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  • 2002 Truck Comparisons: Dodge Dakota R/T vs. Ford SVT Lightning vs. Toyota TRD Tacoma

2002 Truck Comparisons: Dodge Dakota R/T vs. Ford SVT Lightning vs. Toyota TRD Tacoma

power trip: performance-oriented sport trucks are all about brawn and long black ribbons of valor left on the tarmac.

David Newhardt
Nov 6, 2002
Photographers: David Newhardt
Power. Muscle. Brute strength. Call it what you will, performance-oriented sport trucks are all about brawn and long black ribbons of valor left on the tarmac, cupholders be damned. Our annual HI-PO truck test--by far our staff's favorite comparison--is a look at this year's most potent and variegated trucks offered in the marketplace.
Different Faces
Depending on whom you ask, the term "sport truck" takes on different meanings. For instance, Ford's Special Vehicle Team captures a balanced approach in handling, styling, and interior accoutrements on its F-150 derivative. To this package, SVT adds an obscene dose of horsepower to the mix, providing one of the most thrilling rides next to a fighter jet.
The Dodge boys go with a more traditional method, taking a Club Cab Dakota and dropping in their largest truck engine. The result: everyday useability that quickly shortens the rear-tire's life span, while providing the driver with endless grins.
Toyota strategy calls for a hands-off line of attack, giving its Toyota Racing Development arm (www.trdusa.com) free rein to produce bolt-on performance accessories that can be fitted by any Toyota dealer, carrying a full factory warranty.
Absent from this round is GM. The company offers the Chevrolet X-Treme series of S-10 and Blazer (mostly consisting of an appearance package) and the HT version of the Silverado 1500. But without a true sport truck until the SSR is put into production, GM will sit on the bench for now.
Powering Up
The basic HI-PO formula has been around for years: take a small vehicle and shoehorn your largest powerplant into the engine bay. That's exactly what Dodge did when it introduced the Dakota 5.9 R/T in April 1998. With its box-stock small-block OHV Magnum V-8 putting out 250 hp at the crank and a hefty 3850-lb curb weight, at 15.4:1 the Dodge didn't fare as well in the power-to-weight ratio department.
Feeding power through a 46RE four-speed automatic to the Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires (P255/55R17), the R/T posted a 0-60 time of 7.08 sec, passing through the quarter mile in 15.50 at 88.72 mph. "About 1500 rpm are required to get a good launch," noted chief-tester Chris Walton. "More than that, and you'll only spin the tires." The R/T pulls hard, but we encountered a flat spot in its acceleration curve around 3500 rpm (nearing 70 mph) in third gear. This appears to be commonplace, as we've experienced this phenomenon with other R/Ts.
Fitted with 11.3-in. vented discs front and 9.0-in. drums out back (with rear-only anti-lock), the Dakota stopped from 60 mph in a decent 136 ft, but did so with harsh ABS kickback through the pedal and an occasional wander off course.
Photo 2/8   |   2002 Toyota Trd Tacoma top Engine View
That wasn't the case with the TRD-fortified Tacoma, which stopped in a pavement-peeling 106 ft--that's better than an '02 Porsche GT2 with $10K worth of ceramic brakes. Part of the Toyota's success came with TRD's 9.9-in. vented front discs and 10.0-in. rear drums (with full ABS), and optional 235/45ZR17 Toyo Proxes RA1 (DOT approved) race tires mounted on Gram-Lights 57C 17x7.5 wheels.
When Toyota launched the 3125-lb S-Runner in 2000, TRD saw it as an open invitation to take sport trucks to the next level. By mounting a screw-type blower (set to a conservative 6 psi of boost) atop its 3.4L V-6, power bumps up 64 ponies for a respectable 12.5:1 power-to-weight ratio. Facing the timing lights, the Toyota beat the Dakota to 60 by a full second at 6.07, pulling an impressive 14.96 at 93.96 in the quarter mile.
Photo 3/8   |   2002 Toyota Trd Tacoma front Interior View
Breaking onto the scene in '93 (and now in its second generation), the SVT almost needs drag slicks to harness power from the blown 5.4L Triton V-8 (rated at 380 hp with 8 psi of boost and boasting a power-to-weight ratio of 12.3:1) to the rear wheels. With the stock Goodyear Eagle Eagle F1 GS rubber (P295/45ZR18) straining for grip, easing into the throttle, then mashing it to the floor garnered the best time of 5.24 to 60 and 13.75 sec at 101.56 mph for this 4670-lb truck.
Fitted with 12.1-in. front and 13.1-in. vented discs in back (with full ABS), the SVT'd F-150 was the only truck to pull a 100-0-mph stop, doing so in 347 ft. Braking 60-0 was also powerful and linear at 122 ft. Noted Walton, "The Lightning's brakes were impressive and fade-free after several runs."
Great Curves
Given its lowered stance and racing rubber, the TRD is as close to a 7/8-scale NASCAR Craftsman truck as we've ever driven. Posting a 63.13 pass through the cones, the S-Runner is one of the most poised trucks we've ever tested. We found almost zero body roll, neutral to the limit, then just the slightest oversteer.
The feeling was mutual as we traversed mountain roads, where the Toyota inspired confidence the harder we pushed it. Laced with its bubblegum rubber, breaking the rear end free is nearly impossible, except when the open differential allowed tire spin in hairpin turns. The steering communicates freely to the driver, informing you of every nuance in the road.
Out of the canyons, the Toyota's suspension rides tautly on uneven surfaces, mostly due to the exotic rolling stock. Once out on the highway (and especially in truck lanes), the S-Runner effectively eradicates any inkling of kidney stones you may have. But get it on smooth pavement, and it rides like a sports car.
Photo 4/8   |   2002 Dodge Dakota Rt top Engine View
As expected, the Lightning served up the softest ride on the highway, exhibiting only slight rear jounce on abused roads. Fresh pavement only helped the SVT ride like a Town Car. Heading for the hills, it exhibited steering tighter than the Dakota, with good feel and near rail-like cornering. Throttle steering was effortless, unless you put too much foot into it--then the rear breaks loose, allowing more drift in the corners than bargained for.
Putting the SVT through the slalom, the heavy front and a carefree rearend allowed for more slip than we'd like during extreme cornering, but were quite controllable through judicious throttle input. Its 60.61 speed is inspiring for a full-size pickup, though the SVT's obviously not as nimble as the R/T or TRD. We found far better balance than expected, but this is still a full-size pickup truck.
To say we were surprised when the sleeper R/T posted the fastest 600-ft slalom time of 63.23 would be a gross understatement. "The faster you go, the more you commit, the better the R/T responds," wrote Walton. "You can manhandle this truck, and it doesn't bite back. There's tons of grip, quick steering, and it doesn't threaten to spin out on the dash to the last cone."
Photo 5/8   |   2002 Dodge Dakota Rt front Interior View
In the canyons, the Dodge doesn't throw any curveballs: It's sure-footed, rotates easily, is extremely predictable, and takes well to steering input via throttle. With a suspension this secure, we would normally expect a bone-jarring ride; however, the Dakota is compliant on rough two-lanes, with good communication through the wheel and responsive steering. Given the 5.9's torque, we were a bit disappointed with the tranny's inability to hold gears on grades, as it continually up- and downshifted to keep the truck at speed.
On truck-traveled highways, the Dakota R/T does experience a decent amount of rear-axle hop, but it's easily quelled on smooth pavement.
Living Large
Putting over a grand on the clock and living with these three performance-oriented haulers for two weeks quickly brought out the good, the bad, and the ugly of day-to-day life.
Given its abundance of cubby space, decent seats, and useable second row, the HI-PO hauler Dakota also does it in relative comfort. With its wide buckets that serve up good lumbar and thigh support, we were disappointed that lateral grip is lacking for hard cornering expeditions. While you may have to hang on in the twisties, the seats do offer a high level of comfort level for long cruises.
The white-on-black gauge cluster is easy to read at a glance, and secondary controls are intuitively laid into the center stack. We're especially fond of the high-mounted stereo and HVAC selectors that simple to adjust without taking your eyes from the road. In back, the rear seat is fairly upright, making it a better place to carry gear than people.
Since the TRD handles like a go-kart on steroids, and accelerates with the velocity of a Porsche Boxster, we were hoping to find interior upgrades to hold its occupants firmly in place. No such luck: the S-Runner retains its stock buckets--with good thigh and lumbar support--except they seriously lack lateral bolstering to hold driver and passenger under high-g maneuvers. If we had our druthers, we'd set in a pair of Celica GTS seats, which offer great lateral, lumbar, and thigh support.
Photo 6/8   |   2002 Ford SVT Lightning Rear Wheel Dyno View.jpg
The S-Runner's clean black-on-white gauges (with red illumination) are also easy to read day or night, however, we wish blower-boost and oil-pressure instruments were thrown into the mix to complement the truck's sporty attitude. Climate and radio controls wear large buttons and dials, making selections a snap at speed.
Cubby space isn't as plentiful as in the Dakota, though the Xtracab provides a good dose of interior cargo-carrying capability for personal items.
Our only major livability gripe with the TRD comes in the rubber department. With its ultra-sticky compound, the Toyo RA1s offer little grip when cold (letting the rear slide around corners until heat is generated into the tires) and tend to pickup everything--especially sharp metal objects. Three flats later (that's more than we see on most off-roading adventures), we're convinced the best route is to opt for a good set of ZR-rated rubber (a set of Michelin Pilot Sports can be had for less than the Toyos), that will provide near comparable performance on the track, confidence in rain, and better protection from road hazards.
Photo 7/8   |   2002 Ford Svt Lightning front Interior View
If there's one aspect of the Ford that disappointed, it's the interior space. Granted, the SVT is designed to maximize front-to-rear weight balance (hence the standard cab), but when the weather's sour, it's tough to get a couple guys and their gear into a space for two and a half burly men.
The Lightning's seats were the best of the bunch, with grippy suede upholstery and excellent lumbar, lateral, and thigh support. Easy-access storage space is lacking, although there are two storage compartments behind the seats, the passenger side of which hides the standard issue six-disc-CD changer. Secondary controls are within a fingertip's reach, and the white-face gauges are easy to read.
The Cool Factor
Each of these trucks is a cool ride in its own right and is targeted toward specific demographics. If you want to blatantly stand out from the crowd, the S-Runner--with its side skirts, aggressive front air dam, and lowered stance--screams "boy racer," and kids love it. Its as-tested price of $27,364 puts it right in range if you had to buy a stock truck and add all the aftermarket goodies. The TRD we tested was equipped with the Full Monty--yet it's easy to add TRD accessories as finances allow. And don't forget, all the TRD parts fall under the Toyota new-truck warranty.
The R/T fits in for those who want a wolf in sheep's clothing--its no frills look and low exhaust note don't give away the potential this truck has against unsuspecting victims at signal light romps. It's sleeper character flows to its ground-pounding capability, easily eating sports cars for lunch on canyon roads.
SVT successfully pegged the cool meter off the scale: aggressive good looks, mean sounding exhaust, and a stance that tells you this is no ordinary pickup. After all, what other full-size can blow away select BMWs and Porsches to 60 mph? Wherever we stopped, the Lightning drew a crowd--and lots of burnout requests. In the end, it's all a question of taste. Whichever of these HI-PO trucks fits your bill, there's no doubt you'll be the envy at every drive-through.
By the Numbers...
Truth-Telling on a Paxton Dyno
Getting to the bottom of who really puts the power to the pavement, we enlisted the help of the folks at Paxton Automotive (805/604-1336; www.paxtonauto.com) and its Mustang MD250 dyno. Each truck was given four pulls, in third gear, from idle to redline. Here's how they performed:
 Max hp/ramMax torque/rpm
{{{Dakota}}} R/T154.7 / 4300{{{200}}}.3 / 3700
SVT Lightning303.4 / 5200350.1 /3700
TRD S-Runner180.8 /5100218.5 /2200
With a crank rating of 250 hp, the Dakota posted a loss of 95.3 hp to the rear wheels at 154.7 hp--a lot more than we bargained for, especially since most trucks experience 15-18-percent parasitic loss. The Lightning's SAE rating of 380 hp is impressive, but so is its 303.4 hp at the rear wheels (a 76.6-hp loss). The SVT's first run was a wash, as it effortlessly smoked the tires on the rollers. We had to ease into the throttle to get a successful pull. TRD's S-Runner weighs in at 251 hp, and loses a mere 70.2 hp in the drivetrain, posting a healthy 180.8 hp at the wheels. This was the real surprise of test, proving that the TRD blower is a great match for the 3.4L V-6.--Scott Mead
Photo 8/8   |   2002 Dodge Dakota Rt front View
Second Opinions
Toyo-riffic!
The minute I laid eyes on the TRD I was reminded of the local car club from my hometown high school -- most members owning customized five- to 10-year-old Toyota and Nissan pickups, slammed to the ground and fitted with custom wheels and low-profile tires. The TRD embodies every aspect of that image and adds musclecar-eating acceleration, go-kart-like handling, and factory-backed engineering.
Perhaps the best part about the TRD is that it has the one important thing the trucks from the hometown car club were lacking a warranty!--Brian Vance
Power to the People
Choosing between these three HI-PO trucks is tough. While I'd happily place any of them in my driveway, the Dodge had the best useable interior for day-to-day driving, but lacked the guttural grunt I crave. Toyota's setup brought braking and handling into race-car realm, but the extreme track handling also means you'll experience an extremely lumpy ride on the highway. In true SVT style, the Lightning is engineered to provide spirited handling and a compliant ride, with lots of horsepower on tap. While Dodge and Toyota have done a fantastic job placing big muscle into compact packages, there's nothing quite like the sensation of mashing the SVT's throttle to the floorboard and hurtling into hyperspace. Plus, it makes an appropriate rig for towing something cool, like a 427 Cobra or GT40.-S.M.
Palate Pleasers
These three share a performance-based bias, but that's where the similarity ends. Like good dining, choosing which you prefer is a question of what fits your mood. Dodge's 5.9L R/T is vehicular fast food, representing good value, capability, and convenience in a tasty package. Moving closer to my heart, the SVT Lightning is a thorough package with a huge platter of power and an ample exhaust note that makes you feel like any open stretch of highway is your home. The SVT gives you a belly full of comfort and power in the finest American tradition. For more exotic tastes, there's the super-delicious, supercharged TRD S-Runner. It should really have a dash plaque proclaiming, "This is a TRUCK!" A driver can easily forget. The race-ready looks and sticky motorsport equipment can make this the choice of twisty-road gourmets.
Each a meal. It's simply a question of taste.--Thomas Voehringer

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