The Ram 1500 offers a choice of three different engines, and now its base V-6 is more than a reasonable choice--it's the best choice for anyone choosing to drive a pickup truck even when they don't actually tow or haul very much.
The former base V-6, a 3.7-liter producing an anemic 210 horsepower, has been dropped for 2013 in favor of a version of Chrysler's Pentastar V-6, here tuned to make 305 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque. It's standard on the HFE model and the SLT. The new six-cylinder starts to get a little strained at about 80 miles an hour on the highway, as it's attempting vainly to overcome the Ram's mass. Until that point, it sounds almost a little like a V-8, until about 3000 rpm, even a bit better than Ford's slightly less powerful V-6. In other words, it doesn't taste at all like weak sauce, and if you're only using your truck for occasional sweaty stuff, it's an excellent pick, and relief at the gas pump. The Ram six earns the best gas mileage in the class, at 17/25 mpg with the eight-speed automatic, before stop/start technology is figured in--and towing is rated as high as 6500 pounds, which Chrysler says is also best of all the six-cylinder, full-size trucks.
As for the new automatic, it doesn't feel at all busy, and though it takes a few rounds to get used to spinning a knob to shift--or clicking Chiclets on the steering wheel instead of paddles. You really have to concentrate to dial into gear instead of grabbing a lever. What it does for the six-cylinder can't be overstated, though. It makes it a relevant powertrain option. It's a big step for efficiency in the Ram, just as the eight-speed is in Chrysler's 300 and Dodge Charger sedans.
Chrysler's aging 4.7-liter V-8 stays in the lineup on the Tradesman model, and as an option on the SLT. as a bridge to fleets and more richly appointed versions. Standard on Outdoorsman and SLT trucks, it's a familiar powerplant that's pegged at 310 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque, and acceleration isn't much stronger than with the V-6 when unladen. Gas mileage is surely lower, but in previous drives it's been a decent provider of power through its six-speed automatic.
Price and gas no object, of course, we'd palaver for the HEMI. Its charm ripples through the cabin and your arm-hair follicles every time you goose the accelerator pedal. The barrel-chested big eight now makes 395 horsepower and 407 pound-feet, thanks both to variable valve timing (VVT) and a cylinder shut-off system, and connects to either a six-speed automatic or the new eight-speed gearbox. It's the engine of choice, with muscular power and acceleration, and enables 0-60 mph acceleration as quick as 6.7 seconds as well as the highest towing rating of the lineup--10,450 pounds in long-bed, rear-drive form. Last year's model hit 11,500 pounds but as of yet the 2013 lineup doesn't include a heavy-duty version capable of that figure, which itself is still 200 pounds shy of the best towing figures available from Ford and GM.
The new eight-speed automatic, available early in January of 2013, will be standard with the V-6 and in most V-8 models, though some mid-grade, HEMI-powered Rams will continue to use the six-speed automatic. Four-wheel drive will be available across the Ram 1500 lineup. On any model, a part-time system will be available, but Ram's on-demand system is available only on the 5.7-liter HEMI-equipped versions.
It's not just HEMI grunt that makes the Ram a joy to drive. Hauling and towing are other strong suits of the Ram, but in the past few years, ride and handling--the truck variety--have won us over, too. The Ram's steering is now electric, and it's quicker than before, with decent on-center feel. It's not fair to expect much feedback from a huge-wheelbase, four-wheel-drive truck, so don't. It's still about the best you'll find in a full-size truck.
The ride quality's now even more dependent on how you outfit your truck. The chassis and suspension have been reworked, with a retuned suspension (control-arm, independent in front) giving the Ram its usual more relaxed attitude, even in unladen 4x4 models.
The new setup's also been designed with an optional air suspension in mind. The air suspension seems to be adapted from the one found in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and if you trace that vehicle's lineage, you might suspect it's also related to the one in the new Mercedes GL Class. No matter the origin, it's a setup that could use a little more softness in its most dynamic setup. The setup offers five ride heights (normal, aero, off-road 1, off-road 2, and park mode), and enables best-in-class ground clearance, step-in height, and departure/breakover angles. It can be changed by the driver via the keyfob, to lower the height for step-in or loading--but with more attention paid compressing the suspension at speed for better aerodynamics and hence better fuel economy, there's less compliance left for bumpy surfaces and uneven textures. As a result, the ride quality's a little more firm and tense than before. Combine the air suspension's versatility in its other modes with the basic setup's smoother everyday ride, and we'd be convinced to ante up for its $1500 price premium.