The Players
Potent V-8s and athletic suspensions transform two pickups, the Chevrolet Silverado SS ($39,995) and the Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Hemi ($27,820), into sport-sedan intimidators.

The Game
To determine our favorite of these two sport pickups, we mash down hard on their throttle pedals. A lot. Yes, we get paid to do this.

It's never been difficult to find horses around pickup trucks. The two seem made for each other, like Michael Moore and heckling. Lately, though, finding horses around pickups has become downright effortless: All you have to do is lift the hood.

Take a whiff: There's a new scent wafting through the air. That's because, for a fast-growing breed of sport pickups, the payload isn't horse manure--it's horsepower. No doubt inspired by all the whoopin' and hollerin' they're attracting in NASCAR's bed-bashing Craftsman Truck Race Series, all three major American pickup makers--Ford, Chevy, and Dodge--are now producing adrenalized street versions of their most popular models. Are these trucks true to the rubber-smoking spirit of their Craftsman-decaled counterparts? To find out, we gathered two of them, the Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Hemi and the Chevrolet Silverado SS, for a head-to-head comparo. (Okay, hold your letters. Rather than invite a lame duck to the party, we intentionally left Ford's entry, the supercharged Harley-Davidson F-150, out of this competition; it's about to be retired in its current form, as is the '03 Lightning. Look for the Harley to reappear in '04 as a new Super Duty model--see sidebar.)

If you think gym-pumped pickups are a passing fad, think again. A relative newcomer to the full-size-pickup fray, Toyota, will soon enter a race truck of its own in the Craftsman Series (see photo box). More pickup muscle is headed to our streets, too. Within a few months, Dodge will release its 500-horsepower, Viper-engined Ram SRT-10, a pickup quite possibly fast enough to transform a bale of hay into a diamond. Sometime in the '05 model year, Ford is expected to launch a counterstrike with its similarly outrageous Lightning SVT.

The volume players, however, will remain entries like the Ram Hemi and the Silverado SS. So join us as we take to road and racetrack for a thorough shakedown of these two pickup-shaped hot rods.

Our Take

Chevrolet Silverado SS

What's Hot
• Big-bore acceleration
• Spectacular brakes
• Square-jawed profile
What's Not
• Parts-bin cabin
• Unpolished suspension
• Exorbitant sticker
Don't Miss
• Binders that can outbrake a BMW 540i
Bottom Line
• Plenty of go, but too much dough

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Hemi

What's Hot
• Prodigious Hemi power
• Impeccable tailoring
• Graceful moves
What's Not
• Lengthy stops
• No back seat (Regular cab)
• Wheels too damn shiny?
Don't Miss
• Effortless, adolescent smoky burnouts
Bottom Line
• The very definition of "bang for the truck"

Two of a Kind
Chevy and Dodge probably have intelligence-gathering Predator drones flying over each other's engineering labs--that's how similar in specification the Ram Hemi and Silverado SS are. Each features a 345-horsepower pushrod V-8 engine, a live-axle rear suspension, four disc brakes with ABS, 20-inch wheels wearing the same 275/55R20 Goodyear Eagle LS tires, and a monochromatic paint job. Each also made its debut in the '03 model year.

There are differences, of course. At a glance, the Chevy seems the brawnier of the two. This is a square-jawed machine--upright stance, chiseled prow, plastic egg-crate grille, deep front air dam with high-swagger air intakes, and subtle muscle swelling from each wheel arch. The SS' V-8 is bigger than the Ram's: It's a 6.0-liter unit delivering its 345-horsepower peak at 5200 rpm and turning out 380 lb-ft of torque at 4000. There's some added hardware in the drivetrain, too: The four-speed automatic transmission feeds the V-8's power full-time to all four wheels through a central viscous coupling.

True to its Marlboro Man demeanor, the SS is broad-shouldered and rugged. It rides on a generous 143.5-inch wheelbase and wears an extended cab with small rear-hinged back doors. Curb weight is a hefty 5300 pounds. The window sticker is hefty, too: Base price is $39,995.

The Ram 1500 is the stealthy player in this duo--though you may wonder how a sport pickup dipped in Flame Red paint and wearing chrome wheels could ever be called "stealthy." There's no ostentatious "I'm Fast!" ornamentation on the Ram. No rear wing, no bulges in the wheelwells, no "Ram air" scoop on the hood, no hyperactive cartoon characters screaming on the tailgate. Just a clean, modern design with--on our test vehicle--a neatly integrated sport-appearance option containing foglamps and a body-color front end.

A closer look reveals clues to the Ram's prowess. On the front fenders are small badges containing the magic word "Hemi." Spot those, and suddenly this pickup's soul is laid bare. Under the hood lies Dodge's all-new 5.7-liter overhead-valve Hemi Magnum V-8. Its 345 horsepower comes at 5400 rpm; peak torque (375 lb-ft) is available at 4200. The Dodge bests the Chevy with an available five-speed automatic transmission (a required selection with the Hemi). Four-wheel drive is available, but our SLT test truck was rear-drive.

Riding on a short 120.5-inch wheelbase (a 140.5-inch wheelbase is available) and sporting a two-door Regular cab, the Ram 1500 tips the scales at just under 4800 pounds. Base price on our Ram 1500 was a low $22,040. Even pumped up with the Hemi option (at just $795, an easy decision) and a load of conveniences, our test truck still checked in at a very approachable $27,820.

Test Behavior
If you're used to driving big, torque-tuned pickups, you'd probably never guess just how quick a full-sizer can be. From zero to 60 mph, these two 2.5-ton beasts run like Pat Buchanan at an Eminem concert. The Chevy, its added weight apparently offset by its superior four-wheel-drive traction, has a slight edge, clicking off the run to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, versus 6.8 for the Ram. Farther down the track, the small gap narrows. Our SS tripped the quarter-mile lights in 14.99 seconds at 89.05 mph; the Ram posted a nearly identical run of 15.11 seconds at 89.06. Such swiftness in a pickup truck is not only invigorating, it can be beneficial. The next time a buddy asks you to transport his couch, you can opt out simply by saying, "You ever seen what g forces do to Naugahyde?"

Forward isn't the only direction in which these trucks impress. The Ram's huge disc brakes (13.2 inches up front) hauled it to a stop from 60 mph in a respectable 132 feet. The Silverado, however, was simply awesome, clawing to a standstill in just 119 feet--only a foot longer than the last Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG we tested. Unless you'd like to know how it feels to be batted in the head by Barry Bonds, better clamp down any cargo in back with railroad spikes.

While the SS excelled in a straight line, when curves were added to the mix the Ram edged ahead. Hustled around the Streets of Willow circuit at Willow Springs International Raceway, the Ram revealed a trait you might not expect in a pickup: finesse. The Ram is a true driver's truck, rewarding its pilot with fluid, responsive steering, brakes that never seem to fade, and a composed, confidence-inspiring chassis that willingly follows your lead. The Hemi engine kicks out inspiring tailpipe tones, too. So encouraged, our test driver posted a best lap time of 1:09.5.

The Silverado SS, in comparison, feels considerably less refined as speed builds. The brakes are powerful and the engine is always ready with bags of go, but the steering lacks precision and the chassis has none of the Ram's grace; it feels much less comfortable in this sport-truck role. Try to corner hard, and the SS argues by offering up copious understeer. It much prefers the "point and squirt" method of taming twisties: Slow way down, get the wheels lined up straight, then let the brawny engine and the four-wheel-drive system launch you toward the next corner. Our driver posted a best SS lap of 1:10.4.

Inside Story
The Silverado SS cabin has all the essentials for an agreeable driving experience: stylish black-on-white gauges (an apparent prerequisite for entry into the sport-truck class; the Ram and the departing Ford Harley have them, too), comfortable leather-trimmed seats, and such conveniences as standard dual-zone climate control, keyless entry, an AM/FM stereo with cassette and CD player, and power windows and locks. With the extended cab, there's also a second row of seats, accessible through small rear-opening doors. Back-seat legroom is exceedingly tight, though, so the only passengers you put back there had better be named "luggage."

For all its abundant equipment, the SS' cockpit seems clunky and dated. The instrument cluster, the central control stack, the glovebox--all the pieces look like rectangular slabs fitted together without much regard for eye-pleasing transitions. Apart from the contrasting white-face gauges, there's a dark, monochromatic somberness that prevails throughout the cabin, too.

The Ram's cockpit is far airier and sleeker. There's an elegant sweep to the dash, the central control stack is deftly integrated into the instrument binnacle, and the panel's edges are smoothly rounded and rolled together. Light-colored materials, offset by contrasting inserts, add interest to the design. In general, it's a look that says "tidy" and "modern."

The Ram doesn't start out as well-equipped as the SS, but the standard-equipment list isn't skimpy. On board are air-conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, and an AM/FM stereo with CD player. Our test vehicle also included such extras as a power eight-way cloth bench seat, keyless entry, a seven-speaker Infinity audio system, power-adjustable pedals, and a handsome leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Finish Lines
There's something undeniably appealing about climbing into the tall saddle of one of these pickups and feeling all those eager ponies waiting for a kick from your spur. The sport-pickup genre is still new enough that there's a high "What the--?" factor whenever you blow past an unsuspecting sport-sedan driver.

If the thought of doing so brings a wry smile to your lips, we unhesitatingly recommend the Dodge Ram 1500 Hemi. The Chevy Silverado SS has a slender edge in outright go-and-stop performance, and its all-wheel-drive system certainly adds points if you live in the Snowbelt, but its archaic cabin and rough-edged reflexes leave us cold--especially in view of its lofty $40-large sticker. For cash like that, there are many far more appealing vehicular alternatives.

The Ram Hemi is a savvy execution of the sport-truck concept. Take a stylish, sophisticated pickup, add a throbbing V-8 and athletic rubber, and keep the price where sport-pickup supporters (read: young guys) can actually join in. Our nicely optioned Ram Hemi (at under $28K) should wear a "V" for "value." Keep your pencil away from the options boxes, and you can even enjoy Ram Hemi power for considerably less than that.

Hey, you gotta smile when you can play the horses without losing your shirt.

Ford's New Harley
Ford is retiring its current F-150-based Harley-Davidson Edition pickup, but the Harley nameplate will return for '04 on Ford's all-new Super Duty F-250 and F-350 models. The limited-edition 4x4 (just 8000 will be built for '04) will feature such extras as 18-inch forged-aluminum wheels, chrome tubular step bars, leather captain's chairs with embossed Harley-Davidson logos, and lots of unique exterior-styling cues. Base sticker will start at just over $40,000. Get yours fast: The first 1000 buyers who opt for the Halloween-like black-and-competition-orange paint scheme will be entered into a drawing to win a custom-painted '04 Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Race Relations
Photos: Location courtesy Irwindale Speedway, irwindalespeedway.com

How does a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race machine compare with the sport pickups you can drive on the street?

Perhaps you're one of the millions of fans of NASCAR's Craftsman Truck racing--a series that's boomed in popularity since its inception in 1995. And you'd like to know: Is my streetgoing sport pickup anything like its NASCAR counterpart?

In a word: notreally. Like NASCAR Winston Cup cars, Craftsman Truck racers are purebreds. Sure, they vaguely resemble the Ford F-150s, Dodge Ram 1500s, and Chevy Silverados you can buy in dealer showrooms. But apart from the basic blueprints of their V-8 engines, NASCAR race trucks and production sport pickups are similar in name and shape only.

Craftsman Truck racers, like Winston Cup cars, use purpose-built tubular chrome-moly frames onto which "production-looking" body pieces are bolted (for 2004, the series will follow the lead of Winston Cup and move to a common body template for all makes). The rules call for a wheelbase of 112 inches. Suspensions are race-bred but conventional: unequal-length A-arms up front and live axles at the rear. No high-profile alloy wheels for these hard-working machines: The racers get 15-inch steel wheels wearing series-spec racing slicks. Brakes are steel discs with multipiston calipers. Overall vehicle weight: 3400 pounds.

Like their streetgoing counterparts, NASCAR pickups feature V-8s under their hoods; they're mated to four-speed manual transmissions. Displacement is set at 5.7 liters, with "low-tech" pushrod valvetrains and carburetors instead of modern fuel-injection systems. Don't be fooled: A good Craftsman Truck motor can deliver more than 700 horsepower. Which makes it a real shame that, even if you had the required $250,000 or so, you can't buy a Craftsman Series race truck for your home garage.

Toyota Joins the Good Ol' Boys
NASCAR rules specify that race machines competing in NASCAR events must be based on American-made vehicles. So much for the Japanese, right?

Guess again. Toyota's full-size Tundra pickup is built in Indiana. It not only qualifies for the series, it'll be making its 2004 debut at Daytona in February (as many as six Tundra race trucks are expected to compete). Toyota will have to build a new pushrod V-8 to NASCAR specs (Toyota Racing Development will design, develop, and build the engine at its Costa Mesa, California, facility), but for a company with billions in reserve cash that'll be the easy part. The hard part? Getting Japanese engineers to understand the meaning of the phrase, "That dawg won't hunt."


  2003 Chevrolet Silverado SS 2003 Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Hemi
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layout Front engine, awd Front engine, rwd
Engine type V-8, iron block/alum heads V-8, iron block/alum heads
Valve gear OHV, 2 valves/cyl OHV, 2 valves/cyl
Bore x stroke, in/mm 4.00x3.62 / 101.6x92.0 3.92x3.58 / 99.5x90.9
Displacement, ci/cc 364.1 / 5967 345.0 / 5654
Compression ratio 10.0:1 9.6:1
Max horsepower @ rpm 345 @ 5200 345 @ 5400
Max torque @ rpm 380 @ 4000 375 @ 4200
Transmission 4-speed automatic 5-speed automatic
Axle/final drive ratio 4.10:1 / 2.87:1 3.92:1 / 2.62:1
Suspension, front; rear Upper/lower control arms, torsion bars, anti-roll bar; live axle, leaf springs Upper/lower control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, leaf springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes, f;r 12.0-in disc; 12.8-in disc, ABS 13.2-in disc; 13.8-in disc, ABS
Wheels 20 x 8.5-in cast alum 20 x 9.0-in cast alum
Tires 275/55R-20 Goodyear Eagle LS 275/55R-20 Goodyear Eagle LS
DIMENSIONS
Seating cap 5 3
Wheelbase, in 143.5 120.5
Track, f/r, in 65.0 / 66.0 68.0 / 67.4
Length, in 227.6 207.7
Width, in 81.5 79.9
Height, in 72.2 74.4
Turning circle, ft 37.4 39.6
Headroom, f/r, in 41.0 / 38.4 40.9 / na
Legroom, f/r, in 41.3 / 33.7 41.0 / na
Shoulder room, f/r, in 65.2 / 66.3 67.0 / na
Curb weight, lb 5300 4800
Payload capacity, lb 1490 1750
Towing capacity, lb 7500 9200
GVWR, lb 6400 6550
GCWR, lb 7890 8300
Fuel capacity, gal 26 26
TEST DATA
Acceleration, sec
0-30 mph 2.1 2.3
0-40 mph 3.2 3.4
0-50 mph 4.8 5
0-60 mph 6.6 6.8
0-70 mph 8.6 8.8
0-80 mph 12.1 12
0-90 mph 15.4 15.8
0-100 mph 20.2 20.9
1/4 mile, sec @ mph 14.99 @ 89.05 15.11 @ 89.06
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 119 132
600-ft slalom, mph 61.3 62.3
200-ft skidpad, lateral g 0.77 0.8
Top-gear rpm @ 60 mph 2000 1750
CONSUMER INFO
Base price when tested $39,995 $22,040
Price as tested $40,010 $27,820
Airbags Dual front Dual front
Basic warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles 7 yrs/70,000 miles
EPA mpg, city/hwy 13/17 14/18
Range, miles, city/hwy 338/442 364/468
Recommended fuel Unleaded premium Unleaded premium

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