Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Teen for a day

New pickups push the limits of style and function

By Marc Stengel

AUGUST 30, 1999:  For a doddering sports car enthusiast, the contemporary truck craze is enough to set one's dentures a-gnashing. Just the same, it's hard not to get caught up in the generalized automotive exhilaration that the present Good Times inspire. A cornucopia of outlandish trucks is only the most conspicuous, and perhaps most transitory, expression of our road-going enthusiasms. I'll leave it to some latter-day Gibbon to ponder whether the following excesses in sheetmetal do in fact portend the eventual decline and fall of automotive life as we know it.

Ford SVT F-150 Lightning

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. Behind that bubbling boil of blue tire smoke, it is indeed possible to make out the image of a sinister black truck exulting in burn-out mayhem. Literally in a flash, Ford's wanton F-150 Lightning supertruck blazes by the unwary in a 360-horsepower blur. For the bystander, the sensation is heightened by the Doppler-modulated throb of the Lightning's guttural V8 exhaust note, routed to the right side via dual tips arranged like heavy-metal Pan pipes. For the driver and any passengers foolhardy enough to hitch a ride, the massive Roots-type supercharger shrieks with a valkyrie's soul-piercing trill the moment you tap the accelerator.

Like a cartoon superhero, the Lightning seems to rear back upon its fat slabs of 18-inch rear tires and then uncoil, ballista-fashion, into a warp-leap of forward velocity. The supercharger alone brings 100 horsepower to the party, boosting the F-150's 5.4-liter overhead-cam V8 off its already respectable perch of 260 horsepower in standard trim. Neck-snapping grunt comes in the form of 440 foot-lbs. of virtually instant torque. Monster ABS disk brakes at all four wheels handle the stoppies with nary a flinch. As a pretense toward practicality, the powertrain yields a tow rating of 5,000 lbs. and a payload capacity of 800 lbs. for the "styleside" cargo box.

But no Puritan work ethic informs either the manufacture or the purchase of Ford's SVT Lightning. As a measure of caution, perhaps, Ford is only unleashing 4,000 versions a year of the newest SVT Lightning, back for '99 after a four-year hibernation. Its new frocks pay homage to a NASCAR race truck; the interior treatment in light-gray ultrasuede and slate-colored faux cobra skin raises civil disobedience to a new standard of style. Tired of all the cocktail talk about your neighbors' dinky little status roadsters from Germany or Japan? Just burn a coupla black swaths in the street outside their driveways one night in your new Lightning. That'll show 'em how a real man spends his 30-grand.

Chevrolet S10 LS Xtreme

A display of "show" with much less "go" is Chevrolet's interpretation of contemporary truck fashion. The humble S10 compact truck enjoys a hip-hop personality transformation when decked out with Chevy's Xtreme option kit for '99. It's a roughly $3,000 package that can be applied to any two-wheel-drive S10, with either a regular or extended cab, and equipped with either a 4.3-liter V6 or 2.2-liter four-banger.

My tester was a two-door regular cab with V6 and four-speed auto transmission. The Xtreme's integral suspension package, designated ZQ8, lowers ride height two inches. The side-skirts, front air dam, and rear valence exploit the low-rider look. Suddenly, I feel like a teen again--without the pimples. I'm in a tiny, cramped truck, cruisin' for...what? I'm married with children, for Chrissakes. I don't like slowing to a crawl to keep the air dam from scuffing curb cuts; and I don't need the squiggly "Xtreme" badging to suggest I'm cool for spending $23,062 on a truck unsuitable for towing or toting more than a nominal payload.

I am, however, xtremely amazed that our unfettered truck culture has evolved to the point where, for just $3,000 more, a teenage truckin' trendie can transform a solid and dependable compact truck from Chevrolet into an overgrown skateboard little suited for anything but cruisin' and schmoozin'. Is this a great economy, or what!

Mazda B3000 "Troy Lee" Dual Sport

Or, you just might try to do the best you can with what you've got. Like, say, with the frumpy B-series pickup that Mazda shares with Ford's Ranger line of compacts. Equipped with a well-meaning but uninspiring 3.0-liter V6, the B3000 delivers 150 slow-revving horsepower that feels like 100. The notchy, yard-long floor shifter with the five-speed manual transmission taps into some gutsy, stump-pulling torque (185 ft.-lbs.). And the four-door, four-seater cabin is spacious and uncluttered, sporting a pair of tidy jump seats in back that fold completely out of the way.

So why not slap some rip-snortin' flame decals on the sides, weave some simulated carbon-fiber accents into the dash and door panels, and curry the favor of extreme-sports fanatics by licensing Troy Lee's name? You know...Troy Lee, he of the exotic, airbrushed, and neon-colored helmet designs for motocross racers and dirt-bikers. Yeah, that Troy Lee.

And while you're at it, might as well build a poopy two-wheel-drive truck using the raised ride height of a four-wheel-drive model. That way, Mazda can call this special-edition B3000 their "Troy Lee" Dual Sport--whatever that means--and try to make "cool" what is actually only slow and annoying. Well, yes, sure, there may be a few cost-clueless kids who'll spend $20,190 for a so-so replica of the arcane "pre-runner" vehicles used to scout desert race routes like the Baja. Most everybody else, however, will just be irritated about needing a rappelling rig to get up and down out of a truck with nearly 10 inches of ground clearance but only two wheels of drive.

It's an anything-goes marketplace for trucks nowadays, and these three trucks are but the merest evidence of the fact. For an auto buff, it's hard to resist the manufacturers' enthusiasm, no matter how outlandish or impractical its expression. Let's enjoy it while we can. When this party's over, it may be a while before we're invited to another.

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