Pickup trucks are as necessary to working farmers as barns and fertile fields, and personal preference is the traditional deciding factor in the highly competitive market segment. If familiarity is as important as function, General Motors gets high marks for both with its 2007 upgrade of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra.

Definitely overdue for a makeover, the General Motors corporate twin trucks have always had a smooth ride, and readily recognized interiors, but after test driving the new trucks, I can assert that GM has come through in improving every facet of the pickups. They are now better-looking vehicles, are strong enough for the toughest work requirements and feature a choice of two interiors that prove you can enjoy highway-cruising luxury even while hauling or towing implements in from the north forty.

Features

The new pickups are intended to differ from GM's new SUVs, which are based on the pickup platform, and the Chevy trucks aim to be more distinct from the GMCs, according to GM truck manager Gary White. The Silverado's contours flow into the fender flares in a styling move to shift from the square-cornered look, while the Sierra attempts to be strong and more muscular.

Along with completely redone exteriors and interiors, it's what comes under the skin that matters most. Five different gasoline engines and a big diesel can be ordered in various forms, and five different suspension packages offer alternatives for comfort, hauling, off-roading or towing priorities.

The GM trucks are loaded with features, and many of them come from among the best innovations in recently introduced competitive vehicles. The lack of a grab handle on the driver's side makes hopping into the seat more of a feat than on the passenger side, which has a grip mounted on the A-pillar. Extended-cab models have a fold-up rear seat cushion to allow more storage, similar to that of the Honda Ridgeline. Wide-opening, double-hinged rear doors are copied directly from the Nissan Titan, although a GM engineer says GM's rear door is better. It opens 170°, he says, while Nissan's opens “only” 168°.

The price of each pickup depends on its size and options. A test 1500, the GMC Sierra extended-cab model with 4-wd and SLT equipment, has a standard price of $34,250, while the heftier Silverado 2500 LT2 extended cab, also with 4-wd, starts at $34,450. By chance, the smaller Sierra I tested had more options, including a Bose audio upgrade and a trailer-towing package, which pushes the half-ton to a sticker price of $41,585 — more than a less-flashy Silverado three-quarter-ton with the off-road package, which is $39,385.

The competition

For decades, there were only two main competitors in the pickup market. Worker-truck buyers fell into either the Chevy or Ford camp, and strong bias became a deciding factor. The Ford F-150 half-ton was the best-selling vehicle in the United States for more than two decades, through 2006, with the Chevy Silverado second. Not as many units of the GMC Sierra were sold, although combining sales of the Silverado with its corporate cousin Sierra would mean the General Motors twin half-tons outsell the Ford.

Both the GM and Ford trucks represent huge profits for those companies, but brand loyalty isn't what it used to be. Dodge introduced and refined the strong and competent Ram, which is now a strong third in pickup sales. In recent years, the addition of powerful trucks with high-tech engines from Nissan, and now Toyota — Japanese companies that design and build their trucks in U.S. facilities — are very competent and further threaten the tradition of brand loyalty.

The previous Chevy/GMC pickups, built on the code-name 800 platform, and introduced in 1999, continued to sell well, topping 935,000 units during their final full year of 2005. GM saved considerably in development costs by staying with the old models. But eight years is ancient in the automotive world, especially when competitors' trucks had been benefiting from computer-aided design strength in the chassis and body. So the pressure was on GM when it unveiled its new 900-platform trucks for this year.

Tougher trucks

The brawnier 2500 Silverado test truck was fitted with a big, 6.0-liter Vortec V8 that retains the aged pushrod design but now has variable valve timing. It develops 367 hp at 5,500 rpm and 375 ft.-lbs. of torque, peaking at 4,300 rpm. It can pull pretty much anything smoothly through a six-speed automatic transmission that has two overdrive gears and can be shifted manually by tapping a switch on the column shift lever.

In the half-ton 1500 Sierra SLT, the 4-wd extended cab test model came with the 5.3-liter Vortec V8 with active fuel management, which is a system that deactivates four of the eight cylinders at cruising speed to improve fuel economy. The vehicle's EPA fuel estimates show 16 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, although in my test, combining some city with mostly freeway driving, we got a high of 15.5 mpg. That is with gasoline, although the tester engine was the iron-block Flex-Fuel version fitted for use of E85 ethanol fuel, which may lower fuel economy figures when compared to the aluminum-block gasoline version. The 5.3 has a four-speed automatic and delivers 315 hp with 338 ft.-lbs. of torque.

A new rack-and-pinion steering system is mounted directly to the front cross-member for better response and lower friction. The new trucks are quiet, with great attention to shrouding and damping material for lowering noise intrusion by 20%.

Quicker steering and GM's Stabilitrak system with rollover mitigation help the new trucks' stability, and 360° perimeter safety includes pretensioning harnesses and front, side, and roof-mounted head curtain air bags. The heavier 2500 feels calmer over rough roads than the lighter 1500, as the increased rigidity and firm suspension make a difference.

Maybe brand loyalty won't allow some buyers to concede anything to GM, but those who have always preferred the Silverado or Sierra will find the new trucks vastly improved and capable of being contenders for the title of “top working pickup.”