After countless spy photos, a sneak peek at SEMA '97, the green light at the '98 Chicago Auto Show and now the obligatory car magazine cover, it's finally here. It has taken three full model years of waiting for Ford's return to the sport truck segment-a segment that has since been dominated by gussied-up Dodge products.
But this new Ford is different. It goes beyond just a V8 engine and racing stripes or ''Sport'' signage plastered on its flanks. It is serious. And it's even supercharged. Naturally, it was the Ford Special Vehicle Team (SVT) that applied its now-familiar performance formula to the freshened-for-'99 F-Series pickup. The result is a more-than-worthy successor to the 1993-95 SVT F-150 Lightning, called-well, the Lightning. But compared to its old namesake, today's Lightning is a high-tech masterpiece.
The original Lightning was a strong performance pickup that, unlike its competitors, had the unique ability to go around a corner as well as travel in a straight line. Its downfall was that it had to cope with dated sheetmetal, a seriously cramped cabin, and the solid-but-unforgiving Twin I-Beam front suspension. While it's true that these shortcomings were eliminated when the standard F-Series was fully redesigned for 1996 as a '97 model, performance is where the new, 1999.5 Ford SVT F-150 Lightning outpaces its predecessor.
The major motivation comes from the SVT 5.4-liter supercharged, intercooled Triton V8 that packs a neck-snapping 360 horsepower at 4,750 rpm and a whopping 440 pounds-feet of torque at just 3000 rpm. That's a full 120 more ponies and 100 more pounds-feet of torque than the previous-generation Lightning.
The SVT version employs the Triton's deep-skirt, cast-iron block and aluminum-alloy heads with single overhead cams and roller-finger followers. To keep the bottom end together under a supercharger's pressure, there's also a forged steel crankshaft, sinter-forged alloy connecting rods, and specially designed SVT forged pistons with dished tops that lower the compression ratio to 8.4:1.
At the heart of the new Lightning's newfound power, of course, is the Eaton Gen IV supercharger. This Roots-type belt-driven unit is not a hang-off-a-bracket design like many aftermarket models, but instead is built into the specially calibrated intake system and mounted atop its own water-to-air intercooler that is tucked down into the ''vee'' of the SVT-badged V8.
Air is delivered through a low-restriction, large-capacity air cleaner that feeds an 80mm mass-air sensor and a dual-bore 57mm throttle body. The supercharger then compresses the fuel-air mixture to 8.0 psi before entering the intercooler, where it is cooled to make the arriving charge in the combustion chambers denser and thus more powerful. Spent gases travel through cast-iron tuned manifolds and out a true dual-exhaust system, exiting via polished twin tips just ahead of the right-rear wheel.
Our incessant throttle mashing during our pre-production test drive provided instant grin-inducing acceleration at all speeds. Better still, shifts were consistently crisp and quick from the Lightning's specially developed E4OD four-speed automatic transmission, which uses some heavy-duty internal components first developed for use behind Ford's PowerStroke diesel motor. The Lightning is also equipped with an auxiliary transmission cooler. Power is then put to the pavement through a limited-slip 9.75-inch rear axle fitted with a 3.55:1 gearset.
All this adds up to the kind of performance that you might associate with a Mustang GT, and not a full-size pickup truck that weighs nearly 4700 pounds. Though Edmund's has not yet run any of our own instrumented tests, we'd place the Lightning's performance somewhere between Ford's own internal numbers and some recently published results-which means zero to 60 mph in about six seconds and a 14.5-second quarter-mile at just under 100 mph. Top speed is ungoverned at an estimated 140 mph.
As we expected, SVT's unique blend of cornering ability with supple ride was more than evident, offering a ride-and-handling balance that will stun owners of any other full-size pickup. Despite the massive weight and size of this truck, the Lightning's huge Goodyear Eagle F1-GS 295/45ZR-18 rubber mounted on a set of trick-looking 18 x 9.5-inch, five-spoke alloys works in harmony with the SVT-tuned underpinnings. The front A-arm type suspension has been lowered about a half-inch, employing SVT-spec coil springs, gas shocks and a solid, 31mm stabilizer bar. In back, the live axle rides two inches lower atop a special, SVT-designed five-leaf spring system, with staggered gas-charged shocks and a solid, 23mm stabilizer bar keeping the rear tires planted.
Perhaps hardest to fathom is that after just a few minutes of aggressive driving over some twisty roads, you can actually call this big pickup tossable. Ford engineers ran this beast through a slalom course with 80-foot gates and posted a sports car-like 63.6 mph. On a 100-foot skidpad, the new Lightning hit 0.85g, a number that is almost unheard of for this type of vehicle.
Bringing it all under control are upsized brake rotors and calipers derived from the F-250 Super Duty truck. The four-wheel-disc system employs 13.1-inch rear rotors and 12.1-inch front rotors clamped by twin-piston calipers, all monitored by four-wheel ABS. We made several hard-braking maneuvers in our red Lightning test unit, and we were amazed at the consistently strong stopping power, with good pedal feel and modulation. We'd estimate 60-to-zero-mph stopping distances in the 130-foot range, and certainly wouldn't dispute Ford's claim of just 137 feet (which is only 10 feet more than the 60-0 mph distance claimed for the 1999 SVT Mustang Cobra). Much like its stablemate, the 1999 Ford SVT Contour, the Lightning needs a test drive to appreciate.
A couple of shortfalls we experienced during our brief time with the Lightning included too-numb steering in search of some real road feel (a complaint often noted in many Ford products) and a surprising amount of wind and road noise intrusion into the cabin, especially around the A-pillar. Because we were driving a pre-production prototype, we're hoping that production models are quieter.
Speaking of the cabin, special SVT touches abound inside. White-faced gauges (including one for supercharger boost pressure) are standard, with new blue-green, electro-luminescent lighting marked by brilliant orange needles. Passengers are treated to a unique, leather-trimmed 40/60 split-bench seat with sport bolstering, SVT embroidery in the seatbacks and six-way power for the driver. Beneath the chunky center armrest is a big storage bin with cupholders; flip it up out of the way and you have a center jumpseat for a third passenger. Trim is a combination of Ebony perforated leather and Medium Graphite cloth, with leather-clad door panels and steering wheel rim.
On the outside, the 1999.5 SVT Lightning is far less subtle than the merely monochromed original. A unique front fascia sports blackout grillework and SVT-signature round fog lamps scooped out below a color-keyed bumper. Rocker-sill extensions visually link the front and rear bumpers while providing a ground-hugging look to the already lowered truck. Out behind the stylish Flareside-only bed (which was unavailable on the 1993-95 Lightning), a color-keyed rear step bumper and SVT tailgate badging are all other sport trucks are likely to see after a stoplight challenge, save for some smoking rear tires.
Like the last version, Lightning will be offered in three colors, red, black and white, with a possible special run of yellow later in the model year. The '99.5 model sounds its arrival with a meaningful exhaust note that emits more refinement than the noisy rumble of production sport trucks to date-including SVT's initial offering. But we wonder why SVT chose the trendy dual exhaust outlets that exit out the right side, when split dual rear-exit pipes are becoming the look of choice at truck shows across the country.
Perhaps the biggest product decision to be questioned is SVT's marketing gaffe to again offer the Lightning only as a Standard Cab model when the world has clearly been moving toward more room and more doors each year. When the SVT brass sensed some division among its dealers and in its own market research on the subject, they decided to take the safe route and leave the high-performance Super Cab trucks to the aftermarket. But with no SuperCab three- or four-door Lightning, it again means that Dodge is the only manufacturer smart enough to realize that performance and utility are not mutually exclusive. Even though they were only two-doors, Club Cab versions of Dodge's 1998 Dakota R/T immediately became the hardest to find, and before you could say ''sellout,'' the rest of the 6,000 scheduled R/Ts disappeared from dealer lots.
Performance purists would argue that the smallest, lightest package offers the most bang-for-the-buck. But if it were really that simple, one would have to contend that the best platform for a Ford sport truck would then be a Standard Cab compact Ranger with a V8. Indeed, SVT built a 5.0-liter Ranger prototype many months ago that won praise both in the enthusiast press and on the auto-show circuit, but the Ford leadership at SVT failed to build a case for it. And it's obvious that Ford marketers still don't understand what killed other compact sport trucks, such as GMC's rocket-ship-fast but ill-fated Syclone: A sport truck has to be a truck first-one that can haul a load as well as haul ass. It can't be just a two-seat toy, like the Syclone, with a piddly 500-pound payload rating.
That said, the new Lightning is no toy, as its payload and towing capacity is only slightly diminished over the standard F-Series pickup. SVT is obviously betting that the old standard of a full-size, standard-cab performance truck will sell, if executed well. And this new truck is certainly well-executed.
Ford plans to begin building the 1999.5 Ford SVT F-150 Lightning on March 1, 1999, at the Ford Ontario Truck Plant in Canada. You can expect to see them in dealer showrooms by the time spring is in full bloom. Of course, not just any Ford dealership will carry this potent pickup. Only about 620 of the more than 4800 Ford stores across North America are certified SVT dealers. (For the location of the SVT dealer nearest you, you can call 1-800-FORD-SVT, or visit the SVT Web site via either the showroom at www.ford.com or directly at www.fordvehicles.com/SVT).
Production will be limited to 4000 units annually. Standard equipment includes all the hardware and features we've explained above, as well as an AM/FM stereo cassette, dual electric remote-control mirrors, power side windows and door locks, air-conditioning, cruise control, front floor mats, remote keyless entry and the Ford SecuriLock passive anti-theft system. Base price for this fully equipped performer has not been announced, but expect it to start at around $29,000, or about the same price as the top trim level F-150 Standard Cab 4x4. Options on the '99.5 Lightning are limited to a factory-installed soft tonneau cover, a Class III towing hitch, and a six-disc CD changer.
Yes, Dodge is looking at sporty new versions of the Ram to complement its Dakota R/T. And Chevy is already showing off a 395-horsepower, naturally aspirated Silverado SS concept truck. We even know of Ford truck fanatics who claim that only a V10-powered Lightning will suffice. But as a thoroughly competent and enjoyable package, the 1999.5 Ford SVT F-150 Lightning should-once and for all-prove if performance alone, or a blend of performance and utility, is what it takes for a successful full-size sport truck in today's market. In any case, sport truck lovers won't be disappointed.