The Chevy Silverado EV vs. the Ford Lightning

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A few weeks ago, Chevrolet unveiled the next Silverado EV. Long story short, it’s a half-ton pickup that has many of the features that made the Avalanche cool. The midgate gives it a short bed that can act as a long bed (if you’re willing to fold down the rear seats). Beyond that, it looks pretty similar to other upcoming electric trucks like the Ford Lightning and Rivian R1T. Four doors, electric propulsion, power outlets for jobsites and many other features are promising. There’s just one problem that Forbes discussed and that I want to develop: it is a monocoque truck. That means it’s not as good for the job as the Lightning will be.

Chevy Silverado EV

Before I go into detail, I want to be fair and thank Chevrolet for making the truck a little more conventional than the Cybertruck. I know for many people the Cybertruck is a big hit. I’m sure it will sell well, and at no point will I try to pretend the Cybertruck is useless. As I’ve pointed out before, we shouldn’t judge trucks by their covers, but unlike books, a truck’s cover says a lot about what’s underneath.

The underlying problem with the Cybertruck and the Silverado EV is the same: they have no backbone. Of course, they have excellent torque and are not really weak. When I say no spine, I’m very literal. They don’t have a backbone. They don’t have a frame that body modules like the bed and cab are bolted to.

For many, if not most buyers, that won’t matter much. Coca Cola cowboys, mall ninjas and suburban commandos won’t notice a difference. Commuters buying trucks for the look or the occasional run from Home Depot will be fine too. Even many people who use a van for work won’t have a problem with a unibody truck. Landscapers, handymen, plumbers and others generally don’t demand enough of the truck to take it to its limits. For the latter category, the Silverado is probably superior to the Cybertruck, as side bed access will be better (the sail panels don’t go all the way up).

Problems will only appear for the most serious truck uses. Rock-crawlers and other serious off-roaders will run into trouble. People who push the limits of the claimed 10,000 pound towing capacity will also start to notice issues. Why? Because frames are more resistant to the forces these activities put on the frame. Cybertruck’s extra thicccc exoskeleton will at least partially compensate for this, but at the limits, problems still seem likely.

The other issue that makes the Silverado and other MPVs less good for the job is the lack of modularity. Again, the average commuter or do-it-yourselfer won’t be negatively affected by this. To really appreciate the modularity, you would need to seriously modify the truck with an all-new bed.

You can do that, or put any other bed designed to fit an F-150, Ford Lightning. It is designed to use as many parts and accessories manufactured for the F-150 as possible. Like the other F-150s, the bed can be unbolted and other things can be put in place. To do the same with a Silverado EV, you would need a special bed accessory or RV shell type accessory that fits into and/or above the bed. If someone produces them, they will be more expensive than comparable things for the Lightning. Utility bed makers know they can sell to a wider market, not just truck owners.

Repairs are another area where extreme use favors frames. If you drop something extremely heavy on the side of the bed of a framed pickup and smash it really hard, you can just buy another bed. Even fairly severe wrecks that severely damage the truck’s cab can be repaired by simply replacing the body. This saves money if you have a fleet that gets regular abuse.

Although rare, this is true for body-on-frame cars like the Ford Crown Victoria. Police departments and other heavy users have kept these Crown Vics around for far longer than seems rational at first glance, as they could literally replace the surface after an accident. Simply unscrew the body panel, put on another body panel and you’re back in business. Welding repairs to the body generally did not matter, as the body did not serve as the structure of the vehicle.

“You think you’re smarter than GM?”

No one asked me, but people constantly ask me when I disagree with Elon Musk. The answer to that is I’m not saying that using unibody vehicles is bad. Like I said, for most users this won’t matter. Plus, there are benefits to unibody that make it worthwhile.

The lightest weight is the most important. Because the body is the frame and the frame is the body, you have fewer heavy parts and thus save a lot of weight. You lose stiffness and towing capacity, and the ability to customize and repair just as easily, but if the buyer doesn’t need it, it makes sense to go unibody in many cases. Better range, more car-like handling and other weight benefits help.

Another advantage of the monohull is the cost. Saving just a few dollars adds up to producing hundreds of thousands or millions of vehicles. Saving a few extra dollars means you’re more competitive when it comes to finding buyers. Save thousands? This is the difference between selling and not selling. That’s a big deal if you’re selling trucks to people who don’t need the beefiest trucks.

Bottom line: the Silverado, like the Cybertruck, isn’t nearly as good for the job, at least the more hardcore kind of work. But it’s OK. Don’t assume the Silverado EV will be a serious heavy-duty work truck. Use it for what it was designed for, and it will do just fine. Go to the limits and beyond, and you’ll be in trouble.

Images by GM

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