We've already known the Ram 1500 as one of the strongest performers in big trucks; last year's V-6 gave it a frugal edge as well. This year, the powertrains change again, with an old V-8 giving way, making room for a new turbodiesel--the first in a light-duty truck in modern times.
The Ram's base V-6 is still the best choice for any truck user that needs an open bed more than they need a towing appliance. The 3.6-liter V-6 builds up 305 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, and comes linked with an eight-speed automatic transmission. With towing of 6,500 pounds at most, the six-cylinder Ram's one of the lightest-duty propositions in full-size trucks--but how much does a good set of tools weigh? It'll haul home bales of pine straw without much effort, though it does move from a V-8-like exhaust note just off idle to a more strained sound once it climbs to about 80 mph. And though it takes a few tries to reach for a rotary shift knob and not a shift lever, the eight-speed automatic really makes the V-6 a relevant choice; it doesn't hunt endlessly or needlessly for the right gear.
In the middle of the lineup, the Ram's old 4.7-liter V-8 has finally taken a dirt nap. Taking its place is a much stronger alternative to the base six, and one that could deliver much better fuel economy, too. It's a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 with only 240 horsepower (typical for diesels) but 420 pound-feet of torque, and it's hooked up with that excellent eight-speed automatic for torquey performance and a little of the characteristic diesel clatter to go with it. Those extra gears slice and dice its narrow powerband into thousand-rpm increments for excellent around-town flexibility that gets strained, just like the gas engine, once you're passing any legal highway speed. Rated at 9,200 pounds towing max, the turbodiesel delivers unladen 0-60 mph times in the 8.0-second range, and with it comes Chrysler's promise of highway fuel economy better than the gas six's 25 mpg. Stronger performance and better economy will cost from $3,000 to $4,000 more than other comparably equipped Rams.
If gas prices and sticker prices were no object, the HEMI-powered Ram 1500 would be the easiest choice. The sounds that pipe into the cabin from the big 5.7-liter V-8 are enough to open new hair follicles. The barrel-chested eight 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. Brawny power 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.
Four-wheel drive is available across the Ram 1500 lineup. On any model, a part-time system is the basic setup, but Ram's on-demand system takes care of the traction all the time, though it's only offered 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 $1,500 price premium.