The Way of the Pickup Truck

An experiential look at the culture of the pickup truck – featuring the 2011 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD

The pickup truck – it is an American institution.

For as long as the automotive industry installed pre-fabricated boxes to be placed behind a chassis-cab truck, Americans used the good ol’ pickup primarily as a work vehicle. If you built something, you used your truck to haul your tools and materials to your job site. If you’re a farmer, you used your truck to distribute hay bails or send needed items out to the far reaches of your property.

As work vehicles, they dutifully serve their owners well. Even so, the pickup truck also serves as a recreational vehicle. Whether it is a camper that slid onto the bed or pulling a trailer with the family boat on it, pickups are asked to do more and are configured to provide the performance necessary to enjoy life.

Within the last two-to-three decades, the truck became more than a work and recreation vehicle. In some instances, it is the family vehicle. Though in some cases being larger than a SUV, with little-to-no weight holding down the rear end, pickups became the ultimate sign of blue-collar success. The whole family can luxuriate in a four-door pickup truck where video screens and DVD players provide entertainment for second row passengers, while the driver continues to build subdivisions or yield harvests.

The result? The best selling vehicle in the USA is the Ford F-150 and Super Duty. The best selling product in the General Motors lineup is the Chevrolet Silverado. Chrysler created its own brand and division governance to its Dodge pickups – RAM. We also have Japanese brands with American-built trucks: The Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan. And, so on…

This phenomenon isn’t just exclusive to the good ol’ U.S. of A. Pickup trucks sell as many units as cars in places such as Canada, Mexico, Thailand, China, Australia, parts of Latin America and in South Africa. The idea of the pickup truck changes from market-to-market, but nowhere in the world can you make the case of the popularity of the full-size pickup truck than right here in the NAFTA zone.

I have one question to ask: Why are these huge, hulking, gas-guzzling pickup trucks so important to our society?

To understand why pickup trucks are huge in this part of the world, I swallowed my Earth-bound car/SUV/crossover pride and strapped myself into one. I certainly got more than I asked for when a 2011 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD showed up at my front door.

It’s been a long time since I drove a pickup truck. Looking at it, the Silverado 2500HD is gigantic. Certainly, I could have gone much larger with a dual-rear-wheel 3500HD, but I will admit being intimidated by the sheer mass of an otherwise normal-looking heavy-duty pickup. The 2500HD came with a four-door crew cab and a “standard” size bed of over six-and-a-half feet in length. In all, the 2500HD is a tad over 240 inches long, riding on a 153.7-inch wheelbase and standing 78 inches high. The Silverado’s curb weight is about 3-1/4 tons! Compared to my first car – the 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Luxury sedan – there’s simply no comparison. This Silverado is absolutely the largest vehicle I have ever driven in my 31 years of licensed driving.

The Crew Cab is supposed to seat five, but full-sized adults may have a tough time in the rear seat. The front seats are wide and offer a plethora of adjustments behind the wheel. In the LTZ trim being sampled here, you are treated to basic-grade sedan leather seating along with volumes of cabin storage to boot.

In front of the driver is a fully stocked instrument panel, including a navigation screen and Bluetooth connectivity. Since they use the same fascia as the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban for the LTZ trim, the satellite navigation screen is at a lower position for the driver to glance at en route. Sadly, I miss the clarity of the Buick Regal’s Nav screen, as the “old” GM touch screen display is simply a mess to understand. To make matters even more interesting, on one instance the Nav decided to steer me to a location several miles south of its actual position. This occurred after confirming the address and the turn-by-turn directions from OnStar. I’m glad I knew the general location of my destination, but the navigation system argued with me while OnStar was in full agreement.

Under the hood is the Duramax 6.6-liter V8 turbocharged diesel mill. In a heavy-duty pickup, you’d expect the 397 horsepower lurking underneath the raised profile hood of the Silverado 2500HD. What I wasn’t ready for was the mammoth 765 pound-feet of torque this big turbocharged diesel has on the low end. Not being in the truck world, I would gather this is a number from a Pagani Zonda or a Bugatti Veyron. But, again, I had to remind myself that this is a pickup truck and that number represents something more important to a truck owner: Hauling power.

Which brings me to this very important point: Reviewing a truck is to employ a completely different set of competencies I need to look at versus any other vehicle I normally write about. There is a different set of driving dynamics involved when looking at pickup trucks. It is because they are primarily used for work whether it is for commercial use or around the house. To talk about any performance dynamics on a pickup – let alone one with the capacity and capability of this Silverado 2500HD – would have to be completely discussed from the standpoint of how it is applied as a work and recreational vehicle.

To accomplish my comprehension of pickup trucks, I had a few tasks in mind to see whether any car person could live with one – whether they are used as intended or not.

It began when I took the Silverado 2500HD to a job interview. Luckily this was at a suburban office park – not too far from home. I was hoping it would be further to see how the diesel stretches out the miles, but you take what you get these days in this economy. The challenge is to park it in the lot near the entrance with hopes of not destroying every vehicle around you. That meant finding a space big enough for the truck – which I did. It was a bit of a walk, but there was plenty of room to park the truck for the interview. Since I drove into the space front first, backing it out may seem like a chore-and-a-half. It wasn’t. With a back-up camera and parking assist, I was able to get the truck out of the space and out of the office park without destroying property, vehicles and landscaping.

The next challenge was to take the Silverado 2500HD to an appointment in an urbanized area – Uptown Minneapolis. The point of this challenge was to test the truck’s ability to do on-street parking and to see whether it could camouflage itself amongst the ironic hipsters in the neighborhood. Parking became no problem since there were spaces near my appointment that fully accommodated the Silverado 2500HD. As for the camouflage part – well, no one looked or cared about what was parked along Hennepin Avenue even if it stood out like a bulging sore thumb. I suppose it passed muster on the streets of Uptown Minneapolis.

The next task was related to what was happening at the house I reside in. My roommate, the home’s owner, had been doing some renovating in various places. I offered up the Silverado 2500HD to take what was left from the renovation to the local dump. However, some guy in another pickup beat me to it. All that was left to haul was the old toilet – which was grabbed up for free via a Craigslist ad by my roommate.

Earlier in the week, one of my Facebook friends commented on my page by offering up the truck for any moves – including curbside couch sweeps and IKEA runs. No takers, I’m afraid. I was even planning to help out of the local groups to help build their float for next weekend’s Twin Cities Pride. The weekend’s inclement weather dampened my spirits to do so.

The Silverado 2500HD did go shopping – not to a lumberyard or home improvement center, but to the mall. At any suburban shopping center, parking can be a chore when you want to do a quick in-and-out for just one item. Otherwise, you may have to leave the truck in the outskirts of the parking lot (or ramp) to ensure that no one would trade paint with it while navigating in or out of an adjacent space. You might say that either I got my exercise for the day or I was pretty darn lucky to find a space that would require some delicate maneuvering upon exiting the mall.

My final challenge was to utilize the truck as a recreational vehicle. Though the 2500HD was equipped to pull a trailer, I did not have access to one. Nor had I been invited to do any camping or at least something outdoorsy that most pickup truck owners enjoy quite vigorously.

The only option I had was to tailgate – sort of. Since a number of my friends participate in a local softball league, I decided to head over to their games on a somewhat humid Sunday. Clearly it was the largest vehicle parked amongst other participants and fans at the park. You’d think there were others who might rival the sheer mass of the Silverado 2500HD, but what I found instead were other truck people sharing their stories and experiences with me. A form of compensation, I suppose.

One thing about trucks that needs to be said here: If you rarely drive one, find someone else to guide you through the ins and outs of one. A truck can start many conversations with contractors, farmers, salespeople and enthusiasts. It is from these conversations that I began to put the pieces together to realize what I had in my possession.

Ultimately, a truck is a tool – the largest, most powerful piece of equipment in your toolbox. One must use it wisely. This is where my experience in the Silverado 2500HD became clear – this is a truck that should not be driven by people like myself. Only those who need the pulling power, the payload and trailering capacity and the necessity to use it in a commercial application should consider the Silverado 2500HD (or one of its competitors) as their most important tool in their life.

Based on this summation, I can only throw a few points on how the 2500HD performed. The Duramax provided the wallop needed when torque is required. Coupled with the Allison six-speed automatic, this is a massive combination that works extraordinarily well. Having never driven Ford’s PowerStroke or RAM’s Cummins diesel, I cannot make any comparisons to the Duramax/Allison combination to find out which one is a better power team for your heavy-duty pickup truck.

The ride quality of the 2500HD may be a shock for those who normally drive cars or SUV/crossovers. If you are not carrying a payload of a significant weight – say, 1000 pounds – then the truck will not provide a completely solid ride on the road. With no weight in the back, nothing is truly anchoring the rear wheels down onto the tarmac. Also, trucks are notorious for wide turning radiuses. This is true for the Silverado 2500HD. Instead of u-turns at small intersections, you end up doing a three-point turn to accomplish the same feat. However, the Silverado 2500HD shines in overall handling and cornering. This big baby tracks like a good car should with less vehicle roll than some old luxury cars.

For truck buyers, I must point out that the 20-inch rims on my 2500HD tester are not highly recommended. This became perfectly clear when I drove it on the highway with an empty load, where the shorter tire sidewall also contributed to the ride quality issues I experienced in this truck.

Another reason not to spec out the 20-inch wheel option is when the truck is used for commercial purposes. If you work on a construction site or on a farm, you need more tire sidewall to protect the suspension and the truck from damage in off-road situations. The solution is to spec out a smaller diameter rim/tire combination – no more than 18-inches. Ultimately, this will result in an overall improvement in the ride quality of the truck.

Regarding the fuel consumption of this heavy-duty pickup, my economy loop from this big diesel engine came out to 13.7 MPG. It may seem like a poor number, especially when the truck mainly rode on an empty bed doing mostly urban and suburban driving. Also, keep in mind that the Environmental Protection Agency no longer publishes fuel economy ratings for heavy-duty pickups. Comparing anything regarding fuel economy is a moot point if you’re in this specific truck market.

Another note regarding fuel use: Please read the owner’s manual and the print on the fuel gauge! Because the Duramax requires Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel Fuel, make sure the pump you pull up to has it labeled accordingly. Otherwise, that $7,200 diesel motor you selected will commit Hari Kuri before you know it. For the environmentally conscious, the Duramax can also take Biodiesel up to B20 without damage to the engine and the fuel system.

The biggest shock of this truck experience was the price of this particular top-of-the-line Silverado 2500HD. Not only is this the largest vehicle I had ever driven in my life; it is also the most expensive as well. At just over $62,000, the Silverado 2500HD commands ownership of the road with its sheer size and massive performance from the Duramax/Allison combination. Yet, this truck provided a curious mix of excellence and question mark points. From a truck owner’s standpoint, there are some items I would leave off the ordering sheet. Once specified for work (and play), it must reflect an honest value worth being your greatest asset wherever you take your truck.

Through the experience of Motor Trend’s current Truck of the Year, I can honestly say that I fully comprehend what it means to own and operate a full-sized pickup truck. I walked away from the Silverado 2500HD with a huge respect for these vehicles and its extremely loyal owners regardless of brand, specification and use. You full-sized and heavy-duty pickup truck owners truly own the road in your own special way. You get my salute – even as I return back to driving something smaller and more Earth-bound. I ask one favor in return: When you see me on the road – don’t hurt me, please?

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by General Motors.

All photos by Randy Stern

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