There have been years in my career as automotive guru where not a single "alternative vehicle" - truck, van or sport utility - has come my way for scrutiny.

This year, though, it feels like plain, old-fashioned cars are the endangered species. In looking over the vehicles reviewed this year, a dozen of them were AVs and two of the last three have been trucks, including this week's.Many non-car cars are hot sellers these days, but no segment is hotter than pickup trucks. People who had never hauled anything but kids and sacks of groceries are lining up to buy their first truck.

What's going on here? Pickups have been around practically forever, but the only people who wanted them were construction workers, farmers, ranchers and a few other folks who needed to haul loads of stuff worse than they needed to haul more than two people.

The answer, my friend, is not blowin' in the wind, it's appearing in TV commercials during football and basketball games. It's IMAGE, that's what it is. Namby-pamby doesn't cut it in the '90s. Rough and ready does.

And what could be rougher and readier than a truck? Still, if you're going to be commuting to the office in a truck instead of a car, it would be nice if your truck was more carlike than trucklike, wouldn't it? I mean who wants to bounce around a steel and vinyl truck cab in their Hart Schaffner & Marx two-piece and Florsheim wingtips?

Chevrolet understands, and it has designed its all new S-Series pickups - Chevy's "small" pickup - for people like . . . well, like me.

A couple of weeks ago I tested the all new Dodge Ram full-size pickup and found it to be the epitome of a real man's truck - a big ol' rig with a rough ol' ride for guys with the courage to get 10 mpg and if the Greenies don't like it, tough.

The 1994 Chevrolet S-10 isn't like that. The "Apple Red/Quick- silver Metallic" S-10 I've been driving this week - the "Extended Cab Fleetside" version - is as easy to climb in and out of as a Chevy Celebrity, and it rides like one, too.

What a deal. You get to join the Now Generation and your kidneys don't have to pay for it.

The new S-10 really is an easy rider. The cabin is as cosseting as any car and has (at extra cost) all the luxury and power goodies that former car people have come to expect, including AC, reclining bucket seats, AM/FM with CD player, snazzy two-tone paint, cozy bucket seats and the most important luxury of all, a suspension system made for people who might go to see a rodeo but wouldn't dream of riding in one.

It needs to be emphasized here that the '94 S-Series is not your father's Chevrolet, or even the one you might have bought last year. The old S-10 was a very utilitarian vehicle, to put it kindly, but Chevy sold 2 million of them even in the face of heavy competition from the Japanese small trucks and the Ford Ranger.

The new S-10, by comparison, is sublime. Oh, sure, there's still a pickup bed back there and it will do what trucks will do, but if you're thinking it's time to trade in your '88 S-10 on a new one, your timing couldn't be better.

That said, let me get the usualassortment of nitpicks, cheap shots and thoughtful criticisms out of the way.

The major one is the S-10's lack of airbags or any other "passive restraint." Chrysler is leading the way here with its trucks and vans, and the omission in the S-10 really stands out. Chevy, don't wait until the government orders you to make your truck safer, do it now. Ralph Nader is watching, and so are a lot of potential buyers of small pickups.

Also, get rid of the antiquated two-key system in favor of the single key that the Japanese and Europeans have been using for only 30 years or so. It's a lot more convenient. And lose the turn signal/cruise control/wiper on the single, flimsy stalk. It doesn't look, feel or work very well.

And Chevy, having a radio with CD player only is fine, I guess, but it seems kind of silly that the truck comes with an impressive, built-in cassette tape storage bin when the thing won't play tapes. It suggests that your designers don't talk to each other.

There's no glove compartment. There is this cutout area on the right side of the dash that looks like a glove compartment, but it isn't.

Final nitpick: I still don't like having either a clock or radio station indicator but not both at the same time. How much more could it cost to have the clock separate from the radio?

I want to heap praise on the "extended cab" concept, it transforms the S-10 into a really useful vehicle and I can't imagine buying a truck without that extra space behind the seats. Even the fold-down jump seats are kind of neat, although I can't imagine asking anyone - except maybe 3-year-olds or people from the office you really hate - to squeeze into them for longer than, say, the length of your driveway.

Overall, though, the new S-10 is a wonderful redo. The ride comfort alone would be enough to sell me if I were about to join the swelling ranks of pickup owners - I'm not yet, but who knows?

The interior? Bright, roomy, high-tech, really nice fabrics, functional and visible instruments, easy-to-decipher controls, rear side windows that swing open, sun visor extenders, garment hangers, four, count 'em, four, drink holders . . . like I said, this is a very civilized truck.

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The drivetrain? A 4.3 liter V6 that is smooth and quiet but plenty gutsy, putting out 165 hp in the standard version and 195 in an upscale version. Base engine is a new 2.2 liter four. The optional 4-speed automatic transmission is silky smooth.

Brakes? Not the S-10's best feature to my mind. They seem a bit sluggish and slow to respond and pedal travel seems excessive. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes come with the 4.3 liter engine package.

As is usual in truckdom, the array of models and options that allow you to put together an S-10 "your way" is incredibly long and I'm not going to touch it here.

I will tell you that my test truck's base price was $11,790, but a long list of options, most of which I mentioned above, pushed the bottom line to $17,799 - yes, $6,000 more than the base price but still very competitive and maybe even a bit of a bargain compared with a lot of the rides I've tested recently.

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