Sport-Utility Trucks

There used to bea clear delineation between trucks that hauled cargo and trucks that movedpeople, but the line between pickups … Continued

There used to bea clear delineation between trucks that hauled cargo and trucks that movedpeople, but the line between pickups and sport-utility vehicles is gettingblurrier all the time. The literal growth of the pickup cab–from yesterday’sextended cabs to today’s four-doors–means you can haul your buddies and theirgear with relative ease.

Until recently,truck evolution was centered on stretching the cabins of pickups. Now, it’sSUVs that are evolving. The move toward increasing their cargo-carryingversatility has spawned a whole new species of vehicle: the sport-utilitytruck, or SUT.

There are severalSUTs on the market, including three from General Motors–the ChevroletAvalanche, the Cadillac Escalade EXT and the Hummer H2 SUT. The Explorer SportTrac is made by Ford, and the Honda Ridgeline is the only import in thegroup.

HOW SUTsDIFFER

A pickup with aroomier cab is still a pickup at heart, with a cargo box that’s independentfrom the body and a chassis built for carrying or towing heavy loads. In thesame way, an SUT is basically an SUV, except it now has a cargo area that (inmost cases) was carved from what was originally an enclosed portion of thevehicle.

Unlike a pickup,an SUT rides on a suspension tuned more for ride quality and comfort than sheercarrying capacity. That’s why an SUT typically has lower payload and towingcapacities than a comparably sized pickup, though in some cases they’re very,very close, especially when it comes to cargo capacity.

These SUTs aren’tjust SUVs with open-air cargo bays, however. Most of them come by theirnewfound utility with some interesting design features that make a lot of sensefor sportsmen who occasionally need huge cargo capacity but want a smoothride. HUMMER H2

THE HUMMER H2 ISONE OF THREE SUTS from GM, but it differs from its Chevrolet and Cadillaccounterparts in several areas. To start, because of the Hummer’s uniqueexterior design, the bed is much shorter than those of the Avalanche and theEscalade–not quite 3 feet long with the Midgate (see sidebar, opposite page)closed, just over 6 feet long with it open. The bed’s 47-inch width isnarrower, too. Yet because of its air-spring rear suspension (unique to the H2SUT), it has a greater payload capacity than either the Chevrolet or theCadillac–a whopping 2,200 pounds. Other than its configurable bed, the H2 SUTis outfitted like any other Hummer H2–with a 6.0-liter, 325-horsepower V-8engine, a full-time 4WD system, military-esque styling and some highlypractical off-road attributes (healthy ground clearance, short front and rearoverhangs) that have become trademarks of the brand.

With a long listof factory and aftermarket accessories, you can tailor an H2 to just about anytask.

⿪ SEATINGCAPACITY: 5 ⿪ BED LENGTH: 34.7 in./72.8 in. (Midgate open) ⿪ MAX. PAYLOAD: 2,200 lb. ⿪ MAX. TOW CAPACITY: 7,000 lb. ⿪ EPA FUEL ECONOMY (city/highway): N/A ⿪ BASE PRICE: $53,035

(2006 modelspecs)

HONDARIDGELINE

HONDA DESCRIBESITS RIDGELINE as a pickup, not an SUT. But its unibody construction, fullyindependent suspension and seamless integration of bed and body (not to mentionits clear bloodlines to the Pilot SUV) make it much more like an SUT than atraditional pickup. So do its driving manners, which are the most carlike inthe class, thanks to careful suspension tuning and a front-wheel-biasedall-wheel-drive system.

From the outsidethe Ridgeline seems almost like a Chevy Avalanche done in 7/8 scale, but thesimilarities end with a closer look. There’s no Midgate; the Ridgeline’s bedlength is a fixed 5 feet. Honda did some pretty innovative things with thatbed, though. Access is via a tailgate that opens both in the traditional mannerand like a side-hinged door. And under the composite bed floor is a lockable”trunk” with 8.5 cubic feet of storage space–plenty of room for guncases or a generous-size cooler.

There’s no V-8available for the Ridgeline: Instead, power comes from a 3.5-liter,247-horsepower V-6 joined to a five-speed manual transmission. The truck’scompact dimensions and smaller engine contribute to its low-for-the-class5,000-pound tow rating, though its payload capacity is comparable to those ofall but the Hummer.

While it may betempting to dismiss the Honda as too carlike, consider this: With just a fewmodifications to the suspension, engine and interior, a Ridgeline is currentlyproviding strong competition in a series of off-road races, including theinfamous Baja 1000. Few other SUTs can survive that kind of punishment, letalone offer the kind of reliability that all Hondas enjoy.

⿪ SEATINGCAPACITY: 5 ⿪ BED LENGTH: 60 in. ⿪ MAX. PAYLOAD: 1,549 lb. ⿪ MAX. TOW CAPACITY: 5,000 lb. ⿪ EPA FUEL ECONOMY (city/highway): 16/21 ⿪ BASE PRICE: $27,770 (RT model)

(2006 modelspecs)

CHEVROLETAVALANCHE

FOR THE 2007MODEL YEAR, the Avalanche has undergone a thorough redesign. Its styling is nowmore contemporary and cohesive, and its interior is more spacious. Beneath thehood sits a 5.3-liter, 320-horsepower V-8 engine that’s outfitted with GM’sActive Fuel Management system, which shuts off half of the engine’s cylindersunder light loads to improve fuel economy. (A more powerful, 6.0-liter V-8,also with the AFM system, will be available later in the model year.)

The Avalanche’sredesign increases the length of the bed, with the Midgate open, to 8 feet.That rivals the box length of a full-size pickup, though its width is limitedto the between-the-wheels measurement of just over 4 feet (unlike the hourglassshape of a conventional pickup bed, which is wider in front and behind the rearwheels).

Be sure to takeinto account this narrower width if your plans call for a tool or dog box inthe bed. With the Midgate closed, the Avalanche’s bed is a shade over 5 feetlong. That’s long enough to accommodate some dog boxes, but it’s a toughsqueeze for hauling an ATV or any other kind of lengthy cargo.

Among theaccessories added to the Avalanche for ’07 that drivers in cold climates willlove is a remote-control feature that allows you to start and warm up thetruck–and its interior–while you’re still snug in your cabin.

⿪ SEATINGCAPACITY: 6 ⿪ BED LENGTH: 63.3 in. / 97.6 in. (Midgate open) ⿪ MAX. PAYLOAD: 1,355 lb. ⿪ MAX. TOW CAPACITY: 7,800 lb. ⿪ EPA FUEL ECONOMY (city/highway): N/A ⿪ BASE PRICE: $35,490 (LT 4WD)

FORD EXPLORERSPORT TRAC

FORD’S APPROACHTO THE SUT, THE Explorer Sport Trac, combines an SUVlike four-door cabin(identical to the Explorer’s from the front doors forward) with a separatecargo box. This makes it much more like a four-door pickup than the GMvehicles, except that there’s a fully independent suspension with coil springsunder the cargo box instead of a pickup’s solid axle and leaf springs.

The Sport Trac’scargo box is also different from those of most other trucks. The entire box,inside and out, is made of sheet-molded composite (SMC), a plasticlike materialthat resists dents and corrosion. Its exterior is painted the same color as thecabin’s sheet metal; inside the box is a molded-in black inner liner. Threecargo bins are integrated into the box and recessed into the floor. Theyfeature weather-resistant lids and drain plugs at the bottom so they can beused to store iced-down beverages or wet gear.

At 50 inches inlength, the Sport Trac’s bed is the second shortest of the SUTs, but its1,400-pound payload rating is on par with many of the others. To augment itsload area you can order a tubular aluminum “cargo cage” that swings outand rests on the open tailgate.

The Sport Trac’sinterior has been designed with cold, muddy use in mind. Under theBerber-carpeted floor mats is a rubber flooring material that can be hosedclean. Heated front seats are available, as is a heated windshield that usesmicrowires embedded in the glass to speed up defrosting and deicing.

Unlike any of theother SUTs, the Sport Trac comes with either a V-6 (4.0 liters, 210 horsepower)or a V-8 (4.6 liters, 292 horsepower), so you can choose the engine that suitsyour power needs.

Exact fueleconomy ratings were unavailable prior to the truck’s mid-2006 release, butFord expects the V-6 version to match the 15 city/20 highway figures set by the2005 model; the ratings for the V-8 are sure to be a bit lower.

• SEATINGCAPACITY: 5 • BED LENGTH: 50.1 in. • MAX. PAYLOAD: 1,400 lb. • MAX. TOW CAPACITY: 6,640 lb. • EPA FUEL ECONOMY (city/highway): N/A • BASE PRICE: $27,940 (XLT model)

CADILLACESCALADE

FOR THOSE WHOSETASTES RUN more upscale, GM applied the Midgate design to the Cadillac EscaladeSUV line to create the Escalade EXT. The EXT sports the Caddy’s now-trademarkchiseled body styling, a larger and more powerful engine, an all-wheel-drivesystem instead of the Chevy’s traditional 4WD and premium interior materialsand appointments. For example, you can entertain your hunting buddies with theDVD-CD-MP3- XM-satellite-radio entertainment center, while you find your wayusing the 8-inch touch-screen navigation system.

Like theAvalanche, the Escalade EXT underwent a stem-tostern revision for 2007 thatincludes new sheet metal and interior styling; a 6.2-liter, 403-horsepower V-8engine; a six-speed automatic transmission and several chassis enhancements.With the 2007 EXT’s release scheduled for the second half of 2006, certaindetails–payload and tow ratings, for example–were unavailable at presstime.

⿪ SEATINGCAPACITY: 5 ⿪ BED LENGTH: 63 in./97.6 in. (Midgate open) ⿪ MAX. PAYLOAD: 1,154 lb. ⿪ MAX. TOW CAPACITY: 7,300 lb. ⿪ EPA FUEL ECONOMY (city/highway): 13/17 ⿪ BASE PRICE: $53,335* (2006 model specs)

Midgate Offers Maximum Bed Length

GM’S APPROACH TO THE SUT involves a component calledthe Midgate, which was introduced aboard the Chevy Avalanche in 2001. Imaginehaving the ability to open or close a truck cab’s back wall to handle changingpassenger and cargo needs and you have the basic idea behind the newMidgate.

With the Midgate closed, the GM SUTs are five- orsix-seat SUVs, depending on the model, with an abbreviated truck bed out back.But when you fold the rear seats flat, remove the back glass and open theMidgate, the truck’s bed grows to between 6 and 8 feet in length, againdepending on the model.

Folks in colder climates may not want to leave theback of the truck open when it’s in its long-bed pickup mode. In thoseconditions, the Chevrolet and Cadillac beds can be sealed by leaving the backwindow in place and installing cargo-area covers that butt up to the glass.(Hummer H2 SUT owners don’t have this option–its back window slides within theMidgate and must be retracted to fold the Midgate down.)

Rampage: The Next SUT?

AT THE 2006 CHICAGO AUTO SHOW, DODGE unveiled an SUTconcept called the Rampage. The five-passenger truck offers an interestingblend of features: Chrysler’s famous Hemi engine power, Ridgeline-likefront-wheel drive and independent rear suspension and a GM-like midgate thatallows the 5-foot bed to grow when needed.

Dodge took the Rampage’s cargo capacity a step furtherby designing all the seats (except the driver’s) to fold flat into the floor.Access to the cabin is enhanced by minivan-like doors–the fronts are hingedtraditionally, the rears slide backward and there’s no pillar between them. Thefloor is covered with a rubberized material that’s easy to hose out.

There’s been no word on plans to put the Rampage intoproduction, but we think Dodge could make a go of it.