Since its introduction as a 1993 model, Ford's SVT Lightning has dominated the performance-pickup-truck market. From that first 240-horse/351-cubic-inch V-8 regular cab, the Lightning has progressed to today's 380-horse tire-shredder.

This year, Chevrolet entered the fray with the Silverado SS (see "Power to the People," elsewhere in this issue), but at 345 horsepower, it's anemic in comparison. For 2004, Dodge comes to play in the Hi-Po sandbox when the Viper-powered SRT-10 appears in dealer showrooms. At 500 horses and 525 lb-ft of torque, the SRT-10 looks to dethrone the Lightning as the world's fastest pickup--or will it?

If SVT's godfather and program director, John Colletti, has his way, a Mopar product will never dethrone a Lightning.

To combat the Dodge boys, Colletti is punching up the SVT's '04 Lightning concept, which debuted at the 2003 North American International Auto Show. Based on the upcoming 2004 Ford F-150, the Lightning concept takes any inkling of an ordinary pickup and throws it out the window.

If there's one aspect of the truck we hope makes it to production, it's the powertrain. Conservatively rated at 500 horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque, the supercharged and intercooled 5.4-liter DOHC V-8 uses Manley rods, two injectors per cylinder, and four-valve aluminum heads. The engine also incorporates a forward-thinking speed secret for when you need an extra boost of power.

Colletti's always wondered about taking intercooling to the next level, when air-to-air and air-to-water intercoolers don't adequately chill the incoming air to make the charge dense enough. Enter Ford's new patented SuperCooler technology. Unlike traditional intercoolers that dissipate heat from the supercharged air by circulating coolant through a front-mounted air-cooled radiator, the SuperCooler uses the vehicle's air-conditioning system to chill a small storage tank of coolant to about 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

The result is a system that, on demand, dumps the frigid coolant into the engine's intercooler, dissipating up to 20 percent more heat from the air charge, making it ultradense and upping horsepower in the process. Although sources within SVT say this system can deliver 50 transient horsepower per 30-45-second burst, experts in the supercharging realm claim the system could actually boost output by 75-100 horsepower under the right conditions.

The SuperCooler is surprisingly easy to use: When the green lamp illuminates on the dash (indicating the system is ready), just mash the throttle to the floor and the refrigerated coolant floods the intercooler for a nitrous-oxide effect, without the environmental hazards of laughing gas.

SVT's Lightning concept adds to the performance equation by ditching the 4R100 four-speed automatic tranny in favor of a Tremec T-56 six-speed out of the Cobra. Keeping it on the sport side, a short-throw, console-mounted shifter ensures quick engagement of the cogs. Getting power to the pavement are massive six-spoke 22-inch aluminum wheels shod in P295/40R22 (front) and P325/45R22 (rear) Goodyear rubber. Estimates by SVT put the truck at 0-60 mph in the high-four-second range and around the mid 12s at over 115 mph in the quarter mile.

Stopping SVT's ground missile are manhole-cover-size Brembo vented discs (15-inch and cross-drilled) squeezed by six-pot calipers in the front and four-piston binders out back.

Armed for the straight line, SVT engineers mandated that the truck also corner like a sports car. Underneath, the front suspension and steering rack uses a modified version of the '04 F-150's (to clear the massive wheels), while the traditional Hotchkis-type solid rear-axle and leafs were abandoned in favor of an independent rear, adapted from the Ford Expedition. Not only does the swap reduce unsprung weight, but SVT engineers also gained a larger envelope of suspension-tuning possibilities.

Inside, the Lightning concept incorporates many of the 2004 F-150 Lariat trim pieces, but the thickly bolstered leather seats, console-mounted shifter, electroluminescent gauges, and red engine-start button are pure SVT. The mustard- and ebony-colored interior is harsh on our eyes, but we can't wait to see a gunmetal-gray Lightning shod in basic black leather.

Outside, aerodynamic aids have been crafted into the exterior: Twin venturi tunnels that wrap under the rear bumper are said to increase stability at high speeds and generate downforce. And the hard tonneau with spoiler also helps keep the rear wheels planted during quarter-mile runs.

If you thought the New Ram looked menacing in your rearview mirror, the 2004 Lightning will strike fear in the hearts of Peterbilt owners. An aggressive front fascia, with signature SVT round foglamps, dominates the nose, and a new hood with functional vents flows air to the intercooler. We like the hard- edge look of the truck and the purposeful sculpting to accommodate the twin- exhaust outlets.

Ask anyone at Ford if he wishes this truck were a production piece for the Company's centennial (and SVT's 10th anniversary) year, and the answer would be a resounding, "Heck, yes!" Unfortunately, getting the fourth-generation Lightning to market won't happen soon enough, but our best guess is that you'll see it sometime in 2005. For now, we'll just have to wait and burn through another set of rear tires in an '03 Lightning, still the fastest production pickup in the world. TT

EARLY SPECIFICATIONS:
2004 Ford SVT Lightning Concept
Body style 2-door, 3-pass
Price $40,000 (est)
Engine Supercharged/intercooled all-aluminum 5.4L DOHC 32-valve V-8
Horsepower 500+
Torque 500+
Transmission Tremec T-56 six-speed manual
Suspension, f/r Upper and lower wishbones, coil springs, shocks, anti-roll bar/Double A-arm, coil springs, shocks, anti-roll bar
Brakes, f/r Brembo 6-piston calipers, 15-inch vented and cross drilled rotors/Brembo 4-piston calipers, 15-inch vented and cross drilled rotors
0-60, sec 4.5 (est)
1/4 mile 12.5 @ 115 mph (est)
60-0, ft 118 (est)
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