Random mutation

2006, Lincoln, Mark LT

I'm opening up a can of worms, and I fully appreciate that. But in every person's life, there comes a time to choose sides; and this week, it's my turn. Besides, I haven't gotten a letter-to-the-editor in a while now.

So here goes: I have irrefutable evidence with which to refute the principle of Intelligent Design. Stated alternately, the automotive universe is subject to and entirely suffused with the law of Random Mutation. That's it. Darwin wins.

How can I be so cocksure, you may be wondering. Simple. I've just test-driven two full-size pick-ups whose entirely different variations upon the theme of work-truck design prove what GenX/Y/Zers have been proselytizing for years: "It's just so random, man."

On the one hand, Lincoln tarts up a pick-up truck to look like Fred Astaire wearing galoshes. On the other hand, Chevrolet gets all trendy with electricity in order to spark up the image of its Silverado truck. At the very time when petro-hysteria is prompting other automakers to experiment with downsized and unconventional vehicle designs, Ford and Chevy are evolving the pick-up to the point of infinitely diminishing returns.

We're witnessing the last epoch of the full-size truck dinosaur straining to preserve its life-source of profit margins in the face of a changing fuel-and-emissions environment. Small, efficient cars and their crossover cousins are proliferating with shrew-like determination. Ultimately, the lumbering dinosaurs are no match in the battle for scarce resources. The Great Extinction is a long way off, to be sure; but there's a growing prospect of unintended humor to be savored with every next desperate attempt to keep the full-size truck commercially relevant, even viable. It's so random, it's funny.

No way I'd ever buy a pair of purple-dyed ostrich-leather cowboy boots, so there's no way I can really wrap my thinking gland around what is a pretty near automotive equivalent. Lincoln is offering a ritzy pick-up called the Mark LT-for Luxury Truck, I suppose. Is this what you buy for the guy who's got everything-like that Tyco Corporation fella with the $26,000 shower curtain?

I've been in Ford's new-for-2004 pickups, and I love 'em. I've been in Lincoln's top-o'-the-line Navigator SUVs, and I at least respect them. But just because Lincoln has grafted the pickup's short-bed cargo box to the back half of a Navigator's five-passenger cab doesn't guarantee a proportionate measure of love and respect for the resulting freak of nature.

My biggest problem is trying to envision the Ideal Buyer of this truck. Forget for a moment that the Mark LT costs $47,605 as-tested. Do you think some lunch-pail-and-hard-hat type could ever live through the hazing he'd get for driving this thing up to the construction pit? Or take Mr. Bigs: Can you even visualize a Mark LT driving up to Mar-a-Lago Club at West Palm Beach alongside Bentley Continental GTs and Aston Martin Lagondas? (If you can, it's probably gonna be a while for you yet before West Palm beckons.)

So that leaves Mr. or Ms. Prosperous Middle-Class with the big boat or equestrian trailer. The Mark LT tows 8,900 pounds and hauls almost 1,500 pounds of cargo in the short 5.5-foot box; so it can do the work. But I don't typically hear of folks ever becoming prosperous middle-class in the first place by paying $20,000 extra-that's 72 percent more, mind you-for their purchases.

And besides, if you're already feeding a bunch of horses anyway, there's little additional thrill to be had from feeding another 300 horses at the rate of 14 miles-per-gallon/city, 18 miles-per-gallon/highway. Considered in a vacuum, Lincoln's Mark LT is a luxuriantly appointed, mechanically capable truck. But living in a vacuum is altogether another matter. It sucks the life out of you. So if you're hot-and-bothered about Lincoln's curious luxo-truck, save your breath. Just buy the Ford.

Have you heard? Hybrids are happenin'. Gas-and-electric powertrains are where it's at. So all you gotta do is take a big, thirsty Chevy V8 pickup and tack on an electric motor; and voila! The world's first hybrid full-size pickup.

Well, not exactly. Chevy's Hybrid Silverado sports a 295-horsepower, 5.3-liter V8 just like a lot of other V8 Silverados. But it's also got a 14-kilowatt electric-assist system that basically stops and starts the gas engine whenever you're at idle. That's it. No electric-motor boost during acceleration, no electric-drive contribution while cruising on the highway. Just enough power to stop and start the gas engine when you're not moving. Put differently, it's just enough to improve in-town fuel economy to 17 miles-per-gallon from 15 mpg, leaving intact the gas-only Silverado's highway rating of 19 mpg.

And that's supposed to be worth $2,800 extra? Well, you get regenerative braking, which is what helps charge the electric motor's battery pack. And you get some house-style electric plugs for 120-volt AC electric tools. Otherwise, it's just an extra-pricy Silverado with a $37,040 as-tested window sticker.

Here's how to put this extra price into perspective: Compared to a similarly equipped gas-engine Silverado, you'd have to drive over 240,000 miles using $2.25-per-gallon gas to break even with the more expensive Silverado Hybrid. That's 524 fill-ups of the 26-gallon tank, by the way. So even if you drive the wheels off and fill up once a week, that's more than 10 years' worth of pumping gas into the same truck.

Then again, Chevy's restricting sales of this hybrid to California, Oregon and Washington initially; so you could easily justify buying one after only 50 round-trips, Nashville-to-Seattle. That's a lot of scenic seat-time, by the way, to ponder all that you and Chevy are doing to save the environment.

4-door "SuperCrew" cab, 5-pass.; 5.4-liter SOHC V8 w/ vvt; 4WD, 4-sp. auto; 300 hp/365 ft.-lbs.; 14 mpg/city, 18 mpg/hwy w/ regular; short-bed cargo box, payload 1,460 lbs.; tow: 8,900 lbs.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, auto climate control, AM/FM/6-CD audio, 18-in. wheels; base price: $42,700; as-tested: $47,605

4-door "Extended" cab, 6-pass.; 5.3-liter OHV "LM7" V8 w/ electric assist; 4WD, 4-sp. auto; 295 hp/335 ft.-lbs., plus 14 kilowatts; 17 mpg/city, 19 mpg/hwy w/ regular; short-bed cargo box, payload 1,392 lbs.; tow: 7,400 lbs.; std. equipment: disc/drum ABS brakes, dual-zone HVAC, AM/FM/CD audio, 16-in. wheels; base price: $33,460; as-tested: $37,040

By Marc Stengel

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