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Kia Trophy Truck - Performance Review

Don't Flinch!: learning a new reality in Kia's trophy truck

Chris Walton
Nov 6, 2002
Photographers: Chris Walton
Flipping a toggle switch and depressing the starter button brought the grumpy V-6 to life, barking through open exhaust headers. The Trophy Truck's regular driver reminded me that I was about to set out in his one and only race truck for the 2002 season, and he'd be watching and listening to my laps. Darren Skilton, driver, and owner of Baja Motorsports, which built the trucks, was scheduled to race it in the San Felipe 250 less than two weeks later.
Easing the power on, I was struck by how low first gear was--good for only about 20 mph. Entering the desert course and standing on the gas for the first time, I heard and felt the rear wheels spin, sending a rooster tail of dirt and gravel over the landscape. Approaching the first section of rutted terrain, I had no idea what to expect. While I have more than sophomoric experience behind the wheel of race cars on racetracks, testing every manner of vehicle for Motor Trend and Truck Trend, and even a fair amount of off-roading, I suddenly realized this would be a brand-new, completely alien driving experience.
Photo 2/3   |   2003 Kia Sorento Trophy Truck front Interior View
So, how fast can it go? How fast is too fast? How much can this suspension really absorb? While I was making my first lap of the three-mile course, I couldn't shake that old four-wheeling mantra echoing in my head: "As slow as possible, but as fast as necessary." Well, everything I'd learned about off-road driving was about to go out the safety-netted window. It turns out the Trophy Truck saying goes something like "As fast as possible, but as slow as necessary."
Wait a minute--I'm getting ahead of myself. I was behind the wheel of a handbuilt desert-racing truck campaigned by...Kia? That's right. You know the commercial with the cute and frugal couple camping out of their affordable Sportage SUV. Yes, that Kia. So what is it doing racing a desert truck? It turns out it's actually been racing a Sportage, quite successfully, for about four years (see sidebar). But this Trophy Truck, with its chromoly tubular frame, race-prepped 3.5L/350-hp mid-engine Kia V-6, and over 20 inches of suspension travel, is going to play in a completely different, no-holds-barred game. The pure-race Trophy Truck is an ambitious single-seat motorsport version of the recently revealed '03 Kia Sorento SUV.
Simply getting into the Trophy Truck is no easy task. The bottom edge of the window sill over which I had to climb was about armpit height. Skilton was thoughtful enough to lay the giant, 37x12.5-in. spare tire on its side for me to use as a step stool. Once hoisted inside, I was surrounded by a perfectly welded labyrinth of chromoly tubing, yet with the exception of the cage and some mammoth remote shock reservoirs, every other part of the truck lay well below my shoulders. Directly behind me was the motor; beneath, a 45-gal fuel cell; and ahead, no windscreen, but a small wind deflector atop the dashboard.
Unlike most other Trophy Trucks, which run automatic transmissions, the Kia has a tall gear shift attached to a five-speed manual and Sprint Car-like quick-change rearend--just like the Sportage Skilton drove in the Paris-Dakar. Suspension is ably handled with adjustable A-arms attached to what looks like aircraft landing gear: 3-in. coil-over shocks and prototype Edelbrock rebound dampers all good for 22 in. of suspension travel up front, 24 in the rear.
Photo 3/3   |   2003 Kia Sorento Trophy Truck suspension View
The approximately 3.0-mile loop in the flood channel was a rutted, rock-strewn mish mash of sand, washboard, whoop-dee-doos, and sagebrush. Perfect for a race truck; a veritable minefield for a stock SUV. In fact, we'd even made a recon lap in the Toyota Sequoia I'd driven to the location outside Barstow, California. Doing my best to avoid the line that would have the most destructive effect on the undercarriage of the Toyota, the maximum speed we were able to achieve was about 20 mph. Bumpin' and shuckin' and jivin' along, the Toyota thumped innumerable buried rocks, high-centered several times, and slid all over the sandy ridges. The rugged desert befuddled its stability-control system, making it go berserk, and the cautious round trip took about 15 minutes.
In the Kia, the first couple of melon-size rocks were approaching, and I did my best to avoid them, as I had in the stock vehicle. Yet, the faster I drove, the faster they came, and there was little I could do to dodge all of them, time and again. But this Trophy Truck barely took notice. Then it happened: no place to go but straight at the rock-strewn 2-ft-deep gully that I'd forgotten was there. Had I attempted to get on the brakes, I'd likely slide the truck sideways up an embankment and roll it. Bad. The only choice was to stay on the gas to square off the corner and brace for the impact and resulting flight. While I was still in a convulsion of inevitable fear, the Kia had already traversed the gully that would've cleaned both the front end and undercarriage off a stock 4WD vehicle. Surprise and admiration (and dust) filled my helmet. When the next potentially destructive lunar landscape of rocks and ruts approached, I picked the line that'd get me out with the least amount of steering. Again, it felt as if I were levitating some three feet off the ground in a kind of anti-gravity machine that just slightly acknowledged the rough terrain below. It was only after I learned to subdue my instinct to flinch--to brace myself against the impact that never came--that I really began enjoying myself. I felt like a desert hovercraft pilot. On my second lap, I turned the wick up just a bit more and, as a race-car driver does on a track, began to see the best lines through the desert course. Oversteering and drifting slightly out of corners, anticipating what effect a bump has on the direction of travel, and even catching a bit of air time were all part of the learning process. By then, I was having an out-of-vehicle experience and even reached fifth gear for a short time. I assume I was going about 50 mph where I had driven the Sequoia to within an inch of its life at 20 mph. Then, in that instant, I finally understood.
I entered and stopped in the staging area ready for a hearty "Well done. That was a blistering five-minute lap," from the crew, but they disappeared beneath the body work to assess what, if any, damage it had incurred. As I unstrapped myself from the seat, Skilton leaned in and asked, "Well, what did you think?" As if I were the first person ever to drive one of these purpose-built trucks, I replied, "That's so much fun! I could really get addicted to this. I can't believe how fast you can go, and it just takes it." As I was removing my helmet and emerging from the truck, our photographer summed up my inaugural Trophy Truck drive by saying, "Well, Chris. We've got good news and bad news. The good news is I shot some great photos and you didn't hurt anything. The bad news is they say you didn't even work the truck hard enough to get its shocks warm."
So much for my serendipitous hopes that Skilton would report back to Kia he'd found a number-two driver. But, hey, I'm willing to try again. TT
What's the SCORE?
The brainchild of the late Mickey Thompson and the driving force behind the infamous Baja 1000 desert race for almost 30 years, SCORE International Off-Road Racing is the oldest off-road racing sanctioning body in America. Its events are considered the pinnacle of desert racing, and the Trophy Truck class is the premiere division of the series. Besides officially factory-backed teams representing Ford and Chevy, well-known and well-heeled privateers such as the Terrible Herbst clan, Troy, Ed, and Tim, and their 800-plus-hp V-8 Ford pickups currently dominate the Trophy Truck class.
Together, Kia and Skilton have already won four consecutive Class 3 (short-wheelbase SUV) SCORE championships in four attempts in a Kia Sportage between 1997 and 2000. The new Trophy Truck hopes to match or beat the giants' power-to-weight ratios with a smaller, lighter truck, admittedly less powerful. What they now have is a 10.8-lb/hp vehicle going up against, for instance, the 7.0 lb/hp of a Herman Motorsport Ford F-150 Trophy Truck with its 412-cu-in. (6.75L) V-8 rated at an "official" 750 hp. On paper, it appears Kia will need to extract another 200 hp from the V-6 to achieve the same ratio, or lose a (half) ton of weight, or some of each.--C.W.
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