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February 20, 2013 1:00 AM

Auto review: Fresh prince of full-size pickups

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The 2013 Ram 1500 offers an efficient new V-6 engine and other significant refinements. (Chrysler Group)

Some latter-day puritans contend that excess is a moral abomination and just plain wrong. In the case of the latest Ram 1500 pickup, they would be wrong. Excess is precisely why the revamped Ram is so good.

The Ram 1500 was wholly redesigned for the 2009 model year, so the 2013 model was supposed to get what the auto industry calls a freshening. This typically involves a few small changes -- adding some chrome here or an extra doodad there. The real work goes into the news release, which usually seeks to redefine the common understanding of the word "new."

But when the Chrysler Group approached the freshening of the 1500, reality disrupted the process. Market research indicated that fuel economy was becoming a bigger concern among truck buyers.

So the product planners decided to install the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine that was already found in many of the company's vehicles, along with an 8-speed automatic transmission. Thus began a sequence of developmental dominoes in which one upgrade tumbled into another.

For example, Michael Cairns, the chief engineer for Ram Truck, said his team realized that the air suspension of the Jeep Grand Cherokee would work on the 1500 pickup. That was added to the wish list. But the air suspension required a new frame, and one was developed.

After looking at rivals like the Ford F-150 -- and mindful that a new Chevy Silverado would soon come to market -- the team decided the interior needed changing.

Then electric power steering was added to improve fuel economy, and new tires and wheels.

"When you add all those things up, it became pretty much a major program," Cairns said.

The engineer said the package cost four or five times what would normally be spent on refreshments, although he politely declined to provide a dollar amount.

He said he expected a challenge when he asked top executives -- including Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler's chief executive -- to spend the extra money. But the upgrades were approved, and they have substantially transformed the Ram truck that is now on sale.

Like most full-size pickups, it comes in a dizzying variety of cab sizes, bed lengths and trim levels, with names like Big Horn and Longhorn seemingly intended to stimulate cowboy fantasies.

The least expensive version is $23,635 for a regular cab with two-wheel drive, a 4.7-liter V-8 rated at 310 horsepower and a 6-speed automatic. But ticking off the option boxes can push the price past $50,000.

Most of my time was spent in a four-door Crew Cab SLT with part-time 4-wheel drive and the Pentastar V-6 with the 8-speed automatic. Options pushed the $37,735 starting price to $42,835.

Not surprisingly, considering the price, the cabin offered all the comforts of a well-equipped sedan. The rear has 40 inches of legroom, almost as much as the front, which means two 6-foot adults will easily fit fore and aft. With bench seats in front and rear, six people could be carried.

For carrying cargo inside, the bottom cushions of the rear seat fold up; unfortunately, the floor isn't flat, which makes stacking things a problem.

When it comes to basic controls, the review is mixed. Instead of changing gears with a lever, there is a large dial on the dash. It is out of the way, easy to use and clever. But making the cabin warmer or cooler requires using small buttons that you have to seek out visually.

There's also good news for those who want the four-door Crew Cab but need a long 6-foot-4 cargo bed. Previously the Crew Cab came only with a 5-foot-7 bed.

A drive along Kimball Hill Road, a two-lane along a ridge in Coos County, New Hampshire, gave me a chance to explore how well the new hardware works. Brian Thompson, the generally pleased owner of a 2009 Ram 1500 Laramie with a 5.7-liter V-8, was at the wheel. "This thing rides fantastically," said Thompson, who is also the postmaster of the nearby town of Bethlehem and an F-16 technician for the Vermont Air National Guard. "There is no harsh backlash when you hit a rut. It is kind of plush."

Indeed, it was. And over two weeks driving on Interstates and mountain roads, it was clear that the new Ram handles quite well, particularly for a truck with a curb weight of almost 5,200 pounds.

The new electric power steering lacks feel, as is the case in most cars and trucks that use it. The weighting is also a bit inconsistent, getting a little lighter when the vehicle is turning. But it is predictable, and for a large pickup the Ram is surprisingly willing to head into a turn. Hard cornering on a rumpled surface -- like washboards -- doesn't make the rear skitter.

The body also feels solid. Hitting a bump or pothole doesn't generate the quiver one might expect with a body-on-frame design.

I also spent some time in a regular cab model with 2-wheel drive and a conventional suspension. That Ram was bouncier but rode reasonably well, although it couldn't match the air suspension.

Three engines are available, including two V-8s; another choice, a 3-liter turbocharged diesel, arrives late this year.

The V-8s include a 4.7 liter that makes 310 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. With a 6-speed automatic and 4-wheel drive, it is rated at 14 mpg in town and 19 on the highway. But with the new V-6, the 4.7 is redundant and will be discontinued in March.

The second V-8, a 5.7-liter Hemi, produces 395 horses and 407 pound-feet. Mated to a 6-speed automatic, it is rated at 13/19 mpg with 4-wheel drive. In the spring the Hemi will be available with the 8-speed.

The Pentastar V-6, rated at 305 horsepower and 269 pound-feet, carries a respectable fuel economy rating of 16/23 mpg with 4-wheel drive.

The V-6 and 8-speed make an impressive combination. While cruising at 55 mph that eighth gear lets the engine loaf at a drowsy 1,300 rpm. There's virtually no pause when you punch the pedal, and under hard acceleration the transmission will hold a gear until the engine speed nears the red line, prompting an upshift.

The transmission was cleverly calibrated. While climbing a hill it will settle into a gear and hold it without second-guessing itself and shifting up or down. The 8-speed can be shifted manually, with small buttons on the steering wheel, though paddles behind the wheel would be better.
The standard towing capacity for my main test vehicle was 4,100 pounds; buying a rear axle with a different ratio (3.51) raises the capacity to 5,800 pounds.

That compares with 6,550 pounds (and 8,600 pounds with the 3.51 gear ratio) for a comparably equipped truck with the 5.7 liter V-8 and the 8-speed.

Chrysler offers both part- and full-time 4-wheel-drive systems. The part-time system should be shifted into 4-wheel drive only if the road were slippery. In either case, low-range gearing is available for low-speed maneuvers on rough ground.

Low range was the choice for a narrow wooded trail on a relative's land in Bethlehem, where my destination was a field called the Hidden Pasture. This was no challenge until I reached a 10-inch-diameter birch that had fallen across the trail. This caused my passenger -- my 93-year-old mother -- to suggest we call it quits.

My mother has a history of providing excellent advice, which I have a history of disregarding. For instance, she thought it was a mistake to give up a college deferment and enlist in the Army in 1968.

A chronic disregarder, I pushed a button and the air suspension raised the ride height by 2 inches, to 10.1 inches (or 10.8 for a truck without skid plates).With just a little thump, over the log we went.

One area in which the 1500 has not uniformly done well is tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It got a Good rating for front and rear impacts, but Marginal for roof strength. It has not been tested for side impacts.

Overall, the reworked 1500 trumps its competitors with an impressive blend of comfort and convenience. But it has not lost the ability to handle the grubby chores for which pickups were created, and sometimes still perform.