Chrysler Ups The Ante In The 1/2-Ton Pickup Class
It's a tough time to be selling pickup trucks of any kind right now, and if you've been in the business as long as the folks at Dodge have, your likely reaction to a sharp economic downturn might be to batten down the hatches, hold onto your market share, and try to ride out the storm as best you can. But with new versions of the Chevy Silverado, Toyota Tundra, and 2009 Ford F-150 all trumpeting major changes in pickup-truck technology over the past 18 months, the folks at Chrysler knew they had to do something to keep the slightly stodgy Ram competitive and attractive in an increasingly squeezed 1/2-ton pickup segment. The most recent fruit of their labors is the new-for-'09 Dodge Ram-available in two wheelbases, with long- and shortbeds, and in three cab configurations-and long story short, it is an across-the-board improvement over the old truck in every measurable way. And it's not too bad looking, either, if we say so ourselves.
Powering the Ram is the 5.7L Hemi V-8 (a 4.7L V-8 and 3.7L V-6 are also available) coupled to the 545RFE electronic five-speed automatic transmission. The new-for-'09 version of the Hemi block now uses variable valve timing, increased compression (10.5:1), and dual-length intake runners to produce 390 hp and 407 lb-ft of torque. Claimed EPA mileage for the 5.7L is only 13 city, 18 highway, but on our daylong driving tour of the hill country near Nashville, we logged a solid 20 combined mpg on our (mostly highway) jaunt. Part of this we attribute to the engine's Multi-Displacement System, which has been retuned to allow for operation at road speeds of up to 70 mph (and which the driver can engage at will by clever manipulation of throttle), but we also suspect some of the truck's inherent new design features contributed as well.
Realizing that truck owners want big power and better mileage, Dodge engineers sweated every possible exterior detail to improve the truck's aerodynamics. Foglamps are now flush-fit inside the front bumper, the grille and hood were reconfigured for reduced drag, and side mirrors were notched and moved outboard of the doors. Side windows are offset from the door frame, wheelwell openings have been reduced, and an integrated rear tailgate spoiler improves airflow. All told, the truck now sports a class-leading .419 drag coefficient-and a correspondingly quiet on-pavement ride, with minimal wind resistance and road noise for a fullsize truck.
Complementing the relatively noise-free ride is the Ram's first-ever five-link/coil-spring rear suspension, which supplants the conventional leaf-spring arrangement traditional to pickup trucks. Besides improving overall ride and handling characteristics, and eliminating the rear spring-wrap/axle-hop phenomenon that has dogged fullsize trucks from the beginning of time, the new link suspension shaves 40 pounds of excess weight from the vehicle-win-win, in other words. We tried as hard as we could during our brief test to get the rearend to "bark" via abusive throttle, braking, and steering maneuvers, but whether the bed was unladen or filled with a thousand pounds of horse feed (no fooling), we weren't able to get the rear suspension to misbehave and lift off the blacktop, or spin a tire in protest, for even a moment. That kind of "stickiness" is a boon off the pavement, too, as the Dodge will keep its rears on the trail as far as the coils and links will droop. (And yes, we towed a 6,000-pound fifth-wheel behind the 5.7L Ram, too, with no discernible signs of sagging or sluggishness, though there was one thing missing we would've liked to have seen. Read on.)