WEED HEIGHTS, Nevada — Four big and black Michelin LXT on/off-road tires spew desert sand rearward in our wake. We’re charging out of the gate for an acceleration test in a big Ram pickup, the full-size Dodge truck — and, in this instance, we’re testing a sure-footed four-wheel-drive system, a five-speed manual gearbox, and a humongous engine pulled along not by six, not by eight, but by 10 cylinders.
We work quickly through lower gears, hurling down an unpaved course, engine churning to exert massive torque on all wheels. The tires rebound in rapid-fire response to washboard rollers of the desert floor, as the driver holds his foot steady on the pedal to keep fuel flowing — and to see just what this thing can do on dirt.
Within minutes, the Ram deftly demonstrates that it's still the biggest with the mostest — it's got more space for people and cargo, more cab configurations, more strength from more engine options, and more macho guts than any other truck in the market.
It looks macho, too. You can tell in an instant that it's not some namby-pamby pickup whose styling imitates a car — simply check out that unique prow with a stair-step hood line and design cues lifted from streamlined Dodge workhorse trucks of the 1940s, not to mention cabs of big semis.
Built for business
And yet, from all appearances, there's no question that the Ram is built for business —mainly, truck-type business, like lugging lumber and pulling a trailer, herding cattle, hauling hay out to pasture or running up a range slope and plowing into wild country, back bed brimming with camping gear.
The Ram’s vital stats support the impression. It beats all comers with the most powerful production engine for a pickup; it outworks others with more towing and hauling capacity, then outmaneuvers them with a structural integrity and suspension system set for supporting heavy truckloads.
And among the many configurations and options in size, strength, capacity and payload, Ram continues to create innovations, such as the four-door Quad Cab cabin design. Last year, Ram introduced the novel idea of four doors for a Quad Cab variation of the stretched Club Cab. Now, for 1999, the option has been extended across the entire Ram lineup. With two three-person bench seats, the Quad Cab seats six; with four doors, it’s the most usable work truck you can buy to date.
Dodge's big truck comes in so many configurations, you’re bound to find one to match your needs. This year Dodge offers 34 physical variations, not counting three trim levels and several transmission selections. The figure includes a choice of three sizes, two traction formats (rear- or four-wheel drive), five engines (from V-6 and two V-8s to the V-10, plus a Cummins turbodiesel), wheelbase (short and long), bed length (big and bigger) and cab configuration (regular, plus Club Cab and Quad Cab).
The Ram lineup is divided in threes, by weight class: the 1500 denotes half-ton, 2500 stands for three-quarter ton, and 3500 goes to a 1-ton hefty truck. Ram's V-10 and a Cummins direct-injection, turbodiesel 5.9-liter in-line six show up exclusively in 2500 and 3500 variations. The 235-hp diesel is new this year, representing the second generation of the Cummins workhorse engine in a more efficient and powerful package.
Pick a truck by the numbers
To get to know these Rams intimately, we spent time driving them across the California Sierras and through the high Nevada desert, covering pavement and dirt courses over the most challenging terrain imaginable.
At the outset, we steered the least powerful Ram, a 1500 4x2 equipped with the 175-hp V-6 that connects with a four-speed automatic transmission. This version carried us up steep mountain grades and over high-altitude passes without shirking on acceleration when passing slower traffic. All the while, we were ensconced in a cabin so large that the driver could not reach across the three-person bench.
A center divider folded down to form an armrest, then popped its top to reveal a divvied-up storage bin that might serve as cockpit office while on the road. Everything else inside Ram made sense, from easy-read analog instruments to convenient position of dashboard knobs and controls, even the handy storage bins and baskets scattered around the cab on lower door panels and behind seats.
The ride quality was stable and felt comfortable, thanks in part to the rigid, high-strength steel chassis. Aiding this smooth sensation is a wide wheel track that combines with standard 16-inch tires and an agile suspension package that produces predictable handling characteristics, whether loaded or not.
Off-road tests out in the desert
In the Nevada wilderness we tested other Rams, including several equipped with the V-10 engine, plus the two V-8s and turbodiesel. That V-10 generates awesome torque (up to 440 lb-ft at a low 2800 rpm), which not only brings lickety-split acceleration but big-time towing power, too, for a trailer weighing as much as 13,500 pounds.
One of our favorite combinations is a 2500 (three-quarter-ton) Ram outfitted with four-wheel traction and the 5.9-liter V-8 hooked to an easy-shift five-speed manual stick. Horsepower climbs to 230, with torque reaching 335 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
This rig carried us up off-road slopes too steep to walk and through boulder fields and brush piles, down sandy dunes and high-speed pavement chutes alike. It stood tall — with plenty of clearance for those boulders — but rode smoothly, all the while handling with an ease and sophistication unexpected in a big 4x4 truck.
If you’re interested in a real bargain, the Ram’s trim levels begin with a base work truck, dubbed the WS (Work Special), which comes only as a 1500 4x2. It contains full carpeting or optional mat vinyl, vinyl seat trim, cup holders in the cabin and a full package of lighting, dual-speed windshield wipers with intermittent setting, plus a bench seat with folding back, all for $15,435, excluding destination charges.From there, it’s a quick step up the features ladder. The Ram ST adds a front bench with 40/20/40 split and an AM/FM st