From the July 1993 issue of Car and Driver.
The photograph above tells you most everything you need to know about these two trucks. They’re bad boys. Tire-smoking brutes. Terminator trucks. The paint jobs are lust red. From any angle, they’re good-looking and muscular—and if it were possible, they’d be wearing jeans. They’re looking for trouble. These are the New Muscle Cars of Middle America, the horse flesh for the neo-cowboy.
These are “sport trucks,” about the only thing these days that combines the feel of a big rumbling V-8 with the straightforward mechanical simplicity of the old muscle cars.
Right now, there are just two full-sized megapower sport trucks, Ford’s F-150 Lightning and Chevy’s 454SS. (Chrysler has a V-10 brute that will probably appear in the fall of ’94.) Both are big, nasty, and lascivious, and not cheap, either. But as the salesman with the funny tie will tell you, they are affordable.
Still, we weren’t convinced that the high-performance attributes found in sports cars could be mated, with any real success, to vehicles that are already subject to the compromises inherent in dual-purpose missions. After driving them, we’re still not sure. Some of our staff prognosticators don’t see any future for high-performance trucks. And there’s also the disquieting knowledge that Chevrolet, which created this sliver of a market segment in 1990, had just that one good year in sales, selling 13,748 gorilla trucks.
After that, sales plummeted to about a thousand in both ’91 and ’92, and that’s why Chevy has announced that this will be SS’s final season. Which leads us to wonder if the creator of Ford’s entry know something we don’t. Ford recently introduced its Godzilla, the F-150 Lightning, after considerable effort. No less a group than the Special Vehicle Team, which developed the Cobra Mustang, was entrusted to upgrade the F-150 to a full-blooded sport truck, and SVT did a great job. But then, when you consider that Chevrolet used mostly off-the-shelf parts to transmogrify its full-size truck, you have to admit Chevy didn’t do too badly either.
Second Place: Chevrolet 454SS
First impressions of the 454SS confirm its no-frills approach to high performance. That’s because the ride is necessarily firm, and the engine noises are guttural and emphatic. But the 454SS can scarcely fail to impress. With more than 400 pound-feet of torque at a leisurely 2400 rpm, the Chevy greets any pressure on the righthand pedal with an immediate lunge.
HIGHS: Unbelievable torque, rugged good looks.
LOWS: Same old Chevy interior, frightening fuel consumption.
The 7.4-liter V-8 is the same powerplant available in a one-and-a-half-ton “working” truck, but it produces more power and greater torque in the 454SS because of a less restrictive dual-exhaust system. It has so much torque that when you drive with a light touch and the electronic 4L80-E transmission shifts up early, instead of the expected loss of revs to the higher gear, the husky V-8 speeds the whole vehicle to catch up with engine rpm.
With this much steam in the powertrain, you have to wonder why Chevy’s engineers did not fit a rear axle taller than the current 4.10:1 final drive. (At 75 mph, the engine buzzes at a busy 3000 rpm.) But then we went performance testing, and watched the big engine thrust the truck’s blocky body hard against a 120-mph wall of air resistance, and accepted their decision.
Chevy’s monster truck has the same interior as its other pickups, with a clunky square instrumentation binnacle and a plethora of inadequately differentiated pushbutton controls. The goofy electronic ventilation controls need a full six seconds of constant button pressure to go from cold to hot, and they require you to have a special knack for air blending. We longed for simple, sliding controls. Chevy should have put the electronics in the mirrors; the right-side one is six feet from the driver.
Furniture in the 454SS consists of velour-covered buckets with limited adjustability and support. For drivers who can see over six-footers, leg and head room is not marvelous, although there’s enough space for most average-sized people to get comfortable. The relatively high perch and clear all-around vision work with the responsive engine and smooth transmission to provide a great sense of security.
Never mind that this thing takes 217 feet to stop from 70 mph, and that the squashy pedal makes brake modulation a real challenge. Or that the anti-lock rear brakes sometimes lock up anyway. When you’re up there in that wide cab, listening to the big-block V-8 waffling under the deck like a marine diesel in a Cigarette boat, you’re king of the road. It isn’t long before you begin bullying motorists.
You can’t help it. The Chevy has a leer on its mug like Jack Nicholson in heat. Ease this broad visage squarely into the mirror of a driver squatting in the left lane and he’ll scamper for the right shoulder in a heartbeat. If that sounds like a crude power play, you’re getting the picture.
Despite the ZQ8 sport suspension package (higher-rate springs, Bilstein shocks, and big BFGoodrich tires), the 454SS rides reasonably well—at least for a vehicle with heavy-duty springs and no load in the bed. And if the Chevy hasn’t got quite the body-motion discipline that Ford’s Lightning has, at least its oscillations are fairly gentle. The Chevy’s ride deteriorates dramatically on rutted gravel roads, where its jackhammer imitation shook the passenger armrest off the seat during our test.
The front end has double control arms like those on a sports car and a quicker-than-standard 12.7:1 steering gear, and it feels well sorted. The truck format compromises the handling, but it’s not as bad as you might expect. With a solidly weighted variable power assist, the steering is accurate and isolated from kickback shock. If you can overlook the cheap feel of the molded wheel with its fake stitching, you’ll find the driving experience quite acceptable.
THE VERDICT: Being the classroom bully is fun.
The 454SS is set up to understeer, and this it does until determined cornering provokes a quick transition into oversteer. Naturally, we avoided probing the limits too deeply, but on wet surfaces we could hang the Chevy’s tail out with enthusiasm and then steer it predictably with the throttle. Don’t do this with two cords of firewood in the back. In the final analysis, the Chevy is surprisingly sporting for a truck. But it remains, unequivocally, a truck. In rural America, that’s not a disadvantage.
First Place: Ford F150 Lightning
Big and red and loud, the Lightning is another hot-rodded version of a cooking work truck. The major differences between the Ford and the Chevy result from the amount of development that went into them. Chevy’s 454SS is a truck built from available components. Ford’s Lightning, in contrast, had a thorough going-over from performance experts in FoMoCo’s Special Vehicle Team.
HIGHS: Sophisticated driveline, carlike interior and controls.
LOWS: Bad wind noise, agricultural front axle.
It shows. From the moment you twist the key in the Lightning, you’re aware of how performance-oriented the vehicle is. The 351-cubic-inch Windsor V-8 wears GT40 heads with bigger valves and ports and finessed combustion-chamber shapes, and it breathes through a tuned manifold. When it comes to life, it does so with an intense burst of resonant energy you just don’t find in the plumber’s pickup.
The camshaft was recontoured, the throttle body is larger than stock, and the engine uses special pistons with high silicon content and thin, light rings. In reprogramming the EEC-IV engine-control system, SVT’s overriding goal was to improve volumetric efficiency (which would not affect emissions performance), so a low-restriction dual exhaust system with four catalytic converters was fitted to the truck. Ford’s E40D transmission was recalibrated to match the 240-hp engine and is hooked to the limited-slip rear axle by an unusual aluminum driveshaft that’s four inches in diameter.
To complete the effect, the F-150’s ride height was lowered, a sport-tuned suspension package with Monroe Formula GP shocks and thicker anti-roll bars was added, and the truck got striking 17-inch alloy wheels with purpose-built Firestone Firehawk GTA rubber. Inside, the Lightning is much more car-like than the Chevy 454SS, with a contoured dash and two high-backed bucket seats with embroidered logos in the headrests. The seats have more adjustments to help you get settled, but there is no more space than in the Chevy.
Switched on, the truck rocks slightly at idle. Throttle response is clean and fast, and the engine produces more of a solid whoosh than a typical V-8 rumble. Compared with the Chevy’s shifter, the Ford’s transmission selector engages Drive with a light and slick action, leaving the truck quivering eagerly against the brake.
As the charts show, the Lightning’s acceleration is strong, but it finishes a blink behind the bigger-engined Chevy all the way to its electronically limited 110-mph top speed. Although this Ford truck feels less husky in the midrange than the Chevy, the figures show that the 15-hp deficit doesn’t hurt its performance much. Where the Chevy’s forte is clearly in the generation of massive stump-pulling torque, the Ford offers more responsive, higher-winding engine performance.
Ford’s transmission is smoother than the Chevy’s, if slightly slower and less positive in the way it conducts upshifts. (Both will produce nasty load-reversal shocks if you back off the power abruptly.) But the Ford’s gearbox really shines at down shifts, interpreting even mild digs at the pedal as requests for more acceleration. If anything, it errs on the side of overachievement.
The Ford Lightning simply has better drivetrain refinement. Add that to its more compliant ride and civilized driver’s environment, and it outpoints the Chevy convincingly. The Ford’s handling is also superior, and so is its braking performance, with a more positive (though still somewhat squashy) pedal feel. Although the Lightning’s lateral acceleration figure is better than the 454SS’s, they ran identical lane-change times.
There are two areas in which the Lightning really disappointed us. One was the excessive wind noise heard at the side windows, which we bet would become genuinely irritating on long trips. The other was Ford’s controversial twin I-beam front axle, which is really just a pair of very long swing axles. This mechanism seemed to make the truck more darty on bumpy roads than the double-control-arm front end of the Chevy. Moreover, it produced a continuous tremor in the otherwise nicely weighted steering. These impulses were not what you might feel with a wheel imbalance; they felt more like feedback from the high unsprung masses attached to the front wheels.
THE VERDICT: Amazingly good, as sport trucks go.
These two flaws notwithstanding, the Ford wins this heavyweight bout by decision. But take heart, Chevy fans—we may stage the rematch as a tractor pull.
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