Long before the Chevy 454SS and the Ford SVT F-150 Lightning began their sport-truck performance battle, Dodge introduced the 1978 Li’l Red Express Truck, an ostentatious addition to its “adult toys” lineup (which did not, as the moniker implies, include marital aids). A shortbed, two-wheel-drive pickup, the Li’l Red Truck packed a 225-horsepower, 360-cubic-inch V-8 that allowed it to outrun a Corvette to 100 mph. Granted, the 1978 Corvette could be outrun by continental drift, but in the dark days of the late ’70s, hope was a red pickup with smokestacks.
With the 2004 Ram SRT-10, Dodge is poised to recapture its truckin’ glory. By dropping the Viper’s 500-horsepower V-10 and six-speed manual transmission into the Ram, DaimlerChrysler’s Performance Vehicle Operations (PVO) team has not only trumped the Ford Lightning, but it’s created the most powerful production pickup truck in the entire history of the universe-which is a fine thing to do if you’ve got some spare Viper powertrains kicking around.
The rest of the Ram SRT-10 is cut from the same outsize pattern as the engine. The 22-inch Speedline wheels are the biggest rims available on a production truck. The hollow aluminum driveshaft might be checked for stowaways at border crossings. The Dana 60 rear end is so large Ben Affleck wants to have an overpublicized relationship with it. And the much-touted “three 500s” of the Viper-505 cubic inches, 500 horsepower, and 525 pound-feet of torque-welcome another 500 here, as in a sweet-sounding 505-watt stereo that could cause permanent hearing damage in about 500 milliseconds.
Cosmetically, the ultimate Ram wears red brake calipers behind the aforementioned dub-twos, a spoiler over the tailgate that reduces lift and drag, and a hood scoop emblazoned with the words Viper Powered. PVO says the hood scoop is functional because it allows air into the engine bay, but the snout in the hood isn’t actually connected to the airbox up front. We suppose that a toupee is also functional because it prevents sunburn, but when you’ve got 500 horsepower, you shouldn’t have to justify your hood scoop to anyone.
While the Ram SRT-10 charges to 60 mph in a scant 5.3 seconds, the truck is intended to be more than a straight-line dragster, and the basic Ram chassis has been extensively modified to provide the turning and stopping capabilities appropriate to a 155-mph vehicle. Those extroverted brake calipers grip fifteen-inch front and fourteen-inch rear rotors, the suspension is lowered one inch in the front and two and a half inches at the rear, and stiffer springs and Bilstein monotube dampers are used all around. While the independent front suspension gets coil springs, the live rear end is sprung by good old-fashioned semi-elliptic leaf springs. The rear suspension also includes a horizontal damper that links the differential to the frame, which brings us to perhaps the biggest problem faced by the Ram SRT-10 engineers: How do you prevent a 500-horsepower, two-wheel-drive pickup from incinerating its rear tires every time the driver grazes the throttle with anything more than a chaste caress? In addition to the aforementioned horizontal motion damper, the Ram SRT-10 combats wheelspin with a limited-slip differential, 305-section Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires, and a surprisingly good 56/44 percent front/rear weight distribution.
Then there’s the gearing, which is higher than Snoop Dogg at Mardi Gras. First gear is good for 50 mph, and second will break the speed limit on most highways in the country. At 50 mph in sixth, the V-10 is loping along at 1000 rpm. The gearing, tires, and suspension modifications mean that a 3500-rpm clutch drop results in a brief loss of traction followed by anticlimactic engine bogging. Rev it up to five grand and dump the clutch, however, and you’ll be more popular than teased bangs with the girls in the Dairy Queen parking lot. And if you’re charged with murdering those pricey Pirellis, it definitely will have been premeditated.
Smoke-show shenanigans aside, in real-world driving, the Ram’s determination to hook up is crucial to its mission of sport-truck supremacy. Plant the throttle coming out of a corner, and there’s little fear that forward motion will be compromised by wheelspin. It’s telling that the Ram SRT-10’s introduction included laps on a tight autocross course, which is not a place you’d usually expect to find a 5000-pound truck. Blasting from corner to corner, the SRT-10 is like an NFL lineman recovering a fumble and sprinting off to the end zone. It’s amazing that something this big can be so quick and agile. The Ram also demonstrates unflappable poise, holding its line even over midcorner bumps. All this is accomplished without traction control or other electronic aids, which is refreshing in this era of speed limiters, stability control programs, and artificial brake assist. Ram SRT-10 drivers have no use for such things, for they are tough, mustache-wearing men and women who know they’re nearing their trucks’ limits when their spittoons start to spill.
Owners might want to think about swapping in a higher-ratio rear end to shave a few ticks off their quarter-mile times, but other than that, Dodge got its flagship truck right straight out of the box. It looks badass but not overwrought, the V-10 makes great sounds (particularly the wicked exhaust crackle on overrun), and its overall performance is beyond the realm of anything else with a cargo bed (notably the outgoing Ford Lightning). In fact, it would be redundant to adorn a Ram SRT-10 with a decal of Calvin peeing on a Ford logo, as the truck itself effectively communicates that message (feel free to airbrush VipeRam on the tailgate, however). Ford, for its part, has been making hyperbolic declarations about its next Lightning that would make the former Iraqi information minister weep with appreciation. But, for now, the Ram SRT-10 stands as the ultimate performance truck, a 500-horsepower adult toy.