March of 1996. I was a college kid desperate for a Florida spring break, with nothing other than my 34-year-old Thunderbird for wheels. The Ford was un-restored, and I was far from the capable wrench-turner I am today. But it didn’t matter. I was going to Florida. In my car. With no fear. Well, not at first, anyway. Before long, I-75 became increasingly rural, and all vestiges of metro-Atlanta quickly faded away. As the sun sank low, my mind began amplifying each squeak, rattle, and groan. I suddenly realized that if my old T-Bird was going to put me down, I’d rather it happen while I was still relatively close to home. With all the discretion and restraint 21-year-olds are famous for, I decided to floor it and see what happened.
As I booted the throttle, the big 390 roared and the car surged forward. Beneath me, the weary suspension started doing the twist, but I kept my foot in it until the speedo needle wavered between 110 and 115. It was at that very moment I noticed the song playing on the radio: Molly Hatchet’s “Flirtin’ with Disaster.”
Bottle that moment up, pop the cork and nearly a dozen years later what you have is the decision facing any new truck buyer mulling over the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500. Given Chrysler’s imminent demise uncertain future, the purchase of any Mopar product right now is riskier than a Clinton-era Trojan. Couple this with the fact that it’s an all-new model filled with mostly-new technology and you’ll find yourself with a lot of questions to answer before putting this Dodge in your garage.
One thing that’s not in question, however, is the new Ram’s appearance. Although the two-wheel-drive SLT Quad Cab I sampled could never best the classic short cab proportions of older pickups, it’s a breath of fresh air compared to the frumpy 2008 model. The forward-leaning grille is retro cool and the basic shape is a pleasant progression of the “big rig” design theme Dodge started back in ‘94. Beauty is (slightly) more than skin deep, too, with clever (but dirty-sounding) “RamBox” bed-rail storage bins eliminating the need for external toolboxes.
If evolution is what this truck is all about, the interior needs to keep evolving– at least in the mid-priced SLT model, where every compliment I can muster is unavoidably backhanded. The GM-pilfered rotary knobs for the HVAC and headlamp controls aren’t perfect but they’re definite improvements over the ’08’s shoddy switchgear. The vent registers have gone from abominable to merely bad. The plastic steering wheel feels tolerable, but the intrusive driver’s-side “Oh, shit!” handle will live up to its name every time your elbow hits it during furious, one-handed trailer-backing maneuvers.
And did I mention that the stereo sucks? The stereo sucks. Other than the fairly comfortable but cheaply upholstered cloth seats, the interior leaves a lot to be desired. Oh, but there are more odd-shaped storage cubbies this year. Thanks, original minivan company!
Speaking of minivans, why doesn’t Chrysler build one with a Hemi? The most banal, mediocre vehicle on the planet would surely come alive if that mother was stuffed under the hood. Imagine the throttle response of a big-block gasoline V8 with the colossal off-idle torque of a long-stroke diesel.
Technologically speaking, Chrysler threw everything but the Küche sink at this mighty 5.7-liter mill. The result is 390 horsepower, 407 lb-ft of torque and 19 MPG on the highway. Cylinder deactivation, variable valve timing, and a dual-runner intake make the magic happen, but you’ll never know they’re there (the sudden rush of power at 4,200 rpm might make you suspicious, though). The optional 3.92:1 rear gear lets you tow 8,800 lbs. while a sub-seven-second zero-to-sixty time completes your conversion (even as the sluggish five-speed automatic whispers doubt).
What you won’t doubt, however, is Chrysler’s all-new, class-exclusive rear coil spring suspension. The butt-assaulting harshness of the old Ram’s leaf spring arrangement is all but gone (Elvis hasn’t left the building yet, but he’s unbuttoned his jump suit and downed some pills). Relatively-precise steering helps you cope with the truck’s immense size and weight, and the chassis feels generally well-sorted (for a pickup)– plow too hard into a corner and the predictably progressive understeer will politely protest. Ride quality is now on par with other full-size half-tons, and brake feel (though not function) is among the best out there.
So essentially, what you have here is a good-looking, comfortable and capable $33,930 truck that you hope will hold together longer than the company that built it. Ergo, buying one is a roll of the dice. What would I do? Let’s just say that I had a blast in Florida during spring break back in ’96.