Dear automakers: bring back the sports trucks!
SVT Lightning. Syclone. 454SS. Ram SRT-10. X-Runner. Xtreme.
The street-oriented “sports truck,” a factory-modified pickup that could simultaneously pull off practicality and pleasure, is a sorely missed niche vehicle that would be a fun territory for automakers to explore today. Sports trucks were the antithesis to the supercar: they could put a big ‘ol smile on your face while still hauling a load of lumber, get around a corner better than their normal counterparts while packed with a bed full of mulch, and rip endless burnouts while carrying the furniture you’re moving. There’s a reason Utes are so popular in Australia and why people still talk about the Ranchero and El Camino, and that’s because the sports truck remains a great combination for those who want something with utility but don’t want to give up sportiness in the process.
2017 is severely lacking when it comes to sporty street-focused pickups, and now is the perfect time for the manufacturers to bring back them back. Hit the jump and prepare to wish the auto manufacturers were selling these outlandishly desirable vehicles today.
There was a time when you could buy a vehicle off the showroom floor that would do both work and play, and do both reasonably well. Before then you had to have separate vehicles, a dedicated workhorse and a supplemental play-toy, if you wanted to “do it all.” But no longer; owning a sports truck meant you could “have your cake and eat it too,” even if you compromised a bit of each. And yet the honest, fun, reliable do-it-alls of yore are no longer available for sale, and it’s for the worse. Let’s bring them back, shall we?
A different kind of sport-truck altogether graces our presence in 2017, a segment basking in irony considering how few actually use them to their full off-road potential. Somehow over the past few years appearing to be an off-roader has become more important than actually off-roading. Perhaps the explosion in popularity of the JK Wrangler Unlimited, the ultimate in “look at how outdoorsy I am!” faux appearance is to blame, but the other culprit is Ford’s SVT Raptor, a wildly capable rig in stock form that far too few owners properly abuse. Of course there will be a few people who read this and say, “I wheel my Raptor every weekend!” but let’s face it, the majority of these trucks will see more time with their tires on the grassy patches between the parking spaces their owners missed than they will any actual time in the woods, on the trails, or running through the dunes.
That’s not to say the out-of-the-box off-roader pickups are anything to scoff at (they’re actually really great), but there’s a plethora: SVT Raptor, Chevy ZR2 and Z71 and Trail Boss, Ram Rebel and Power Wagon, Frontier and Titan Pro-4X, and of course the slew of TRD and TRD Pro Toyotas. Some more capable than the others, but as a whole very strong and capable rigs straight out of the box. Realistically though very few of these will be used as they should, and many will never see use of 4WD Low, which leads us to the root of the problem: off-road pickups are the wrong solution to the needs of the common user. We don’t need more climbing and mudding capability but rather some focus on the street-oriented fun-factor, where pickups spend most of their time.
What we need is more honest sports trucks rather than the high-dollar pre-runners and rock-crawlers which likely won’t be used in the ways their builders intended. We need vehicles that are enjoyable to drive every day, to work and to the lumber yard, to the canyons and to car shows, rather than those that so few will actually ever use to their potential.
Once upon a time we had the likes of the SVT Lightning, 454SS, Silverado SS, X-Runner, and most insanely, the Viper-powered SRT-10 Ram. Today’s world of sporty options craves the addition of more attainable vehicles that are fun all the time. Turn the wheel, lay on the gas coming out of a corner to get the back end sideways, carve a mountain road at speeds your passenger would think impossible; there should be options for those who want to drive hard on pavement, not just off. The recipe is simple: take a small, simple cab/bed configuration (or offer a multitude of configurations if the manufacturer so desires), lower it, add suspension capable of moderate handling, tighten the chassis, throw on some beefier sway bars, give the rear end an LSD, put some half-decent tires on, take the company’s strongest motor (or option of motors, like in the case of Ford with the twin-turbo EcoBoost and the 5.0 V8), and cram it into a an unsuspecting pickup that is otherwise likely destined to boredom. Voila, sport-truck! It doesn’t have to be anything too crazy, just a more sporting alternative for those interested in how their vehicle drives in the situations it’ll be driven most.
It’s not to say the automakers haven’t tried but as of late it’s been a poor showing for sporty pickups. The F-150 Tremor was little more than an appearance package on top of an EcoBoost F-150. Toyota’s TRD-supercharged Tundra was bolt-on power for the full-sizer with little else to show other than burnouts and a much hyped-up warranty. And while Ram’s 1500 R/T was a good effort in theory, ultimately the 5,000+ pound single-cab didn’t boast any more go than show. Aside from these, there aren’t many new options for sporty, muscular street-focused pickups, if any at all. It’s time for that to change.
It’s not like a new wave of sports trucks would be difficult to build, as the engines and platforms already exist. Some engineering on the handling and suspension tuning side of things and you’re nearly done. GM could easily be produce an LT1-powered Canyon/Colorado to follow the lineage of the Xtreme trucks (and the 5.3 GMT355), and if there’s a chassis engineering team out there to do it there’s no question GM is up to the task. Even a new Silverado SS would be great, except this time it should truly live up to the badge unlike the 2002-2006 truck bearing the same name that had a hard time claiming the sporty descriptor. Then there’s Ford, which could very easily take its single-cab, short-bed F-150, lower it a few inches, give it the twin-turbo EcoBoost motor out of the Raptor (450 hp / 510 lb-ft.!) and some nice wheels and worthy suspension and call it Lightning. How great would it be to have a modern Lightning and 454SS running around on the streets?
Likewise, Toyota could do great things with a lowered version of the Tacoma a la X-Runner, or even go full-beans and throw in the big 5.7L V8 and make everyone giggle until their faces hurt. Nissan too could get in on the game by putting their corporate V8 into the Frontier, or by doing a no-frills 2WD, two-door short-bed version of the Titan with the big engine.
And how about Dodge? If any manufacturer could do a sports truck it’s Dodge, especially with the existence of the SRT-10 in its history book and the wonky little motor nobody’s ever heard of called Hellcat. You can already get the 6.4 Hemi in the 2500, but who wants a sporty 6000- pound Heavy Duty pickup? Not me. It’s probably already being discussed internally, but Dodge could so easily take the smallest Ram and give it not just one powerplant option, but two in the 6.4L and ever-infamous supercharged 6.2L Hellcat motor. Nothing says sports truck like 707 horsepower to relatively weightless rear end, and it would be the proper way to do a successor to the previous decade’s insane Viper-powered lunacy. Or, shit, just put the Viper V10 in it; wouldn’t be the first time.
While the sporting SUVs are a different topic altogether, sporty pickup trucks were once a surprisingly exciting niche that never quite caught the response that did the current crop of off-roaders led by the Raptor. It’s time for a resurgence; sports trucks can be used to their fullest more so than their woods-weapon counterparts and they offer a sense of practicality you can’t get from buying a sporty car. Sports trucks will never sell in huge volumes but they do combine an enthusiast’s chariot with a handyman’s tool in a way that few other vehicles can claim to. For that, it’s almost the perfect single-tool vehicle for those who can only swing one horse in their stable. That the automakers could so easily revive this sub-genre with a simple combination of platforms, powerplants, and relatively simple modifications means that it’s reasonably realistic to imagine them doing so. It’s time for the sports truck to return, to put shit-eating-grins on the faces of those who still need a pickup bed. Now, if the automakers will so oblige…