The folks at Chrysler have been making a lot of waves on the sea of trucks with their non-traditional approach to the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500. Instead of leaving well-enough alone, for 2009 Dodge has re-done quite a bit — revamping the rear end with coil (rather than leaf) springs, rethought what a truck bed could do with the Rambox storage system and restyled the interior. Aside from the newly reskinned body, it's largely these three features which Chrysler hopes will differentiate the new Ram from its full-size truck competition, but as we all know, a truck is more than just the sum of its parts.
For us, a truck has always been about work. If it can't do what it was designed to do, there's something deeply flawed. With that in mind, let's take a look at the six-foot bed on the Laramie we tested. Dropping the tailgate, even sitting on 20" wheels, it rests right about thigh height; perfect for getting things off the ground yet not so high it's a problem for lift-over. The cargo box comes from the factory naked, without a bed mat or spray-in liner. The new Ram's bed walls have lost the normal wheel well bumps in favor of vertical walls, giving them space for one of the Ram's newest features. It's called the Rambox, a lockable, weather-sealed set of little trunks on either side of the bed. It's a pretty great idea from the perspective of utility. You can toss power tools, backpacks full of gear, a couple bags of groceries, ice with tasty beverages (and then drain the water, there are rubber drain plugs) — really, whatever you want in there and not have it rolling around in the cab. Our only beef with it is caused by the Federal government. Since it's an enclosed, latching space, they had to build in a fluorescent t-bar pull handle to release the lid in case, you know, a kid somehow manages to wedge themselves in the Rambox. Somehow. Inside, the Ram gets things done just as Rams have been doing since they revolutionized the truck market in the ‘90s — with smart design and good ergonomics. Our Lariat was equipped with a column shifter and an origami folding bench seat — the center arm rest opens for a decent-sized, flat storage area, but it also folds up to create a seat and then the center seat bottom also folds up and reveals a second storage area underneath. It's even got bins under the floor in the back underneath the carpets — not really designed to carry contraband, but useful nonetheless. The Ram has more cubbyholes and storage doodads than an IKEA megastore. The back seats are quite comfortable as well, with a DVD player in the back to keep your annoying friends, small children or our Editor-in-Chief quiet and a 60/40 split seat which folds up to allow a flatish load floor. The rear seat doesn't fold as easily as GM's twin GMT-900 pickups, but it's a commendable effort. The wood and chrome trim a decent synthetic wood and induces no complaints (other than it looks better on the doors than on the dash), fit and finish are quite good and all the gadgetry mechanisms feel like they'll stand up to years of abuse. But that interior stuff is for the birds when your talkin' work, right? What about the powertrain? Our test truck was equipped with a 5.7-liter HEMI V8 good for 380 HP and 404 lb-ft of torque, no slouch to say the least, with a five-speed automatic transmission sending the power to the part-time four wheel drive system, complete with a 4.10 final drive. Turn off the traction control and it'll roast the tires with little complaint, but what about with a trailer? Loaded down with a 6500 LB trailer, and set for "Tow/Haul" mode, which changes the shift points higher up the rev range; the truck pulls off on the drag strip without a whiff of burden. Heck, even up a massive 7.2% grade on a local automakers test facility, the Dodge pulls like a freight train. The going gets slow after about 55 mph on a grade like that, but unless you're drag racing with your boat up to the continental divide, you shouldn't have a problem. To top off the testing we ventured into the realm of the ridiculous but ridiculously entertaining — autocrossing this full-sized pickup truck. Yes, we tossed it into a course containing a high-speed slalom, tight corners, staggered surface conditions, moose-avoidance test, and some devious chicanery. The Ram, with its coil springs in the rear, proved quite tossable. In the slalom, it managed acceptable speeds but would understeer mightily if pushed too far, with traction control turned off; the throttle could be used to manage the slalom a bit better. Panic braking was delivered confidently and the ABS feedback was smooth. Sweeping corners where met with a planted feel but the chassis could be upset with a bit of sawing on the wheel. We noticed some reluctance from the throttle when coming out of particularly nasty corners, but when the traction control was disabled, tail-out fun was only a pedal tap away. When not being tossed about violently, the Ram had a markedly smooth road character, lacking the bouncy feel trucks have been known for. The steering has a pretty average turning ratio and manages to be firm yet invisible. It's certainly not sporty but for a vehicle of this size, it'll get the heartbeat racing if you're silly enough to go racing in it. Despite the recent downturn in full-sized truck sales it's hard to argue against the utility of the pickup, especially in crew cab configuration, it's a vehicle with unparalleled capabilities and flexibility. Try hauling the whole family, a week's worth of groceries, and a cubic yard of fill dirt in your Accord. Then do it uphill, while towing a trailer. Good luck. Especially with today's deals on pricing, the Ram offers a strong option for those looking for the latest and greatest with a HEMI badge on the side, but more than that it offers solid storage innovation and a comfortable, quiet cabin with plenty of room for four, even six in a pinch. It has the sort of the paired-down luxury plus high capability that truck buyers have come to expect, along with new features they'll be happy to adopt. Photo Credit: Exterior - Alex C. Conley, Interior - Dodge