We had this window of opportunity, see. Six days of freedom to make a5000-mile round trip from The Car Connection’s headquarters city, Detroit, to Torrance, Calif., to pick up a newly refurbished motorcycle. We also had a one-week loan of a new 2003 Dodge Ram 1500 Sport Quad Cab pickup truck, a truck with a bed just long enough to fit one high-performance bike, sideways.
With a bag full of jeans and T-shirts, a double handful of CDs for the player, and a credit card just begging to be stuck into gas pumps from here to there, we started our solo sprint to the coast and back. Our route of travel would be Interstate Highway System, period. From 94 west in Michigan to 69 south to Indy, from there on 70 west to 44 in St. Louis, merging with 40 in Oklahoma City, across the Texas panhandle and the New Mexico, Arizona and California deserts to 15 south at Barstow and 10/605/405 through Los Angeles to Torrance. From St. Louis on, we would be crisscrossing the old Route 66 on what is, in effect, the New Route 66, from there to California. If it sounds like alphabet soup with some digital action thrown in, it was — but easier than it sounds.
The new Dodge Ram that would take us there and back is a magnificent beast, almost too tall for our 6’4" frame and yard-long arms. It is the first production pickup truck to ride on standard 20-inch wheels, vaulting that first step into the cab even higher off the ground than before. Families of average stature will have to keep small stepladders in the beds.
The completely redesigned Ram features an even larger, more vertical grille than before, and that means the hood and the leading edge of the hood take up still more of the driver’s view. It’s very difficult to judge where the front bumper really is, but it’s like that on all domestic full-size pickups. With the new Ram, it’s a matter of degree.
2002 Dodge Ram
And ours was a Sport version, which means some of the interior trim is upgraded to wood trim status, it comes with the tried-and-true 5.9-liter V-8 engine, and the grille is body color instead of chrome, which meant another quarter acre of red paint in our case.
The interior of the new Ram is upgraded several steps above what it was, in terms of quality of materials, eye-pleasing design, and ease of use. Being in the same house with Mercedes-Benz seems to be helping. The four-door Quad Cab body carries full-size rear doors for excellent ingress and egress, and the rear seatbacks can be folded down individually to create combinations of seating and storage space in the rear cab. Though we never spent much time in it, the rear space is generous and useful.
The thing we had the most contact with, of course, was the steering wheel, a very busy place, what with the cruise control buttons flanking the down spoke and sound system volume and program controls on the backs of the two horizontal spokes. Although we used it every day, night and day, for 18 hours a day for six straight days, we came away not liking the cruise control system very much. The activation, cancellation, setting and resetting buttons never seemed to be in the right places and they never seemed to require the same operating pressure from use to use, feeling very wooden.
The sound system controls were just fine. As was the Infinity sound system itself, delivering nice reproduction at medium to high volumes and pulling lots of faraway AM and FM stations through the whip antenna.
We also used the engine and transmission a lot. The 5.9 has been in the system at the Chrysler Group for close to 30 years now, and it’s as good as it’s ever going to get, due for replacement by a newer SOHC V-8 engine. It was thirsty from start to finish, with the onboard computer showing us tank range readings between eight and 13 miles per gallon, with most of the readouts a nice, round 10 mpg from coast to coast. Paying between $1.15 and $1.95 per gallon depending on where we were at tank-up time, we spent not a dime on oil and $408 on fuel to go the whole 5000 miles, or eight cents per mile. And though the 5.9 is a very strong engine, rated at 245 horsepower at 4000 rpm and 335 foot-pounds of torque at 3200 rpm, the overdrive gearing and the rising terrain were such that the engine and transmission spent a lot of time in kickdown mode. We went from about 300 feet above sea level to 7335 feet at the Arizona divide and back down to sea level, and the engine never complained. The transmission, a heavy-duty truck four-speed overdrive, slammed into and out of fourth gear every time.
2002 Dodge Ram
The paving on the mid-southern route from the Vast Wetness to the Big Orange varies all over the map from freshly set concrete in Indiana to red-colored stone in New Mexico to smooth blacktop in California. The Ram liked all of it, apparently, because even with the high-riding suspension, the ride was universally smooth, with very little chop. The giant P265/55/20 mud and snow tires were the first line of defense against harshness and they were very, very good, with good bite on all surfaces and reasonably quiet operation for truck tires. On the second half of the trip, with a 580-pound motorcycle cinched down in the bed, the ride was excellent.
The Interstate blitz from Detroit to L.A. and back was uneventful and colorful and frustrating and maddening and very pleasant, changing from moment to moment depending on which set of idiots was parked in front of us in the fast lane.
All of the character that was Route 66 is gone, replaced by rest stops, oases, truck stops and crossroads that all look alike. We have become a nation of franchisers and franchisees, and there is a man in charge of seeing to it that there is a Taco Bell everywhere there is a gas station. If not a Taco Bell, then a Subway or Wendy’s or McDonald’s. What I wouldn’t have given for a real family-run restaurant called Mom’s Truck Stop.
When the tank starts to go dry every 270 miles or so, you stick your credit card into the pump, dispense gasoline, get a receipt and fire up, all without any human contact. The gas station where you can only buy fuel, oil, tires and batteries has merged with the fast-food restaurant and the convenience store, and they are all the same.
Even the human contact is not what it was. A pimply teenage girl stares vacantly and says, curtly "Is that it?" when you proffer your cache of Fig Newtons, root beer, Clark bars, potable water and other certified road food. The same moody teenager seems to work everywhere we stop.
Once we got west of Indy, the number of cops fell away to near zero for 1500 miles, and then picked up again in California. Most places, the speed limit was 75 mph, so we cruised at 80 in the safe zone, our Valentine One radar detector pointed toward our destination and giving us in some cases three miles of warning. No tickets this trip.
At cruise, the Dodge
2002 Dodge Ram
America in the springtime is a very dirty place, and all that dirt tended to accumulate on our windshield, which we washed and dried two or three times a day from a standing position in the cab with the doors open. Couldn‘t reach the center of the glass otherwise. This is a big truck.
We could go on and on about the stuff we saw signs for on The New Route 66. Caves and caverns. Indian trading posts. A monument to helium. Places like Milo and Plum Tree and Two Guns. Places where they weren’t supposed to be, like Cuba, Manhattan, Baden Baden, Pacific, Miami, Yukon, Milan and Ontario. Cherokee, Sac and Fox, Navajo and a dozen other Indian reservations. Dinosaur parks. Casinos. Flowering purple trees in central Oklahoma. The meteor crater in Arizona. Mountains and deserts and sunsets too beautiful for words. Creeks and rivers and dams and trickles, no two alike. More state and national parks and wilderness areas than you can count. This is only one thread in the enormous quilt that is the American road, but it is a really, really good one, as long as you can deal with the sameness of the manmade stuff.
2002 Dodge Ram
In addition to finding out just how good this new Ram is for long-distance touring, we found out that the recession is a myth. We saw more motor homes than we’ve ever seen before. We saw more motor homes with other vehicles attached to them like moray eels than we‘ve ever seen before. The idea of moving your kitchen and bedroom around on four tires to almost anywhere has been supplanted by the idea of taking the kitchen, the bedroom and the car. One huge Prevost motor home we saw had a full-size Chevy truck on the towbar behind it and the Chevy truck carried a gigantic Honda Gold Wing touring motorcycle in its bed. How much mobility do we need? If a highway clogged with very expensive motor home rigs with boats, cars, motorcycles, and trucks attached can be said to be an indicator of empty-nester wealth, we are in good shape.
We saw the highest concentration of Buick drivers we have ever seen, in the most surprising of places: the Texas panhandle. We saw people doing all kinds of recreational and business reading while they drove across the vast expanse, barely keeping it in the lane. We saw an amazing number of women driving hot little Asian coupes with big wheels, big tires and big exhaust cans. And we saw lots of pickups, each and every one of which we looked down upon from our lofty seat in the Dodge Ram Sport Quad Cab (some moniker, eh?).
Having done an average of more than 800 miles per day for six straight days in this new Ram, loaded it and unloaded it twice, and run hundreds of gallons of gasoline through it, we came away very impressed. The new frame provides stiffness, quietness and NVH behaviors never before available in a Dodge truck. The steering is nicely weighted and fairly accurate for a truck of this magnitude. The engine is solid but thirsty. Seating, belt and steering wheel comfort are very good, as is interior storage and organization. Trim and finish are of a much higher order than the old model’s.
All that remains for discussion is whether your workstyle and lifestyle match this truck and whether your bank account can afford $34,555, the all-in price of our test truck.
2002 Dodge Ram 1500 Sport Quad
Base price: $34,555
Engine: 5.9-liter V-8, 245 hp, 335 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 227.7 x 79.9 x 74.1 in
Wheelbase: 140.5 in
Curb weight: 4990 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 11/16 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, optional side-curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: Four-wheel disc brakes w/rear anti-lock control, rack-and-pinion steering, HVAC, power windows/locks/mirrors, 40/20/40 front bench & six-passenger seating, steel cargo floors in rear
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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