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Full Throttle First Drive: 2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10
By: Mike Magda, Editor Posted: 06-06-04 22:01PT
© 2004

Cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny afternoon, behind the wheel of a 500-horsepower Dodge Ram SRT-10, memories of my ’78 LRT Express are vivid and engaging. The SRT and LRT are two of kind but in different generations: the fastest factory hot rod pickups of their era. Both came from the minds of engineers, not MBAs. Car guys, not focus-group leaders, developed these vehicles. The customers are the same: those who want to be noticed and those who want to go fast.

My 700-mile, 2-day whirlwind trip from Los Angeles to Monterey was needed to attend a business meeting. I was looking for real-world seat time in the SRT-10. I know it’s the world’s fastest production truck, having been certified at over 154 mph by the Guinness record keepers. But who’s going to take their SRT-10 to Bonneville or Chrysler’s 4.7-mile high-speed test near Chelsea, Michigan? I wanted to drive the SRT in much the same manner as a typical enthusiast. And a road trip to Monterey seemed like the ideal scenario.

Leaving LA at 5:00 a.m., I headed north in Interstate 5, stopping only once near Castaic Lake for sunrise photography. I intended to follow much the same route as James Dean planned almost 50 years ago when he was going to Salinas for a race but was killed in a head-on crash. After exiting the I-5 at Lost Hills, I drove west on Hwy 46. Dean had picked up the old Hwy 466 north of Bakersfield near Famoso, having driven north from LA on Hwy 99 (There was no Interstate system in his day).

As it came down from Temblor Mountains, which were shaped by the San Andreas Fault running underneath, Dean’s Porsche collided with Ford coupe driven by a college student eastbound on 466. The student was attempting to turn left, or north, on to Hwy 41 toward Fresno when he apparently didn’t see Dean’s silver racecar.

Highway 466 has been renamed Hwy 46 and rerouted slightly as it rolls into Cholame, a small town made up of a café, gas station and post office. The 46/41 intersection, which is about 900 yards east of Cholame, has also been redesigned, no doubt partly due to Dean’s death. A wealthy fan of Dean from Japan built a memorial around a tree in Cholame, but there is no marker at the actual crash site. No doubt the small town will be overrun with James Dean faithful next year on the 50th anniversary of his death.

So far I haven’t stretched the SRT’s legs much. A couple of quick 0-100-mph bursts were made on the lonely Hwy 41, but the I-5 and Hwy. 46 were jammed with motorists and truckers. Rowing through the gears with the Hurst shifter comes with no drama, and the clutch is easy on the left leg, even in heavy traffic. Putting the Viper 6-speed into a fullsize truck was a daring move on the part of the Chrysler Group’s Performance Vehicle Operations division. The unavailability of an automatic transmission narrows the customer base considerably but improves the chances that the owner’s driving skills are beyond those of a mainstream pickup owner.

The LRT came only with a 3-speed LoadFlite transmission, a very capable piece of hardware in its day. But then I wondered about the drivetrain possibilities had the LRT been born 10 years earlier in the peak of the musclecar era. So I called Tom Hoover, one of the original engineers on the LRT project along with Dave Koffel and the late **** Maxwell. The three had been key players in the Super Stock wars of the ‘60s, working with the big 440 MaxWedge and 426 Hemi engines. I asked Hoover if he was ever approached about building a Hemi-powered D-100 pickup with a 4-speed transmission. While the idea sounded interesting, Hoover said his schedule was full with the ‘Cuda and Dart programs meant for the NHRA dragstrips. He did mention, however, that Bill “Maverick” Golden had a Hemi in his legendary Dodge A-100 wheelstander, the Little Red Wagon.

Hoover & Co. developed the Li’l Red Truck prototype when product planner Gordon Cherry said he wanted a cool pickup for the popular Adult Toys promotion that Dodge was pushing. Some of their ideas didn’t make it, like using the race-inspired W2 cylinder heads and a ‘36 Ford style taillight, but the massive upright chromed exhaust, dual snorkel air intake, real wood bed trim and bigger tires for the rear did go into production. The 1978 LRT was one of the quickest and fastest American-made vehicles that year, beating a Corvette in acceleration tests conducted by Car & Driver magazine.

While the LRT was built at the end of an era at Dodge performance, the SRT is just the third offering from Performance Vehicle Operations. PVO is a direct response to the success Ford enjoys with its Special Vehicle Team (SVT), and especially the Lightning pickup. With a supercharged, 380-horsepower V8 under the hood, the 4700-pound SVT Lightning was the considered the world’s fastest pickup before the Ram SRT-10. The mission for all three vehicles—the LRT, SRT and Lightning—was the same: let real car enthusiasts and engineers have a free hand at building the ultimate performance truck—the best of its day. (We won’t consider the Silverado SS because that appears to be more of a marketing gimmick trading on a great name than a true push-the-envelope-with-all-you-got performance exercise. Then again, maybe that is the best Chevy can do!)

The first sign that I’m driving a true performance truck comes quickly in Paso Robles where I pick up US Highway 101. I have to find a gas station. Just like my LRT got about 12mpg, the SRT-10 drank 20.2 gallons after 271 miles for an average of 13.4 mpg. All but 45 miles were logged on the highway. Another sign I’m in a performance vehicle came just a few miles driving north: A California Highway Patrol cruiser draws a bead on the Flame Red paint and holds position for about 20 miles before finding other prey. I reach Monterey on schedule but had black & white company all the way on the 101.

The SRT is meant to be conspicuous. With a massive hood scoop, 22-inch wheels, aero tricks like a rear spoiler and rocker skirts, snarling stance, and bold monochromatic colors, the SRT demands attention. My LRT didn’t have to beg but certainly asked for attention. Remember, the ’78 Dodge pickup was a couple of generations behind Ford and Chevy in styling. Sporting round headlights and bulbous rear pontoon fenders, the Dodge looks like an aging farm truck. The LRT’s flame-belching exhaust stacks, gleaming chrome and oak wood trim seems cartoonish to truck enthusiasts who are more comfortable with the refined lines of other 1/2-ton pickups. But I love the look and character of the LRT. Dodge designers rarely apologize for taking a chances, and LRT—and now SRT—owners never say they’re sorry, either.

Following a sunset photo session near a seaside lagoon and my morning meetings the next day, I head south on Hwy. 1—better known as the Big Sur Highway. Tight and winding, it hugs the rugged California coastline and provides spectacular whitewater views around every turn. There’s no room for speed but plenty of opportunities to test the steering and handling. Dodge lowered the SRT 1 inch in the front and 2.5 inches in the rear, added a rear sway bar, modified the rack-and-pinion steering, installed tuned Bilstein shocks and popped in stiffer springs. The result is hardly any body roll. Add 15-inch brakes up front and 14s in the rear, and SRT easily tames twisty canyon roads.

While cornering is precise, the SRT suffers from overly stiff ride over unfriendly road surfaces. Although the SRT rides on luxurious 305/40 Pirelli Scorpion tires, road impacts border on harsh and freeway expansion joints play unbearable paint-shaker tunes on the cabin’s occupants. The 6-speed CD changer in our test vehicle turned off or started switching CDs every time the truck went over a speed bump, manhole cover or slightest imperfection in the road. Otherwise, the 500-watt Infinity sound system pounded out the desired tunes with authority and crispness.

I stopped a few times down the road for pictures, sightseeing and other tourist activities such as buying gifts for family members. The coast highway is highly regulated and hardly developed, but there are exclusive restaurants, lodges and art galleries along the way. There are also landmarks such as the Hearst castle, beaches reserved for sea otters and elephant seals and Morro Rock. The relaxing late afternoon drive allowed time for thoughts and comparisons on the SRT, LRT and Lightning:

Dodge says about 3000 Ram SRT-10 trucks will be produced. The 1978 LRT had a production run of 2188 followed by 5118 in 1979.

The MSRP on our test truck was $45,795. Base price was $22,425 and the SRT option was $22,575.

The one big difference between the SRT-10 and the LRT is the exhaust note. The LRT barely passed local noise abatement levels and featured an unmistakable raucous V8 thunder. The SRT is over muffled and with good reason: V10 engines inherently sound like a UPS truck at low rpm. At full throttle they sound like a Formula 1 engine on steroids; but through most driving conditions on the street, the tone is hardly aggressive. You can make them loud but you can’t make ‘em nasty with just mufflers.

Ford won’t let the SRT-10 hold the crown for long. But what does the SVT group have to challenge 500 horsepower? How about 550 ponies? SVT is behind the 5.4-liter supercharged V8 engine in the new Ford GT. There may be packaging issues with the intake and exhaust if that engine was slipped under the hood of the new Lightning, but it would still be good for 525 to 530 horsepower. The big question: What transmission will Ford use? The GT has a transaxle, and the current 4-speed automatic in the Lightning would need serious upgrades to handle the extra 150 or so horsepower. Maybe Ford will offer a 6-speed Tremec similar to the one in the 2000 Cobra R? Of course, Dodge still has time to add more power before the next Lightning arrives.

The current Lightning is about 450 pounds lighter than the SRT-10. But the new Ford F-150 gained a lot of weight with the new platform. We’re curious to see how SVT will address that issue.

Since SRT has raised the bar so high in performance pickups, the $45,850 sticker price shouldn’t scare Ford. The current Lightning is about $12,000 cheaper than the SRT-10. Since SVT vehicles are meant to be exclusive, we say go all out and match the SRT-10 in features and horsepower while significantly reducing weight.

According to the Automotive Lease Guide (May, 2004), the industry standard for residual values, the current Lightning—which is in its last run of the old generation—would retain a higher percentage of its value than the new SVT-10 as a used vehicle. Guess than means SVT has done an outstanding job with brand management, customer satisfaction ratings and dealer training not to mention building collectable value into its vehicles.

Final fuel economy report: 865 miles, 67.9 gallons of 91 octane fuel, 12.74mpg, $176.87 total fuel bill. The final leg of my weeklong test covered 272 miles—half on the highway and half in congested traffic for 10.78mpg.

If you’re wondering, I had to get rid of my LRT about nine years ago after the Northridge earthquake. Last I heard, it found a good home at a Dodge dealership near New York City.
I’m starting to rant now. Time to concentrate on LA traffic as I head toward home. Many of you were probably hoping I would try a Cannonball-style, bonzai run through California. Trust me, this truck draw too many radar waves, even on city boulevards. But I’m convinced this is the most exciting, most capable performance truck ever built. I ran consistent low 13-second quarter mile times with one of the first Syclones built in 1989 and thought that truck was truly an engineering marvel and a bold move by GMC. Too bad the recession killed any chances of that milestone sport truck continuing. The SRT-10 runs the quarter mile in mid to high 13-second times but is more useful as a truck and better looking. I just wish Dodge would’ve put a little wood and chrome on it.

Click here for a report on the SRT-10 from the 2003 Chicago Auto Show.

Click here for PUTC’s first drive in the SRT-10 and closer look at the vehicle.

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D Davis said:
Well what the hell???? all he does is ramble on about his old truck & James Dean, makes an ocasional refrence to the SRT10& SVT L, a shot at future dreams and LA traffic. A waist of bandwidth IMO :rolleyes:
dude, i didnt think it would ever end>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>! ;)

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I thought the review was the best i've read yet..he used the other trucks for comparsion and humor..not a one sided story about the SRT-10..

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972 Posts
Dam that was long winded. Nice write up by the way :cool:

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Not (Jimmy Dean) sausage

The referance was to James Dean the actor that was killed in a head on crash in a sports car while going to a race. I believe it is the feeling/thrill of the open road with a fun vehicle to drive. The article was a mabye little vague for some of you guys that are under 40. I personally like my articles to be more of a road test format than a flowery testimony to essoteric references. Jack
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