It's hard to get ahead in the pickup truck business: There are a lot of Ford and Chevy loyalists, but the pews at the Church of Dodge (now officially the Church of Ram) tend to be rather sparsely populated. For 2013, the folks at Ram have made extensive changes to their half-ton 1500 -- but have they changed enough to win new buyers? Read on.
First Glance at the Ram 1500 Pickup Truck
Most of the modifications are geared towards increasing fuel efficiency. There's an all-new 3.6 liter V6 engine -- the "Pentastar" engine being applied with great success to other Chrysler products -- along with an 8-speed automatic transmission, which is available with the V6 and the 5.7 liter V8. Aerodynamics have been improved, including an automatic grille shutter system that routes air around the Ram's giant radiator when cooling demands are low. Electrically-assisted power steering replaces the engine-driven hydraulic system, while the frame, box structure, front bumper and control arms have been redesigned to shed weight without sacrificing strength. Even the hood gets in on the act -- it's now made of aluminum, saving 26 lbs over the old steel stamping.
But comfort was also a consideration: The interior has been upgraded, and a new (optional) air suspension provides automatic load leveling and height adjustment, not to mention a much smoother ride. The Uconnect infotainment system has been improved, and new options include rain-sensing wipers and automatic high beams.
In the Ram 1500 Driver's Seat
Back in 1994, the Ram's controls were designed to be used while wearing work gloves; that still holds true in 2013. The new 8-speed automatic uses an electronic dial controller on the dash, which works well and doesn't take up valuable space. (Trucks with the 6-speed automatic get a traditional column- or console-mounted shifter.) The optional Uconnect stereo and navigation system uses a big 8.4" color touch-screen and an improved voice-recognition system. Below it, a row of switches controls the air suspension ride height and the optional trailer brake actuator, which uses a traditional squeeze switch.
Up on the instrument panel, there's an optional 7" color screen nestled between the speedometer and the tachometer. What shows on the screen is up to the driver; there are several useful choices, including a digital speedometer, next-turn directions from the navigation system, and a trailering screen that shows transmission temperature and a trailer brake indicator.
On the Road in the Ram 1500 Truck
Two things really impressed me about the driving experience. First was the new steering system, which feels more direct and responsive than the steering in the Ford F150 or the Chevy Silverado. Second is the suspension. The coil-sprung Ram's ride is better than the F150 and on par with the Chevy, but with the optional air suspension, the Ram blows them away. Along with the smooth (for a truck) ride comes surprisingly sharp handling, plus a variable ride height that provides better clearance for off-roading and a low setting for easier loading. Considering how much more pleasant it makes the driving experience, the air suspension's $1,595 price tag seems pretty reasonable.
Payload capacity for the RAM 1500 ranges from 1,310 to 1,620 lbs, with V6 models able to haul up to 1,490 lbs. V6-powered trucks can tow between 4,550 and 6,500 lbs depending on configuration. I pulled an 18' powerboat with the V6-powered truck, and while it was clearly working hard, it muscled the load up some decent-sized hills. If you need more power, the Ram 1500 is also available with a 4.7 liter V8 (310 hp/330 lb-ft/max tow 7,700 lbs) and the 5.7 liter HEMI V8 (395 hp/407 lb-ft/max tow 10,450 lbs), though both come with a 6-speed automatic; the 8-speed is optional only with the 5.7.
End of the Journey in the Ram 1500
There is one important area that I can't speak to, and that's build quality and durability. Dodge trucks have a troubled history (maybe that's part of the reason Chrysler changed the division's name to Ram). I had a long and frank talk with a couple of the Ram's engineers, and they acknowledge their vehicle's checkered past and say they have worked hard to correct the problems. Only time will tell.
Still, I'm impressed by how much the new Ram 1500 has improved the breed. For once, the V6 engine isn't merely a go-to for cheapskate fleet managers; it's a viable, fuel-efficient engine choice for the masses. The interior design and quality puts the competition (including the imports) to shame, and the air suspension completely transforms the experience of driving a pickup. If Chrysler can keep up the build quality, those pews at the Church of Ram might start filling up rather quickly. -- Aaron Gold