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Trial by back roads

GM heavy-duty trucks prove their mettle in Missouri.

The Detroit man handed me shiny keys to a loaded GMC three-quarter ton - all red and gleaming against a black airport tarmac. His query was simple: "Do you want to take the long route or the direct route to Branson?" Smiling, I asked, "Is the long route fun?" without much thought of missing supper. After all, this was a new truck.

The man with all the keys read me like a book, slipped me directions for the long haul, smiled back and added, "You've got sixty-six miles of back roads ahead, and there'll be plenty of food when you get there."

So I slid up and into fine brown leather, twisted the key, hit the AC and headed down the first blue highway into a hazy humid twilight while I searched for moonshine-running country music on the stereo. For almost two hours, I wheeled up, down and tightly around narrow tar roads through scenic Ozark hill country, where creek crossings have no bridges and roads have no lines.

As the sun slipped away, I wheeled that 2500 rig past the flashy Vegas-like lights of the Mel Tillis theater and into the parking lot of the posh Chateau On The Lake hotel. A GM-outfitted valet took the keys and inquired, "How was it?" I said, "Hats off to the crew who mapped that backwater run. I can't wait for tomorrow's towing tour."

Can they compete? The road drive, combined with a more solid driving experience during handling and towing exercises the following day, led me to believe that what GM touted when we first glimpsed these rigs last winter (Mid-February issue, page 25) may not be far-fetched. On that snowy day in a warehouse setting, GM truck marketing gurus proclaimed that its new heavy-duty GMC and Chevy trucks would finally release Ford's death grip on its commanding lead in this market segment.

Although overtaking Ford by 2001 is a huge challenge, this new Sierra and Silverado line should make some brand-loyal farmers quiver behind their Ford-forever window decals.

Test drive impressions. Not only did we test the towing power of a new GMC 3500 one-ton dually with the new Duramax diesel and Allison tranny, but we directly compared it to a Ford F-350 and Dodge Ram 3500. All were pulling identical trailers that weighed 9,000 lbs., plus they carried a 300-lb. payload in the bed. Granted, displacements were not quite equal, but all were the latest technology.

On a hilly six-mile country road course, the GMC with the tow/haul feature easily handled the hills, while proving to be the quietest diesel I've ever (not) heard. The Ford struggled a little more on the hills than the GMC did. The Dodge couldn't hold a candle to these competitors: I had to manually downshift the automatic tranny to climb several hills, and it was by far the loudest diesel of the three.

Other features I liked about the Duramax diesel and Allison five-speed automatic transmission were their great acceleration power and smooth shifting. Also, we got an early test drive of GM's impressive new Quadrasteer 4-wheel steering system that will be an option on 2002 truck models. After backing a 30-ft. trailer into close quarters and maneuvering through a tight-turn pylon course at low and higher speeds, I quickly became sold on this technology that delivers not only tighter turns with less effort but improved stability, handling and control, even noticeable at higher speeds.

But don't just take our word for it. See these rigs at your local dealer or circle 208 for Chevy Silverado or 209 for GMC Sierra. Or locate our previous story by clicking on Archives in farm

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