Forget that herd of SUVs rumbling by. They're not too sporty and not that utilitarian either. For real utility, look to the recent proliferation of extended cab pickups.
The Sonoma Crew Cab model from GMC is a prime example. It has spacious seating for four full-fledged adults (the manufacturer says five adults, but I differ with their definition of adult), and it can haul enough cargo for all but the more extreme home repairs and gardening upgrades. Prices are right, too, especially when compared to those of sport-utes. The 4WD model I tested rang in at $27,767, including a $585 destination charge.
The Sonoma, unlike its more-expensive and larger cousin, the more visually striking Chevy Avalanche, lacks any really exciting exterior styling. But on a blustery, snowy winter morning, a metallic pewter truck with heated seats, four-wheel drive, and a heater that warms up the cab in minutes, can be a beautiful thing. It doesn't hurt that the black leather seats, a $1,500 option, and trim makes the compact truck's interior almost cozy. If only it had a fireplace.
But seriously, the 4.3-liter OHV V6 generates 190 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm, more than enough to get the 5,150-lb truck up to or over the speed limit in a matter of seconds. A four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive and torque converter is standard, but two different five-speed manual transmissions are available. At 15/20 city/highway mileage and a 17.5-gallon tank, you can cruise over 300 miles without stopping.
GM suspension engineers give the truck nearly carlike ride and handling with an independent torsion-bar suspension up front and well-tuned semielliptic, two-stage, variable-rate multileaf springs in the rear. Four-wheel drive lets the truck plow through snow or grip wet roads. The smooth ride and variable-ratio power steering, along with the 4WD, inspire confidence. Suburban spouses and the Golden Age crowd should have no fear of driving this, even in crowded parking lots or on wide-open highways.
The cargo box measures about 4.5 3 4.5 ft and is about 1.5-ft deep; total cargo volume is 30.2 ft3. Payload capacity is rated at 1,111 lb, and it can trailer 5,200 lb. One cargo-box option I would like to see is the tent that sleeps two. There's also an optional bed-extender that encloses the open tailgate for more cargo-carrying room, and lockable tonneau covers to protect what's in the cargo bed.