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A Short History of the Chevrolet S-10/GMC S-15: 1982 – 2004

S10 blazer back coverIf the 1970s taught anything to General Motors, it’s that American customers loved compact imported cars and trucks, and wanted more of them. It was Chevrolet who first took the fight to Toyota and Nissan (then Datsun) in 1972, with a rebadged version of the little Isuzu Faster pickup dubbed the Chevy LUV, short for Light Utility Vehicle.

The 1973 oil crisis, however, drove home GM’s need to make their own compact truck, and development was started. A few parts bin raids and many hours of design later, the S-10 and its GMC S-15/Sonoma twin were born, ready to welcome the 1980s. Here’s a look back on two generations of this popular compact pickup, covering model years 1982 through 2004, and found in Chilton manual 28860 (1982-1993) and manual 28862 (1994-2004).

1st gen Chevy S10 28860CoverBuilding an S-10 starts with A-body: 1982-1993

The S-10 was launched in 1981 for the 1982 model year, helped with front suspension pieces from the GM A-body (Chevy Malibu, Monte Carlo), and rear differential from the H-body (Chevy Monza) parts bin, in regular cab and extended cab. And while the Japanese-sourced LUV was discontinued for the U.S. market at the same time, Isuzu still had a hand in the S-10/S-15: the base engine was an Isuzu 1.9-liter four-cylinder. The 2.8-liter 60-degree V6 from the front wheel drive X-body cars (Chevy Citation) was also available as an option.

The following year the Isuzu motor was replaced by the newly introduced 2.0-liter four used in GM’s J-body cars (Chevy Cavalier), and another Isuzu engine, the 2.2-liter diesel, was an option in 1984 and 85. Also in 1983, the S-10/S-15-based Chevy S-10 Blazer and GMC Jimmy SUVs debuted, for those who wanted a rear seat and covered cargo area with their trucks. The standard motor was upgraded to a 2.5-liter Iron Duke for 1985, with less than 10 additional horsepower, but 26 bonus foot-pounds of torque. Serious power showered up in 1988 though, with the introduction of the 4.3-liter V6, adding 35 horses and 80 foot-pounds of torque to the best the 2.8-liter had offered.

Strictly speaking, the GMT325 platform twins were exactly the same, aside from differences for the grills, headlights, tailgates, and other bits. The S-15 would receive a name change in 1991, redubbed the GMC Sonoma. The Sierra trim package for the S-15/Sonoma, meanwhile, was discontinued to prevent confusion with the bigger Sierra full-size pickup.

Improbably enough, it was the GMC Sonoma which would birth another high-performance turbocharged GM vehicle in black: the Syclone. This version of the Sonoma was the quickest stock truck at the time, but also in the top ten for quickest stock car, besting the likes of the Corvette and Ferrari off the line. The secret to this straight line supremacy was the firepower of a turbocharged 4.3-liter V6, foolproof four-speed automatic, and superior all-wheel drive traction. The Syclone was also the first production vehicle to boast an anti-lock braking system that worked with all-wheel drive.

The Chevy S-10 didn’t get a power boost, except updates to the fuel injection of the optional naturally aspirated 4.3-liter V6, but did offer the Cameo and Baja packages, both existing from 1989-91. Four-wheel drive S-10s with the Baja package gained a bed mounted light bar with off-road lights, front tubular grille guard with fog lights, improved suspension, aggressive tires and more things needed to handle rough terrain. Two-wheel drive S-10s with the Cameo package received a body kit with wrap-around front bumper, fog lamps, ground-effects molding, rear roll pan, and (in 1991) two-tone paint schemes.

2nd Gen Chevy S10 28862_CoverLike a (Little) Rock: 1994-2004

The second generation Chevy S-10 arrived in 1993 for the 1994 model year, with all of the previous generation’s special models dropped to take aim at Ford’s updated Ranger. There were all new, more aerodynamic bodies and beds, and a new interior. The Iron Duke 2.5-liter was dropped in favor of a new 2.2-liter four, the 2.8-liter V6 was discarded, and the 4.3-liter Vortec V6 received a few enhancements.

New bodies and motor changes aside, the S-10 and its relatives carried over most of the chassis components from the previous generation, though with minor upgrades, like 1/4-inch thicker steering stops on the A-arms. Airbags and daytime running lights arrived in 1995, while extended cab models gained a third door behind the passenger-side door. From 2001-2004 there was also a true four-door crew cab S-10 offered as well.

The Chevy S-10 had a couple of higher-performance option packages available, but the GMC did not. For on-road performance, there was the 1994-1998 SS package for regular cab trucks, and if you prefer the dirt, there was the ZR-2. The 4.3-liter V6 was standard on the SS, giving the truck 180-200 horses (depending on year) but was an option on other S-10s. What set the SS apart was body-color bumpers and grilles, plus the lowered ZQ8 suspension with 16-inch wheels and wide low profile tires. In 1999, the SS was replaced with the Xtreme package, which expanded the ZQ8 suspension and wheels to extended cab models, and included a more aggressive body kit.

Those who wanted more off-road action opted for the ZR2, which also arrived in 1994, and was more than just beefy tires and stickers. Trucks with the package gained a three-inch lift, modified, boxed frame, and revised suspension that resulted in a four-inch wider track, plus 31-inch all-terrain tires, fender flares, and Eaton locking rear differential.

Much like Ford and Mazda with their small trucks, Isuzu came full circle and sold a rebadged Chevy S-10 as the Isuzu Hombre from 1996-2000. Though they look much like the American S-10, they actually used different sheet metal from the Brazilian version of the truck. There is a slight flair to the fenders front and rear, and unique bumpers, lights, and grille on this Brazilian/Japanese/American joint venture.

Not long after the turn of the millennium, the Chevy S-10 and GMC Sonoma were replaced by the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, which shared no parts with the previous small trucks. However, in Brazil, nearly the same truck continued to be produced until 2012. The S-10/s-15/Sonoma remains a popular, affordable platform for building high-performance on- or off-road vehicles (V8 motors are a popular swap), and for hauling and towing when you just don’t have room for a Silverado.

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2 Responses

  1. Lewis Emanuel says:

    I have a 2003 S10 that I absolutely adore, rust and dents included! Despite both doors having been hit (prior to my purchasing it for $1,000 in August of 2015, and much rust at the usual places (wheel flares, cab corners, and rocker panels), I’m going to drive her until either of can’t go any further.

    It’s little four cylinder engine burns no oil, starts with a turn off the key and it drives like my old Chevelle – smooth, minimally and efficiently.
    I wish I had some “extra” money to fix the rust, paint her, and give her new wheels, but, if wishes were wings …

    • Bryan Wood says:

      …and of course, the other reason you still see so many of these trucks, and the Ford Ranger, on the road is that even the “small” trucks you can buy now are too big for the sort of driving most people do. I personally daily drive a 2005 Chevy Colorado regular cab with roll up windows and vinyl floor covering.

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