Limited quantities. Unlimited grins.

by Bob Storck

LAS VEGAS - This is probably the only place on the planet where this outrageous truck will not turn heads. It totally fits in with the gorge-all-you-want $2.95 buffets, the sequin-struck locals, and the cha-ching background sounds that alternately lure and drive away tourists like an aural tide.

The limited-edition SVT Lightning might seem a strange creature. But it's logical, when you consider how much the average aftermarket aficionado spends on their vehicles outside the showroom. You could buy a truck for 20 grand and spend about that much making it go and look good, and still not have the handling and stopping power of the Lightning.

And in your Lightning, you'll be almost alone. While GM produces faux racer versions of their small Chevy and GMC trucks, and Dodge gives us the Dakota R/T with their biggest engine, compared to the F150 Lightning, these lowered trucks are just eye candy. They're tuned to handle well at the expense of some load-carrying capability, but with a screaming supercharged engine, the Lightning more than delivers on its visual promise. (And it delivers on the towing front - more on that later.)

The only truck that came close to Ford's ass-plus-everything hauler was GMC's short-lived Syclone, a brief highlight from GM in the troubled early '90s. A compact truck strapped around Buick's prehistorically powerful turbo V-6, the Syclone was nothing if not entertaining. It begat a sport-ute Typhoon sibling, too, but both signed off not long after they were signed off for production.

Basic instincts

Today, the Lightning is the only factory-produced bragging-rights machine. Usually, projects like these don't really pay off, except in PR fantasies. Thusly, when you're making a limited-audience truck, you're usually forced to make some low-budget choices. To bring costs down, SVT decided that Lightning should only come in one configuration: as a standard cab, likely because of its sportier image, lighter weight, and shorter wheelbase.

But then, they spent all that money they'd saved on the powerplant. The 5.4-liter Triton single overhead cam V-8 was a good place to start, what with its design giving it great lower-end rigidity, enough to handle the extra oomph of a supercharger. SVT engineers added a forged steel crankshaft from the German Krupp Gerlach Company, along with sinter-forged alloy connecting rods and forged pistons, which help to lower the compression ratio to 8.4:1. There's more: a friction-reducing coating on the pistons allows the engine to rev more quickly and reduces wear. Six crankshaft counterweights contribute to the engine's smooth revving characteristics from idle to redline. And the aluminum-alloy heads feature chain-driven single overhead cams, roller-finger followers with hydraulic lash adjustment, and beehive-shaped valve springs.

The most significant component in the creation of power and torque is the Roots-type Eaton Gen-IV supercharger that sits atop the intake system. Located directly under the supercharger is a water-to-air intercooler. Just ahead of the supercharger is a dual-bore 57-mm throttle body. Its butterfly valves open simultaneously, giving the engine exceptional throttle response. The supercharger compresses the air to 8.0 psi before it enters the intercooler, where the air is cooled to create a denser and thus more powerful charge.

The results are 360 horsepower and, more importantly, 440 ft-lb of tire-liquidating torque. There is no power lag, and the torque comes on low and stays flat like convention speakers the whole way up the powerband. To put all this power and torque to the ground, the Lightning counts on the four-speed automatic transmission also found in tandem with the Power Stroke diesel engine in the Super Duty F-Series.

The stats make the most convincing argument. Want to buy a Corvette and a truck? The Lightning crackles to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, and hustles through the quarter mile in 14.6 seconds at 97 mph. Even more impressively, the SVT Lightning stops from 60 mph in just 137 feet and manages 0.85g on a 100-foot diameter skidpad. And in what may be the classic American test of high-performance capability, the 0-100-0 mph dash, the Lightning's total elapsed time is a remarkable 22.5 seconds.

Ground rules

All the power wouldn't be worth the hassle if the Lightning didn't have a massaged suspension capable of dealing with sharp jabs at the gas. The SVT Lightning's front suspension has upper and lower A-arms, coil springs, gas-charged shock absorbers, and a 31-mm stabilizer bar. Front-end ride height has been lowered by half an inch; rear ride height has been lowered 2.0 inches.

In back, rear suspension motions are controlled by SVT-tuned gas-charged shock absorbers, a five-leaf spring (the standard F-150 has a three-leaf unit), and a 23-mm stabilizer bar. The staggered-right rear shock limits axle tramp under aggressive acceleration, or when coming out of a corner. Drive is through a 3.55:1 limited-slip rear end.

Big wheels and tires are largely responsible for the astonishing grip, and add to the menacing look of the Lightning. Five-spoke dished and offset aluminum-alloy wheels measure 18 x 9.5 inches and are shod with specially developed 295/45ZR18 Goodyear(tm) Eagle F1-GS unidirectional tires. The massive tires created their own handling issues, which SVT resolved by retuning the steering for exceptional road feel (notice we didn't say "for a truck.")

The result? The Lightning has sportscar-like performance and handling, nothing you'd expect from the same chassis that birthed the Expedition. In several days of driving over fast sweeping turns and open highways the truck was stable and confident in all conditions yet comfortable and tractable around town. And it hauls, too: with a 5000-lb towing capacity, it can be used in ways real trucks are used. Don't put more than 800 lb in the bed, though. Go without whoa is stupid, and SVT guys are bright enough to include a four-wheel disc braking system, which comes from the much larger F-250 Super Duty truck.

Look sharp

The final twist on the standard F-150 package is mod-looking additions in and out. The SVT sports a redesigned front fascia with round driving lamps, aero style rocker sill extensions linking the front fascia and rear bumper, and twin 3.0-inch slash-cut ceramic-coated exhaust tips accenting the right rockers.

The interior deals out serious comfort. The combination of textured ebony leather and cloth on the seats grips tighter than our editor come pay time, and the bucket-style seats are plump with lateral bolstering on both the seat bottom and seatback. The dash is decorated with electro-luminescent white-faced gauges with brilliant orange needles that turn blue-green at night, and yes, it has a boost gauge for the supercharger.

The Lightning's standard equipment includes a premium AM/FM stereo with in-dash CD, dual electric remote control mirrors, power windows and locks, an overhead console with compass and temperature gauge, air-conditioning, and cruise control. The only options are a bed tonneau, a behind the seat six-disc CD changer and towing package, all available for less than $1000 total.

When introduced, these trucks actually put out more power than the vaunted Corvette, and may have been a factor in Chevy responding with the 385-hp Corvette Z06 model. Now Ford has announced that they will boost the 2001 Lightning to 380 hp.

Don't be surprised if more is coming. Bragging rights are never given up easy.

2000 Ford F-150 Lightning

Base Price: $29,995
Engine: supercharged 5.4-liter V-8, 360 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 119.8 in
Length: 208.0 in
Width: 79.1 in
Height: 70.9 in
Weight: 4670 lb
Fuel economy: 14 city/ 21 hwy
Major standard equipment:
Dual front airbags
Anti-lock brakes
AM/FM/CD player
Power windows, mirrors and locks
Air conditioning
Cruise control

© 2000 The Car Connection

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