Trucks: Three for the road

Three vehicles manufacturers introduced late last year – an all-new Mack highway tractor, Chevy’s 2500 Duramax pickup and Hummer’s “small” H3 SUV – deserve a closer look:

2006 Chevy Silverado 2500HD Duramax offers more complete shifting control
The Silverado 2500HD with Duramax diesel power is just about as heavy duty a pickup as you can buy from Chevrolet – only its 3500HD package is brawnier. But with a starting price around $26,000 (for two-wheel-drive models) the 2500HD is an excellent work truck with plenty of towing capacity and a robust frame to handle jobsite rigors.

I spent a week tooling around town in a gray 2500 HD extended cab, on loan from GM. The truck featured the LT2 trim package, which offered a nice array of amenities, including cloth seats, automatic HVAC system, power seats, tilt steering wheel and front fog lamps. Optional equipment included a Bose stereo, polished chrome rims and Chevy’s heavy-duty power package, consisting of a Duramax diesel 6600 V-8 engine mated to an Allison six-speed automatic transmission and a locking rear differential. These add-ons drove the price of the truck up to $40,000.

On the surface, there weren’t a lot of new tweaks separating the 2006 model from the previous year. Chevy’s cleaned up its front appearance some, which pleased me. I’ve never been a fan of the Avalanche-inspired grille that appeared on Silverado trucks in 2003. But most of the interior is readily familiar to anyone who’s driven a Silverado or Sierra truck in the past two or three years. The only notable change inside the cab was the column-mounted transmission selector.

This particular Silverado 2500HD came with the Allison six-speed automatic (you can also spec a ZF six-speed manual gearbox). Right off the bat, I noticed the gear selector felt awkward when I grabbed hold of it. It felt angular compared to the cylindrical GM shifters I’ve grown used to over the years.

A closer inspection revealed the new shifter design had a purpose: A toggle switch mounted mid-way up the shifter allows you to take control of the Allison transmission and manually shift gears. It works like this: Instead of PRND123, the gear selector indicator on this Allison automatic reads PRNDM. (Park, reverse, neutral and drive I’m sure you recognize. M stands for “manual.”) When you shift into manual mode, the gear selector switches immediately to 654321 (Why they did it in that sequence is beyond me – American sensibilities say it ought to read 123456). At any rate, once in manual, you can quickly see which gear you’re in and easily shift up or down via the toggle switch on the shifter. It gives you extremely precise control of the transmission and would be a definite advantage in towing situations.

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On the road, the Duramax diesel engine provides plenty of low-end and high-end power. The truck tends to lope a bit on the highway when empty, but that’s to be expected with its robust suspension and heavy-duty frame. Overall the ride is smooth and you don’t notice the loping much after a few minutes and not at all after a few days. It’s also quiet and smooth for a diesel – two of this engine’s hallmarks from its earliest inceptions. The truck handles great – despite its size, it corners as well as a 1500 GM pickup.

Hummer’s H3 combines the best of the H2 with some all-new attributes
It’s hard to call anything Hummer builds petite. That said, the H3 SUV is a good idea that’s long overdue. H1 and H2 models are retaining their hardcore fan base – but last year’s high gas prices drove home the point that for most people, those behemoths are simply too impracticable for everyday driving.

Enter the H3. At first glance, this truck appears to simply be a scaled down version of its big brother H2. That image is deliberate: The H3 takes the bulk of its styling cues from the H2, including that familiar, aggressive front grille, angular body styling and its dashboard and interior amenities. Taken as a whole, these features give the H3 an exaggerated stance. The first time you see one – even up close – you think, “Well, it’s not a whole lot smaller than the H2.” But looks are deceiving. The H3 is actually about the size of a Jeep Cherokee or Ford Explorer.

Get behind the wheel and it’s immediately obvious that the H3 is much more refined than an H2. Its handling qualities are top notch and its 37-foot turning radius was impressive. A friend (who used to work for Hummer) complained that the truck tended to drift around a bit at highway speeds. I never noticed that. Indeed, I thought the H3 felt most at home on a long stretch of interstate.

In the city, though, the H3 is a bit underpowered. Despite its small size, it feels like a heavy truck. True, the H3 weighs about 1,000 pounds more than the Ford Explorer. The real issue is the H3’s 220-horsepower, inline, five-cylinder engine. It’s OK once the SUV is up to speed. But you’re not going to break any records getting there. On the other hand, the little engine turns in something like 20 mpg on the highway. So it’s a wash, essentially – you can have power or fuel economy, but not both. For once, the Hummer folks opted for gas mileage.

Inside, the H3 is spacious and comfortable. The ride is extremely smooth and exterior road and engine noise is minimal. The head-turning potential isn’t as great as with an H1 or H2. But the bottom line is that Hummer – a company famed for building impractical vehicles, did a darn good job of designing a sure-footed urban cruiser while retaining enough of its off-road DNA to easily handle any muddy jobsite.

Mack’s Pinnacle features new engine family and enhanced cab room
The Pinnacle is Mack’s new daycab tractor. The company debuted the truck this past fall at its annual dealer meeting in Las Vegas along with its new MP engine series – the company’s first all-new engine family in 40 years – and a new Granite axle-back model. (For more on MP Series engines, see the Engine Notebook article on page 39 of the January issue.)

Taken as a whole, Mack president Paul Vikner calls these three new products “truly the start of a new era” for the company. “These products respond directly to our customers’ requirements,” he notes. “They represent the combination of Mack’s heritage of reliability and durability with the latest in technology.”

Built on Mack’s Advantage highway chassis, Pinnacle is offered in a 116-inch bumper-to-back-of-cab daycab configuration, as well as in 48- and 56-inch “flat-top,” 60- and 70-inch mid-rise and 70-inch high-rise sleeper cab versions. Granite and the new Granite axle-back model use the company’s Cornerstone vocational chassis and feature a 116-inch BBC dimension.

Both of the new product lines have been designed around the MP engine series and feature entirely new cabs. Key enhancements include a 4-inch depth increase on daycab models, providing more leg and belly room and allowing the seat to recline more than 20 degrees. A wrap-around, cockpit-style dash with a new primary gauge cluster provides space for up to 25 switches. Optimal gauge placement for driver visibility and easy-to-reach switches are new too. New CoolBlue backlighting allows easier viewing of the standard driver information system in both day and night. The driver information system has an expanded, interactive display, which also uses CoolBlue technology for clarity and comfort on the eyes.

An adjustable steering wheel, new foot pedal controls and HVAC system round out Mack’s 2006 cab enhancements. Pinnacle and Granite foot pedals are now suspended instead of floor mounted. This means your heel never has to leave the floor when switching between the accelerator and brake pedals, reducing fatigue. Taking a cue from its sleeper cab trucks, Mack has incorporated two rear-mounted dome lights along with spotlights over the driver and passenger seats to improve in-cab illumination.

A one-piece windshield will be standard on Pinnacle models (beginning in the second quarter of this year) and visibility has been further enhanced by “rain or shine” wiper patterns, designed to overlap in wet driving conditions.