To some of us, the word "truck" means "transportation" "towing," and "toolbox" and nothing more. But for many others, their pickup trucks not only go home with them after work, they go out to play as well.

Pickup manufacturers have wised up to this, and now there's a whole category of trucks that play as hard as they work. The first of these started out as sport vehicles targeted at younger buyers who got their kicks off road as much as on. Then in the mid-1990s Ford had the bright idea to add a supercharger to one of its F-150 pickups and call it the Lightning, a limited-production program that was expected to be short-lived but has proved so successful it will now continue until at least 2006. Other truck makers took note, and the race to build faster, cooler, hotter specialty pickups was on.

Despite their fancy equipment and accessories, all of the specialty pickups in this roundup are still trucks to the core and come factory-equipped with the necessities--basically the same body work, frames, and suspensions as conventional pickups, with standard beds in back. But all are tweaked with hotter engines, special styling cues like custom paint and sport wheels, and other features that make them stand out from conventional trucks, whether on the job or cruising the boulevard.

In some cases, however, their superior attitude comes in exchange for something else--many "sport" pickups are built on two-wheel-drive platforms to keep sticker prices down. But these pickups are still plenty capable. Towing and payload are important requirements for specialty trucks because buyers often use them for hauling pleasure boats, campers, trailers, motorcycles, and ATVs.

So if it's a pickup you need but a hot rod you really want, check out these trucks for 2004--but don't delay, because most are produced in very limited numbers (Toyota offered only 850 of its slick "T3" cruisers, a tweaked 2003 Tundra based on the most recent "Terminator" film), and there's no guarantee they will be available next year or in years to come.


Silverado SS. The Chevy SuperSport (SS) heritage dates back to the 1960s when special-edition Impalas and Camaros were among the hottest cars of their day. Improved performance, handling, and styling are the requirements for this badge, and the Silverado SS package certainly earns the right to wear it.

Based on a Silverado 1500 Extended Cab short-bed model, this big pickup looks fast just standing at the curb. A performance-tuned Z60 suspension with lowered chassis, color-matched 'ground effects" air dams, deep tinted windows, and 20-inch spoked aluminum wheels combine with a total absence of chrome to induce awe from (rapidly) passing crowds. A touch on the gas at any speed produces instant acceleration, thanks to "hotter" first and fourth gears and this truck's high-output version of GM's biggest V8 engine, the 6.0-liter Vortec 6000. As a bonus, unlike most other pickups, sport or otherwise, the Silverado SS comes standard with full-time all-wheel drive.

Silverado SS 1500 with 6.0-liter gas engine

* Max. horsepower: 345 hp

* Max. torque: 380 pounds-feet

* Max. payload: 1,490 pounds

* Max. trailer weight: 7,500 pounds

* Base price: $39,380

SSR Sports Roadster. First Chevy introduced the Avalanche, an SUV "crossover" vehicle with a full-size pickup bed. Now the manufacturer is rolling out a limited edition Super Sport Roadster, or SSR, that is unlike anything else on the road--guaranteed.

Based on a Chevy TrailBlazer frame and chassis, but classed as a mid-size truck, the SSR has a tub-like 4-footlong, 56-inch-wide pickup box with a 40-inch-wide tailgate, covered by a power operated hard tonneau cover. It also has a power-folding retractable hardtop over its two-seat cab--the first pickup ever produced with a convertible top. Its flared fenders and front end evoke the look of pickups from the 1940s and "50s. Under its retro hood, however, is GM's new all-aluminum 5.3liter Vortec 5300 V8 engine mated to a Corvette electronic four speed automatic transmission. Although the SSR is a pickup, it's really designed for cruising and is available in rear-drive only.

SSR with 5.3-liter gas engine

* Max. horsepower: 300 hp

* Max. torque: 449 pounds-feet

* Max. payload: N/A

* Max. trailer weight: 2,000 pounds

* Base price: $41,995


Ram 1500 SRT-10. The Dodge Viper sports car is arguably the raciest street machine to come along since the Corvette. Armed with a maximum-performance V10 engine and capable of speeds in excess of 175 mph right out of the showroom, it's a monster on or off the track. Just imagine what it would be like to have a pickup with this much power.

That must be what the Dodge Performance Vehicle Operations engineers were thinking when they stuffed that same 8.3-liter Viper V10 into a Ram 1500 to produce the SRT-10. What they ended up with is a truck that has more horsepower than any other pickup--or sports car--on the planet, capable of turning 150 mph and going 0 to 60 mph in just over five seconds. This truck also features a performance-tuned suspension package, all the better to keep its "standard" Pirelli Scorpion tires on 22-inch wheels planted on the pavement during high-speed burnouts. The SRT-10 is built on a two-wheel-drive platform.

Ram 1500 with 8.3-liter gas engine

* Max. horsepower: 500 hp

* Max. torque: 525 pounds-feet

* Max. payload: 900 pounds

* Max. trailer weight: N/A

* Base price: $45,000


F-250 King Ranch and Harley-Davidson. Originally introduced as F-150s, the King Ranch and Harley-Davidson limited-production pickups have grown in size as well as stature, and for 2004 will be available only as F-250 or F-350 heavy-duty models. General contractors and easy riders take note--your vehicles have arrived.

The new-generation King Ranch is an interesting mix of brute force and luxury with a distinct "urban cowboy" flavor. Its Western-themed interior is all premium leather finished in a rawhide-like buff brown with saddlebag seat storage pouches and other home-on-the-range touches. The only thing missing is a set of longhorns mounted on the hood. The Harley-Davidson version is all about details that reference those two-wheeled icons of the highway. For Harley owners, this pickup is a versatile matchup that's hard to resist. As for brute force, both vehicles offer Ford's new low-emission 6.0-liter, 32-valve Powerstroke V8 turbo-diesel, one of the smoothest and brawniest engines ever dropped into a pickup.

You can get the King Ranch in either two-wheel (base price $43,230) or four-wheel ($45,315) drive, but the Harley is 4x4 only ($46,185). Both models are also available with full-size Crew Cabs--the better for roundin' up your posse or biker gang at the end of the work day--and 8-foot pickup beds, making these big trucks appear all the more impressive on the road and on die job.

F-250 Crew Cab with 6.0-liter diesel

* Max. Horsepower: 325 hp

* Max. torque: 560 pounds-feet

* Max payload: 2,900 pounds

* Max. trailer weight: 13,700 pounds

F-150 SVT Lightning. This hot-rod pickup from Ford's Special Vehicle Team, now in its third generation and ninth year of limited production, pretty much started the current full-size specialty truck craze, and it's still driving full-speed ahead. It has proven so popular that Ford will continue to offer it for at least two more years in its 2003 body style, long after the 2004 redesign for all other F-150s.

With its supercharged, intercooled, 5.4-liter Triton V8 engine, this truck is truly lightning-fast, off the line or at highway speeds, but it can pull and haul on the job as well. And like more recent specialty sport trucks, it has performance-enhancing niceties like a tuned suspension-steering exhaust setup, 18-inch aluminum spoke wheels, and a custom interior. It's available in rear-drive only.

SVT Lightning with 5.4-liter gas engine

* Max. horsepower: 380 hp

* Max. torque: 450 pounds-feet

* Max payload: 1,400 pounds

* Max. trailer weight: 5,000 pounds

* Base price: $33,410

RELATED ARTICLE: A pickup with plug-in power.

Faced with requirements for better fuel economy and lower exhaust emissions, vehicle manufacturers are testing various concepts, technologies, and strategies to meet compliance now and in the future. Where tradespeople are concerned, Ford already offers optional propane-and ethanol-powered fuel systems in most of its pickups, and General Motors recently rolled out a "hybrid pickup" that offers full-time 110-volt AC power as a convenient byproduct of its innovative engine/drivetrain setup.

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