It's no secret our two American car companies are in dire straights. Neither Ford nor GM can afford any product mistakes, especially with their high-volume, solid-profit half-ton pickup trucks. To say there's a lot riding on the new GMT900 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra would be a gargantuan understatement. And although GM won't tell you this, we suspect this truck has to be a hit to keep things afloat. Ford, Toyota, and Dodge have come to market with vastly improved products since the last Silverado came out in 1999-Nissan even put a brand-new truck in the corral. And Toyota's about to come out with another Tundra, on sale just months after the new Silverado makes its debut. The competition has gotten stiffer, and a miss here-in the most profitable, highest-volume segment in the largest automotive market in the world-could stop General Motors in its tracks.

We got an early look at the new platform and spoke to some of the engineers who've spent the last five years developing the new GMT900 trucks. Much of the technology that went into the currently popular full-size SUVs (Tahoe, Yukon, Suburban, Avalanche, Escalade, Denali) came from the work they were doing on the GMT900 pickup trucks. But the engineers aren't regretful-they're happy the Tahoe, Escalade, and Yukon are selling well (all three sales numbers are far above last year's), mostly because they feel it could be a predictor of what happens when their truck gets to market. As with the SUVs, there's little carryover on this new platform. The foundation starts with an entirely new frame, with most of the engineering effort going into the all-new front coilover frontend and recalibrated rear-leaf suspension. Dynamics engineers were tasked with making the unloaded ride and handling far superior to the previous torsion-bar setup, while increasing payload and towing stability at or near maximum load and carrying weights. To achieve this goal, they widened the track and incorporated a new rack-and-pinion steering unit. They also used advanced computer software to more accurately tune leaf-spring ratings, shock valving, and frame harmonics, and matched those to various load scenarios.

The maximum towing numbers for the new pickup are said to be a class-leading 10,500 pounds, with a maximum payload rating of 2070 pounds, which also is best in its class. However, that might not be the most impressive detail about the new Silverado and Sierra, especially now that we can see what they look like.