An unexpected truck review

The Ram 1500 in front of the Very Large Array in New Mexico

Christmas day found Roseann and me driving a rented pickup from Tucson to Cubero, New Mexico, due to an unexpected family situation. We wound up with a 2014 Ram, a two-wheel-drive 1500 Quad-cab (four doors but a slightly smaller rear passenger area than the Crew-cab). I’m always interested to drive new vehicles, and it had been some time since I’d been in a current Ram.

Mostly it was familiar and unremarkable big-truck territory. Plenty of room, a well-organized if ordinary dash and interior. The ride was on the excellent side of very good, as were the seats. But what got my attention was the drivetrain: a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and a six-speed transmission.

The engine of course had more than enough (395) horsepower, although the “Hemi” hype is a bit misleading. Hemispherical combustion chambers were fairly advanced stuff 50 years ago—in addition to their cross-flow design, the dome-shaped combustion chambers allowed larger intake and exhaust valves to be fitted, and the centrally located spark plug enhanced flame propagation. But the configuration inhibited fuel quench - the turbulence generated when the piston reaches the top of its compression stroke - and thus struggled to achieve complete burn. Modern overhead-cam, multi-valve heads have eclipsed the design in most aspects - power, fuel economy, and emission control—at the expense of complexity and weight, of course.

Nevertheless, Chrysler has made the 5.7 work, using various newer tricks such as variable camshaft timing and variable displacement (cylinder deactivation at highway speeds) to keep it competitive.

The biggest problem with the truck we drove (and of course it was a single example, albeit quite new with fewer than 20,000 miles on it) was that six-speed transmission. Accelerating from a stop at part throttle, there was a massive hesitation between first and second gear; it felt like a manual shift performed by a 15-year-old with a learner’s permit. Floor it to the point of burning rubber and the syndrome went away completely, but one does not want to drive that way all the time, especially in one-streetlight New Mexico towns with bored sheriff deputies hanging around annoyed at having to work the holiday. 

Then, once to speed, on any sort of ascent the transmission hunted schizophrenically between ratios, constantly downshifting one gear, two gears—then upshifting again if the grade flattened by one percent, only to drop back down again. Really, I would have thought given 410 lb.-ft. of torque such eager downshifting would be superfluous. I finally began using the manual shift rocker on the lever to hold the truck in one gear on ascents.

However, the tranny foibles were (nearly) forgiven once I tallied the fuel economy for the 1,000-mile journey, which came out to almost exactly 20 miles per gallon. For a 395-horsepower, 5,200-pound pickup on a real-world trip involving lots of mountainous terrain, that’s impressive, and made me think the "Hemi" has some life in it yet. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the Ram’s new 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 will deliver. 

It’s nice to see the American truck makers back at the forefront of innovation in full-size trucks. Ford’s 2015 F150 is set to be a stunning example with its extensive use of aluminum. I can’t help but wonder if Toyota is ever going to step up and do something equally revolutionary with the Tundra.