Ram 1500 Vs. Ram HD: When Do You Need Heavy Duty?

May 14, 2013
If you haven't shopped for a full-size truck in a few years, it's possible you've missed that there's a war going on. With each redesign, these light-duty pickups—like the Ford F-150, the Chevy Silverado 1500, the GMC Sierra 1500, and even the 2013 Ram 1500 SLT that we're driving now for 30 days of up-close coverage—have towing and payload ratings that would have been heavy-duty some years ago.

Yep. So-called light-duty trucks aren't so light-duty anymore.

So what's the real divide between light-duty and heavy-duty users? When do you spend the several thousand dollars extra and go for the Ram 2500 or Ram 3500 model instead, and when do you simply spend that money on a few extra options or accessories for a Ram 1500?

When to hold 'em with a 1500, and when to fold 'em into an HD?

To us, with the so-called light-duty trucks no longer very light in their ability, it's more a matter of how frequently (and how far) you tow or carry loads. If it's a few times a year—or heck, even once a month, and it's mostly well under the maximum number—then go for the 1500.

It's true that with the Pentastar V-6 the Ram 1500 is only rated for towing 6,300 pounds. But with the 5.7-liter HEMI V-8, properly optioned, the Ram 1500 can tow an arms-race-escalating 10,450 pounds.

So likewise, if you just plan to tow a 6,000-pound pleasure boat (a big craft, even when you figure in the weight of the trailer) a few times a year, the Ram 1500 should be fine—and you'll save some gas money and add to your own comfort. Just make sure you've clicked off the right option boxes, engine, and axle ratio, of course. But if you plan lengthy cross-country trips towing a travel-trailer, or hefty construction equipment with an unsteady tongue load, over long mountain passes, then perhaps the HD trucks are more appropriate.

The Ram HD with Cummins is king, for those who plan to tow

Go for the Ram Heavy Duty model and there's a key powertrain you're allowed: the locomotive-like 6.7-liter Cummins turbo-diesel in-line six, making up to 385 horsepower and 850 pound-feet in Ram 3500 trucks with the Aisin six-speed automatic. In these trucks, you hit a Magic Mountain peak—the highest tow rating of any pickup, at least at the moment—of 30,000 pounds.

The Cummins models got a number of improvements for 2013, like an active air intake, stronger cooling, and a new EGR system that will keep the oil cleaner. And of course you get the big-rig-like diesel exhaust brake ('Jake brake'), made better this year with a Smart Brake system, to help moderate speed down long grades and save your brakes for when you need them.

In the Heavy Duty trucks, you'll also find lots of serious details aimed at commercial users who plan to modify or customize their trucks and really put them to the test with loads. Running costs are also something at the top of the minds of those fleet buyers that snap up a lot of heavy-duty models. Ram HD models with the Cummins engine this year, for instance, have an extended interval for maintenance, oil changer, and fuel filter replacement.

All Ram Heavy Duty models also come with a Powernet electrical architecture that makes managing various inputs and outputs (refrigeration, lights, etc.) easier.

Don't forget about how they drive unloaded

Handling and ride quality are two things that truck shoppers often overlook when they're trying to decide between light-duty trucks and heavy-duty trucks. Get the HD trucks, and you can say farewell to the Ram 1500's precise rack-and-pinion steering—and to its smooth-riding coil-spring rear suspension, or its available air suspension. The 3500, for instance, has a Hotchkiss leaf-spring rear suspension, while the steering is a reciprocating-ball setup. Especially when you're not carrying or pulling a load, you're going to find the HD trucks busier and less pleasant while the Ram 1500 is practically carlike.

Inside, you might not be able to tell you're in an HD

The Heavy Duty trucks' cabins are perhaps a little more upright and business-like (you won't find the Ram 1500's rotary shifter) but they sure aren't as basic as they used to be. You can now get Tradesman, SLT, and Laramie models, with the Laramie looking nearly as luxurious as the cabin in the 1500 Laramie, with its supple leather upholstery and comfort items like a heated steering wheel. For 2013, Ram has introduced UConnect systems and an available 10-speaker Alpine premium audio system, so you're no longer missing crucial conveniences.

Light-duty diesel on the way

Of course later this year, the Ram Heavy Duty models won't be the only ones to offer a diesel. With the introduction of the 3.0-liter V-6 EcoDiesel engine—making 240 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and expected to be about the same in the Ram—fans of diesel engines' torque and pulling power who don't need to literally pull a rocket sled will have a sensible alternative.

Look for the Ram 1500 light-duty diesel to be hooked up to an eight-speed automatic transmission, with a highway rating that could approach the 30-mpg mark. And while we don't have towing or payload numbers for this model yet, it will have what Ram has already called “an outstanding combination of best-in-class fuel efficiency, best-in-class torque and impressive capability.”

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