What’s all the fuss over Chrysler’s Ram 1500 pickup? In recent months, it’s won three awards: Truck of Texas, Motor Trend Truck of the Year, and North American Truck of the Year, all based on the collective judgment of automotive writers who voted in those competitions. I have to say that I’m pretty impressed with it, too, because right now it’s probably the most refined product available.
For years the domestic Big Three have been leapfrogging over each other with their pickups, and Chrysler is the latest. It showed off its 2013-model Ram 1500 series late last summer and soon had them in production. Although brand loyalty counts a lot for sales supremacy, the most recently improved pickup series, from whatever company, is arguably the best when viewed more objectively. That would be the Ram 1500, which has been available for more than six months. (General Motors and Toyota have announced redesigns of their pickups, but they go into production later. And Ford’s next major update of the F-150 is a year or two away.)
Ram has a long list of advancements in its latest half-ton series. Many are aimed at fuel efficiency, because this has become an issue in recent years of stubbornly high gasoline prices. Builders report that customers have begun demanding higher mile-per-gallon numbers, and while GM and Ford have been touting impressive figures using modest-size engines, Ram now claims the highest EPA ratings: 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.
EcoDiesel Coming This Fall
In February, Ram officials announced that there will soon be a diesel for the 1500 pickups. It’s a 3-liter V-6 sourced from VM Motori SpA, an Italian builder that is now part of Fiat SpA and has supplied engines to Chrysler since 1992. Called EcoDiesel for its clean-burning characteristics, it will be shown sometime this summer and available in the fall, officials said. It will nicely complement the Cummins Turbo Diesel used in heavier Ram pickups and give the company further bragging rights.
“Truck owners have been emphatically asking for it, and Ram will be the only manufacturer to offer a diesel powertrain in the half-ton segment with the 2014 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel,” said Fred Diaz, president and CEO of the Ram Truck Brand and Chrysler de Mexico, in a statement. “The half-ton truck market is incredibly competitive, and although we’re honored the Ram 1500 has received a number of prestigious awards, we cannot rest on what we have accomplished, we must keep pushing.”
A Wikepedia listing says the EcoDiesel is also called the A 630. It’s a modern design with common-rail direct fuel injection, double overhead cams, and four valves per cylinder. It makes as much as 142 horsepower and 410 lb.-ft. when used in Jeep Grand Cherokees and Chrysler 300s sold overseas.
Ram’s done it with a modern V-6 and an 8-speed automatic transmission, the latter a first in pickups, as far as I know, because competitors still use only 6-speeds (as does Ram itself in some models). Made by ZF Friedrichshafen of Germany, the 8-speed shifts early and often to keep engine revs low at any road speed, especially if a driver uses a light foot. Ram’s calling this smooth tool “TorqueFlite 8.” Except for the number, the name came from the mid-1950s, when it described a 3-speed slush box (Power Flite was a 2-speed automatic, like Chevrolet’s Powerglide).
The ZF tranny easily handles the 305 horsepower and 269 lb.-ft. of the Pentastar V-6, whose displacement is 3.6 liters as well as the bigger Hemi V-8, which now has the 8-speed, too. Like the Hemi, the Pentastar boasts advances such as variable valve timing and pulse-width modulation of the alternator to reduce parasitic loads. Chrysler’s been installing the Pentastar in sedans and SUVs, and it’s received raves from car writers for its go-power and impressive fuel economy. It replaces a rougher-running and thirstier 3.7 V-6.
The Pentastar slips easily into the big engine bay of the extensively refined (and very handsome) ’13 Ram half-ton pickup. The numbers suggest healthy propulsion, and it certainly provided that without revving its heads off. Of course, the short-bed Regular-cab truck I drove was empty except for me and a driving partner, and I think it would labor a bit if it were loaded or pulling a trailer weighing anywhere near its 6,500- pound tow rating. But it was way more than adequate on this drive amid rolling hills near Nashville, Tenn., during the introductory session last August.
Our hosts had close to two dozen ’13-model Ram 1500s with either the V-6/TorqueFlite 8 powertrain or the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with the then-current 6-speed automatic. The Six ‘n’ Eight (I just made that up) powered the Flame Red Regular-cab SLT 4x4 you see here, which is why I grabbed it for my initial drive. Also, it had work-truck equipment, including a 6-foot, 4-inch-long bed with Ram Box side compartments, sprayed-in liner, and cargo-management hardware.
The interior featured “premium” cloth seats and well-appointed plastic trim panels in black and “diesel grey,” even if the engine ran on gasoline. Instruments were trimmed in chrome and most were easy to read, and there were four engine condition gauges (most light trucks these days offer only two). The Uconnect system had AM, FM and SiriusXM satellite reception with an 8-inch touch screen that controlled the radio and climate-control system. It sounded nice and didn’t need a nerd to operate it. A rotary shifter with up- and downshift switches on a steering wheel spoke replace column- and floor-mounted levers.
If a truck’s going to scoot around empty most of the time, then the V-6 is more than adequate. But as racers say, there’s no substitute for cubic inches, and the Hemi (with 345 of ‘em) is the better choice for its stronger feel and more leisurely operation, as well as its greater work capability (tow rating, for example, is several thousand pounds more). The 5.7-liter V-8’s rated at 395 horsepower and 407 lb.-ft. But the Hemi, even when mated to the 8-speed autotranny (which I hereby dub the Eight ‘n’ Eight), won’t achieve the mileage of the Pentastar. Chrysler planned to drop the small, low-cost 4.7-liter V-8 in March.
The truck itself helps the mpg numbers with “active aerodynamics”—radiator shutters that close when frontal air isn’t needed to cool the engine—and electric power steering, which causes less drag on the engine than a constantly running hydraulic pump, among other things. The nose and body are said to be smoother to lower air drag. This contributes to quietness while underway, making driving a Ram 1500, even a Regular-cab work truck like this one, a pleasant experience.
For several model years, all Ram 1500s have come with a coil-spring/multi-link rear suspension that smooths the ride, particularly when the bed’s empty or lightly loaded. A four-point air-bag suspension is optional and is especially nice when traveling over bumpy surfaces, like the grassy field I traversed with a fancier Ram with a crew-cab body. Competitors offer neither of these suspension advancements, though some models have soft cab mounts that achieve similar results.
So, Ram has leapfrogged ahead of its competitors with the latest 1500 series, and writers saw that when they posted their ballots for all those awards. You might, too, if you visit a dealer to check out these capable and comfortable Rams. If you’re a loyal Ford or GM guy (or favor Nissans or Toyotas, for that matter), what I’ve just said is heresy. And you might be vindicated when your builder tries to go one better with its pickup in the next year or two or three. But for now, Ram deserves those awards.