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Rumble Seat

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While it's not quite as earthshaking as telecommunication convergence technology--an important breakthrough that will finally make possible real-time, on-demand downloads of Doogie Howser, M.D. reruns--the neat categories into which we divide cars, trucks and sport-utilities are melting together.

Suddenly, pickup trucks are sprouting four proper full-size doors, making them, um, pickup sedans. At the Chicago Auto Show last week, GM unveiled 2001 models including the Chevrolet S10 Crew Cab; GMC Sonoma Crew Cab and 2001 Sierra Crew Cab; and Toyota displayed the Tacoma Double Cab pickup.

These vehicles join the Nissan Frontier and the Dodge Dakota Quad Cab, both of which appeared on the market last year. Also appearing this year is the Ford SportTrac, a pickup-bed version of the Ford Explorer (which itself started life as a pickup truck) and the Ford F-150 XLT Supercrew.

And that's just the beginning. In the pipeline are: the Chevy Avalanche, a brute-ute pickup truck with four doors; the GMC Terradyne and Dodge MaxxCab, both hulking pickups with snubby beds and full-size doors; the Subaru ST/X, a four-door compact pickup that ingeniously converts the rear seats to open cargo space by repositioning the rear bulkhead. Volkswagen also has a concept vehicle called the AAC, which is another large and in-charge, be-doored pickup with a luxury patina. Even Buick, maker of America's most retrogressively staid vehicles, is pondering the Buick LaCrosse, a regular full-size sedan whose rear trunk lid slides back Venetian blind-style to reveal a cargo bed.

I don't know everything about cars, but that list looks like the making of a trend.

Of course, full-size pickup trucks, particularly those in the over-8,500-pound GVWR category, have always been available with full-size rear doors, the better to get your framing crew to the job site. But light-duty trucks have more often had smaller doors that opened suicide-style: that is, with the hinges in the rear.

The problem with this configuration, clever marketers were quick to apprehend, is that light-pickup-truck buyers were not using their truck beds very often. They were just as often inconvenienced by the lack of five-passenger capacity in their trucks. These people would often move on to sport-utilities, only to be frustrated again when they had a load of pine straw, and most especially fertilizer, to haul in their SUVs.

And here lies the convergence: Two-vehicle families who had a sport-utility and a pickup truck can now reasonably expect these hybrid vehicles to serve in both roles equally well. Isn't this somehow subversively ecological?

Recently, one of these camelids showed up in my driveway. The 2000 Dodge Dakota Quad Cab began life as the Dakota pickup, a near full-size pickup truck about the same size as the Toyota Tundra. Like most if not all of these four-door trucks, the Dakota's rear cargo box has been shortened to make room for an extended cab.

The cab itself is very generous, with enough rear headroom and legroom to accommodate three generously proportioned people. The front bench can also seat three, and that makes six--a lot of bodies in a compact pickup truck. The Dakota's rear seat back has a comfortable rake to it, compared with many such trucks, where the bolt-upright seat position feels like being lined up against a wall for execution.

The rear seat featured a 60/40 split-fold feature, so that either or both cushions can be folded. This allows seating for two in the back with a small cargo space inside. Both seats fold up flat and tight against the rear bulkhead, revealing a wide interior storage compartment. The bottoms of the seats feature elastic straps to hold flashlights, jumper cables and other utility items.

Meanwhile, the cargo bed has shrunk considerably, from 6.5 feet down to 5.3 feet. According to Dodge demographic research, this contraction will work no hardship on the buyers, since truck buyers use the full length of their cargo beds only 10 percent of the time. If buyers of the Quad Cab long for the missing inches, they can purchase a truck-bed extender from the resourceful folks at Mopar.

The Quad Cab hybridizes in other directions as well, directions not observable upon gross inspection (hey, suddenly it's an autopsy report!).

The Quad Cab comes with a choice of engines, big and bigger. The base engine is a hearty V6 with 175 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque. But the bedrock of the model line is the 4.7-liter SOHC V8 putting out 235 hp/295 lb-ft. For those craving the full 8,000 pounds of towing, the 5.9-liter V8 with 245 hp/335 lb-ft can be slotted under the hood.

What's striking about these motors is how terribly smooth and carlike they are, owing to the sophisticated engine mountings and overhead-cam V8 smoothness. Most of these engines are hooked up to similarly silken four-speed automatic transmissions. Even in our test model, a 4x4 with a hunky two-speed transfer case, the vehicle's overall feel was more like a well-oiled sport-utility or even, gasp, a sedan.

Our test model, the full-smash 4x4 model with the 4.7-liter V8, cost $28,575. If anything indicates that pickup trucks are treading on the sedan territory, it's the price.

But what of the iconic American pickup truck of Sam Shepard and Hank Williams--the long-suffering and loyal, simple and soulful bench-seat pickup truck that can carry only a cowboy and his saddle? Those days and that vehicle are disappearing faster than we can build suburbs, partner.

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