Driven: 2009 Dodge Ram 2500 Heavy Duty Bluetec

August 14, 2009
2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

Bluetec logo (Dodge Ram HD)

Bluetec logo (Dodge Ram HD)

On quiet residential streets, the 2009 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty is about as far from subtle as you can get. From the front it looks like a (slightly) scaled-down semi, its hoodline almost at average eye level; and in the week we had the Ram, we actually looked down on a Suburban that was just ahead of us at the traffic light, and feared all week of sideswiping another vehicle with the huge, protruding towing mirrors.

I'm a lanky six-foot-six and had to heft myself -upward- to get into the truck. That's a rarity. Anyone normal sized will want to get running boards, or at least a step, installed.

And on a trip to the park, a worried-looking woman minding the grandkids on an adjacent side street actually asked politely if I would park that behemoth in front of another house, please.

Perhaps she'd heard us around the block because we had just been playing with the "jake brake"—that's a big-rig-style brake that effectively increases engine braking—delivered up with a little extra clatter. It's engaged with a simple press of a dash button. Jake wouldn't be our monkey whenever we wanted to hear the sound, though, so there was probably something we missed (perhaps in the owner's manual).

The big 6.7-liter in-line six is made by Cummins. The engine, which was introduced for 2008, makes 350 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque and is much, much cleaner-burning than the engine that preceded it.

The Cummins engine costs $6,100 on the 2009 Ram 2500 (a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, making 355 horsepower and 395 lb-ft, is standard), while it's standard on the 3500.

And especially of note: the diesel Heavy Duty 2500 is good for carrying more than three-quarters of a ton and towing 13,600 pounds (up to 16,850 pounds in some 3500 versions).

It's not so surprising that the huge truck and huge engine were most at home on the highway, when the turbo could be kept at least at a simmer; the powertrain is happy lugging along in top gear and simply wafting up to speed, turbo whistling up and down just like a big rig—no need to downshift unless you're carrying a heavy load. In stop-and-go, the powertrain isn't quite as easy to live with. Tip into the throttle just off idle with some moderation, and the engine confidently churns out torque like…well, like a locomotive. But mash the pedal to the carpet and it's a letdown for a moment—you can almost feel the big intake as the turbo spools up—but a moment later, as you're up to 5 or 10 mph the rear tires will come loose there's so much torque. Much the same, low-speed response out of a corner often feels flat; the engine and tranny aren't good with quick transitions, but that's not their reason for being.

Just starting the engine is a bit of an event compared to other trucks. Twist the ignition key to the on position, and there's no need to wait there for glow plugs and such; the big diesel will start right up even when cold. But the big diesel shakes the entire truck as it's cranking, and it requires more cranking time than typically required, even when it's hot.

Though the Dodge/Cummins diesel carries the Bluetec emissions badge, it doesn't use a urea-injection system like other Bluetecs from German automakers. Instead, it utilizes a diesel particulate filter plus an adsorber catalyst to eliminate cut NOx by up to 90 percent. There's no doubt it clatters, but it's clean; even on a cold start there's no puff and no odor at the tailpipe.

The engine is ever-present, if not always in sound, in harshness. The engine's percussive idle when cold settles to a loud, pulsing thrum when it's hot, but that takes some time. The floor shudders and vibrates as you hear the ripples of certain resonant frequencies come and go. And there isn't much else refined about it; the steering reminds us of how most pickups drove just 15 or 20 years ago and demonstrates how significant the recent changes in light-duty trucks have been.

In fact, the 2009 Dodge Ram 2500 reminds us through and through why we don't provide you with full reviews of heavy-duty trucks.

The Heavy Duty gets an entirely different instrument panel than the soft, refined, and well-designed one now used throughout the light-duty Ram 1500 lineup. It's quite the piece of hard-plastic real estate, with lots of hard edges and sloppy injection molding. If Chrysler sent us this one with so many jagged edges, you have to wonder. On the bright side, most of the controls are large and grippy enough for hands in work gloves, and it looks like it would clean up easily.

The cabin is vast, and accommodations are more than ample. The front seats are very generous—perhaps ideal for the obese as I had two inches on either side of my hips—and adjustable for a very wide range of driver sizes. In back, it's a bit tight in the Crew Cab for grownups; there's not quite enough legroom tall folks but kids will be comfy back there all day. The center console is large enough to store a laptop or a small toolbox, and the thinner upper compartment itself is probably large enough for a netbook.

A redesigned 2010 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty, which looks like it will have a much-improved interior, along with better handling and cues that bring it in line with the new 2009 Dodge Ram 1500, is still due later this fall.

Most of these trucks will probably be sold to ranchers, backcountry business owners, construction foreman, and people with really serious towing needs.

Let's not forget, many of these buyers want luxury features. Our test truck was equipped with both a navigation system and a rear DVD entertainment system that included a remote and wireless headphones. Our $55,200 test truck, the 2009 Dodge Ram 2500 Laramie Quad 4x4, started at $41,450, but it had a host of options, including the nav and DVD systems, upgraded audio, leather upholstery, and remote start, in addition to the upgraded powertrain. Surprisingly though, side-curtain bags are optional.

Heavy-duty engines like the Cummins Big-Rig Six, as we nicknamed this one in our weeklong drive, really wouldn't be that appealing in 'normal' pickups. For one, they aren't particularly fuel-efficient; we just cracked 10 mpg in ours (seven gallons over almost 75 miles of city driving). Though admittedly a gasoline engine capable of this type of work would be down in the single digits. Secondly, they aren't up to the standards of noise and vibration that most personal-use buyers expect.

Yet diesels are especially great for towing, hauling, and highway use, and they should be offered in more sensible forms in light-duty trucks. So why aren't they?

Unfortunately Chrysler has temporarily sidelined its Cummins light-duty diesel for the Dodge Ram 1500, General Motors has shelved its 4.5-liter Duramax diesel V-8, which was slated for the light-duty Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, and even Ford has cancelled the new 4.4-liter diesel V-8 that it was just short of launching early next year in the 2010 Ford F-150 (along with the most of its other full-size trucks).

The reason? Gas prices (until recently) had come down, lower than diesel, and with the economy as it is, automakers aren't sure that shoppers are really that willing to pay much extra for diesels.

Our time with the Ram 2500 proved yet again that heavy duty trucks don't work so well as personal or family transportation. They're just too ridiculously cumbersome—and a little scary. But a clean diesel in a light-duty pickup is a fuel-saving option that automakers certainly should reconsider.

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