Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, an examination on the class divides in present-day America, features a handy quiz for “cultural elites” to answer, as a means of getting a sense of how much of a “bubble” one lives that isolates them from rural America. Among the questions asked are whether one owns or has owned a pickup truck (also: whether one knows an evangelical Christian, whether one has eaten at T.G.I Friday’s in the past year, and have you ever participated in a parade that did not involve global warming, gay rights, or a war protest).
I’ve never owned a pickup. I am a born and raised city boy, with palms softer than a baby’s thighs.When I told my friends I was going to Nashville to drive the revised Dodge Ram, they were most enthused about Nashville’s emerging status as a culinary mecca. Even worse, I am part of Generation Why, which couldn’t be more opposed to everything that pickup trucks stand for; we are city-dwellers that worship chefs, not Jesus and we don’t listen to country – or anything with instruments, really. Electronic Dance Music, our genre of choice, sounds like robots having a domestic dispute. On paper, I might be the least qualified person, demographically speaking, to review a brand new
quarter half-ton truck.
On the other hand, I’m not burdened with the quasi-religious brand allegiances that many pickup fans possess. I like the Ecoboost-equipped Ford F-150 the best because I’ve spent the most time in it. Ram trucks have traditionally been third in the sales race – but the upcoming model year leaves them in a strong position. GM’s new trucks won’t even bow until the 2013 Detroit Auto Show, and presumably won’t go on sale for some time after that.
It would be naive to suggest that the Ram 1500 trucks that I sampled are enough to knock GM off the second place pedestal – it will take a number of years and some fairly big screwups at GM (or Ford, for that matter) to do that – but there’s enough here to keep the competition up at night. The big news this year is the addition of an 8-speed transmission, dubbed the TorqueFlite 8, which can be mated with the all-new Pentastar V6 and the 5.7L Hemi V8. Using a rotary knob mounted on the dashboard, rather than the 6-speed automatic’s traditional shifter, the TorqueFlite 8 shifts transparently, and can offer as much as 18/25 mpg city/highway when mated with the new V6 engine.
Having started out with a mid-grade SLT with the Hemi V8 and 6-speed automatic, the TorqueFlite 8 may seem like a frivolous contest of urinary supremacy. The less sophisticated V8 powertrain already feels nicer than the Coyote 5.0L in the Blue Oval’s truck. It’s smooth, never wanting for power and makes a nice growl under load. The SLT trim features the 2013′s upgraded interior, full of soft touch plastics and vastly improved switchgear, but without leather trim. The coil-sprung suspension with optional air bags borrowed from the Grand Cherokee, helps cushion pavement imperfections. Apparently, the real hardcore truck guys laugh at this setup, but I could stay in this thing all day.
I almost did, until I spotted an enticing number at the driver change point; a red, two-door standard cab with a short bed and big chrome wheels. There’s a rotary knob on the dash, signifying the new 8-speed ‘box. Let’s do it. The ride is rougher (a hallmark of the standard cab, which I was previously unaware of), but mere moments after I’ve twisted the knob to “D”, I’m reminded of something Sajeev told me while we debated the future of the police car.
“Cars like the Taurus based Police Interceptor don’t stand a chance against the pickup trucks in flyover country. They usually have quick gearing, especially with these new 6-speed gearboxes. And if they have 4WD? Forget it. Those models have so much traction combined with the gearing that they usually don’t even have torque management in the software. Gears, traction, no torque management on a torquey motor…triple threat.”
First gear in the TorqueFlite 8 is 4.7:1 – in layman’s terms, this means that there isn’t much that’s going to get away from you at a stoplight. Though no empirical data could be produced, our experiment verified Sajeev’s assertions. Driving this way wasn’t going to help test out the Ram’s much touted class leading fuel economy, so the Lil’ Red Express was returned for the new Pentastar V6.
Engine note aside, the Pentastar was so damn quick off the line that I had genuinely thought I was driving a V8 truck (in the interest of full disclosure, I neglected to check what powertrain the truck had at the outset, merely hopping into the cool looking Ram with the TorqueFlite setup). Not surprisingly, the Hemi/TorqueFlite equipped trucks had all been signed out, but the 305 horsepower V6 in the Ram left me seriously impressed. I already adore the Ecoboost in the F-150, and the Pentastar is an equally valid choice in this segment – think of it as the V6 Mustang of the truck segment.
Driving the competitive vehicles helped give greater context to the 2013 Ram; the new truck clearly has the best interior of the class. I had previously held the F-150 Platinum to be the zenith in this segment, but the delta between the priciest Ford and the more plebeian versions is far greater than say, the Laramie and the SLT Rams. The lesser Fords seem to be a grade behind the Ram, while the Chevy Silverado is unequivocally dated in its design and materials, though it’s also the easiest to use, devoid of screens or an explosion of buttons.
On the other hand, the Silverado is still very nice to drive. It feels light, even with four properly hinged doors, and while the cabin may feel dated, the powertrain doesn’t. The Silverado’s hydraulic steering does a great job of making the Ram’s electric system feel lifeless – the EPAS in the Ram isn’t that terrible, but one spin in the Chevy and you’ll miss the traditional setup. The Ford trucks feel more substantial than the Chevrolets, but don’t feel as well-engineered, despite the Ecoboost engines and fancy touchscreens. I like the way they look, but my prior biases have been eliminated, and the Ecoboost-powered Blue Oval is no longer at the top of my mind’s pickup wishlist.
Unfortunately, I’m not in the market for a pickup.