How Dodge Tough Is the New Ram Pickup?

Nov. 5 (Bloomberg) — With Chrysler’s sales plunging 35 percent in October, its future is hardly so bright that it needs shades. How bad are things? Well, while the company pursues merger talks with General Motors, its best hope for quick sales is the Dodge Ram — an updated pickup truck.

The Truck World and the Urban Universe often seem as if they need a translator (or a politician) who can bridge the two. While it’s rare to see a pickup on New York’s Madison Avenue, trucks are much valued in other parts of the country.  

And so Chrysler is currently banking on the release of the 2009 Dodge Ram, its full-size competitor to the Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado.

Naturally, truck guys expect their vehicles to be cowboy tough, but these days there’s also an expectation of — get this! — comfort and versatility. Dodge’s mandate for the new Ram was a wobbly proposition: sophistication without sacrificing credibility.

I grew up on a New Mexico ranch, smack dab in the Truck World, and my first vehicle was an old GMC pickup that still runs to this day. So I test the updated Ram with interest: Is it truck enough to make a real difference for Chrysler? After all, the segment-leading F-150 also has been redesigned for 2009.

Here’s another thing about trucks: They come in too many varieties. Truck buying is like shopping for a diamond — you have to learn the language first. There are different cab sizes (from regular to crew size), different cargo-bed sizes and, of course, different trims.

Any Form, Any Length

The Ram can be had in many forms, from seating for two to six; beds ranging in length from 5 feet, 7 inches, to 8 feet; and trims from basic (ST) to Laramie (chrome door handles, alarm).

Then there’s engine choices: small (3.7-liter V-6), medium (4.7-liter V-8), and mine-is-bigger-than-yours (5.7-liter Hemi V- 8).

In the end, you could buy a basic Ram for just over $22,000, or ante up for the ranch owner’s model, which is what I tested — the $43,000 Laramie Crew Cab 4X4.

It seems that Chrysler could save money for itself and reduce confusion for the buyer by cutting down on the endless number of possibilities.

The previous-generation Ram looked like its major design inspiration was the front end of an 18-wheeler. Take a walk around the new model and you’ll find it still looks big and purposeful, though the attitude is more channeled and modern. This is most obvious in the nose itself, where the grill slopes back from the bulging hood, creating interesting tension between the angles. The emblem of the Dodge Ram itself also has grown much bigger. (Tap it and you’ll find that it’s plastic.)

Talk to a truck purist, and he’ll tell you trucks were designed for hauling, towing and pounding over bad roads. Talk to his family and they’ll complain about bad backs.

Kinder, Gentler Suspension

This time around, Dodge tried to move beyond the legacy of the poor ride by trading the traditional rear leaf-spring suspension for a kinder, gentler coil-spring rear suspension. As soon as I maneuver down the streets, I notice that it not only rides better than most trucks, but it’s more maneuverable than I remember.

There’s no getting around the length of the Ram, and especially when the long bed that has nothing inside to weigh it down, the Dodge exhibits the characteristic truck bounce. (Few vehicles have such poor weight distribution as a pickup.)

When the stoplight turns green, the big engine sends the Ram forward with a hard punch, and you can even get the wheels to screech. Yet the less powerful V-8 with 310 horsepower would be plenty, and both V-8s get the same gas mileage in models with four-wheel drive (13 city; 18 highway).

Off-Road Test

In my experience, truck owners are among the few drivers who actually go off-road, and I take it on both gravel and dirt roads. You can shift between two-wheel-drive, four-high and four- low on the go. (A rear differential is an option.) It handles the gravel road well and surges up a rock road easily. Good truck stuff.

Yet buyers take the good truck stuff for granted. What they notice are details like the optional $1,900 “RamBox” — two lockable storage spaces located in the walls of the bed with 7.4 cubic feet of storage. Dodge says you could fit 10 cases of 12- ounce beverages in them (like, um, beer).

And then there’s the interior, which has made big strides from the days of manual rollup windows. The Ram has heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel and single-touch windows. And rather than that scratchy AM radio tuned with a single dial, there’s an optional 30-gigabyte hard drive for music and navigation.

The Ram will serve the needs of a lot of people living in the Truck World — all the hauling and towing with a bit more comfort. Unfortunately, they may not have the money right now for a new truck. Bad news for Chrysler.

As for buyers in the Urban Universe, expect that you will be far too popular on those dreaded days when friends are moving.

The 2009 Dodge Ram Laramie Crew 4X4 at a Glance

Engine: 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, with 390 horsepower and 407 lb.- ft. of torque.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 6 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 13 city; 18 highway.

Price as tested: $45,495

Best feature: Improved overall ride, personality and stowage.

Worst feature: Too many sizes, trims and engine options.

Target buyer: The buyer who needs to haul cargo or tow and is sick of his current rough-riding truck.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)