Over the past few decades, General Motors had built some amazing performance-minded trucks with the attitude, styling, and power to complete the performance/muscle truck formula. Although there were a few models and body style/engine combinations that could have made for one stout package between 1955 and the early ’70s, in our opinion, it wasn’t until around 1990 when you could walk into a GM dealership, and drive out with what many would consider to be a high-performance muscle truck.
Having said that, there were a few trucks since that time that sported cosmetic packages that looked the part, and may have even included cosmetic, wheel/tire, and suspension package upgrades, but mechanically, they were directly carried over from their base vehicle counterparts.
The Sonoma GT, S10 SS, Xtreme, and Colorado Xtreme immediately come to mind, and in our opinion, fall under that category. While each was a cool truck in their own right, we wouldn’t go as far as considering them bonafide performers – even for their respective period. So we’ve picked a selection of high-performance, EFI-equipped trucks that carved their own path, and redefined the muscle truck niche. We’ve also thrown in the SUVs that deserved to be mentioned, too.
1990-1993 Chevrolet 454 SS
In an attempt to catch the attention of the 30- and 40-somethings who longed for the old days of driving their big-block Chevelles during their youths, Chevrolet dropped this blacked-out badass out of nowhere.
Stuffed with 454 cubic inches (7.4L if you’re a communist) of pure American V8, the 454 SS brought along with it 230 hp and 385 lb-ft. to the table. Sitting behind the big-block was a 3-speed Turbo 400 gearbox, and a set of 3.73 gears out back for the inaugural production run.
For 1991, the heavy Chevy earned itself another 25 horsepower and 20 lb-ft. through some refining on Chevrolet’s part, while also swapping the old-school TH400 for a 4-speed 4L80, finally adding an overdrive gear. The 3.73s got their walking papers, too, and were replaced by a more musclecar-like 4.10 gear set. As a result, power, performance, and fuel economy had improved.
Aiding the 454 SS around the corners included Bilstein shocks, a thicker front sway bar, and a 12.7:1 fast-ratio steering. Oh, and while the 1990 version went tachometer-less (weirdly), it was finally included for the remaining three model years. Throw in an oil cooler, transmission cooler, and a larger radiator, the 454 SS was the real deal. Delivered in only black for 1990, additional colors like red and white were added for later model years. Performance numbers included a 0-60 time on par with a Mustang GT of its era, and quarter-mile times with low-15s were typical.
1991 GMC Syclone/1992-1993 GMC Typhoon
Following close on the heels of the 454 SS, was GMC’s pocket rocket; the Syclone. Initially created as a project by Buick, complete with the departed Grand National’s 245 hp turbocharged 3.8L V6, the Syclone ultimately ended up at GMC with a turbocharged and water-cooled version of the corporate 4.3L V6. Now while the stillborn Buick-powered S10 would have undoubtedly been quick, GMC took it up a notch not only in the power department (to 280 hp), but with an excellent all-wheel drive system borrowed from the GMC Safari minivan, of all places. Wheelspin was almost nonexistent, allowing the driver to launch at a much higher RPM than he would have been able to, otherwise.
Producing performance numbers quicker than Ferrari’s halo car at the time, the 348, the Syclone would do for GMC what the Grand National had done for Buick; bring a performance image to the brand while at the same time, introduce an entirely different demographic to their respective showrooms. It worked – to a point. With the Syclone having a lowered suspension and a payload limit of only 500 pounds, it didn’t make for a very good truck. It was also expensive, with a sticker price of $25,000 in 1991 dollars (about $44,000 today), so they didn’t sell tremendously well.
Despite all of this, the Syclone was one serious machine that would only end up in public hands for a single model year. Although GMC would produce three Syclones for 1992, none of them were available for purchase. However, if you wanted the same recipe in the form of an SUV, GMC was happy to sell you the Typhoon – essentially an S15 Jimmy that consisted of the same drivetrain, suspension, and styling characteristics. With the additional weight over the Syclone pickup, the Typhoon was a few ticks behind in the performance department, but was much more daily-driver friendly with the fold-down backseat. These were sold for two model years; 1992 and 1993, respectively.
2003-2007 Chevrolet Silverado SS
Much to the dismay of the hardcore performance truck enthusiasts everywhere, the Silverado SS was seen as both a success and a failure – depending on who you ask. Produced for five model years (longer than any of its predecessors), the Silverado SS was a blend of performance and functionality. Under the hood was the high-output version of the Gen-III 6-liter, the LQ9, borrowed from the second-generation Cadillac Escalade.
Producing 345 hp/380 lb-ft., the truck would have been quick if it wasn’t hampered by the weight of the loaded-up-with-frills package of the SS. The first model year was equipped exclusively with all-wheel drive, but rear-wheel drive was available from 2004 on, saving both weight and cost. Quarter-mile times in the 15s were the norm, being seriously outpaced by the blown Ford SVT Lightning at the time.
To their defense, General Motors was once quoted as saying the Silverado SS was designed for those who wanted a performance-themed truck that offered functionality and hauling capabilities, and for those who wanted a tow rig for their race car. Fair enough, but we still can’t help but wonder how it would have performed if the truck had a 400 hp LS2, short bed, regular cab, and a T-56 gearbox combination.
It wasn’t all a huge failure, though, the trucks also came with upgraded Z60 suspension, 4-wheel disc brakes, 20-inch wheels, and 4.10 gears. In 2005, a special “Intimidator Edition” was released with unique trim and styling details in an attempt to honor Chevrolet Racing royalty, Dale Earnhardt. A total of 1,333 were produced.
2003-2006 Chevrolet SSR
OK, we’ll just come right out and say it; the SSR was a love-it-or-hate-it styling exercise by Chevrolet. Originally conceived at a time when the world was infatuated with retro styling, the SSR was a truck built on the Trailblazer GMT368 platform, and designed as a direct competitor to the Plymouth/Chrysler Prowler. For the first couple of years, the SSR was kind of lame, packing a 5.3L 300 hp LS-based powerplant backed by a 4L60E as the only powertrain option available.
Chevrolet would take things up a few notches for the final two model years, however, not only bumping up power and torque with the new-for-2005 LS2, but a 6-speed manual was now available too! This took the SSR from a 15-second slug to a high-13 second capable performer – quite impressive considering its near 5,000-lb. curb weight.
Despite this, it would take more than substantially increased performance for GM to continue production of the SSR, and since it’s considered one of the most useless vehicles of all time, with a folding metal roof that reclined into what would have otherwise been a bed, it didn’t make sense to keep a high-cost, dismal-selling vehicle in the lineup.
What makes the SSR interesting to performance enthusiasts, is that it offers a ton of untapped power and customization potential thanks to its looks and drivetrain. If you wanted to, you could build one of these as a powerful standout at the local cruise-in or unsantioned race event. Imagine the look on a Coyote Mustang driver’s face when gets smoked by one of these!
2006-2009 Chevrolet Trailblazer SS/Saab 9-7x Aero
Initially, we planned on focusing just on the GM performance pickups within this article, but since we’ve mentioned the Typhoon earlier, it only made sense to discuss the Trailblazer SS – the more modern equivalent to that boosted GMC of yore.
Available in both rear-wheel and all-wheel drive, the “TBSS” was a badass all-arounder, that offered daily-driver ability in a heavy, but high-performance package. Capable of low-14 second times out of the box and able to slice through any kind of weather, the Trailblazer SS was truly the best of both worlds.
Chalk it up to its near 400 hp engine and 4.10 gear set, the Trailblazer SS left a lot of performance on the table from the factory. Simple bolt-ons and a proper tune would have you knocking on the door of 12-second timeslips. Like any other LS2-powered vehicle, the aftermarket was pretty much ready to go with cylinder head and camshaft upgrade packages available as soon as they hit the street – since they were essentially carryovers from the Gen-III LS6 small-block.
Naturally, enthusiasts flocked to the SS in droves, putting thier own personal touches on them over the years. If you’ve never driven a TBSS, you owe it to yourself to do so. Oh, and they’ve even made a Saab version, called the 9-7x Aero, a mechanical twin to the SS.
Well that’s our list, and we’re sticking to it. With off and on rumors flying around about another potential performance truck-based vehicle, we can only wonder if and when it will happen, and to what level?
Rick Seitz is the owner and founder of GMEFI Magazine, and has a true love and passion for all vehicles. When he isn’t tuning, testing, or competing with the brand’s current crop of project vehicles, he’s busy tinkering and planning the next modifications for his own cars.