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1998 Sport Truck of the Year

Title Bout IV: Let’s Get Ready To Rumble

Joel Mollis
Feb 1, 1998
Sport Truck's annual knock-down, no-holds-barred prize fight to determine bragging rights as the best sport truck on earth-the Sport Truck of the Year-has become a heavily anticipated event among manufacturers, readers of Sport Truck, and the editorial staff of the magazine. Everyone, it seems, has a vested interest in seeing which truck is named the top gun for 1998.
But before any hauler is declared the undisputed STOTY champion, this magazine's staff spends time driving and evaluating each entrant and observing as professional hired guns put the trucks through their paces at the track. Truly, this ain't no show 'n' shine-it's a tightly regulated, thoroughly documented, head-to-head test that takes into account every aspect of street truck performance, and precisely determines how each Sport Truck of the Year contestant measures up.
Now, without further ado, we ask that you take your seat as the main event is about to begin.

Round 1: The Preliminaries

You may have scoped out the photos that accompany this story and been curious about the diversity in STOTY contestants. It's safe to say that each truck manufacturer has a unique philosophy regarding design, cost, intended use, styling, power, and how its truck fits the marketplace.
For example, Dodge's 5.9L Dakota Sport R/T is loud 'n' proud and makes no apologies for being so. Chevy's S-10 takes a different approach to street performance, combining a stylish look with a well-tuned suspension and a low MSRP. Depending on your lifestyle and just what tasks you have in mind for your hauler, either the Dakota or the S-10 (or both) could suit your needs. The point is, each manufacturer sent us its version of what it thought could win STOTY. Some went for the well-rounded approach; others went for raw muscle, while some trucks were sent equipped with every available option. We purposely left that choice up to each manufacturer.
There were, however, two areas stipulated as off-limits per STOTY rules: (1) Each truck was to be delivered in OE trim--that is, factory-equipped, with no dealer-installed accessories; and (2) No one other than the Sport Truck staff would be allowed to observe STOTY test procedures (to keep outside influences to a minimum). Besides, if the manufacturers saw their freshly built trucks being evaluated at the hands of the magazine's staff, well...

Round 2: The Contestants

STOTY regulations require that each truck in the contest be a new or extensively upgraded model. Nissan's Frontier was the only truck in our test which was totally new for 1998. It sported a redesigned 2.4L engine, completely fresh sheetmetal, and a thoroughly upgraded chassis and suspension. Mazda came to the conflict with its B4000. Powered by a 4.0 liter V-6 and featuring restyled front sheetmetal and a new interior, the Mazda had just enough new tricks to qualify for this year's competition.
Ford's Ranger also made the grade, thanks to its freshened hood, front fenders, grille, bumper, and lights. Our grape-colored Splash, equipped with a V-6 and a five-speed automatic trans, drew admiring glances and comments during the numerous fuel stops we made during STOTY testing. It could have been the paint....
The Dodge Dakota R/T Sport was another truck that garnered more than a few envious looks from the performance enthusiasts we met during the ride-n-drive segment of our test. Believe us, more than a few jaws dropped when we casually keyed the Dakota's ignition and let that big ol' 5.9L V-8 settle into its beefy, rumpity-rump idle. Besides the new V-8, the Dakota also sports fender flares and big 17-inch-diameter rolling stock--three changes that qualified it for this year's STOTY challenge.
The GMC Sonoma and Chevy S-10, although similar in mechanical content, are noticeably different in both appearance and performance, a divergence our test procedures would later underscore. The Sonoma's new front sheetmetal, reworked interior, and high-performance ZQ8 wheel, tire, and suspension package qualified it for participation in this year's STOTY event. Chevrolet's gutsy little S-10, sporting new front sheetmetal as well as an improved interior, looked to be a real sleeper. We weren't expecting tire-frying performance from the four-cylinder engine, but the Bow Tie's short wheelbase (standard cab, shortbed), and ZQ8 suspension and rolling stock looked like the hot setup for the skidpad and at-speed corner-carving. How right we were....

Round 3: On The Skids

Previous STOTY shootouts made one thing abundantly clear: Do the skidpad testing early. The reason? Our hot-lapping associates from Hotchkis Performance, John Hotchkis and Scott St. Peter, would, under the guise of testing, slide, scrub, and drift each STOTY contestant until some of the tires, "excessive" treadwear.
The reason for such a severe test of machinery lies with the results we uncovered. Believe me, few vehicle test procedures will tell you as much, as quickly, about a truck's handling characteristics and tire performance as this test.
Basically, our skidpad was a flat, clean piece of pavement on which we marked a circular course 200 feet in diameter. The skidpad results you see in this story were measured with each truck following the circle clockwise for several laps, then counterclockwise for a few more. This gave the guys from Hotchkis enough computer-measured data to determine each truck's maximum speed around the skidpad, its best (lowest) laptime, and the maximum amount of g-force (lateral grip) that each truck is capable of generating.
Mostly, the skidpad numbers tell a lot about a truck's tire size and grip, although the truck with the best results on the skidpad will also demonstrate highly effective suspension action and control. Here, the numbers proved true: the large, low-profile Goodyears on the Dakota simply gripped and stayed planted. The surprise was the S-10. It doesn't take a whole lot of power to circulate around a skidpad, so the Chevy's 2.2L Vortec I-4 engine wasn't a factor. What was a factor was its ZQ8 suspension and wheel and tire combo which allowed the giant-killer S to post some truly impressive numbers.

Round 4: Ride, Eat, Drive

This is the segment of testing that's most anticipated by Sport Truck's editorial staff. We get up by dawn's early light (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), eat a hearty breakfast, and drive over a predetermined series of freeways, backroads, twisty roads, straight-as-an-arrow roads, uphills, downhills, mountain roads, desert roads, smooth roads, horrendously rough roads, and every combination thereof. Then, we pause for a midday dining experience, switch vehicles (that's another story) and do it all again.
Occasionally, we stop and fuel the trucks, compare driving impressions, field questions from the curious ("So, them's the 98s, huh?"), check the vitals on each hauler, do the driver-switch thing and head out on the road. Again.
Seriously, it's not all fun and games. When you're switching from truck to truck every couple of hours, you get a real feel for the nuances of each ride. You also become adept at distinguishing among the multitude of switches and controls found within the cockpit of a modern sport truck ("Uh, which one is the gear shift indicator light?"). And each tester will experience every truck's suspension action and drivetrain functions, and will get an overall feel on how the truck responds in real-world driving conditions.
While all of this is going down, each test driver is responsible for keeping a logbook filled with comments about every aspect of each truck's performance, including remarks on what each tester liked and didn't like, as well as fuel mileage and general observations. Then, long after the sky turns black, six weary staffers retreat to their hotel rooms, clean themselves up (to varying degrees of success), and reassemble for the evening's I Can Eat More Than You contest. Finally, there's sleep. Zzzzzzzzzz...

Round 5: Mr. Millens' Wild Ride

It's yet another morning of backroad driving, but with a twist: We're formation flying--NASCAR-style--on this leg of the route since we've got a 220-mile commute and an appointment with hot-lapper Steve Millen at San Bernardino County's Emergency Vehicle Operations Center (EVOC).
Millen does the STOTY road course testing and he's very, very good at whipping a truck around the six turns (three banked, three flat) and the short and long chutes of EVOC's test track. Moreover, Millen has the uncanny ability to provide a running commentary (over two-way radios) about each truck's handling while he's driving: "She got a little twitchy past 70 in Turn Three; you may want to add 2.4 pounds of air pressure to the right rear tire."
Steve Millen knows what a good-handling vehicle is, and he's not intimidated by big power, squirmy tires, or severe understeer. That Millen is a terrific driver is no real surprise--he's the winningest driver in IMSA history. That experience and skill is why we hired him to shoe our trucks around EVOC's tricky handling course. Additionally, Millen is a skilled communicator, delivering an extensive pitch regarding each truck's handling and power traits even as he's stepping out of each vehicle.

Round 6: Go and Whoa

After the previous day's activities, each Sport Truck staffer was assigned a truck to drive home for the evening so as to get additional driving impressions in a familiar setting. (Funny thing: Our editorial director assigned himself the Dakota--go figure.) Anyway, after an evening with each STOTY ride, we regrouped the next morning at the Los Angeles County Raceway (LACR) where the dragstrip runs and braking tests would be conducted.
Once again, we called in a skilled pilot for our tests; namely our pal Cole Quinnell, formerly of Hot Rod magazine, now the editor of 4-Wheel & Off-Road. Since Quinell handled all of Hot Rod's quarter-mile testing when he was its technical editor, and since he can routinely be found behind the wheel of high-powered vehicles as part of his ongoing duties at Petersen Publishing, the choice was easy.
We performed braking tests by having Quinnell bring each truck up to 60 mph (as measured by a Stalker radar gun), then, on command, stop as quickly as possible. Several runs were performed with each truck; some stops were made using threshold braking techniques (hard braking just short of wheel lock), but a majority of the braking test was run with each truck's ABS in full operation.
Our radar gun is capable of accurately determining the precise moment when maximum deceleration begins and when the test vehicle has come to a complete stop. It downloads that information into a laptop computer, where the data is turned into the braking performance numbers you see in this story. Much to everyone's amazement, the shortest stopper was the Mazda.
Then we turned to go. Quinnell put each truck through several runs on the dragstrip, using a street (low rpm) launch and letting the automatic transmissions shift at their predetermined points. The five-speed, manual-shift GMC and Chevy were shifted just short of their indicated redline, and neither truck was power-shifted.

Round 7: Ride and Decide

After a morning spent watching Quinnel put the trucks through their paces, the staff was ready for another round of driving. We took off on what would be a 250-mile journey. We made the most of it since it would be our final leg of STOTY testing. Drivers were switched every hour, we stuck to desolate, curvy backroads, and we strafed every last apex we came across. Later, under cover of darkness, we hit the freeway and headed home, each of us knowing that the biggest task of the week would come the next day when the staff would scrutinize the mountain of raw data that STOTY testing generates.
After we reviewed the numbers, we began a sort of round-table discussion, where staff personalities and emotions came to the fore as each tester debated the good, the bad, and the ugly points of each truck. When it was all over, the numbers didn't lie. When it was all over, each staff member knew that we had given every truck we tested a fair shot at the crown. When it was all over, we knew that we had chosen the best of the best.Ladies and Gentlemen, Sport Truck magazine's 1998 Sport Truck of the Year is....


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