You know the world of pickup trucks has changed when the central multi-function touchscreen in your test Ram 1500 is as big as the computer on which you are writing the review of it.
Well, almost—my Macbook Pro’s display measures 13.9 inches—but trust me, the Ram’s optional 12-inch UConnect touchscreen looks massive embedded in the middle of the dash. And I’ll say right off, that screen propels the factory navigation system into a new universe of legibility (It also makes the five-incher on the base Ram look like someone glued a flip-phone to the dash).
Ram (or Dodge if you’re stubborn) trucks have come a long way since 1992, when the company showed a group of potential buyers prototypes of a truck styled like no consumer truck before it. It sported a front end that called to mind an 18-wheeler, with a tall bulging hood and dropped fenders incorporating the headlamps. According to legend, the reaction was starkly love/hate, and not reassuring: 86 percent of the viewers hated it, 14 percent loved it. The whole idea was about to be scrapped when someone in the marketing department pointed out that Dodge’s share of the American truck market at the time stood at about seven percent. The design was approved, and sales of Dodge trucks quadrupled in three years.
Two decades on, Ram trucks still trail Ford and Chevy but now claim a comfortable 22 percent share of the full-size market (compared with Ford at 44 percent and, for example, Toyota at an undistinguished five with the Tundra).
Still, third is two places behind first, and Ram executives would love to climb another 10 or 20 percent up that sales chart. The 2019 Ram 1500 launch in Scottsdale was the first salvo in what will be a rolling release of optional engines, followed at some point by the heavier-duty 2500 and 3500 models. The new truck has been comprehensively revised from the wheels up, and cold, hard sales figures will soon tell how well the redesign fares with the public. Our question here is, how might it fare with overland travelers?
The demographics of pickup buyers have shifted massively in the last few decades. It used to be you bought a pickup if you had stuff to carry—a lot of stuff, like construction materials, or, if you were an outdoorsman (and, yes, the operative syllable was overwhelmingly “man” back then), a camper. Or you had a trailer to tow. A pickup was a working vehicle. Air conditioning and cloth upholstery were luxury options. To unlock the passenger door you scooted across the seat and pulled up on the button.
Not any more. Ford now sells two and a half thousand F-series pickups every day, and while their ads still stress the manly aspects of pickup ownership, most of them never carry a load larger than a pallet of Costo toilet paper. The pickup is now a lifestyle choice much more often than it is a practical necessity, and increasingly the competition among truck makers is as much about making a pickup not feel like a pickup as it is about making it function like one.
I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t overlanding a lifestyle choice? Absolutely true; however, in our defense we do actually need the functional aspects of a truck—load-carrying ability, reliability, durability, off-pavement capability—as much as we secretly hanker after the non-truck-like aspects prioritized by the guy down the street who wouldn’t know a GVWR from a GMC.
I can loftily claim to be conversant in both aspects of pickup ownership: We use a Ford F350 to tow the 10,000-pound Overland Expo equipment trailer to the shows in Flagstaff and Asheville, while our Tacoma permanently carries a Four Wheel Camper. But I remain much less impressed by car-like interior features than by high-quality engineering. So let’s start with that—specifically, the chassis of the new Ram.
Naturally, it remains a fully boxed structure. (Toyota is the only manufacturer moving backwards in this regard, with its “Triple-Tech” design that leaves the rear third open-channel, to the detriment of chassis rigidity.) Additionally, the Ram frame now comprises fully 98 percent high-strength steel (not sure why two percent remains “normal” steel?). Crossmembers extend through the side members and are welded on both sides. The result is increased rigidity compared to the previous Ram, yet a full 100 pound savings in weight (FCA claims a total 225-pound weight savings for the new model). That stiff frame contributes to—depending on the specific option package—a maximum 2,300-pound payload and a maximum towing capacity of 12,750 pounds. (By way of comparison our 2004 F350—a one-ton truck, mind you—is rated to tow 12,000 pounds.) Wheelbases range from 140.5 to 153.5 inches.
The frame rails in front of the engine splay curiously outward at about a 15-degree angle, a feature Ram says helps with crash protection, and is patent-pending. Below those rails is another feature standard on all new Ram pickups: a composite air dam that lowers automatically at speeds over 35 mph to reduce drag. Lest you think that such insignificant details could hardly make a difference, note that the dam combined with the body design results in a drag coefficient for the new truck of just .357, the lowest of any full-size truck. By comparison, the drag coefficient of my 1982 Porsche 911SC is .40 (although it of course has a fraction of the frontal area, which must also be figured in to arrive at the total drag on the vehicle—but still . . .).
More chassis tidbits: A pair of discs that resemble weights for a barbell, on either side of the frame under the passenger compartment, are actually “active tuned mass modules” that reduce vibration, especially when cylinder deactivation kicks in on the V8. The transmission and front suspension crossmembers are aluminum. Steel bars behind each front wheel deflect them outward in the event of a frontal offside collision.
Below the chassis sits a suspension comprising either progressive-rate all-coil springs or an optional all-air system, a first in the pickup market. The air suspension combines automatic load-leveling with manual control—Ram engineers demonstrated one advantage of the latter by hooking up a trailer: The driver reversed using the backup camera, lowered the hitch by deflating the rear air bags, and once the ball was under the tongue simply raised them again, coupling the trailer and lifting the tongue jack off the ground—no cranking necessary. The height of the vehicle can also be adjusted for easier passenger entry or greater ground clearance. The springs combine with new “Frequency Response Damping” (FRD) shocks incorporating internal bypass valves to improve ride and made by, I believe, Hitachi. Go figure.
The five-link suspension on the rear axle has been updated for more travel. The front combines aluminum lower control arms with upper arms comprising steel and—ready?—structural composite. That’s right: plastic. The composite wraps the steel so it looks like there’s nothing but plastic in the piece, a slightly unsettling illusion.
Outboard of the front control arms are brake discs a massive 14.9 inches in diameter, the largest in the class. The parking brake on the rear discs is now electric—another bit of weight saving.
Are you getting my picture? Just as with the redesigned Wrangler I reviewed here, a substantial part of the Ram’s redesign took place in spots invisible under anything but an on-the-rack inspection—or on the exposed chassis FCA had displayed for us at the launch. It was impressive.
Less impressive, from a what’s-new standpoint, was the drivetrain—at least the engine, which, for this session was limited to the existing 5.7-liter hemi V8. The 5.7-liter eTorque and 3.6-liter V6 eTorque “mild hybrid” engines will be introduced later, although they were there on stands for us to admire.
If you’ll allow me an aside on that heavily hyped “Hemi” engine: hemi is short for hemispherical, which refers to the shape of the combustion chamber in a hemi, almost literally a dome shape. The hemi head allows for very large valves, which are placed across from each other, with the spark plug in between. So it’s a good way to develop a lot of power (thus the mythology)—the catch being it’s a good way to develop a lot of power from a two-valve-per-cylinder engine. You can’t put four valves in a hemispherical combustion chamber—the angles would be impossible to manage. For a four-valve engine you need a pent-roof combustion chamber. And four valves are better than two at developing power. Thus, evaluated objectively, the hemi produces decent power while avoiding the complexity of a four-valve head.
Where was I? Right: The standard 5.7 (395 hp, 410 lb.ft.) is a fine engine, and moves the Ram along briskly with the upgraded eight-speed 8HP75 TorqueFlite transmission. Shifting on all these new multi-speed transmissions I’ve tried recently is so seamless they are difficult to critique. Downshifting for passing seemed to lag just a bit, otherwise the drive was faultless. If any cylinder deactivation occurred during my drive I didn’t notice it (it only engages in third gear or higher). I was impressed enough with my short experience in the Wrangler with its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder eTorque engine that I look forward to trying the larger versions. In the Wrangler the eTorque seemed to add noticeable torque right off the line, before the internal-combustion partner climbed into its own torque curve. The fuel economy of these engines might determine their reception in the market.
Okay, so let’s plop the body of this truck on that impressive chassis (let me tell you, it was really hard driving the truck without it). The first thing I noticed is that the 18-wheeler look has been smoothed over so much it’s simply not a feature any more. There’s still a prominent power bulge to the hood, but the headlamps are now even with the top of the grille rather than the bottom. I bet the stylists figured Ram has enough market presence now to stand on its own, so they went for a smoother, more aerodynamic front end. It’s attractive, but not as Smokey-and-the-Bandit butch as the original—you decide whether that’s good or bad. It seemed more grown-up to me, and I liked it.
The high-end option packages such as theLimited and Laramie Longhorn incorporate sleek LED headlamps that swivel with the wheels. Substantial recovery hooks peek out from nacelles in the bumper, whether chrome on the Laramie or matte on, for example, the trail-oriented Rebel.
My first interior experience happens to be with the Limited. I open the door, climb in, shut the door. I check the rear-view mirror: Yep, there’s a cargo bed back there. But I’m fully ensconced in the not-like-a-pickup end of the new Ram’s design. Want some details on how not-like-a-pickup it is? Consider these features:
- Leather—lots of it. Ram assures me there is substantially more than I could find in a Chevy or Ford.
- Seating. The seats recline. So what, you say? I’m referring to the rear seats. The front seats adjust a bunch of different ways, and they’re very comfortable, although, as with most seats these days, built for people significantly wider than I.
- Quietness. How about active noice cancellation? Acoustic glass? Ram claims a 66.6 db cruise. I think our old F350 is louder than that parked. With the engine off.
- That giant uConnect touchscreen is surprisingly practical. First, there are redundant manual controls alongside it for the climate control and sound system. Three cheers, because no multifunction touchscreen will ever match the speed of reaching down and turning a dial. With that said, the rest of the touchscreen’s functions are easy to access; you can even split the screen into still-quite-readable halves. And in navigation mode it is simply brilliant. (The bird’s eye perspective is cool too.)
- Did I mention sound system? This one is a Harmon Kardon, with 19 speakers and a 10-inch subwoofer. The only downside is, it’s not removable so you could use it in the living room too.
- Driver-assist features: Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection, brake assist, surround-view cameras.
- Parallel and perpendicular park assist. You work the gearshift, throttle, and brake while the truck turns the steering wheel to maneuver you into a parallel spot (on either side of the truck), or to back you into a perpendicular space. My question is: Would this count for a 16-year-old trying to pass a driver’s license test?
- There’s more, especially a bewildering array of interface possibilities, with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, fourth-generation Sirius XM Guardian Connected Services, which can provide a 4G wi-fi hotspot, all controlled through the uConnect touchscreen. The truck sports a raft of USB ports, and an optional wireless charging station (which is labelled “Ramcharger”).
- On a more practical note for long-distance travel, the new Ram 1500 has a two-level glove box . . . and the most spectacular center console I’ve ever seen on a factory truck. It’s massive—Ram says it’s twice the size of anything from competitors and I believe them—and boasts so many sliding trays and bins you could lose a chihuahua in there. An iPad fits in a special pocket, there’s 110VAC power available—400 watts worth—cupholders, coin holders, and a “feature” that I have to say was the silliest on the entire truck: On the bottom of one hinged lid is an engraved contractor’s conversion chart with a ruler and compass. I strongly suspect every contractor in the country has this on his or her iPhone and does not need to look at the bottom of the center console for the info. It took five minutes for my eyes to roll back down.
On our paved drive the Limited exhibited genuine carved-from-marble solidity and a taut ride at least as good as that of the Nissan Titan XD I reviewed some time ago, which at the time I thought exemplary. And by golly the thing is quiet. It handled the short stretch of dirt road to our press lunch spot with barely any increased noise.
After lunch we took turns on an off-pavement loop course in several examples of the Rebel, the trim level I suspect many overlanders will gravitate to. In addition to LT275/70R-18 Goodyear Wrangler tires and Bilstein shocks (with external reservoirs on the rear), the Rebel gets an electronic locking rear diff, hill-descent control, a one-inch suspension lift (if you don’t get the air springs), and several skid plates. You also get an interior that is any color you like as long as it is red and black, with Goodyear Wrangler tread pattern embossed on the seat upholstery. You also cannot get the 12-inch touchscreen with the Rebel (yet, at least), although the smaller eight-incher is just fine unless you’ve been pre-prejudiced by the bigger one.
Interestingly, I was told that an “off-road” package incorporating most of the Rebel options will be available on other trim levels. If this is so, you could conceivably equip your leather-clad, 12-inch-screen Limited or Laramie Longhorn with the good stuff.
The driving course we were set loose on in the Rebel was clearly meant to be driven quickly, a suggestion many in the press pool took to heart, especially since there were several videographers along the way to film our prowess. I thought the format might have been a mistake, since the Rebel is obviously not intended or equipped to compete with Ford’s Raptor in the wannabe desert racer category. Indeed, the example I got, previously flogged by who knows how many hot-footed journos, displayed a worrying banging noise in the left front suspension area when pushed, so I took it easy. I later rode in the same truck and the new driver noticed it as well. (From a quarter view behind, I watched one truck on the course approach a “Slow Down!” sign warning of a sharp, angled pair of ditches where water had flowed into the main wash course. The driver didn’t lift off a bit, and the front suspension slammed to its bump stops and tossed the truck in the air. This is why manufacturers don’t think highly of most automotive journalists.) With that said, the Rebel would clearly be right at home exploring back roads at sane speeds, and capable with the locker and hill-descent control of going anywhere most overland travelers are likely to.
So . . . to that point, several things come to mind. First is wondering whether the optional air suspension has the capacity to compensate for the weight of, say a Four Wheel Camper, while retaining a decent ride when the camper is off. I asked of FCA, but the we-can’t-authorize-that liability/warranty clause kicked in immediately, which I more or less expected. The top-level 2,300-pound payload is technically up to the task of camper transport, but technical capacity does not always translate to practical (safe) capacity. Still, it would be worth the experiment, except if it didn’t work you’d have spent the extra money for nothing. Having to change out the air springs for coils to accept a camper would be at best expensive and at worst impossible. The air system is certainly adequate to handle lesser camping loads, or a rack carrying a rooftop tent, for example, while maintaining proper ride height and safe handling.
For general overland travel, the new Ram—in any of its guises but especially the Limited and Laramie versions—represents a new high water mark in the evolution of comfort in a pickup truck. After all, even for the most adventurous of us, 90 percent of our travel—even while actually on a journey—is usually on pavement. I’d think little of tackling an 800-mile freeway day in the new Ram to get somewhere interesting.
That brings up the subject of fuel economy. Numbers are not yet out for the eTorque engines, but for ultimate economy the answer will still be a diesel, and I did not hear any information about when (or, actually, even if) the new Ram will get one.
My lasting impression from both the Ram and the previous Wrangler launch is that FCA is genuinely throwing a lot of thought and engineering into its redesigned working vehicles. The new Wrangler retained its spot in my opinion as America’s own world-class expedition vehicle. I think the new Ram 1500 can stand confidently alongside America’s Big Two half-ton pickups, and all three are ahead of the import competition.