For the last half a decade, the full-sized truck market has been the arena for a brutal game of one-upsmanship between Ford and Ram. One year, Ford breaks out a new tow hitch innovation on the F-150, and the next year, the Ram sees that doo-dad and raises a suite of comfy new interior features. A 10 percent increase in horsepower begets built-in port and starboard lockboxes, perfect for storing tools, or, even better, beer. Everything improves constantly, except for the prices, which rise ever upward. As the luxury truck market has reached new levels, top-trim cabs now look and feel like the executive offices of a Dallas mortgage bank. And as the pace of change accelerates, the manufacturers know can’t stop, or they’ll fall behind.
Meanwhile, the Chevy Silverado, un-updated since 2007, has looked sadder and sadder every year, like The Giving Tree waiting for its boy to return. Compared to the developing F-150 and Ram juggernauts, it seemed to wither before our eyes, as forgotten as a filling station on a rural road long ago beaten by the interstate. But the Silverado is a historic product for Chevy, and an important one, a long-standing brand with lots of loyal customers. Last year, it accounted for 25 percent of the company’s sales. Chevy needed a modern Silverado.
For 2014, Chevy has relaunched the Silverado, saying it’s “new from hood to hitch.” There’s a beefy look, with more chrome, broader shoulders, and a grille that seems twice the size as the previous year’s model, an updated interior suite with lots of faux-wood and faux-chrome for the higher trims, extra towing capacity, a 355-hp 5.3-liter V-8 Ecotec engine (with a 6.2-liter one promised later this year). They’ve definitely modernized their full-sized truck up to industry standards. It no longer lingers behind like a wind-up toy in a battery-powered world. But the Ram and F-150s have never been better than right now. Is it enough?
I spent a day recently driving the new Silverado at a ranch between Austin and San Antonio, in the middle of the Texas Hill Country, pretty much ground zero for the American truck consumer. We did a little street driving, some off-roading, and quite a bit of heavy towing. For my road run, I took out a V-8, and it roared down rural (destined to become upscale subdivision) roads. It was fast for its size, and responsive, a real armadillo-flattener. The steering and braking offered me no trouble.
The towing, I did with the help of another car journalist who had more experience with such matters, thereby answering the eternal question: “What would happen if two Jews with severe food allergies hauled a 5,500-lb. camping trailer around Central Texas with a V-6 pickup?” The answer: Things would go very slowly, though it wouldn’t really be because of the drivers. The V-6 version of the new Silverado can tow something that big, but good luck getting it over 45 mph on even the flattest roads. For that size engine, look at a 2,000-pound payload or lower unless you want to feel like you’re riding on an airport inter-terminal shuttle.
On the other hand, the 5.2 liter V-8 is an absolute tow-beast. My drive partner and I hauled an enormous and hideously tacky lime-green speedboat for almost 25 miles with nary a worry. That engine has some serious industrial grade haul capacity, and the 6.2 liter will be even better.
Now to the off-roading. A melodramatic thunderstorm had blown through the area the night before, so our access to the property’s trails were limited. I drove a Silverado with its Z-71 offroading package through the bits of muck we were allowed to tackle, and it did fine, though I’m not enamored of the Hill Assist feature, now pretty much standard in all off-road vehicles. The Silverado’s wasn’t particularly intutitve, though it was hard to reach.
Overall, the new Silverado is significantly better than the previous edition. The customer for this car is probably already a Chevy driver, and probably coming out of a 2002 or 2004 edition. For them, driving the new Silverado will feel like they stepped into a time machine and emerged into a glorious future. But it’s harder for those of us who’ve driven the new Fords or Rams to make such a distinction.
At lunch, I spoke with Chris Perry, vice president of marketing for Chevy, and I appreciated his frankness when I asked him about competing with Ford and Dodge. On Chevy’s new “High Country” luxury Silverado line, he said, “that was a segment we weren’t playing in. We were just giving that away.” He also admitted that Chevy had fallen behind in crew-cab sales, and was looking to pick that up as well. So then I asked him the $40,100 question:
“Why would someone buy the Silverado over the F-150 and the Ram?”
There were two factors, he said. One was that the Silverado offered “the quietest cabin in the segment.” While that may be true — and I’ll admit to not having tested engine-noise levels in the competitors — it can’t be true by much. Also, it’s always a little suspicious when the industry is hawking a “quiet cabin.” It means they might not have anything else to sell.
The other factor, though, was more impressive. The Silverado’s engine has a trio of new technologies: An fuel-management system that allows cylinders to activate or deactivate based on the truck’s need for them, a system that Chevy only deploys elsewhere in the new Corvette; variable valve timing, and fuel injection. And all this comes standard, even in the V-6. There’s no upcharge to get a “special” engine, even one that can boast, as the V-6 does, 23 mpg on the highway. That’s good gas mileage for a slightly yuppified truck — better than the competition save for a couple of the Ram's fuel miser models — and there are few higher compliments to pay to a vehicle than to say it’s got a really great engine. The Silverado’s heart is clearly in the right place.
It’s hard to say whether or not this will be Silverado’s year when the annual truck awards get handed out by America’s highly objective automotive journalists. Unlike in previous years, it will at least merit consideration. But it had better watch out. The way trucks are evolving, Ford and Ram may soon develop the power of flight.