral to the exhaust manifold helps the new mill meet California LEV standards. (Also available-actually, the base-model engine-is a four-cylinder version, displacing 2.8L and producing 175 hp.)

Backing the engine is either the standard Aisin five-speed manual or optional Hydra-Matic 4L60-E four-speed automatic trans, both of which mate to an Isuzu-sourced two-speed transfer case with 2.48:1 low-range gearing and Instatrac shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive. Power is transferred to an AAM-sourced independent 751/48-inch frontend located by twin A-arms and torsion bars and damped by monotube gas shocks (2WD models get coilovers); out back, a solid AAM 8-inch rear axle rides on dual-stage leaf packs and gas shocks.

Four-wheel ABS is standard on all models, though 4x4 versions of the Colorado aren't offered with traction control. Three cab styles are offered for '04-a two-seater standard cab, a slightly stretched extended cab and a four-door Crew Cab.Our test-model standard cab came equipped with the I-5 and automatic, as well as the Z71 Off Road package, which includes twin tow hooks up front; skidplating for the engine and gearboxes; the lowest-offered 4.10:1 axle gears; an Eaton G80 automatic rear locker; and P265/75R15 (approx. 31x10.50) General Ameritrac radials on 15x7 aluminum wheels.

We'd hoped to have this Colorado included in our 2004 Pickup Truck of the Year test (Jan. '04), but our test vehicle arrived from Detroit too late to participate. Undaunted, we saddled up our tester for a few days in the backcountry. Under initial acceleration, the new I-5 displays a pleasantly retro go-kart buzz, which quickly mellows into a deep, throaty baritone as it drops into cruising revs. The 4L60-E impressed us with its smooth shifts. We did notice a flat spot in the powerband in the 2,000-to-2,500-rpm range-well below the shift points-and as a result, while attempting to pass or maintain speed on long uphill grades, we found ourselves having to stomp the go-pedal; the undersquare Five is happier at low revs. If you're wondering why Chevy isn't offering the I-6 in this truck, a glimpse under the hood suggests clearance issues that likely preclude this option. Chevy's official version is that the I-5 supplies all the power and torque of a 6, but in a smaller, lighter package.

Ride and handling were good overall. Road feel is solid and the steering well weighted, with crisp response to input and good return-to-center. Our test model, however, displayed pronounced body roll in high-speed corners and sudden lane changes. We surmised at the time that GM engineers likely softened up roll stiffness on the Colorado to compensate for the greatly improved stiffness of the chassis-it's said to be 250 times stiffer than the S-truck's frame. A fair amount of engine and tire noise seeps into the cab. The Colorado's brakes aren't much of an improvement over the S-truck's-vague and hard to modulate, with noticeable ABS pedal pulse in panic stops. All told, though, the Colorado is a competent little road warrior, capable of taking a 65-mph highway cruise at a shade over 2,000 rpm.

We tested the Colorado extensively in harsh desert terrain, and it alternately pleased and frustrated us. This Chevy's IFS feels much softer than the S-truck's-a nag on-road, perhaps, but a potential boon on the trail, and our time spent four-wheeling the Colorado tended to confirm our hunch. In slow-speed testing, the Colorado's IFS provided surprisingly supple cycling over uneven terrain. The rack-and-pinion steering is well insulated against bumps, with minimal feedback felt through the column, and the P265 Ameritracs gripped competently over trail obstacles.

The Colorado's Eaton G80 locker uses internal weights and clutch packs to transfer all available torque to the axle end with traction when a wheelspin difference of about 100 rpm is detected. This one worked near-instantly-and the driver's the last to know. On a steep, rocky hillclimb, for instance, we came to a stop when one of our rear wheels lost traction momentarily. The instant we took our foot off the brake-and before we could apply throttle, or elect to back down-the locker engaged abruptly and the vehicle lurched forward straight into a slab of rock. We love having an honest-to-goodness rear locker straight from the factory, but we'd prefer something that's not so harsh in operation.

Another cause for concern was the tendency of the engine to overheat at low revs in hot weather. This was a chronic problem with the 2.8 and 4.3 V-6s in the S-trucks, and we were surprised to see this occurring with the new engine. Chevrolet claims that it has re-engineered the cooling system for the I-5, but in our testing, a few minutes' crawling in 4-low in first gear on a 100-degree day sent the temp needle past the 240 range before we shut it down to cool off, a routine we had to repeat throughout our hot-weather test schedule, especially when running in sand dunes.

The Colorado's interior is appreciably more spacious than its predecessor's. There's plenty of head- and legroom for tall testers, and ample elbow room for the long-limbed, though the unpadded door-side armrests are uncomfortable for long hauls. Controls for lights, wipers, HVAC and stereo are straightforward and within easy reach of the driver.The Chevy's instrument panel boasts two large, centrally mounted sweep-needle gauges (mph and tach) but only two level-type gauges (fuel and temp); like the S-truck, the Colorado relies on a slew of icon indicator lights to inform the driver of the status of myriad mechanicals. We're fine with the setup, but in direct sunlight, the icons wash out, becoming difficult to read.

Finally-and at the risk of sounding picky-our test truck's cloth seats were some of the least comfortable buckets we've tested in years, with minimal side bolstering, poor lower lumbar support and balky adjustment levers. External fit and finish on our tester was good, with no noticeable gaps between body panels. We did notice some rattling sounds emanating from the vicinity of the passenger door when driving at speed over rutted dirt roads, but we weren't able to pinpoint the exact cause of the rattle.

The new Colorado reminds us of the trade-offs inherent in any new truck design-and first-year production bugs aside, the truck manages to make those trade-offs without unduly compromising overall performance. Its new I-5 may not have the revvability of the old 4.3, but it pollutes less, gets better mileage and still squeezes more than a pony per cube. It's more trucklike on pavement than the old S-10, but it's more trailable in stock trim. It can't tow as much as the S-truck could, but it can haul more gear-500 pounds more-in its 6-foot-plus bed.

And, as with any new Chevy, the Colorado presents a promising platform for future upgrades via the aftermarket; with a slightly more aggressive tire, some lower gears and a more forgiving locker, prospective Colorado buyers could have themselves a great little trail toy for minimal added expense. We're sure we'll be seeing plenty of them plying the backcountry in the months and years to come.

Vehicle Model: 2004 Chevrolet Colorado Z71 Regular Cab

Base Price : $19,855
Price as Tested: $24,520

Type : Inline five, aluminum block and head
Displacement : 3.5 liters, 211 cubic inches
Bore & Stroke : 3.66 x 4.00 inches
Compression Ratio : 10.0:1
Horsepower : 220 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque : 225 lb-ft @ 2,800 rpm
Recommended Fuel: 87 octane

Transmission : Four-speed automatic
Gear Ratios
1 : 3.06:1
2 : 1.63:1
3 : 1.00:1
4 : 0.70:1
Reverse: 2.29:1
Axle Ratio : 4.10:1
Transfer Case: Part-time 2-speed
Low Range Ratio: 2.482:1
Crawl Ratio: 31.14:1

Frame: Welded steel ladder

Front: Independent, torsion bars, anti-sway bars, AAM 7 5/8-in.
Rear: Live axle, leaf springs, anti-sway bar, AAM 8-in.

Type: Power rack-and-pinion
Turns (lock to lock): 3.2
Ratio: 19:1
Turning Radius (ft.): 40.0

Front: 11.0-in. vented disc
rear: 11.6-in. drum
ABS: Four-wheel

Wheels (in.): 15x7
Tires: 265/75R-15 General Ameritrac TR

Fuel Economy
EPA city/highway: 17/25
Actual Combined, city/highway/trail: 21.2

Weight (lbs.): 3,712
Wheelbase (in.): 111.3
Overall Length (in.): 192.4
Overall Width (in.): 67.6
Height (in.): 64.8
Track, f/r (in.): 59.6/57.5
Minimum Ground Clearance (in.): 8.5
Approach/Departure angles (deg.): 29/26
GVWR (lbs.): 5,150
Payload (lbs.): 1,613
Maximum Towing Capacity (lbs.): 4,000
Seating Capacity: 2