One of my favorite vehicles of all time isn’t a car, but a truck. It debuted in 1978 with a stepside bed, massive chrome stacks, and a hopped up 360-cubic-inch small-block under the hood. At the time, it was the fastest vehicle produced in the United States. You guessed it, it’s the Li’l Red Express.
While there were predecessors, the iconic Dodge pickup was the one that showed me that you didn’t need a car to go fast. Over the years the muscle truck has evolved, and there have been some great ones—some great muscle-based SUVs too.
Here are my 10 favorites. Who knows, maybe you’ll see a Part II after I dig a little deeper. And hell, if you have suggestions, just leave them in the comments below and we’ll try to incorporate them into the next story.
Paint it black, give it a big-ass engine, and make it go fast. Until Chevy started building world-class sports cars like the modern Camaro and Corvette, that was General Motors’ go-fast formula for four decades. Just look at cars like the Impala SS and Buick GNX and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. When it came to performance trucks, however, the General always seemed to fall behind. That is until 1990 when it released the Chevrolet 454 SS. Fact is, Chevrolet had all the parts in its arsenal to build this out of the gate, and even though it wasn’t a rocket ship, it had an image that eclipsed everything else on the market.
A base C1500 short-bed pickup was chosen as the platform. Chevrolet then dropped in a 7.4-liter 454 big-block, upgraded suspension, and wide-for-the-time 275/65-series tires on special 15-inch chrome rims. The interior was bathed in a sea of red velour and contained a center console and comfy bucket seats. The motor had an uninspiring 230 hp, but it was the 385 lb-ft of torque that got everyone’s attention. Its 0–60 mph times were in the high seven-second range with later models (1991–93) getting an additional 25 hp and 20 lb-ft of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission and true dual exhaust were also added at this time.
2006–10 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
In the latter part of 2006, a then-new Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 arrived at my home on Long Island. It was black with 20-inch chrome rims, a center mounted exhaust, and new 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 that made 420 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. It sat with a bit of a rake and, from what I’d heard, Jeep claimed a 0–60 mph time of five seconds and a top speed of around 155 mph. As an automotive pessimist, I wasn't quite sure how this 4800-pound barn door would hit those numbers—until I drove it. After stuffing three buddies into the SRT8, we went out trolling for fun. The night consisted of a disgruntled Porsche 911, multiple Long Island Mustangs, and even a new Dodge Charger SRT8. After returning home we sat on the couch drinking beer and discussed why Jeep decided to release such a creation. A buddy pointed out, “Maybe it was just for the hell of it”—a statement which I wholeheartedly believe to be true.
Built from 2006–10, the first-generation JGC SRT8 is still an absolute riot of a muscle SUV. It has a ride that will bounce your kidneys out of your body and fuel economy that’ll put you in the poor house, but when you combine the immediate power and torque of the 6.1-liter Hemi through a great all-wheel-drive system, you’ve got a rig that’s as much fun to drive today as it was 12 years ago. Power aside, the JGC SRT8 also benefits from reasonably impressive handling by way of specially tuned Bilstein shocks and springs, larger anti-roll bars, and staggered 20-inch wheels that run a 255/45-series tire up front and 285/40 in the rear. The transmission is a beefed up five-speed automatic with a sport shift function that works pretty damn good, and when combined with a set of big Brembo brakes, the JGC SRT8 is capable of surprising many an unsuspecting sports car.
Misunderstood, underrated, and ungodly fun, the GMC Syclone was one of the hardest-accelerating vehicles on the street when it was introduced in 1991. One look at its black paint, oversized wheels, and flared fenders told onlookers that it was something special, but when parked next to one, it was the lack of a V-8 grumble that had everyone confused.
Under the hood was a 4.3-liter turbocharged V-6 that produced 280 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. Power came through a four-speed automatic transmission to an advanced all-wheel-drive system. Build a little boost and load the converter and the Syclone would sprint to 60 mph in less than five seconds and trip the quarter-mile in the high 13-second range. As a sleeper hot rod the Syclone was fantastic, but as a pickup truck it was actually quite terrible. Payload capacity was a paltry 500 pounds, thanks to the sport-tuned suspension, and while the handling characteristics were better than average, the Syclone proved itself to be more of a straight-line hooligan than a back-roads handler. Either way, this little GMC is and will always be one of the baddest muscle trucks ever produced.
2009–13 BMW X5 M
Right. So if there’s an oddball amongst this bunch, this is most certainly it. This is the BMW X5 M, and in my opinion it’s one of the best-used muscle SUVs you can currently purchase. First off, it’s fast—like stupid fast. We’re talking about four-seconds flat to 60 mph, 12.6 seconds in the quarter-mile, and 100 mph in just 10 seconds. That’s rolling!
Speed aside, the X5 M also seems to overcome physics in a manner I’ve never seen before by utilizing sheer power, brute force, and some pretty trick technology. Tucked neatly under the hood is an all-aluminum twin-turbo V-8 that generates 555 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque from just 1500 rpm. That means acceleration that’s unheard of for an SUV that weighs in at 5329 pounds. The suspension? It’s made up of multilink coil springs in the front, with another multilink system in the rear that utilizes airs springs in place of coils. It’s also equipped with launch control and a smooth shifting six-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually via steering wheel mounted paddles.
So, while the BMW X5 M may be the oddball, it’s also the fastest, most-powerful, and best-handling muscle SUV on this entire list.
Did I mention that I like the Lil Red Express? You can’t have a muscle truck list without the inclusion of what is perhaps the most famous one of all, the Li’l Red Express Truck that was built by Dodge from 1978–79. Back in the day this was the truck to own. Based on the D150 Adventurer short-bed pickup, the Li’l Red Express was the saving grace to the anemic muscle cars of the late 1970s. When released in 1978, it was the fastest American made vehicle from 0–100 mph, beating out the likes of the Chevrolet Corvette and Pontiac Trans Am.
Due to a loophole in the 1978 emission regulations, the ’78 Li’l Red came equipped with what was essentially the same 360-cubic-inch small-block that was found in the police interceptors of the day. That meant unrestricted airflow, no catalytic converter, a four-barrel carburetor, massaged cylinder heads, and a special camshaft that allowed for 225 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Then there were its looks. Between the brilliant chrome semi-stacks, staggered 15x7 / 15x8 wheels, red paint, and gold graphics, the Li’l Red was truly like nothing else on the road.
1999–2004 Ford SVT Lightning
When the original Ford Lightning debuted in 1993, power output was a respectable 240 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque from the 5.8-liter V-8 that lived under the hood. And while it was, in fact, a great truck, the Lightnings built between 1999–2004 were the real champions. These were equipped with a 5.4-liter Triton V-8 with a roots-type Eaton blower on top. They were open-bed hot rods that produced 360 hp and a tire melting 440 lb-ft of torque (2001–04 models got a bump to 380 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque). Ligntnings’ 0–60 times were in the mid five-second range and it would trip the quarter-mile lights in less than 14 seconds.
From a styling perspective, the Lightning was sporty but not over the top. A lower front fascia with integrated fog lamps is aggressive, as is the twin-tipped exhaust port that exits behind the passenger door. With a towing capacity of 5000 pounds, it is also useful as a truck. The best part is that Lightnings are thoroughly modern inside and out and make for great daily drivers.
2006–09 Chevrolet Trailblazer SS
The Trailblazer SS is one of the most overlooked muscle SUVs on the used market and is based on the standard versions that were built between 2003–09. Base models were already a good looking with handsome lines. However, in 2006 the Trailblazer had looks that were becoming stale, thus the SS was born. Armed with a bulletproof LS2 small-block that produced 395 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, the SS could be had with either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive. It was governed at 130 mph from the factory, but it could still sprint from 0–60 in around 5.5 seconds.
Underneath Chevrolet installed upgraded shocks, sway bars, springs, and bushings, along with a limited-slip differential. I remember driving one of these when they first came out and while the ride was stiff, my God, was I ever impressed with the handling. When it was introduced there were other, faster muscle SUVs on the market, but if you were willing to sacrifice a little power, the Trailblazer SS was an outstanding and extremely entertaining family hot rod.
2004–06 Dodge Ram SRT-10
If there was ever a WTF moment in the history of the muscle truck, this was it. The RAM SRT-10 is hilarious. Short-bed models came from the factory with a six-speed manual transmission, Viper-derived 8.3-liter V-10 that made 500 hp and 525 lb-ft of torque, and a top speed just shy of 155 mph. It was the fastest production pickup in the world at the time of its release, and from the driver’s seat it was an absolute giggle-fest when you put your foot down. Everything on the SRT-10 was oversized: 22-inch Speedline wheels wore 305/40-series tires at all four corners; the brake calipers were 15 inches in the front and 14 in the rear; and that front end—with that massive lower fascia and AAR ’Cuda inspired hood—was one of the most intimidating things you could ever see in your rearview mirror.
Short-bed models would hit 60 mph in just 5.2 seconds, which made them favorites at the stoplight drags. Then in 2006, a Quad Cab version was released. It came with a towing capacity of 7000 pounds and could only be had with a four-speed automatic transmission and a 4.56 final drive for towing. This isn’t a truck for weak personalities or people who shy away from attention. If you can live with that—and the atrocious mileage (only 8–10 mpg)—then you’ll be treated to one of the craziest vehicles Ma’ Mopar ever produced.
2004–13 Toyota Tacoma X-Runner
Yep, that’s right, there’s a tiny little Toyota on this list. What some may not know is that the Toyota Tacoma X-Runner is one of those freaky little sleepers that’s highly overlooked by performance enthusiasts. Being a Toyota means that the X-Runner is not only reliable, but 100-percent usable on a daily basis. Motivation comes from a 4.0-liter V-6 that produces 245 hp and 282 lb-ft of torque, mated to a six-speed manual transmission (that's the fun part). Keep in mind that a factory-developed and dealer-installed supercharger option that bumped power to around 300 hp is still available.
The rear-drive-only X-Runner is based on the extended cab Tacoma and it was developed in conjunction with TRD Racing. That meant the inclusion of 18-inch wheels with performance tires, stiffer shocks, and, of course, a rear stabilizer bar. And while some may find that ancillary body cladding a bit gaudy, keep in mind that this was a truck produced to entice 20- and 30-somethings into the sport truck market. The cool part is the X-Runner is actually pretty strong on performance, as it will hit 60 mph in just over seven seconds and bring a smile to your face every time you press in that third pedal.
What you are looking at here is the original badass SUV—the Lamborghini LM002. Unfortunately, and for the vast majority, they must be filed under wishful thinking due to their rarity and $400,000 price tag. Believe it or not, early versions of the LM002 were originally destined to be used for military applications. However when they proved to be overly complicated to maintain, the program was scrapped. Lamborghini felt strongly that there was a market for these and gave them a bit of luxury, the biggest engine it had, and a look that made the LM002 an icon.
Under that bulbous bonnet is the same 5.2-liter V-12 that was mid-mounted in the legendary Countach. It was rated at 444 hp and 368 lb-ft of torque and would propel the LM002 to 60 mph in around 7.7 seconds and to a top speed of 118 mph. It had a five-speed manual transmission, cost about $120K when new, weighed a fatty 6700+ pounds, and wore absurdly-sized 345/60-series Pirelli tires on 17-inch wheels. In short, this thing was and still is bat-shit crazy. And if I ever win the lottery it’ll be the first thing I buy!
From a collectability standpoint LM002s are unicorns, but if you ever get the chance to see (and hear) one in the wild, you’ll understand just why they’re so special.