Chevy's Biggest, Baddest Truck
The Good: Towing capacity; capacious, leather-lined interior
The Bad: Bouncy ride, fuel-thirstiness
The Bottom Line: One of the biggest, baddest-looking trucks on the road
Owning a Chevrolet Kodiak C4500 pickup truck has to be among the ultimate power trips. The Kodiak and its sister model, the GMC TopKick, resemble the tractor of an 18-wheeler with an eight-foot pickup bed tacked on its back. One of the biggest trucks you can drive without a special commercial license, it towers over conventional vehicles.
From a practical standpoint, the Kodiak's 16,000-pound maximum towing capacity, plus the additional 5,500 lb. it can carry in cargo, make it a real bear for hauling everything from huge horse trailers to big boats. This is essentially a commercial-grade General Motors (GM) truck chassis that has been tricked out as a high-end pickup truck by Monroe Truck Equipment, a Wisconsin company that modifies truck chassis for specialized purposes&Ium—armored vehicles, dump trucks, fire engines, etc.
This truck tends to appeal to three types of buyer, says Scott Hanewall, general manager of the Flint (Mich.)-based Monroe operation that produces the Kodiak and TopKick. The first two are horse owners (including, he says, a surprising number of women) and contractors, landscapers, and others who use it as a work vehicle during the week and for recreation on the weekend. The third group, he says, are buyers "who just want the biggest, baddest truck they can find."
On the high end, the Kodiak's main competitor is the , International CXT (BusinessWeek.com, 4/28/06), a behemoth pickup truck with a nine-foot-tall cab that starts at $120,000. (There are also a somewhat smaller and less powerful International MXT, which starts at $89,500, and an RXT that starts at just over $80,000.)
On the low end, if you can call it that, are the Ford (F) F450 and the new '08 Dodge Ram 4500—less ostentatious pickups that offer huge towing capacities and dual rear wheels at a lower price. For instance, a rear-wheel-drive 2008 Ford F450 with a crew cab starts at just over $40,000, rising to a $51,280 starting price for a fancy four-wheel-drive Lariat version.
The Kodiak's road presence is nearly as imposing as the International CXT's. The big Chevy is eight feet wide, nearly eight feet tall, and (with a crew cab) 20.5 feet long. It weighs about 10,000 lb. You have a choice of either a huge 6.6-liter, 330-horsepower Duramax diesel V-8 or a huge 8.1-liter, 325-horsepower gasoline V-8.
The Kodiak/TopKick is a relative bargain compared with the International CXT. Hanewall says a Kodiak/TopKick base model with rear-wheel drive starts at about $55,000. In the mid-range, at around $80,000, is the Cinch (after the Western apparel brand) upgrade package that includes distressed leather seats, wood interior trim, and an entertainment system.
A top-of-the-line model goes for upwards of $120,000 and includes navigation and entertainment systems, a power sunroof, leather upholstery, wood interior trim, extra chrome inside and out, heated and power-adjustable seats, power mirrors, windows, and doors, traction control, and a custom paint job. You can find out more about available options at a Monroe/GM Web site devoted to the models.
As you might expect, the Kodiak isn't especially fuel-efficient. In 268 miles of mixed driving in a diesel-powered Kodiak, I got 12.3 miles per gallon. But Hanewall says owners report getting 12 mpg or more with the diesel engine even while pulling heavy loads. The truck also does well off-road. Ground clearance is more than nine inches, and GM says the truck can climb 15-inch steps.
Largely because of fuel-price jitters, overall sales of Kodiak/TopKick commercial work vehicles are down substantially this year. Monroe, however, creates only about 350 custom Kodiak and TopKick pickups per year, and sales are holding up reasonably well, Hanewall says.
Kodiaks and TopKicks can be special-ordered through Chevy and GMC dealers. Delivery typically takes six to eight weeks, though Monroe has an inventory of already-built trucks for buyers who can't wait.
Behind the Wheel
If you've ever ridden in the cab of an 18-wheeler, you'll have an idea of what the Kodiak's ride is like. The truck bounces and thumps along, reacting to every little bump in the road. But the front seats have an air suspension system, so you sort of float above the fray as the truck jostles underneath you.
In a truck like this, you're sitting so high up that you can't see anything that's near the front, rear, and sides of the vehicle. To make sure you don't inadvertently crush a Volkswagen when you turn or change lanes, the Kodiak has cameras that go on when you activate the turn signals, giving you a view of what's happening alongside the truck. There's also a rear camera, but you still can't see what's directly behind the vehicle, making it hard to parallel park.
Otherwise, the Kodiak isn't difficult to drive. You can even get one with a six-speed Allison automatic transmission if you don't want to monkey with a clutch. The main difficulty is that the truck is so wide—and the big rearview mirrors stick out so far—that you have to be careful not to clip signs and mailboxes along the side of the road. You're too high up and too far away to use a drive-up window. When I stopped at an Arby's, I had to get out of the truck to pay for and pick up my sandwich.
In accelerating from 0 to 60, I timed my diesel-powered Kodiak in about 12.5 seconds—slow, but faster than I expected. The truck, however, doesn't have a whole lot of oomph for passing at highway speed.
One reason the truck handles heavy loads so well is its heavy-duty air suspension system. It also has an auxiliary engine-braking system that gives you extra control when decelerating or descending a hill while towing a heavy load.
Monroe has lowered the truck's suspension so the bed is only about as high off the ground as in a conventional heavy-duty pickup. But the Kodiak's bed still rides very high (so much so that for the first time I can recall my agile, 65-lb. Lab-mix dog had trouble jumping up into the back of a truck on his own). To make loading cargo easier, there's a Rear Air Suspension Dump Control that lowers the rear of the truck four inches at the push of a button.
There's a reason basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and other plus-size sports stars own Kodiaks or TopKicks. The truck's cabin has an enormous amount of head, leg, and shoulder space, and the front seats tilt way back. The power rear seats fold down into a double-bed-size sleeping space if you need to overnight on the road.
Buy It Or Bag It?
The Kodiak 4500 offers an appealing combination of showiness and functionality. Its looks and road presence are almost as striking as the International CXT's, yet the Kodiak can be had for a lot less.
Still, you only really need a truck this big if towing and hauling capacity is a top priority. Less expensive conventional full-size pickups such as a Ford F150, Toyota Tundra (BusinessWeek.com, 6/15/07), and Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra (BusinessWeek.com, 1/23/07) can tow 10,000 lb. or more. And they come in heavy-duty versions, such as the Sierra 2500 (BusinessWeek.com, 5/8/07) and 3500, with more towing capability, especially if you go with a bed-mounted trailer hitch.
So, study up before buying to make sure you're willing to pay a premium for one of the largest of the monster trucks on the road. If so, the Kodiak may be for you.
Click here to see more of the Chevrolet Kodiak.