The American pickup truck wars have become a series of increasingly pitched battles. Even as the pickup market tanks, the main players have regrouped, refreshed and rejoined the fight. As we await the new Dodge Ram pickup, a major candidate for the "I coulda been a contender" award, questions must be asked. Does the current Ram have what it takes to hold the fort against the [ostensibly] reliable Toyota Tundra, the built-like-a-rock Chevy Silverado and the tough luxury Ford F-150? What battles will the new Dodge Ram have to win?
Dodge last refreshed the Ram's design back in '02. At the time, The Dodge Boys' sheetmetal sculptors did little more than give the existing design a huge shot of whatever made Barry Bonds into such a serious slugger. The resulting big rig ‘tude was a huge hit. Protruding tail-lights, endless chrome, two levels of hood bulges and a Freightliner snout gave the pickup what the Germans call "uberholprestige," or what Good Old Boys call "Get the **** out of my way."
While there's nothing particularly wrong with the Ram's current design– provided you eat nails for breakfast– one wonders how long Dodge can play the machismo card in a world increasing filled with PC hybrids and CUVs (castrated utility vehicles). Even if Dodge stays on message, how much louder can they shout? Other than flaring the bed's flat flanks with Audi Quattro wheel arches or fitting the Ram's roof with standard air horns and running lights, there's not much room for "improvement."
Inside, there's PLENTY of room for improvement. The Ram's expansive center stack is bogged down by the same nasty plastic and generic interior cues plaguing all Chrysler-family models– right down to that irritating radio with its counter-intuitive controls.
Comfort also takes a back seat– or not. The Quad Cab's rear seats' obvious malevolence towards the human form provides surreptitious encouragement for a Mega Cab upgrade. The front seats aren't much better; the thinly padded chairs are no friend to anyone who's spent the day loading and emptying the cargo bed.
Thankfully, the Quad Cab's forward compartment is large enough for a brace of small gladiators to engage in relatively unfettered combat. The center armrest is the crown jewel of the Ram's cabin (just ask Toyota). This feature, beloved of laptop-toting foremen, is unbelievably accommodating. Lids down, both my ThinkPad and widescreen Dell fit in the space at the same time. As Paris Hilton would say (if she were the dual-laptop type), that's hot.
Last year, Dodge redesigned the Ram's frame and suspension to improve the pickup's class-following ride and handling. Clearly, much work remains to be done. While the F-150 turns road imperfections into a delicate lumbar massage, the Ram sends all shocks straight through to its passengers, unfiltered. Unless the Ram is fully loaded with passengers and cargo, the bed jumps around like children trapped in what the English call a bouncy castle.
Still, the Ram's got soul where it matters. The SLT trim holsters the company's trusty 4.7-liter V8. With this mighty motor, the Ram leaps long lines of traffic in a single bound, or, alternatively, tows small garages without complaint. The highway is the Ram's happy place; whether fully loaded or as empty as Congress' promises of energy independence, the pickup doesn't break a sweat at 70 mph. And speaking of sucking-up natural resources from foreign climes, I clocked 11 mpg in mixed driving, towing and hauling nothing heavier than thin air.
Sadly, the Ram's five-speed transmission (fifth is for overdrive) isn't up to the task of channeling 300 ft.-lbs. of twist. Upshifts are as abrupt as the downshifts are fashionably late. After lurching into second gear a few times, I found myself checking the transfer case switch to see if I hadn't somehow dropped into 4WD-Lo.
When push comes to shove, the current Ram trails all its competitors in nearly every category. It burns more fuel, isn't nearly as comfortable and doesn't drive as well. So why does it still sell so well? Because the Ram's cachet has nothing to do with handling, utility, longevity or efficiency.
Every time I passed another Ram, the driver would nod, admitting membership in the cult of the Ram. Dodge's pickup is the poseur truck par excellence, right down to its [where the Hell do I find] E85 [and why in God's name would I want to get less mpg] badge on the tailgate.
If I cared about my spinal cord, I'd get an F-150. If I wanted my truck to last 362,000 miles, I'd get a Silverado. If I wanted to haul ass in a rolling pantomime of bling and bravado (and occasionally tow a boat), there's no question I'd get a Ram. In short, the Dodge Ram is the Cadillac Escalade of pick-ups. Word.