1. The contribution of vasomotor tone to the increased stiffness of carotid arteries in living spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR) is largely unknown. Whether a reduced vascular tone is associated with an increase or a decrease in arterial stiffness in vivo remains to be determined. The goal of the present investigation was to show that a decrease in vascular tone is associated with a decrease in arterial stiffness, independent of the structural composition of the arterial wall. 2. New high resolution echo-tracking techniques were used to evaluate pulsatile changes of carotid blood pressure and diameter following transient and graded changes of vasomotor tone produced by the dihydropyridine derivative, isradipine. Treatment for 8 weeks was given to groups of SHR rats either with a low (0.6 kg day-1) or a high (2.6 mg kg-1 day-1) dose. Another SHR group received an acute dose of 2.6 mg kg-1 day-1. Results were compared to those of placebo-treated Wystar-Kyoto (WKY) and SHR rats. Whatever the dosage, acute or chronic calcium blockade caused a decrease in blood pressure which was maximal 1 h after administration and disappeared after the 16th h. Carotid arterial thickness and the composition of the arterial wall was determined from histomorphometry. 3. In placebo-treated SHR, the inverse relationship relating blood pressure to carotid arterial distensibility was significantly shifted toward higher values of blood pressure compared to the curve of normotensive placebo-treated WKY rats. The curve of SHR receiving chronically a non antihypertensive (0.6 mg kg-1 day-1) isradipine dose prolonged that of placebo-treated SHR toward lower values of blood pressure, so that carotid distensibility was significantly higher than in WKY for the same diameter and blood pressure level (145 mmHg). With administration of a chronic antihypertensive dose (2.6 mg kg-1 day-1) causing a significant decrease in arterial function. Acute antihypertensive calcium blockade with a single isradipine dose (2.6 mg kg-1 day-1) caused a similar shift in the pressure-distensibility curve toward the WKY curve although the histomorphometric composition of the arterial wall differed significantly from that of chronically treated animals. 4. The study provides evidence that, in living SHR submitted to calcium blockade, (i) a low dose of isradipine causing no substantial antihypertensive effect is associated with a significant elevation of carotid arterial distensibility for the same pressure and diameter as normotensive controls, and (ii) an acute or chronic dose causing a substantial antihypertensive effect is associated with a transient shift of the SHR distensibility-pressure curve toward a physiological arterial function, increasing carotid distensibility for the same pressure and diameter as WKY controls. Since such findings were observed independently of the histomorphometric composition of the arterial wall, they imply that the transient decrease in arterial stiffness produced by calcium blockade should involve specific changes in the connections between arterial smooth muscle and extracellular matrix.