All new is a piece of hyperbole that's overused by automotive marketers, but it may be close to true in the case of Dodge's 2003-model Ram Heavy-Duty pickups. They've gotten new big-rig looks; posh interiors; stronger frames and suspensions; new, more powerful engines; and beefy transmissions.
The Ram 2500 and 3500, recently previewed for the press in California and Tennessee, are aimed at commercial operators who haul heavy tools and equipment, as well as consumers who use their trucks for personal transportation and to pull heavy trailers. For this article, I drove several 2500 and 3500 trucks, and heard some interesting statistics.
"The heavy-duty pickup market has grown 34 percent since 1996, with 2500/3500 pickups now accounting for 31 percent of the large pickup market," said Darryl Jackson, Dodge's marketing vice president. The 2500/3500 series takes one-third of all Dodge pickup sales, and that's expected to climb as users demand more from their pickups.
Seven out of 10 buyers of the 2500/3500 choose four-wheel drive and 75 percent opt for the Cummins Turbo Diesel, said Jackson and other executives. In the new Ram heavies, both four-wheel-drive and two-wheel-drive models get new, precise steering gear. And Cummins has extensively reworked the Dodge-spec ISB for more power and torque, as well as uncharacteristic quietness.
The High Output (HO) version of the 5.9-liter (359-cubic-inch) Cummins develops 305 heady horsepower at 2,900 rpm and a serious 555 pounds-feet at 1,500, with usable torque down to a big-rig-like 1,200 rpm. Redline is 3,500 rpm, but wise drivers will upshift at 2,500 or less and let torque do the work.
For now, the HO will come only with a New Venture six-speed manual transmission. Its 1st gear is a 5.63 to 1 "creeper," so 2nd gear's 3.38 ratio is sufficient for most dead starts; 5th is 1 to 1 and 6th is a 0.73 overdrive. The gates are tight and it takes a little practice to find 3rd while turning a city corner. And the gear pattern could be more convenient: Reverse is all the way to the right and up; why not put R and 1st one above the other, all the way to the left?
The six-speed transmission's torque capacity is barely above the HO's highest output, so the engine is electronically "torque-limited" in 1st gear, where torque might otherwise be destructively multiplied, explained Dennis Hurst, Cummins' chief engineer on the Dodge-spec ISB.
Like Ford, Chrysler is shunning the Allison 1000 (Allison is a General Motors division, after all) and instead is developing its own five-speed automatic able to take the HO diesel's strong torque. Standard-output diesels get a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.
The HO version won't be sold in California and certain New England states until next year. So buyers there will have to wait, or content themselves with 235- and 250-hp/460-pounds-feet standard-output ratings. These are still well above the original 160-hp mechanical-pump B5.9 of 1988, which proved wildly popular.
All the '03 Dodge Cummins ratings get electronic and mechanical advancements that cut noise and increase efficiency, Hurst said. A high-pressure (23,200-psi) common-rail fuel system can deliver up to three injection "events" per stroke for maximum efficiency, and to reduce combustion clatter. The burn is so clean that smell from the diesel's exhaust is almost nil.
The block is a new thin-wall cast iron type. These and other improvements have drastically slashed noise levels to where the loud B5.9/ISB "rattle" is gone. Unlike medium-duty ISBs which now have exhaust gas recirculation, light-duty versions for Dodge won't need EGR until January 2004.
Meanwhile, Dodge engineers touted their new Hemi Magnum gasoline V8 as the most powerful standard engine in this truck class. The 5.7-liter Hemi makes as much as 345 horsepower—one horse per cubic inch—and 375 pounds-feet. The engine uses pushrod-actuated valves and has a deep-skirted cast iron block (which helps with quietness) and aluminum-alloy heads with hemispherical chambers that surround domed pistons. A high-energy electronic ignition fires two spark plugs per cylinder. The factory recommends 89-octane unleaded gas, but the new Hemi Magnum will also burn regular 87-octane, engineers said.
The Hemi is smooth, quiet and quite gutsy, especially while starting out. Mated to a four-speed automatic, it also had good reserve power for hills and for bursts of speed on interstates. The Hemi-powered truck I drove had the standard cab and four-wheel drive, and it was a bit bouncy on anything but glassy pavement. The Cummins-powered Quad Cab was also four-wheel drive, but its longer wheelbase smoothed the ride considerably.
Still optional on all models is the 8-liter (488-cubic-inch) Magnum V10, which makes up to 305 horsepower and 440 pounds-feet. These numbers constitute an average between the HO and standard diesels, and indeed, engineers say the gasoline V10 is the proper alternative to the diesel for lower mileage applications. It also costs thousands of dollars less than the diesel and burns cheap 87-octane regular, though at a rate 30- to 40-percent higher than a diesel.
Both four-wheel-drive trucks sat too high for my short legs, so I grabbed the well-positioned handles inside and pulled myself in. Tall guys will scoff, but these and other high-and-mighty trucks need optional or aftermarket steps or running boards, unless they're going to get into really rough terrain. However, power-adjustable pedals put the feet of short drivers where they need to be while keeping their torsos the proper distance from the steering wheel and its air bag.
Of course, there's another air bag for the passenger, and both bags will cushion your face (and your passenger's) in a frontal wreck. And now air side curtains are tucked in the ceiling just above the side windows, ready to instantly inflate and protect scalps and skulls in a T-boning or rollover.
Quad Cab is what Dodge calls its latest four-doors. "Real" doors open on front hinges (rather than "suicide" style rear hinges on shorter late '90s Ram Quad Cabs) and their windows roll down completely. The split rear seats fold down for carrying bulky items you don't want to leave in the open bed, and they have additional underseat storage.
A split front seat includes a wide fold-down armrest with storage for a purse or small laptop PC; there's another compartment under that portion of the seat. Seats can be covered in workaday Vinyl, cool cloth (in two grades) or fancier and leather. Seat-cover colors are limited to grey and tan.
The standard cab has the same type of 40/20/40 driver-passenger seat. The roomy cab provides another 15 or so inches behind the seat for storage of tool boxes, grocery bags or what-have-you, which will sit on a full-width plastic tray on the floor. Look out, as the plastic's a bit slippery and stuff will slide from side to side in all but gentle turns. The extended Club Cab is no longer offered, as most Ram buyers now want the full four-door cabin, marketers said.
Instruments feature the familiar (to Dodge customers) white faces with black numerals. In darkness, faces turn grey while numerals and pointers turn blue and red. Controls and switches are mostly rotary, and are easy to understand and use. The driver and front-seat passenger can each regulate his/her own heating and cooling level with sliding levers.
Two bed lengths (6 feet 3 inches or 8 feet) on two wheelbases (140.5 and 160.5 inches) are available. Cab-chassis versions will come later. Pickup beds include four tie-down cleats, one near each lower corner, securely bolted so each will take a 1,000-pound static load, engineers said. Bed liners and several bed covers are optional, or you can have the fun of selecting even more neat items from aftermarket sources.
Heavy-duty frames have stiff box-section rails with thicker steel than used on the Ram 1500. The 3500 has three-stage rear leaf springs and the 2500 has two-stage leafs; rear springs are wider for greater lateral stability, to where the Ram HDs no longer need anti-sway bars.
Two-wheel-drive trucks get new independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion power steering, and four-wheel-drive models get a beam-type axle on coil springs with redesigned recirculating ball power steering. Steering on the four-wheel-drive trucks I drove was tight and precise.
Large four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard. The parking brake works on the rear discs; much testing with pad compounds ensures that they'll hold on the steepest grades. This is a strong argument for getting original-equipment-type replacement linings when the pads wear out.
Hauling and towing capacities of all Ram HD pickups vary with cab configuration, bed, wheelbase and powertrain. Payload ratings range from 3,240 to 4,910 pounds, and trailers can weigh from 8,850 to 16,200 pounds.
So these can be serious work trucks most of the week, and double as comfortable family conveyances in the evenings or weekends. That's Dodge's whole point with these new Rams.