It's been more than 30 years since Dodge stopped building heavy- and medium-duty trucks, but now it's back, and the Ram 5500 you see here is proof that it's serious about being a strong player in the market. It's a true Class 5 machine, rated at 19,500 pounds gross, and technically, 1 more pound of capacity would make it a Class 6. Driving it suggests that there's room for upgrading, and it's possible that the Dodge Boys will take it higher into the weight classes.
For now, what's this truck got? A quick look tells you it shares its nose and cab with other Rams, down to and including the high-volume 1500 pickup. Cranking out a few thousand more noses and cabs adds only a little incremental cost and helps Chrysler LLC control the prices of the 5500 and its Class 4 brother, the Ram 4500. (Ford does the same thing, using SuperDuty cabs from F-250 to F-750; GM uses the 1500 pickup's cab into the 3500 series, but builds a wider nose and van-based cab for the C-4500 through C-8500.)
A two-door bench-seat Regular cab is standard, while this truck had the four-door Quad Cab, with a real back seat that makes it capable of conveying up to six people. But the guys in back will need short legs to be comfortable, and if Dodge wants to sell this as a commercial crew cab, it ought to offer the longer Maxi Cab, I think. The Maxi would also provide extra room for stowing stuff that's now too big for the crannies under the rear seat (though at least some of it will end up in the body cabinets).
This cab had the mid-level SLT trim, with cool fabric seat covers and nice-looking two-tone plastic panels, just like in a Ram SLT pickup. Gauges are large and easy to read, with black-on-white numerals and red-orange accents on the needles. Many more numbers are available in a digital info display, though you have to learn to scroll through it. Among the icons that appear in a gauge is a red squiggle that lights up when the engine's being preheated for cold-temperature starts. HVAC controls are simple and effective rotary switches.
The driver's seat is part of a 40-20-40 split-bench setup. The "20" is a wide fold-down armrest with a compartment big enough to hold a laptop computer or vertical file folders (but not big enough to stow the remote-control box for the IMT crane, which sat on the passenger seat or the floor during my drives). The driver's seat was comfortable, with bucket-like recesses to keep me in place, and after a time I felt like I was sitting in a bucket — too low. Then I happened to feel for the seat's controls; fore-and-aft is the familiar mechanical handle between one's lower legs, but by gosh, at my left fingertips were power switches, and one raised the seat so I sat higher and felt more in charge. Duh!
The Ram 5500's chassis comes mainly from the 3500 HD chassis-cab model, and is beefed up to handle extra weight. This includes frame rails 7.7 millimeters (1/3 inch) thick (vs. 5.7 millimeters on the 3500 HD) along with stronger suspensions, axles and brakes. Frame rails behind the cab are the industry standard 34 inches apart, and are straight and clean on top for easy body mounting. Like other builders, Dodge has worked hard to accommodate many types of bodies so the vehicle is more desirable to upfitters and buyers.
This truck had 4-wheel drive, and sat 2 or 3 inches higher than 2-wheel-drive versions. The cab floor was 27.5 inches above the pavement, which made entry a side-step and pull-yourself-in exercise, at least for short guys like me. A grab handle on the A-pillar helps a lot here. Four-wheel drive is engaged by a floor lever that's linked directly to the transfer case — none of this wimpy electric-switch stuff (though that's an option).
Shifting between 2-Hi and 4-Hi was easy, and so was going into and out of 4-Lo, after stopping and putting the tranny in Neutral, of course. We got a 6-inch snowfall in central Ohio while I had the truck, but I didn't venture into it with the big red Ram (but did in my own Dakota 4×4). There was some thumping from the front end while going over bumps and the steering tends to wander from a straight line, but my Dakota does a bit of this, so I think it's normal.
For power, the 5500 is blessed with the Cummins Turbo Diesel, also from the 3500 HD, with 6.7 liters (409 cubic inches) in displacement and rated at up to 305 horsepower and 610 pounds-feet of torque. The engine is EPA '07-legal and has a particulate filter and other advances, so emits no smoke and absolutely no odor. It started almost instantly whether warm or from a 17-degree cold soak the morning after the snowfall. Before cranking it, I turned on the key and watched the little red squiggle icon in the instrument panel until it shut off, indicating the engine's preheater had done its work; this took only a few seconds.
A 6-speed manual transmission is standard, but this truck had the optional Aisin 6-speed automatic, which shifts smoothly and keeps the engine at the best speed for whatever work it has to do. The transmission upshifts quickly enough to keep rpm low, so that the engine usually runs between 1,700 and 2,100. A heavier foot tells the engine and tranny that you want to accelerate quicker and they oblige, delaying upshifts until 2,500 or 3,000 or whatever's needed to get you there when you want. I imagine that will be more the rule when the stout, steel IMT utility body is crammed with heavy tools for whatever mission its eventual owner sends it on.
This is one of those work trucks that will probably hit the road close to its maximum gross weight every time. I didn't put anything in the body (nor did I play with the crane, though I really wanted to), but just sitting there on the chassis, with its hydraulic crane and four outriggers (manual in front, hydraulic in back), the body weighed about 5,000 pounds, sending curb weight to about 12,000. So the power train was already getting a slight workout, yet I seldom needed to put my foot into it.
At first I found it a bit boring to drive because the truck seemed heavy and a bit ponderous, and the tranny upshifted whenever possible to lower revs and save fuel. However, switching on the Tow-Haul mode, done by fingering a pushbutton at the tip of the column-mounted shifter lever, livened things up; upshift points stayed about the same, but the tranny downshifted more aggressively to help with braking — especially useful in city traffic.
Finger that pushbutton again and the two overdrive gears (5th and 6th) are cut off, which would be good on hilly city streets or while coming down a steep highway grade. Finger the button a third time and you're back to normal mode, with all six gears. It's easier to operate than it might sound, and less awkward than pulling the shift lever through multiple detents. As it is, the selector reads P-N-D-3-2-L, and thanks to that pushbutton, most of the time you can just leave it in Drive.
An exhaust brake is part of the sophisticated turbocharger's variable-vane function. You switch this on with a dash-mounted pushbutton. Take your foot off the accelerator and it begins retarding; downshifting to raise revs (which happens automatically in Tow-Haul mode) results in more retarding power. In this truck, the turbo and brake were quiet, making no whistle or Jake Brake-like burble as in the 3500 HD. Too bad.
A power-take-off box is on the right side of the tranny case. Engineers say it's a good idea to order the PTO prep package (a $300 option) even if you don't need it because someday you might, or the next owner will, and the package will add residual value to the truck. The PTO is engaged by a switch under the dashboard, while engine speed to run it is controlled by cruise control switches in the steering wheel spokes. I didn't play with the PTO, either, and instead concentrated on driving.
Ride quality was good, with the suspension stiffness you'd expect in a midrange truck but with the body weight canceling any harshness. Turning ability was surprisingly tight, even with the front-driving axle, and I made a U-turn using four lanes of a wide city street (from the left-turn lane to a few feet short of the curb, three lanes over). I didn't tape that circle, but it was probably under 50 feet.
Dodge is on a roll with the 3500 HD Chassis Cab, the Class 3 vehicle that it began building in November of '06; and went from market share of zero to almost one-third in just a year, said Randy Jones, Dodge Truck's public relations manager, when he delivered this truck to me in Columbus. Dodge got that share straight out of the hides of Ford and General Motors, Jones said, and while there were extenuating circumstances in Ford's case (legal squabbles with Navistar International, its diesel supplier, held up engine deliveries), going from zip to a big chunk of the business is something to make competitors take notice (and they have).
So Dodge people have great hopes for these heavier Rams. This 5500 HD showed that it has the basics to ably make its way in Class 5, and to form the basis for even heavier models, should Chrysler choose to make them. Will Dodge go there? We'll see. In the meantime, its commercial truck dealers have something pretty capable to sell, and for you to consider.