Does the idea of a "sports" pickup seem absurd to you? It might not if you understand the pickup’s role in the U.S. market.
These aren’t just America’s workhorses anymore. They’re also purchased as personal and family transportation, or even as a styling statement. Pickups appeal to a broader cross-section of buyers in the U.S. than any other type of car or truck, and come in an astonishing variety of forms and sizes to meet the demands of those buyers.
Last year, pickups accounted for 19 percent of the entire U.S. vehicle market of 15.5 million cars and light trucks. With such sales, there’s more than enough room for a high-performance pickup or two.
A streak of hi-po trucks
The idea of a sports pickup isn’t new. In 1989, the Dodge Shelby Dakota, with a 175-horsepower 5.2-liter V-8, was the first. GM followed soon after with the GMC Syclone, a compact S-15 pickup with four-wheel-drive, low-profile tires, and a 280 horsepower turbocharged V-6. Full-sized hot-rod pickups, though, never got that wild. In the early-1990s, Chevy, with its 454SS, battled Ford, with its first F-150 Lightning, but both of these trucks were half-hearted attempts, with slightly warmed-over V-8s and special paint jobs. Neither truck sold very well.
But Ford is about to introduce another SVT Lightning based on the full-sized F-150, and no one will label this one a half-hearted attempt at performance. Developed by the Special Vehicle Team (SVT), Ford’s in-house performance group, the SVT F-150 Lightning is the first production truck of any kind (pickup or otherwise) that can compete with a performance car on a racetrack..
SVT’s work began under the hood. Ford’s 5.4-liter truck V-8 was fitted with an Eaton Roots-type supercharger making 8.0 psi of boost, blowing through an air-to-water intercooler. The compression ratio was lowered with new forged pistons, and a forged crankshaft and connecting rods were added. SVT decided against using the DOHC 32-valve heads of the Lincoln Navigator V-8 because the SOHC 16-valve heads fit under the hood better. Still, engineers fitted a large-capacity air cleaner to the engine, and a dual-bore 57mm throttle body similar to that in the Mustang Cobra. The result is an impressive 360 horsepower at 4750 rpm, and 440 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm.
1999 Ford F-150
To handle such torque, SVT took the insides of Ford’s 4R100 high-torque diesel transmission, and squeezed them into the lighter-duty truck transmission case. Engineers also completely reprogrammed the transmission’s shift points and shifting smoothness.
Battening down the F-150
Making a full-size truck handle well is no easy task. The SVT group began by lowering the front end of the truck by 12 mm using special springs. Gas-charged shock absorbers were fitted to all four corners, and new stiffer anti-roll bars were added. Also in the rear, SVT designed new five-leaf springs (replacing the standard three-leaf units) to lower the rear end by 52mm. The four-wheel ventilated disc brakes with ABS come from the much larger F-250 Super Duty truck. New 9.0 x 18 inch alloy wheels, and Goodyear F1-GS tires, size P295/45ZR-18, were developed for the Lightning. SVT found that the tires improved steering feel significantly, so they decided not to change the F-150’s recirculating-ball steering system.
What results is a truck that’s more fun to drive than any we can remember. The engine is simply delightful, answering every stab of the throttle with an audible supercharger howl and impressive surges in thrust. The transmission never gets in the way, either. Downshifts are crisp and quick, and the ratios are well-spaced. In fact, this is the best automatic transmission we’ve ever tested from Ford. This 4695-lb monster is capable of amazing acceleration — 0-60 mph takes less than 5.9 seconds. The Lightning can reach the quarter-mile in 14.4 seconds, at 96 mph. Hold the pedal to the floor, and this pickup will reach 139 mph.
There’s no way that anyone can make a truck so large, with a solid rear axle, handle like a sports car, of course. But Ford comes surprisingly close. The tires have about as much grip as a good sports sedan (0.81 g), and the Lightning corners with little body roll. The brakes feel strong, and have good pedal feel, allowing you to carry an amazing amount of speed into a corner. The SVT engineers (many of who are racers) found that they could produce lap times on Ford’s Dearborn handling course within one second of those of a Mustang Cobra’s. That’s on dry pavement, at least. The tires give up quickly on wet pavement, where the engine tends to overpower the rear end, making the Lightning feel dangerously "tail-happy" with oversteer.
1999 Ford F-150
1999 Ford SVT F-150 Lightning interior
Lightning’s interior takes some cues – like the white-faced gauges – from its sibling Mustang Cobra.
The interior is suitably dressed for performance duty. The Lightning has special seats with aggressive side bolsters, and power height and lumbar adjustments. They’re trimmed in gray leather, with matching leather door inserts. The center seatback folds down to form an armrest with storage. Facing the driver are new white-faced instruments that glow blue-green at night, with brilliant orange needles. About the only thing missing is a proper floor shifter for the automatic transmission.
A floor shifter was left out because it would have cost too much. It’s one of many cost concessions SVT had to make to make the Lightning acceptable to Ford management. In fact, SVT raided Ford’s massive parts bin for many of the Lightning’s parts. Aside from the transmission and brakes mentioned earlier, the rear axle was taken from the Ford Expedition, the supercharger comes from Jaguar’s V-8 and a complicated engine pulley bracket was borrowed from Ford’s commercial refrigeration truck. Four-wheel-drive was considered, but the lack of suitably strong components killed that idea. The savings show on the sticker price: the SVT F-150 Lightning costs $29,995 U.S. — about $6000 more than a similarly equipped F-150 with a 5.4-liter V-8.
Sport pickups of the past have always sacrificed load and hauling capabilities for performance, which is probably the reason why they never sold very well. This pickup breaks that rule — it can carry 800 lb in the bed and can tow 5000 lb. Ford plans to build just 4000 a year, which will be offered only through the 700 or so SVT-certified Ford dealers.