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Published: 05/12/2004 - by Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Talk about the most hopelessly pointless vehicles on the planet these two must qualify at the head of the class. Let's see, a pickup truck with a huge gas-guzzling engine, tons of horsepower and virtually no ability to go off-road doesn't sound too appealing, does it? That is, until you jump behind the wheel of one of these things where it's non-stop fun and ear-to-ear grins. For now, there are really only two of these monsters to choose from, so we limited our test to the 2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10 and the 2004 Ford F-150 SVT Lightning. The Silverado SS was excluded because it's just too much like a regular Silverado. If Chevy decides to drop the new 'Vette engine under the hood of a Silverado 1500 standard cab and add the appropriate wheels, tires, brakes and suspension, then we'll talk about a three-truck comparison test. Until then, Ford and Dodge have the baddest muscle trucks around.
But as similar as the two trucks are, their approach is very different. Dodge's solution is to shoe-horn the Viper's V10 under the hood of an otherwise perfectly good Ram 1500 and add huge 22-inch wheels, monstrous brakes and various interior upgrades. The Ford formula is to take the previous-generation F-150, install a supercharged and intercooled 5.4-liter V8 motor, add some mild wheels and tires and special seats and call it a day. Both work well, but the Ford has a little more stealth to it.
While we're sure these trucks will be wildly popular with the NASCAR set, there's no arguing that both can kick some serious tail alongside the best performance cars, let alone other trucks. The real comparison here is two-fold: Any hopped-up truck should deliver tons of performance but it should do so in a budget-friendly manner. The second and most obvious (and just plain fun) aspect is all-out performance which truck is the baddest of the bad? Although very similar in concept, these trucks wind up on opposite sides of the road in real-world driving.
For a long time, the Ford F-150 Lightning was the undisputed leader of the muscle truck pack. Not that there was much of a pack, but still, the Lightning was "it" if you wanted a super-fast truck. Sure, Chevy had the SS454 way back in the day, but Ford's current Lightning has long been the go-to truck when looking for muscle car fun with a truck bed on the back.
However, the new kid on the block, Dodge's Ram SRT-10, beats the F-150 at its own game. The Lightning's supercharged 5.4-liter V8 makes an impressive 380 horsepower, but that pales in comparison to the SRT's 500 ponies. The Ram is just plain faster and it's easier to tap the available power than it is in the Lightning. At the test track, the SRT-10 is much easier to get a good launch out of so quick quarter-mile times are a breeze. The Lightning also lacks the seriousness of the Ram in that it is not available with a manual transmission and its 295/45 tires just don't offer the grip needed to get the power to the ground. With an engine that does its best work at higher rpm, and a four-speed automatic transmission, it was more of a chore to get a good, clean launch of the F-150 without spinning the rear tires excessively.
Still, when all is said and done, the more expensive Ram topped the F-150's best 0-to-60-mph time by only about half a second and its quarter-mile time by less than that. So in terms of all-out performance, the two trucks are actually closer than you might think. What really separates them is the manner in which they go about getting those numbers. While the F-150 lacks the aggressive verve of the Ram, it is ultimately more pleasant to drive on a daily basis. The Ford's suspension feels a little softer, and this results in more body roll than in the Ram, but said Dodge tends to beat you up when driving in traffic. For those seeking a nice combination of comfort and butt-kicking performance, it's the Lightning that comes out on top. And the SVT's automatic transmission only enhances that theory. The Ram's six-speed tranny and super-fun Hurst shifter make it the top choice for pure performance, but the SVT's automatic is rather nice when that long stretch of open blacktop turns into a traffic-clogged freeway. Also the Lightning's brakes felt a little more like normal truck brakes while the Ram's brakes, with their 15-inch rotors, felt somewhat touchy. Again, this makes the Ford more pleasant to drive in everyday traffic, but the pedal felt a little soft when really stomping on the brakes.
The F-150's exhaust note is more pleasant as well. Of course, it depends on what you mean by pleasant. The Ram's V10 sounds fearsome, but that can get old after an hour of stop-and-go driving on a crowded expressway. The SVT's exhaust note is nice enough to let other drivers know you mean business, but it's not as intrusive. Now, you can take this one of two ways: Either the SVT Lightning isn't really a performance truck on par with the Ram SRT-10, or it is simply a more usable muscle truck that won't punish your senses if you want to drive it to work everyday.
So Ford's version of a performance truck has its good and bad qualities. But a real disappointment about the SVT Lightning is the fact that the interior differs little from that of a standard-issue F-150. Well, actually the first strike against the Lightning is that it is based on the previous-generation truck. We loved the Lightning concept based on the much more attractive current F-150 that was shown at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show. It had the performance and dressed-up interior that a truck needs to effectively compete against the Ram SRT-10. In comparison, the 2004 Lightning's interior seems boring and stale. When buying a muscle truck, you want to feel like you're getting something special. The Ford's dash offers only white-faced gauges to set it apart and the two-tone seats with suede inserts are a nice start, but where's the pizzazz? Unlike the SRT-10 Ram, the Lightning's dash is awash in cheap, hard plastic surfaces. The SVT's stereo is pretty good, but offers nothing near the gut-pounding power or superior sound quality of the Ram's Infinity sound system.
Accessories aside, we do like the fact that the SVT Lightning can be used as a light truck in addition to its tire-smoking abilities. The Ram has a rear spoiler over the bed, which limits the ease with which you can load cargo (the wing is removable but you'll need some basic tools to do it). The Lightning's bed is open like a normal pickup's bed which makes it practical to use as a regular truck. You won't be hauling pallets of cement mix or bricks with either one of these trucks, but having the open bed is nice when you need to take the lawnmower in for service or haul some gear to the beach.
So it is ultimately these kinds of compromises that give the Lightning its softer but more user-friendly feel. It does offer impressive performance, but the real power comes on a little later due to the nature of its forced-induction engine. In the Ford's favor is the fact that even with a few options, it's still at least $10,000 cheaper than the Ram. Overall, the well-aged Lightning now feels somewhat lackluster in comparison to the SRT-10, but it does offer a less frenetic driving experience and that (combined with a lower price) may be enough for some drivers to choose it over the Ram.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Ford gets credit for bringing the Lightning to market almost 10 years before Dodge created the SRT-10. This version of the F-150 Lightning has always impressed me with its good looks, powerful engine and everyday drivability. While the SRT-10 is more user-friendly than you might think, the F-150 doesn't even feel like a performance truck when you're just tooling along. The suspension balances performance handling and ride comfort perfectly, the automatic transmission shifts smartly yet smoothly and the steering is progressive and well weighted.
But step on the gas and you're instantly reminded of the supercharged V8 under the hood. When not under boost, the engine is as docile as the rest of the car. This is both good and bad. If you like the idea of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality, the Lightning will suit you perfectly, especially since Mr. Hyde doesn't come out until you really want/need him. However, if you like the progressive nature of a big, torquey, normally aspirated engine, the SRT-10 fits the bill. I was also somewhat disappointed in the Lightning's propensity to smoke the inside tire when applying the throttle in a turn. The standard features list says the truck has a "traction lock" rear differential, but our experiences with the truck suggest otherwise.
With its lower sticker price, real-world driving dynamics (and fuel consumption) and classy looks, the SVT Lightning is a tough act to follow, even if the acceleration numbers show the SRT-10 out in front. I'm a huge fan of the Ram and the Viper, but I'd probably go with this truck for my personal use.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Coming into this test, the Lightning was seemingly at a disadvantage for several reasons. Because it isn't based on the current-generation F-150, it has to make do with the same F-150 platform and body style that Ford has used since 1997. This means it doesn't have the fresh sheet metal, nicer cabin and improved safety of the '04 F-150. Why do I say "seemingly"? Because although I never fully warmed up to the "organic" style of the previous F-150, it does work well with the Lightning where, perhaps due to the big wheels, aggressive front fascia and side exhaust, it gives the truck a "bulging with muscles" look, most appropriate for this niche category. And although the dash and door panels still look (and are) as cheap as those in the previous-generation F-150, the Lightning's comfortably supportive and attractive sport seats atone for that sin. And safety? Somehow I think those who are considering the purchase of a near-400-horsepower pickup aren't going to scrutinize crash test scores as closely as the family man looking at an F-150 SuperCrew.
Having said all that, the question remains does the Lightning work as a muscle truck? Without a doubt, yes. Although the Ram SRT-10 was a blast, the Lightning gives almost the same amount of pin-you-to-the-seat thrills in a more livable package. It accelerates hard, sounds cool (yes, I like the whine of a supercharger) and handles very well. The brake pedal feel could be better, but the brakes themselves do an effective job, judging by the numbers the Ford turned in at the track, and the ride is easier on your backside than the stiffly sprung Ram. It's also not as much of a gas guzzler as the SRT-10 is and costs $12,000 less. If I had to pick one of these to have as a daily driver, it would be the Lightning.
When Dodge first showed the Ram SRT-10, it was met with skepticism and eagerness all at once. "Yeah, right," many of us reasoned, "who in his right mind would build a 500-hp standard cab pickup? It'll never happen." Well, imagine our delight when Dodge unveiled a production version of the V10-powered truck just a few months later. Next thing you know it'll be selling the Dodge Tomahawk, a Viper-powered cycle.
Still, it takes more than just a big engine to make a successful vehicle. Accordingly, Dodge added massive 22-inch wheels (the largest wheels available on any production truck) shod with Pirelli Scorpions and backed up by Bilstein monotube shocks and front and rear stabilizer bars. There's also a six-speed manual transmission with a Hurst shifter, various interior upgrades and a 508-watt Infinity sound system.
Of course, the real deal with this thing is power. The Viper V10 makes a whopping 525 pound-feet of torque and an equally astonishing 500 horsepower. Frankly, the truck is just a blast to drive. With all that power, you'd think spinning the back tires would be commonplace, but the 305/40 Pirellis offered so much grip that breaking those tires loose took either wet pavement or a deliberately abrupt launch by popping the clutch.
With all that pavement-grabbing power, you'll need some serious stopping power and the SRT has that base covered as well. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard and the front rotors are bigger than the entire wheel of some compact cars (15 inches!). The rear brakes are modified Ram Heavy-Duty discs with 14-inch rotors. To reduce fade, the Ram's unique front fascia incorporates brake-cooling ducts. We got the Ram from 60 mph to a full stop in barely over 126 feet, a number that would be impressive for a sport sedan let alone a full-size truck. The brakes are almost as impressive as the engine, and the bright red calipers add an aftermarket look. Our only complaint with the brakes is that they seem a little too touchy for everyday driving.
When piloting the SRT-10, it is readily apparent that you're behind the wheel of a really serious machine. The clutch is heavy, similar to that of an old muscle car, and the 505-cubic-inch engine rumbles and shakes the cab with as much mechanical noise as there is exhaust burble. Considering all the muscle that's built into this truck, it's reasonably easy to drive unlike the Viper. Although some of our editors disagree, your author feels that the Ram SRT-10 is actually more fun and drivable than the Viper.
As much brawn as there is under the hood of this thing, it's surprising how little exhaust noise there is at idle and low rpm. However, find an open stretch of road, drop the Hurst shifter from fourth to third, nail the gas pedal and suddenly it sounds like the truck is tearing a hole in the sky. The result is an automotive sucker punch that you can feel deep in your gut. With nothing less than purebred race car urgency, the Ram jets forward like it's being shot out of a catapult. Unfortunately, by the time you grab fourth gear under anything more than moderate acceleration, you're already going well over the speed limit in most states. During a week of combined highway and city driving, many of us found fifth and especially sixth gear to be all but useless unless we were cruising on a long stretch of open highway. Surprisingly, the cab of the Ram SRT-10 can get rather quiet once you hit 75 mph or so with the truck in sixth gear. The ride is still somewhat harsh, but the noise level is downright sedanlike offering the perfect opportunity to enjoy the stereo.
Equally surprising is how easy the Ram's 500 horsepower is to use. In only three runs, our experienced test driver was able to bang out two quarter-mile runs in the high 13s. The transmission, tires, limited-slip differential and suspension all make it very easy to go very fast in the Ram. The Lightning's overall demeanor may be more pleasant for everyday use, but finding the most power and low quarter-mile times takes some doing. In contrast, the Ram consistently got 0-to-60-mph times in the mid to low 5s with a best run of 5.43 seconds.
Another one of the Ram's strengths is its stellar handling. Its sport-tuned suspension drops the truck's ride height an inch in front and 2.5 inches in the rear compared to ordinary Rams. The front and rear strut assemblies are new for the SRT-10 version, as are the front and rear sway bars. The regular Ram is fairly stiff to begin with, but with the low-profile 22-inch wheels and performance-oriented Bilstein shocks, the SRT-10 can get bouncy. It's at this point that the differences between the Ram and Lightning become more obvious. Like the trucks they're based on, these two super trucks offer very different driving dynamics. The Ram is extra tight and firm, while the Ford is softer. As a result, the Lightning is slightly more comfortable for everyday driving. The trade-off is that the Ram corners more sharply and can tackle twisty roads with less body roll, but most buyers of these trucks probably aren't too worried about that anyway.
Another major difference between the Ram and the F-150 is their level of interior upgrades. The Lightning seems like nothing more than a normal, previous-generation F-150 with some special seats, while the Ram offers lots of cool little touches throughout the cab. The main draw inside is the Infinity sound system that includes a subwoofer and bumps out 508 watts. The pedals are finished in an aftermarket-looking metallic and rubber trim, and much of the door-mounted switchgear is trimmed in a metallic finish as well. There's even a unique push-button starter switch just like in the Viper just one more of the many details that make the SRT-10 come off more like a custom vehicle.
Like the F-150, the Ram SRT-10 offers special seats with suede material and a nice SRT logo stitched into the seat backs. And like the regular Ram pickup, the interior sports the most convincing faux metallic trim of virtually any car or truck. The center stack is surrounded by a metallic-looking fascia. And while it is plastic, the look and feel is of a very nice quality. It's not that anyone is going to buy this thing for its fancy interior, but it is nice to get a little something extra for your money.
And money is probably the determining factor for most people. The Ram ain't cheap. The base price of the truck is about $22,500, while the SRT-10 option package adds a whopping $22,400 to the bottom line. We're talking about a $45,000 truck. Pretty steep when compared to the Lightning's as-tested price of $33,945. Yes, the Ram is a more serious and aggressive truck that doesn't take kindly to weekday commutes, but if you want the biggest and the baddest pickup on the road, the Ford can't even come close.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
If the Lightning is my pick for a daily driver, then the Ram SRT-10 would be my choice for a weekend plaything. It was a constant source of amusement (and simply addicting) to lay into the throttle to work the ultracool Hurst-shifted six-speed through the first three gears as the 500-horsepower V10 catapulted this beast down the road, and to hear the low-toned, staccato rumbling that I can mimic in person but can't quite put into words the old "vroom, vroom" is hopelessly inadequate. Nearly as impressive as the giddy acceleration is the quick steering response and nimble (for a truck) handling and massive brakes that make this 5,000-pound monster feel like it weighs a third less. Lastly, the Ram SRT-10 looks the part of a muscle truck by adding the "Viper powered"-emblazoned hood scoop and steamroller tires on 22-inch wheels to the handsome Ram truck body. As far as the interior goes, I'd have to rate the SRT-10's cabin above that of the dated Lightning's in terms of style and materials quality, though I'd have to say that they both have great seats.
So why would the SRT-10, as much fun as it is, be assigned just weekend duty? Because on a day-to-day basis, my conscience (not to mention my budget) couldn't live with the horrific 9-mpg fuel mileage and my lower back couldn't live with the stiff ride.
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
The only way I can describe how this truck makes me feel is relating it to a shark smelling blood in the water. That big ol' metallic-trimmed grille only whets the appetite for what hides under the massive scoop on the hood. This is the kind of truck you don't need to be a gearhead to appreciate. It's big and black with huge chrome wheels wrapped in low-profile tires accented by bright red brake calipers, and its overall imposing presence makes you stand up and take notice. Then it rumbles, grumbles and screams from a stoplight, leaving you flapping your pie hole in awe. The attitude this truck exudes makes me think that it should be the official mascot for Raider Nation if ever the need should arise.
The little "Viper Powered" label on the hood can easily go unnoticed. But the signs that this is no ordinary truck around the interior are unmistakable. First off, the big eight-ball-style Hurst shifter stands out bringing back memories of Rat Fink hot rod cartoons. Secondly and more importantly, pushing the candy apple red start button launches silos of Viper-powered madness. The engine's roar and the knowledge that 500 horsepower beckon you to unleash them push this truck way over the top of reason. The capabilities of the SRT-10 may seem silly to most people, but the rush you get from one straight-away blast in this truck will make you agree that the step beyond reason was well traveled.
Comparing the two baddest muscle trucks around led us to a conclusion we suspected we would reach all along mainly, that super-fast trucks make no sense but are a blast to drive. Then again, many of the best things in life don't make much sense and often it's that exact quality that enhances their appeal. In recent years, the beloved pickup has moved from farm implement to urban work truck to family transportation, and these high-horsepower haulers are the logical conclusion to our decades-long love affair with trucks.
Both the Ram SRT-10 and F-150 SVT Lightning are capable and fun-to-drive trucks, but the Ram SRT-10, with its mind-boggling 500-hp V10 engine, is the clear victor. The most glaring and obvious advantage is the Dodge's 120-hp surplus over the Ford. Based on those numbers alone, the Ram should be able to claim victory. But the Ram is better in many other ways and simply comes across as the more serious and aggressive performance machine. Add to this the many little touches Dodge throws in and it quickly becomes a landslide. Inside, the SRT-10 offers a thumping 508-watt Infinity sound system, metallic switchgear and pedals, a Viper-inspired push-button starter, a pillar-mounted oil temperature gauge, plus some very nice seats. In contrast, the Lightning offers a rather bland dash and a stereo that's only slightly better than average.
Ultimately, it is the Lightning's lack of real urgency that points to its main strength. The good thing about the Lightning is that because it's not as serious as the Ram, it is an easier truck to live with on a day-to-day basis. So the Ford doesn't offer the performance or amenities or the overall in-your-face look of the Ram, but it does cost quite a bit less.
Both trucks are fun to drive, but they differ in key areas. The Ram SRT-10 is first choice for anyone who wants the ultimate performance pickup. The SVT Lightning offers a viable alternative for those who want a truck that's fast but also one that they can live with everyday. This hierarchy will likely change if Ford ever gets around to building a production version of the Lightning concept it showed in Detroit in early 2003. With gas prices on the rise, we're not sure what the future holds for the super truck segment. Will hybrid power play a role? Will Nissan offer an SE-R version of the Titan? We're sure of one thing, though: As long as trucks continue to outsell traditional sedans, there will always be a place for hot-rodded versions of those trucks. Oh, and we'll be ready to drive them, too.
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm)||500@5600|
|Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)||525@4200|
|Transmission type||6-Speed Manual|
|Track Test Results|
|0-60 mph (sec.)||5.4|
|1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)||13.8 @ 104.2|
|60-0 mph (ft.)||126.2|
|Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph)||60.2|
|EPA fuel economy (mpg)||15-Sep|
|Edmunds observed (mpg)||10.4|
|Dimensions & Capacities|
|Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)||5000|
|Turning circle (ft.)||39.3|
|Legroom, front (in.)||41|
|Headroom, front (in.)||40.9|
|Shoulder room, front (in.)||67|
|Model||F-150 SVT Lightning|
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm)||380@4750|
|Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)||450@3250|
|Transmission type||4-speed automatic|
|Track Test Results|
|0-60 mph (sec.)||5.8|
|1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)||14.2 @ 98.5|
|60-0 mph (ft.)||126.2|
|Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph)||59.1|
|EPA fuel economy (mpg)||16-Dec|
|Edmunds observed (mpg)||13|
|Dimensions & Capacities|
|Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)||4670|
|Turning circle (ft.)||44.3|
|Legroom, front (in.)||40.9|
|Headroom, front (in.)||40.8|
|Shoulder room, front (in.)||63.8|