June 6, 2007
The change in the slalom was even more drastic. Our best run in stock trim netted a 52.9-mph run, and the Lightning suffered from moderate understeer and significant body roll.

The Banshee scream of a Gen 2 Lightning at full-throttle is a sound that makes children cry, grown men giggle, and Blue Oval horsepower addicts beam with pride. Unfortunately, as good a job as Ford SVT engineers did designing the Lightning, they were still constrained by budget limits and the fact that some buyers simply can't handle a thoroughbred performance vehicle. With the exception of improved shocks and the addition of a rear sway bar, the Lightning's suspension is basically stock F-150 hay-hauler stuff. The result is a decent performer with huge potential, and a few changes can turn any '99-'04 Lightning into a Corvette-beating canyon eater.

One of the Lightning's biggest fans is suspension guru John Hotchkis. Recognized as an innovator in the automotive aftermarket, Hotchkis has been making fast vehicles faster for decades, and believes that a well-balanced, corner-carving pickup shouldn't ride like a tractor or be difficult to drive. A born-and-raised car nut, Hotchkis made the leap from professional racecar driver to suspension engineer about 20 years ago and never looked back. Hotchkis Performance now offers a wide array of suspension improvements for blue oval products, from complete packages for pickups and Mustangs to simple bolt-ons like sway bars and tuned shocks.

The Hotchkis Total Vehicle System (TVS) combines the company's Sport Sway Bar and Sport Spring packages into a complete suspension makeover. According to Hotchkis, the increased diameter and improved geometry of its sway bars radically alter the driving dynamics of any '97-'03 Lightning, Harley-Davidson F-150 or standard F-150. Body roll is drastically reduced, and under hard cornering conditions, the truck will oversteer rather than understeer. Sport Springs drop ride height by 1.5-inches in front and 2.5-inches in back (2-inches and 3-inches on standard F-150s) for a killer stance, and improve high-speed stability. High-performance rebound rates and a lowered stance also helps reduce body roll. The new springs will not diminish ride quality like standard lowering kits.

After the Hotchkis system was installed, our best pass clocked in at an astounding 63.8 mph, body roll was almost completely eliminated, steering feedback was dramatically improved, and the truck slipped through the cones like a sports car. A 10.9-mph improvement in the slalom is simply staggering.

We decided to put a Hotchkis Lightning TVS to the test by running a Lightning through the 600-foot slalom before and after the installation. Our guinea pig pickup was a very clean and totally stock '01 model wearing new Nitto 555 radials. Since Hotchkis recently announced the opening of its new Installation Center in Santa Fe Springs, California, we delivered the truck after the first slalom test and followed along as Hotchkis Chief Mechanic Corey Bedortha bolted on the new parts.

The entire process only took about five hours, including a laser alignment at the end. When all was said and done, the Lightning went from a 52.9-mph maximum slalom speed in stock trim to a 63.8-mph run after the parts were added. Nearly 11mph is a huge gain in performance, and we felt it on the ride home. The truck felt tighter, like it was carved out of a solid chunk of metal, and at speeds over 80mph, that "float" that most pickup owners are used to was gone. In the canyons, the difference was even more apparent, as the truck handled flat with improved steering response and a newfound willingness to throttle-steer. Overall, it drove more like a hunkered-down sports car than a truck, and combined with optional Hotchkis/Bilstein shocks, the TVS-equipped Lightning offered a slightly firm yet totally comfortable ride.