Late last winter, the worst snowstorm of the season closed our office early. While others fretted about the blizzard and the drive home, I thought, "Bring it on!"
That's because earlier that day I saw what I'd be driving on my commute home: a Sonoma High Rider 4WD pickup truck. The compact truck looked ready for anything with aggressive 31 3 10.5R15 all-terrain tires and a ground clearance typically reserved for full-sized models.
The Sonoma didn't disappoint as I handily wheeled around cars struggling for purchase on the slick roads. I switched into 2WD just for fun, but quickly returned to 4WD when cars started passing me. Stopping the 3,765-lb truck was surprisingly sure given the icy conditions, thanks to four-wheel-disk, antilock brakes, and the big tires.
As the snow cleared, leveling the playing field with the cars, the Sonoma made it easy to resume normal driving. A pushbutton Insta-Trac transfer case lets drivers shift on-the-fly to and from the 4WD high range at any speed. Low-range 4WD is entered in neutral, preferably at about 3 mph.
New for this year is a higher-powered Vortec 4.3-liter V6 engine. It generates 190 hp at 4,400 rpm, and 250 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm, a 15 hp and 10 lb-ft increase. The engine uses new roller rocker arms, a roller timing chain, and a powdered-metal timing sprocket. These valvetrain upgrades are said to boost durability and minimize engine noise.
The more potent power plant, combined with optional 3.73-ratio gears in the locking rear differential, give the little pickup extra zip and a 5,700-lb towing capacity, a 600-lb increase over last year. The engine couples to either a four-speed overdrive automatic or a five-speed manual transmission. The automatic's 0.70:1 overdrive ratio tames the steep gear at highway speeds, letting the engine turn just 2,000 rpm at 65 mph. Surprisingly it didn't help the gas mileage much. I got about 16 mpg in combined city/open-road driving, the low end of the EPA estimate.
Those expecting a carlike ride in a pickup may be disappointed with the Sonoma. It definitely feels like a truck -- but in a good way. Bumps are noticeable yet hardly seem to phase the heavy-duty ZR2 suspension with beefy 46-mm Bilstein shocks. Despite the tall stance, the truck is remarkably stable at highway speeds and in turns.
Driving long distances may be uncomfortable for more than two people at a time, however. The rear jump seats raise seating capacity to five, although quarters are a bit cramped in the rear for all but the smallest adults. My friend's 6-year-old got cranky after sitting back there for about an hour. While the High-Rider isn't the best family hauler, it's perfect for serious off-road romps. Drive one home for about $26,000.