Dodge Ram – for the love of work

By Ted Biederman and Jim Meachen

It is a heck of a time to be introducing new, big trucks in a market that has taken a dramatic downturn. Sure today a gallon of gas is about $2.00. But a couple of months ago when Dodge introduced this new Ram 1500, gas was over $4.00 a gallon. We hate to throw dirt in an open wound but logic and gut tells us that $4.00 plus gasoline is probably in our future, again.

But the reality is somewhat different than conventional thinking. Even though the light pickup truck market is smaller it is still a volume leader. The answer is relatively simple, people need trucks for work.

J.D. Power and Associates, a Westlake Village, Calif. Marketing and research firm tells us, “Although large pickup truck deliveries have taken a dramatic hit this year (down 26.1% year to date), owner loyalty actually has risen during each of the past 5 months, or since June 2008, according to Power Information Network (PIN) retail transaction data from J.D. Power and Associates. In addition, total industry market share has maintained some strength, based on the company's research data.”

“Despite large pickup sales falling by more than one-third in October from the same month in 2007, the segment held a reasonable share of industry sales—13.3% of the market in October…,” notes the information from Power.

So there you have it. Even in a down market trucks are still loved and needed.

And Dodge thinks those that need pickups will love the new Ram.

Dodge sought a new measure of refinement without losing traditional big-pickup truck capabilities with its all-new Ram. And the Dodge boys succeeded in many ways — despite a large amount of carryover equipment and features — pointing their 2009 Ram at customers who want more handling prowess and ride sophistication and a more luxury-car interior in their pickup.

The most revolutionary change is the use of a heavy-duty coil rear suspension.  Since the first pickup rolled onto the streets and dirt roads of America a century ago, trucks have come with rear leaf springs.

That basic design is so good it has survived for a century.

A stack of leaf springs supports heavy loads and prevents the truck from bottoming out. The trade-off is a stiffer, bouncy ride — the familiar truck jiggle — when the truck bed is empty, because without weight in the pickup bed very little spring flex takes place.

Coil spring suspension systems have been used on the front of most trucks for years and at all four corners of most cars. These systems typically have a single coil on each side of the vehicle, which moves more freely than a leaf spring setup offering more give and a more comfortable ride.

Dodge says its Ram 1500 truck with five-link rear coil springs will carry a traditional load without compromising comfort. Don’t take this to mean a Lexus ride. You will still find a modicum of traditional truckiness because the coil setup is of heavy-duty construction to handle big payloads.

And, indeed, he Ram has a maximum payload of 1,850 pounds and a top towing capacity of 9,100 pounds.

While those are excellent numbers, they fall short of the maximum configurations in the new Ford F-150, the Chevrolet Silverado and the Toyota Tundra. Dodge figures most people who need more hauling and towing capability will move up to its Ram heavy duty trucks. We don’t necessarily agree since the price tag for a heavy duty to get the extra capability is pretty stiff so Dodge may be taking a risk in the half-ton segment and they may give up some volume to its competitors.

Was the suspension change worthwhile?

Our usual rider, who we quiz each week about the various vehicles we drive, praised the ride from her shotgun seat. “This might be the most comfortable pickup I’ve ridden in,” she opined.

One of the few people we allow a few miles behind the wheel from time to time marveled at how the Ram test truck drove like a sedan. “If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know you were in a pickup.”

That's our tiny corner of the world, and Dodge hopes it’s a microcosm of U.S. truck buyers. Dodge has set its sights on who they think will be purchasing pickups in the diminishing segment over the next few years and attempted to match its newest iteration to those buyers.

Perhaps equally as enticing is a new interior that we think is amongst the best in the pickup truck ranks. The design appeals to the eye and the controls are well placed, well marked and easy to use.

All interiors come with first-rate materials. All pieces are aligned correctly and overall fit and finish is excellent.

Our SLT came with optional leather upholstery — standard in the top trim Laramie — that included a leather-stitched dashboard.

The seats are broad and comfortable, but firm enough to keep tired bodies fresh on long-distance journeys.

Storage areas are abundant including a big center bin.

Opt for the crew cab, and you will be rewarded with water-tight storage compartments under the rear floor and shallow bins under the flip-up back seat.

Dodge has substituted the old extended cab configuration with its half doors for what it calls a quad cab with traditional hinged doors. 

Although leg room is on the smallish side, entering and exiting the quad is much easier than crawling in and out of the back of an extended cab.

The new crew cab offers back-seat comfort with a good rake to the seatbacks and scads of legroom.

We think Dodge got it right giving the power hungry among us a big tasty bone in the form of a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 generating 390 horsepower. The monster engine will give Dodge owners bragging rights over the few Tundra faithful who can’t keep their traps shut about Toyota’s 5.7- liter 381-horsepower V-8.

Our two-wheel-drive SLT quad cab test truck included the big V-8 and it’s a beast with the potential to do tire-smoking launches. A standard-cab model was measured by a major auto magazine in a time of 5.7 seconds 0-to-60 and 14.4 seconds at 93.4 miles per hour in the quarter mile. For comparison, the two-wheel drive Tundra regular cab has been measured at 6.1 seconds and 90 mph in the quarter mile.

Gas mileage is acceptable for a big pickup, but certainly not something to get excited over. In 4X2 guise, the EPA rating is still a paltry 14-mpg city, 20 highway and in 4X4 configuration it is 13/18. For comparison, the big Tundra V-8 is rated at 14/18 for the 4X2 and 13/17 for the 4X4.

Probably more important to most truck buyers are the decent towing and hauling numbers that come with the 5.7-liter engine.

The new Dodge, as you might expect, comes in a variety of configurations including three trim levels — ST, SLT and Laramie — with Sport and TRX (off road) packages available, three bed sizes (8- foot, 6-foot-4 and 5-foot-7), three body styles — regular cab, quad cab and crew cab — and in two-wheel or four-wheel drive.

Add to all that the two engine choices in addition to the big Hemi (the standard engine is a 3.7-liter V-6 making a rather meager 215 horsepower; and probably the engine of choice for many people will be the 4.7-liter V-8 mated to a five-speed automatic generating 310 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque). That makes for about a zillion configurations. Good luck, but our suggestion is to find a real truck builder to help you figure out what you need.

We don’t think the V-6, standard in the 4X2 regular and quad cab model will be a consideration for most folks. It’s mated to a manual transmission or a four-speed automatic with a maximum towing capacity of 3,800 pounds. But the bad news is its meager 14/20 fuel rating.

We recommend moving up to the smaller V-8 for $1,060. It’s package 24A and includes the five-speed automatic. In addition to the extra horsepower and increased towing capability (7,600 pounds) you get almost the same gas mileage numbers as the V-6 at 14/19.

The Ram begins at $22,170 for a 2X4 regular cab with manual transmission and climbs through the configurations to a $44,170 for a handsomely equipped 4X4 Laramie.

Our SLT quad cab test truck, which came with the big Hemi and several other options including navigation, 20-inch wheels, leather interior, power sunroof, dual-zone climate control and upgraded audio system, carried a bottom line of $40,065 including $900 destination charge.

Also look for a nifty Ram Box option of built-in lockable exterior fender side panel bins that are now being offered on certain models – something new, different and practical.

We think Dodge has hit the sweet spot between workhorse and modern vehicle sophistication. And that may be a very good thing in these tough times.


SLT Quad Cab
Base price, $22,170; as driven, $40,065
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8
Horsepower: 390 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 407 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 140 inches
Length: 229 inches
Curb weight: 4,779 pounds
Turning circle: 46.2 feet
Towing capacity: 9,100 pounds
Fuel capacity: 26 gallons
EPA rating: 20 mpg highway, 14 city (89 octane)
0-60: 5.7 seconds (regular cab, Motor Trend)
Also consider: Ford F150, Chevrolet Silverado, Toyota Tundra

The Good
• Great ride quality
• Powerful V-8 engine
• First-class interior

The Bad
• All-around performance would be enhanced with six-speed transmission

The Ugly
• Base V-6 engine is weak with horrible fuel economy