Second Runner-Up: Dodge Ram Quad Cab Off-Road
Blessed with a new-for-2000 off-road package, the Dodge Ram Quad Cab was the slow-speed trail boss of the group this year. Although we've always known and appreciated the four-wheeling capability of these live-front-axle Rams, engineers decided to up the ante this year by raising the trucks nearly 2 inches with specific springs and shocks better suited to backcountry exploration. In addition to these unique suspension pieces, the off-road package offers an axle truss for the front Dana 44 that wraps around the differential and extends partway down the axletube as well as 4.10:1 gearing, dual front tow hooks, a rear antispin differential, and new 17-inch wheels wearing 275/70R17 Goodyear GSAs.
Although some testers had hoped for some sort of fully locking differential to be included in the package, its absence did not stop the Ram from scoring very high in our Trail Performance section. One tester simply noted, "Point and shoot, given the traction." While we liked the traction offered by the GSA tires, we wondered why an off-road package would consist of 17-inch tires, offering less sidewall than the 16-inchers on normal Rams.
Aside from that, it was hard to stop this beast in the outback. The truck seemed almost modified compared to the others as we traversed some super-twisty four-wheeling sections in the Anza Borrego desert. However, over higher-speed dry wash and whoops, the Ram seemed a bit dated. In those situations, the live axle front suspension would pogo a bit, and in deeper sand, the rear would hop more than the other trucks. This could be partly attributed to the Ram's heft. Regardless, this was a 1/2-ton chassis well-suited to the rigors of off-highway driving and one that could be built to handle more extreme terrain with very few modifications.
Our Quad Cab Ram was equipped with Dodge's stout 5.9L pushrod V-8 combined with the 46RE four-speed automatic, which testers enjoyed for its traditional torquey V-8 feel and quality shifts. Combine this with the lever-operated NVG 231 transfer case with 2.72:1 low range, and you have a powertrain that backs up the Peterbilt looks. On slow-go trails, the gearing combination felt perfectly suited to the tire size. Yet, some testers had a bit of trouble getting the lever into 4-Lo. Letting the Ram roll a bit remedied this, though not without a slight grind and audible clunk.
At the track, however, the numbers didn't reward the seat-of-the-pants feel testers got on the trail, with the Ram scoring an 18.67 at 74.5 mph in the quarter-mile. While the factory-rated 245 hp and 335 lb-ft of torque seemed surely adequate on paper, when compared to the lighter Dakota and Toyota, the Ram seemed a bit sluggish during passing maneuvers. While many people enjoy the benefits of a live-front- axle truck off-road (including us), on-road the trade-offs become apparent. As one young editor noted, "Steering feels looser than other trucks, with a bit of bumpsteer." Once the driver got used to the steering bug-a-boos, though, the Ram was a perfectly competent driver in the twisties despite its girth and tall ride height.
From the suspension to the driveline, rugged simplicity became the buzzwords for this Ram. And many testers found the interior to be just that, simple and functional. All the buttons and stalks operated with a nicely weighted click, and they seemed to be right where you would expect them to be. First on the scene with a four-door extended-cab fullsize pickup in 1998, the Ram Quad Cab has doors that are easy to operate and provides enough legroom to carry three. However, a less-steep rake to that rear seat would make life a bit more pleasant for the longer hauls.
This is a rough-and-tumble 4x4 with the right drivetrain for work in the dirt. However, this being a balanced evaluation of pickups, those rugged, almost purpose-built qualities we liked about the Ram kept it from placing toward the top in other categories. Regardless, we think any buyer in the market for a trail-oriented ½-ton deserves a ride in this new Dodge.
Stuff We Liked
Dodge Ram Dual Tow Hooks
As part of the off-road package, the Ram comes with these stout front tow hooks. While it seems natural that a 4WD pickup should have them, many do not. The Dodge units were perfectly sized for tow-strap use.
Dodge Ram Dana 44
Yes, kids, that's an honest-to-goodness live-axle Dana 44 sitting underneath the front of our Ram. We like solid front axles for their durability and articulation in the rough. As part of the off-road package, Dodge added a gusset/truss around the pumpkin as well as underneath the center axle disconnect (CAD)