In the early '70s, just before the oil embargoes kicked off, Americans tended to drive massive land yachts. With the exception that rear wheel drive sedans have largely disappeared from the American carscape, not much has changed. Today, America drives huge pickup trucks instead.
Whether someone actually needs a pickup is immaterial, because despite a sluggish economy and high fuel prices, Americans are still buying the shit out of them. A lot of people believe that driving a big ass truck will make your manhood grow to horselike proportions.
If you're one of those people, Chrysler Corporation's 2013 Ram 1500 pickup (don't call it a "Dodge") will undoubtedly pique your interest. Its posh trim packages, handsome styling, and host of cool gadgets will also appeal to luxury-oriented customers who desire a giant truck.
(Full Disclosure: The Ram folks wanted me to try out their trucks so badly, they flew me out to Nashville, put me up in a suite at the Hermitage, and wined and dined me for a day. After being treated to a sweat-soaked and miserable looking bluegrass duet, they let me hoon the crap out of their trucks somewhere near the Natchez Trace.)
If you need a work truck, the Ram 1500 will most certainly do a fine job of it, although Ram's stripped down Tradesman pickup would probably suit the needs of most, well, tradesmen. But Ram's fancy trim packages — the Laramie Longhorn, Sport, and Lone Star models for example — combine worker bee capability with added flair that would give any job site arrival Boss Hogg-style flamboyance.
Ram engineers and designers have really screwed their thinking caps on tight trying to find ways to make their massive pickups more efficient and nice to look at, and have succeeded in both endeavors, although mostly in the latter. That said, the Ram 1500 boasts best-in-class fuel economy for it's 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 and 5.7-liter Hemi V8 when paired with the new Torqueflite 8 eight-speed automatic transmission. A stop-start feature that shuts the engine off at intersections is among a host of weight and fuel saving measures.
But new engine offerings and high tech efficiency gadgets, combined with weight saving measures here and there, are chipping away at a bigger problem like a guy on top of an iceberg hacking away at it with a pickaxe. Essentially, I'm talking about a cultural issue that Ram and other manufacturers have failed to address: pickups were originally designed for work, and they're gussied up for passenger service and sold to the masses, there's only so much impact a few pounds shaved here and some tech solutions there will make.
All in all, Ram is a very nice truck that's great to drive around, but aside from a lot of well thought out small improvements, it's the same truck America has been driving for the past 20 years (which wasn't terribly different from what came before it). The Chrysler Corporation has done a great job with the details, now it's time — and this goes for all the other manufacturers, too — to focus on the big picture. What's next for people who buy big trucks but don't really need them?
A smaller, hopefully-not-Mitsubishi-based truck could be a solution, but that's not what we're talking about today.
The first thing the Chrysler folks want you to know about the Ram pickup is that it isn't a Dodge anymore. Accordingly, they've placed Ram logos everywhere they'll fit as reminders of their split from the larger nameplate. I found no less than 12 "RAM" or Ram's head logos festooned around the interior.
That said, the seats are comfortable, the cabin is pretty quiet, and the A/C worked great on a hot Tennessee day. Both the small and large display screens are functional and fairly easy to use (although I wouldn't want to mess with it while I was driving), and the USB/SD card connectors are pretty handy.
However, since I spent nearly two hours driving or being driven in one of the 5.7 Hemi V8-equipped SLT models, there were a few silly things that didn't escape my notice. Keep in mind that these observations are, of course, subjective.
- Why does a pickup truck need a sports car-style center console? I think having the floor space open from side to side is better and makes the truck feel more roomy. Note: not all models have this feature, but most of the fancy ones do.
- The standard column shifter and Ram's new knob shifter work great, but their console shifter — the one that comes with the silly sports car console — is a bit awkward. It's right where my hand rested naturally, so I kept bumping it with my hand and inadvertently downshifting.
- The intermittent wiper switch is at the end of the turn signal stalk, so I kept activating the wipers when all I wanted to do was indicate a left or a right turn.
- What's with the fake grade 8 bolt heads on the floor mats? I understand the desire to make the truck look "tough," but this is just cheesy.
- Ram made sure to put a lot of storage cubbies around the cabin, and there are some truly handy ones. But there were just too many of them, and of different odd sizes and shapes. That, along with an array of buttons that made the dash resemble a 1960s NASA control console, made the interior feel sort of cluttered.
Aside from an obsession with badging, the exterior design of Ram's 2013 line of pickups is very attractive. The grille is bigger than last year, but not overly so, and it's forward slant gives the truck a rakish look. I'm not the biggest fan of the Sport model's plastic fairings, but the steel bumpers on all the other models are a nice touch. The Laramie Longhorn's "wave mesh" grille pattern is a bit much, though.
The RAM boxes are a nice touch, especially for people who might have something they want to keep in the back of the truck, but not amidst the leafy grime that can accumulate in the bed. According to one of the engineers I spoke with, Ram boxes add a little bit of weight to the truck, and they also take some capacity from the bed, so there are drawbacks. Plus, if you ever decided to put on a cap or tonneau cover, they'd be rendered ineffective (unless Ram has some wickedly expensive Ram box-specific accessories in the works). That the Ram box power locks are incorporated into the central locking system is nice, but like many things on this truck, I have to wonder how they'll stand the tests of time and heavy use. This is still a truck, after all.
Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to test the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6/Torqueflite 8 eight-speed automatic setup, because it looks like a promising combination (I drove a Pentastar-powered Jeep Rubicon on some pretty gnarly trails in April and thought it was a fantastic engine). The 5.7-liter Hemi V8/six-speed automatic setup I drove was decent though, and pulled well at lower speeds.
Hurtling down narrow country roads at about 45 mph, the big truck took off quickly when I buried the accelerator pedal. Out on the freeway was a different story. At 60 mph, acceleration was slow.
You don't see it, but the fuel pump behind all that acceleration is doing something different now. Ram's Pulse Width Modulation fuel pump continuously varies the output of fuel from the pump. Most cars use pumps that are either off or running full blast. The idea is to provide greater efficiency. It sounds great and I hope it works long-term.
Although I really didn't have a chance to put the brakes through their paces around a track, they performed well under the normal driving conditions 99.9% of the truck's owners will experience. At one point during the test drive, I took a turn too late and had to lay on the brakes to make it, and the truck stayed planted and didn't seem to fade mid-brake.
This is an area where pickup trucks have advanced the most in the past couple of decades. Not only was the ride smooth (even on bumpy surfaces), but the interior was quiet. The air suspension handled bumps well, and allowed for changing ride height to increase clearance for offroad driving and/or towing.
But if I were buying trucks for a work crew (or even a job site supervisor), I'd be wary about buying a system like this second-hand. How will the suspension airbags — which work great now — hold up over years of rough use? Only time will tell, and you may not want to be the one left holding the (air)bag when it breaks. Anyone have experience with this?
For something so tall and heavy, body roll was minimal on tight turns, so clearly we have advanced somewhat since the days of marshmellow-sprung Detroit land yachts and pickups that share suspension components with heavy dump trucks. Ram set up a construction site obstacle course and an "offroad" loop, and the truck performed beautifully over a series of uncomfortably spaced dirt lumps and a protruding log laid lengthwise across its track.
On the offroad trail — a grassy track snaking across a gentle hillside — I disengaged the four wheel drive (which worked fine, by the way, even though there wasn't really anywhere to test it) and traction control and let 'er rip. Blasting through a series of tail-whipping corners, the truck performed in a manner that would have put Bo and Luke Duke's General Lee to shame. (Coincidentally, a General Lee replica, along with a Mayberry police cruiser, were parked across the road. They both looked jealous.)
Ram's new electric steering system was impressive, never bogging down on tight, fast turns in the dirt. Mike Raymond, Ram's lead engineer, said that by eliminating the power steering pump along with its reservoir and lines, they were able to increase engine efficiency. Nice job, gents, it works great!
The six-speed transmission attached to the 5.7-liter Hemi on all of the trucks I drove worked fine. It tended to hang onto the last gear a little longer than I would have liked, but I really had no serious complaints about it. I'm actually pretty excited to try out a truck equipped with the Torqueflite 8, which the Ram folks said they will be offering in conjunction with the Pentastar and the Hemi.
The one beef I have is that you cannot, under any circumstances, buy a gasoline-powered Ram pickup with a manual transmission. Come on, guys, not everyone needs their hand held when it comes to shifting gears. It would be nice to see a beefy six-speed (or even a six-speed with a granny gear) manual thrown into the mix.
The stock stereo is a stock stereo and works just fine. The optional Alpine system bumps, and scared away a crowd of curious Tennesseans when I blasted a few lines from Notorious B.I.G.'s "Machine Gun Funk" out the window. (Sorry, Volunteers, our publication is New York City-based; gotta represent.)
Properly set up — in other words, with the V8 and air suspension — the Ram really shines as a tow rig. Most of the gadgets that make it so great pulling a boat or camper across tarmac would make me nervous thrashing the truck offroad, but aside from the fact that the acceleration is damped, you can't even tell the load is there. The Pentastar-powered truck boasts solid towing capability, too. With the right axle ratio, the Hemi trucks will tow more than 9,000 pounds, and the Pentastar rigs 6,500 pounds. The 4.7 can tow up to 7,700 pounds.
I towed a 24-foot camper along narrow, winding country roads with a Hemi-powered SLT and the thing never bucked or made the truck handle unpredictably. The air suspension and electric trailer brakes worked well.
If you have a bunch of stuff to tow or are just a big person who needs a lot of space, this truck could be a pretty good value. If you're buying a truck because you just want to be seen driving a truck, then you probably don't care about value. This is a fantastic ride for you because it looks good, is comfortable to drive, and if you pay $1,000 and get the optional Pentastar V6/Torqueflite8 combo, you'll get 25 mpg on the freeway, which is really pretty good for a fullsize pickup.
Ram said that they've raised overall prices about 1 percent over last year, starting at $23,585 for the base, 4.7-liter V8/6-speed auto-equipped model. Added gadgets cost more money, but the Pentastar package seems like a pretty good value. The air suspension costs $1,600 extra, and although it works well, I've already voiced my concerns about its longevity.
Of course the fancier the model, the more it costs, with the Sport trim level going for about $36,000 and the top-of-the-line Hemi-powered 4X4 Laramie Longhorn crew cab priced at $48,415. By the time you tack on color keyed floor mats and a cigarette lighter fob and all that other stuff the dealer charges $50-$100 for, you're looking at close to $50,000 — for a pickup.
At the end of the day though, it's good to know that you can get a capable, relatively fuel efficient pickup for less than $25,000 if you want to.
(Ed Note — We're not scoring these yet because it's not fair to compare trucks to sports cars/crossover SUV-type vehicles. We're considering what to do and would appreciate your input. — MH)
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Ram