From the Street to the Trail: Why Detroit's Performance Trucks Evolved to Go Off-Road
Given the way full-size pickups currently dominate the sales charts in North America, it’s strange to think that the high performance, street-oriented pickups that were sold in the 1990s and 2000s have all but disappeared from the market.
But the reality is they haven’t actually disappeared. They’ve evolved. Evolved into the highly capable, high horsepower and high tech off-road super pickups that are available today.
And with currently popularity of these modern performance pickups along with the growing nostalgia for classic performance street trucks, now’s a good time to think about how these trucks have changed over the years.
Taller, Heavier, Better?
In some ways, modern off-road performance trucks like the Ford Raptor, Chevy Silverado ZR2 and RAM TRX share DNA with the high performance street trucks of the past—namely under the hood where they still pack high horsepower engines. A twin turbo V6 in the Ford, a naturally aspirated V8 in the Chevy and a supercharged V8 in the extra wild TRX.
But in other ways they are quite different. In the 1990s and early 2000s, enthusiast pickups were built out of the lightest, smallest configuration, a short bed with a standard cab, and they sent their power only to the rear wheels.
In contrast, today’s enthusiast trucks ride much higher, they all have large four-door cabs with sizable back seats and they all come equipped with four-wheel drive.
All Weather & All Terrain
Rather than delivering muscle car (or even sports car-inspired) performance and dynamics, modern enthusiast pickups are all about off-road capability, extra suspension travel and the ability to perform in all conditions.
As cool as the old F-150 Lightning, Silverado SS or Ram SRT-10 were, those pickups were fairly compromised. They could only haul two people in comfort, they had limited traction in the dry and were extra sketchy in rain or snow. And they couldn’t venture very far off pavement.
Yes, you could put things in the bed or do some towing, but they weren’t as good for work as normal pickups were. Yes they were fast and handled decently by pickup standards—but they’d still be outperformed by an equivalent performance car with less weight, road-tuned suspension and a lower center of gravity.
Doing things Cars Can’t Do
The current crop of high performance off-road trucks, don’t attempt to handle like Corvettes, Mustangs or even Challengers on the street. And while they have powerplants with lots of muscle car DNA, they aren’t marketed as street performance vehicles or shown going around race tracks in ads.
Rather than trying to be a muscle car or sports car in a truck package. The modern enthusiast pickups are all about excelling at things a Corvette or Mustang can’t do well; things like hauling a family of four in comfort, commuting to work in the snow, or Heading out into the woods or across desert trails on weekends. And not having to swerve around potholes or speed bumps worrying you might bottom out or damage a wheel.
And they do all of this while still delivering acceleration that would put many muscle cars of the past to shame, even muscle cars of the relatively recent past.
Embracing the “Truckiness”
At the root of it all, is the fact that pickups of all types have evolved. No longer geared mainly towards utility, the modern truck is faster, more capable, more comfortable, and better suited to daily use than ever.
We’d be lying if we said we didn’t miss fast street pickups like the Lightning, SS454 and SRT-10 or that we wouldn’t be happy to see them return in some form, but there’s a reason their why modern counterparts are so popular.
The Raptor, ZR2 and TRX do everything a normal modern truck can do, just in a bigger way. And aside from being more expensive to buy and operate, they require little compromise from their owners.
Like many great enthusiast vehicles, these trucks do many things very well, and just happen to be a lot fun while doing them.
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