Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
This truck works hard and plays hard.
Attractive looks, healthy torque from V6 engines, three doors and a myriad of options make the GMC Sonoma a popular pickup. Along with the Chevy S-10, the Sonoma competes with the Ford Ranger, Dodge Dakota, Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Mazda B-Series and Isuzu Hombre.
Originally introduced in 1994, this truck has been refined and upgraded for the past five years. Recent changes include more powerful engines, better fuel economy, improved suspensions and a greater selection of options, including a third door.
For 1999, the Sonoma comes with a Next Generation driver's airbag. Heated power mirrors are now available and all exterior mirrors have been redesigned and enlarged for improved rearward vision. Insta-Trac is now standard on all 4x4 models; just a touch of a button engages the shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive system. Composite skid plates are optional. An anti-theft alarm and flash-to-pass feature were added this year.
GMC offers a huge selection of options with two- and four-wheel-drive models, regular and extended cab bodies, short and long beds, seven different chassis packages and SL, SLS and SLE trim levels.
Our test truck was the Sonoma SLS 4X4 extended cab. Ours came with a $256 Heavy Duty package that includes heavy duty springs and shocks. It also came with an optional $1,802 package that included the Wideside body, SLS sport decor, the Vortec 4300 V6 engine, aluminum wheels, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, cruise control and an AM/FM/cassette stereo with a clock. And it was equipped with dual lighted visor mirrors, cupholders, and full floor carpeting with mats.
The Sonoma is an attractive truck with a smooth, aerodynamic hood that wraps around the front end. Its clean exterior lines includes a body-colored front bumper, fascia and grille and a new headlamp design that integrates all forward lighting functions. Composite headlamps are standard with optional integral fog lamps. The front license plate bracket is molded into the charcoal-colored lower valance, while a new center step cutout in the rear bumper gives easy access to the cargo area and increases towing capacity on some models. A palette of new metallic colors includes Topaz Gold, Meadow Green, Fire Red, and Indigo Blue.
Maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds when equipped with a 4.3-liter V6 engine, automatic transmission. Final drive ratios include a 3.42 and 3.73 for towing.
The stiff, four-sided ladder-type frame dips in the center to make it easier to step up and step down when getting in and out without sacrificing ground clearance for off-pavement driving. The stiff frame allows the suspension to do its job properly for improved ride quality and better handling.
Now a popular choice, the third-door option for extended cabs was an industry-first for compact trucks when GMC introduced it. A driver's-side panel swings out to make it easier to load personal gear, pets and people.
Buyers of two-wheel-drive Sonomas have a choice of three types of suspension tuning: Smooth Ride damps out bumps, Heavy-Duty offers increased payload and towing capabilities and Sport provides the sharpest handling response on paved roads.
The Sport, or ZQ8, suspension package for two-wheel-drive regular and extended cab models is designed for performance enthusiasts. This street suspension package enhances handling and goes a long way toward making the Sonoma ride and drive like a car. This is accomplished using shorter springs, high-performance gas shock absorbers, urethane bounce jumpers, front and rear stabilizer bars, specially tuned variable-ratio power steering and wide eight-inch aluminum wheels with Goodyear P235/55R-16 tires. An optional locking rear differential enhances traction on unpaved roads.
Buyers of four-wheel-drive models have a choice of suspension packages to suit their needs: Smooth Ride is designed primarily for paved and gravel roads and offers a comfortable, but solid ride quality. Heavy Duty is designed for high payloads and towing; it rides very firm and is a serious work truck. ZR2 Highrider Off-Road package are designed for off-road driving enthusiasts. Distinctions include shocks, springs, and the wheel and tire package.
Sonoma's interior is roomy, comfortable and functional. The long, wide body along with a relatively thin door design translates to impressive shoulder, hip and head room.
Seat options include high-back bucket seats for two passengers or bench seat for three; a reclining 60/40 split bench is available in addition to the standard bench. Seat comfort is enhanced by two-way driver lumbar and standard recliners on SLS models. Seats, as well as door panels and carpet, are a Scotchguard stain-resistant fabric.
The sculpted instrument panel includes radio and ventilation controls that are angled 15 degrees toward the driver for improved accessibility. Dashboard details include a gauge cluster, individual air-conditioning outlets with shutoff controls that completely stop air flow, and a passenger-side assist grip located on the instrument panel. Up-level models now have two dash-mounted power outlets below the ashtray.
Sunvisors come with extensions for additional glare protection. The center console can accommodate an optional remote cassette player with dual feedback. A glove box, door pockets and space behind the seats provide basic stowage needs. Extended cab trucks offer fold-down jump seats for rear occupants, but this space is better reserved for pets and packages.
Other options include power windows, door locks, tinted glass, and an upgraded remote keyless entry system with security alarm.
Safety features include taller integral head rests and a new seat belt design that allows the belt to travel with the seat for a safer, more comfortable ride for occupants of all sizes; daytime running lamps are standard.
The Sonoma offers good seating position, with good visibility and an open, airy feel. A sloping hood, narrow A-pillar and unobstructed views to the rear make for good visibility in all directions.
We enjoyed driving the Sonoma 4x4. The ride quality was a bit jouncy with the Heavy Duty suspension package. This suspension is at its best when hauling a heavy load or pulling a trailer and rides better with a cord of wood in back. The Smooth Ride suspension is more comfortable for everyday use and works well for the light-duty work most pickups perform.
Two different 4.3-liter V6 engines are offered. Ours came with the more powerful optional engine, which served up a robust 190 horsepower at 4400 rpm and 250 pounds-feet of torque at 2800 rpm. It delivered healthy throttle response across the power band, which made everyday driving enjoyable and assisted with passing maneuvers.
The standard 4.3-liter V6 offers 180 horsepower and 240 pounds-feet of torque. Both use sequential central port fuel injection and offer an excellent combination of horsepower and torque. The base 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 120 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 140 pounds-feet of torque at 3600 rpm.
Our STS was equipped with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, a $1,070 option.
Sonoma's electronic transfer case called Insta-Trac is a dream to operate. Simply push a button to shift into low-range and you're ready for the toughest terrain. A high ground clearance, a locking differential, aggressive tires, gas-pressure shocks and heavy-duty multi-leaf rear springs produced positive results during our off-road excursions. The Off Road Package is designed for serious off-roaders. Four-wheel disc brakes come standard on four-wheel-drive models.
We particularly enjoyed the feel of Sonoma's capable brakes. Brake pedal travel is relatively short with improved pedal feel, all of which instills confidence.
The always-improving Sonoma line is one of the most versatile compact trucks on the market with models and options to suit a wide range of drivers.
Linden, NJ; Shrevesport, LA.
Options As Tested
Air conditioning, aluminum alloy wheels, tilt steering column, cruise control, high-back bucket seats, SLS decor, automatic transmission, heavy-duty suspension package, electronic shift transfer case, siding rear window, deep tinted glass.
4WD SLS Extended Cab short bed.
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