2003 Dodge Ram 3500 Preview

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Sue Mead Sue Mead Editor
September 8, 2002
subscribeSANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Bigger, stronger and more luxurious. No, we aren't talking about high-end SUVs or the new German sedan lineup or even Anna Nicole Smith’s next rehab suite. We're talking about Dodge's new heavy-duty trucks, a redesigned stable of workhorses with two new engine offerings and, for the first time on a Ram, a single rear wheel option.

The redesign of the 2500 and 3500, Dodge's two heavy-duty models, comes at the right time. Since 1996, the heavy-duty pickup market has grown 34 percent, with the Rams now taking a 31 percent share of the segment, as well as a third of all Ram sales. This upward trend in heavy-duty purchases could give this DaimlerChrysler division a much-needed boost.

At the same time, buyers are increasingly looking to powerful, more fuel-efficient diesel motors: purchases of heavy-duty pickups with a diesel motor have increased to 21 percent from 2 percent in recent years. Accordingly, the 2003 Ram lineup includes an all-new High-Output Cummins turbodiesel motor, with increased horsepower that makes it the most powerful of its type in its segment, delivering 305 hp and 555 lb-ft of torque.

The big news in this new flock, however, is the return of the Chrysler Group's legendary HEMI motor. First introduced in 1953, the V-8 HEMI motor out-accelerated and out-towed the competition. In its current iteration, a 5.7-liter V-8 called the HEMI Magnum, this powerplant delivers 345 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque. Like its predecessor, it also beats competitors off the line and delivers more horsepower than similar V-8 gasoline engines.

First look

I drove a number of the new models recently at a press introduction in southern California. What was notable on first impression was the length of the lineup--there are many models to choose from-- and the big and brawny sheetmetal was eye-candy for a truck-loving automotive journalist.

2003 Dodge Ram 3500

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The Ram heavy-duty trucks are offered in Standard or Quad Cab, which seat three and five people, respectively. Two wheelbase lengths (short and long) also are offered on Quad Cab models. The 2500 models come with standard dual rear wheels, while 3500 models come with standard single rear wheels (dual rear wheels are optional on all but short-wheelbase 3500 Quad Cabs).

Dodge calls the massive grille that dominates the front end of these big-boy trucks a "horse-collar." Your average driver might call it "intimidating as all hell," especially if it suddenly appears in your rearview mirror. Sitting high, wearing a considerable chrome fender with integrated fog lamps and a ground clearance that ranges between 8.2 and 9.3 inches (depending on the cab size), the Ram 1500-inspired grille is distinctive, dominating and decidedly masculine. 

However, this workwoman found that this workman's truck manages to balance machismo with practicality and - dare I say it - sensitivity, with some significant cosmetic improvements. The grille, for example, is both large and functional, providing air intake to help cool the massive engines under the hood. High-tech, bubble-style headlamps retain the same dual-lamp formations as past heavy-duty models, but with an updated quad-style look and better performance. Taillamps share their design with the headlamps and are 30 percent larger.

Overall, the entire exterior has been revised to be smoother. The steep windshield overlaps with side pillars to meet up seamlessly with doors, which are squared off at the bottom, to fit rear doors and extend to the bottom of the sills. These improvements help reduce NVH in the cab, while a fuller looking hood and roof make the truck look even bigger without looking more menacing.

Safety played a large role in the overall chassis and frame redesign, allowing Dodge to position the new Ram workhorse lineup as one of the safest choices in the segment. The stiffest-ever frame has controlled crush zones and improves handling and braking, while largest-in-class brakes, tires and wheels, standard ABS, standard front center shoulder safety belts in Standard cab models, standard rear center shoulder belts in Quad cab models and a child seat LATCH system make this a class-leading vehicle in terms of safety. These pickups also are the first-ever to offer side curtain airbags and power-adjustable pedals.

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Under the hood

The new Rams include an almost bewildering array of drivetrain configurations, so stick with us here.

Drivetrains include the HEMI Magnum V-8 (standard on all models; 345 hp at 5400 rpm, 375 lb-ft at 4200 rpm); a Cummins turbodiesel (optional on all models; 250 hp at 2900 rpm; 460 lb-ft at 1400 rpm), and a High-Output turbodiesel (optional on all models; 305 hp at 2900 rpm, 555 lb-ft at 1400 rpm), as well as a Magnum 8.0-liter V-10 (optional on all models, 305 hp at 4000 rpm, 440 lb-ft at 2800 rpm). 

These are matched to one of four transmissions, that include a five-speed manual overdrive (standard with 5.7- and 8.0-liter engines and regular-output turbodiesel), six-speed manual overdrive version (standard with high-output turbodiesel engine), as well as a five-speed automatic (optional with 5.7-liter engine) and four-speed automatic with overdrive (optional with the V-10 and standard-output turbodiesel engine).

All 2500 and 3500 models, both regular and quad cab, short and long wheelbase, are available with either four-wheel or two-wheel drive. 

Towing capacities and payload vary widely across the many drivetrain/seating/wheelbase configurations. Payload capacities go from 2000 for the 2500 Quad Cab 4WD with the 5.9-liter, high-output turbodiesel and manual six-speed transmission, to 5090 for the 3500 regular cab with dual rear wheels, 5.9-liter regular output turbodiesel and automatic four-speed tranny. GCWR ranges from 15,000 lbs. for several models, with the 5.8L V-8 HEMI to a maximum of 23,000 lbs. for some models with the high-output turbodiesel.

Inside the cab

Climbing into the cab can be a tall step up, but once in, you'll find it's worth the climb. The new pickups are available in three trim levels: SL, SLT and Laramie. All trim levels have been upgraded this year to include more of what you might not expect in a hardworking truck - luxury amenities and greater creature comforts. 

The basic SL models include air conditioning and assist handles in the cab, as well as cargo and glove box lights, a cigar lighter and AM/FM cassette stereo. Vinyl seats and floors are standard, but can be upgraded to cloth, and a CD player is optional. Single rear wheel versions get painted steel wheels, while dual rear wheel models get steel wheels. Height-adjustable seat belts are standard.

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Up one level, SLT trucks get added features, such as an overhead console display with compass and trip computer, carpeting in front, CD stereo with four speakers, cloth seats and chrome-clad or steel wheels. Laramie-level models get the works: a six-disc, in-dash CD changer with seven premium speakers, auxiliary 12-volt power outlet, premium overhead console display with HomeLink, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather seats with power-adjustable front driver and passenger seats and upgraded wheels.

In addition to the three trim levels, Dodge offers five trim-and feature groups, including the Convenience Group (speed control and tilt steering column); Heavy-Duty Snow Plow Prep Group, Security Group (with remote keyless entry, alarm and Sentry Key ® engine immobilizer); Sport Appearance Group (including 17"x8" aluminum wheels and body-color rear fender with step) and Trailer Tow group (with Class IV hitch, 7-circuit wiring harness and 750 amp battery).

On the road

The new Rams include a refined version of the five-link, coil-spring suspension with beam axle used on previous heavy-duties. Heavy-duty shock absorbers and longer leaf springs in the rear suspension also are improved. The 2500 models drove and rode more like full-sized trucks, while the larger brethren, especially in the diesel version, drove and felt large.

Dodge's latest group of heavy-duty pickups is a tall step up in the right direction for this niche segment. Already a strong contender in this growing market, this new herd of Rams may now have the safety, powertrain and design enhancements it needs to win against whatever competitors decide to lock horns.

2003 Dodge Ram 2500 Heavy Duty
Model: Four door Quad Cab with Long Box and seating for six
Base price: $27,500 (est.)
Engine: 5.7-liter HEMI Magnum V-8, 345 hp/375 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed overdrive manual or automatic, two-wheel or four-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 249.7 x 79.9 x 78.4
Wheelbase: 160.5 in
Curb weight: N/A
Trailer tow rating: 15,000 - 17,000 lb GCWR
EPA City/Hwy: N/A (Not required for HD trucks)
Safety equipment: Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, Front driver and passenger airbags, center three-point safety belt, LATCH child seat tether system
Major standard equipment: Manual adjusting, fold-away sideview mirrors; air conditioning; interior assist handles; cargo and glove box lamps; cigar lighter; AM/FM cassette; full size spare tire and steel wheel.
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles (bumper to bumper), seven years/70,000 miles


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