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2006 Dodge Ram Hemi review / test drive

When it first appeared, the Dodge Ram 1500 was far and away the biggest, baddest pickup in America. Its big-rig appearance was backed up by class-leading engines, all based on the old LA V8: the 318 and 360, and a V6 and V10 in the same family, not to mention a Cummins turbodiesel with a deserved reputation for power, efficiency, and durability. The engines outpowered the competition even as the interior provided amenities and comfort far beyond GM or Ford. Dodge tripled its market share as soon as it could build enough trucks, winning over buyers in a very loyal market.

Since then, both GM and Ford have redesigned their pickups, boosting their horsepower, their conveniences, and their bulk. Dodge countered with a new Ram, complete with a brand new and more powerful gas engines - and an upgrade to the already formidable Cummins turbodiesel.

The truck we tested, a 1500 SLT Laramie Quad Cab 4x4 with long bed and 5.7 Hemi V8 engine, and a 3.92 axle ratio, can tow an incredible 8,300 pounds, with a gross vehicle weight of 6,800 pounds. The curb weight is 5,532 pounds. The gross combination weight rating (GCWR) is 14,000 pounds. Want more? Get a medium duty chassis cab!

Eventually, the Hemi made it to the base 1500 line, with far more torque and horsepower than the 360 (5.9) it replaced - and one mile per gallon better gas mileage.

The Ram 1500 is a big and impressive truck even without the Hemi. With the Hemi, it gains the ability to practically ignore heavy loads, tow more (more comfortably), and impress and intimidate everyone who knows what that nameplate implies. This is clearly the top of the line engine, as impressive as the past V10 was, and more powerful than Chevy's optional six-liter V8. You pay for that power, but not too much - $900, which is less than the $1,125 for chrome-clad wheels on our test truck (do fancy chrome wheels really belong on big pickups?), and less than the $1,170 automatic transmission (a five-speed manual, which we recommend, is the base transmission on non-Hemi models).

Under normal running, the Hemi is already moderately loud, especially when cold; once it revs over 3,000 rpm, you get a loud muscle-car sound from the exhaust. While it has a great deal of torque available throughout its range, the Hemi seems happiest in that band of 3,000 and over - not unlike its namesake. Acceleration is on tap at any engine speed, though the transmission is somewhat slow to downshift. When it does, the acceleration is quite strong, as one would expect. In sprints, the drivetrain shifts properly, though acceleration is uneven (as it is in the Ford and Chevy counterparts).

While some may think the Hemi's 345 horsepower come at a great cost in gas mileage, it is only slightly less thrifty than the base 4.7 V8, a full liter smaller; in pickups, it's size, gearing, and wind resistance that count. The 5.7 is the most efficient engine of its output; in cars, it gets roughly double the gas mileage - albeit with displacement-on-demand.

Ironically, the full-size pickup line with the best optional V8 and diesel is also the only one with a V6 - Ford and Chevy apparently stopped offering them with their full-size pickups.

The transmission was surprising, given our past experience with Dodge automatics. They have usually been very quick and responsive, albeit smooth. This five-speed automatic (with dual second gears, one just for downshifting) was smooth enough, but seemed to take a while to get the hint that we wanted a downshift. It was more like a Chevy truck transmission in that regard - and to complete the image, it comes with a Tow/Haul mode, using the exact same control as Chevy trucks. (The tow mode provides firmer shifts which are easier on the transmission, and seems to prefer lower gears; it is reset to normal mode each time the engine is restarted, which may annoy frequent towers.) You can lock the transmission into first or second, but there is no third or "overdrive off" mode. Putting the transmission into second when starting will not limit it to second gear, but actually start it out in second, for use on snow or other slippery surfaces (equivalent to the "winter mode" on other automatics).

The automatic transmission tones down the feel of the Hemi's raw power by absorbing sudden changes, but acceleration times are admirable, and trailer towing is eased by the high torque available throughout its range. Heavy loads are barely noticed. What's more, acceleration from a standing stop is stunning - with quarter mile times at or under 16 seconds and 0-60 times around 7 seconds - better than a Chrysler 300M!

Visibility is good in all directions. The large outside mirrors fold in for those tight parking spaces; our test Laramie model included outside mirror defrosters as well. Headlights are controlled from a convenient, traditional large switch on the instrument panel, with a pullout fog light switch that defaults to "off" - a safety feature which prevents the unnecessary glare of those who always drive with fog lights on. An overloaded dial serves as the interior lighting rheostat, dome light control (each dome light can be turned on individually with a push), and bed light.

Passengers in the front seats (except the middle) sit fairly close to the corners, and some may find that the front pillar intrudes a bit; that's the cost of six-passenger seating and the massive center seat / console / storage unit. Sun visors are fairly large; while the Ram does not have dual visors a la Silverado, they do slide out on their supports so they can cover the center of the windshield.

Cornering is amazingly good considering the bulk and height of the truck. The Ram does as well as many cars around sharp turns, though it's generally a bad idea to put a tall pickup through sports car paces. Those who want the power of a Ram in a package they can whip around turns should go for a 300C or Magnum instead - both are considerably faster and more fuel-efficient, albeit incapable of hauling a bunch of six foot long I-beams. We did not encounter wheel hop on acceleration, and found that the suspension could easily handle sudden applications of power in normal situations (excluding the usual suicidal moves such as flooring the gas in the middle of a turn).

Compared with the Chevrolet Silverado, the Ram bounces much less, but its tighter suspension provides more road feel; and when we say that, we really do mean that you feel the road. While not outright uncomfortable, the Ram rides quite firmly, avoiding the jouncing of the Silverado but providing a bit less cushioning as well. We prefer the ride; but it's a matter of taste either way. Part of the firmness is most likely due to the Hemi engine, which presumably requires a beefier suspension.

Styling combines a mean Peterbilt look outside and a luxury-car look inside. The white-faced gauges have sharp backlighting at night, making them easy to see day or night; drivers get the usual temperature, voltage, and gas level, along with oil pressure and tachometer (unlike GM, there is no transmission temperature gauge). A bold sans-serif typeface and large letters keep the gauges clear and easy to read. Wind noise was low except for a moderately annoying rushing sound by the front window, as though it was a little open, while the climate control vents could be somewhat noisy when pushing air around at higher fan speeds.

We noticed that the Ram intimidated even large-SUV drivers, and people seemed to want to get out of the way, both on the freeway and in the city.  That unusual reaction - we have yet to experience it to the same degree while driving any other pickup - is a major benefit of the big-rig styling.

The seats in our test vehicle were very adjustable, but they are part of the $4,845 Laramie option package (also including a chrome center stack bezel, bright grille, chrome mouldings, interior lighting package, underhood light, leather folding seats, four wheel antilock disc brakes, fog lights, part-time shift-on-the-fly transfer case, Infinity CD/cassette player, wheel-mounted audio controls, trip computer, fold-flat rear floor storage, sliding rear window, auto-dimming rear view mirror, dual zone air, and a security system). A simple switch on the dashboard makes it possible to bring the pedals up to your feet, or down to a comfortable depth, while switches at the base of the seat (within easy reach; no squeezing here) move the seat up and down, forward and back, and tilt back and forth. Our only complaint was some built-in back bolster.

Rear seats are surprisingly comfortable; lifting the bottom part of the seat effortlessly reveals a metal tray which can be folded out for a flat storage floor that avoids carpet damage with dirty loads. A removable cupholder sits in the center by the edge of the middle seat. Pickup makers seem to find child restraints difficult; the Ram is unusual with rear tether straps built in (instead of hooks for the straps), coupled with the usual seat-base loops, both easy to find and use.

There are little places to put coins, highway passes, and such in the dashboard, along with large map pockets in the front doors. Our model had an overhead console with a trip computer showing the usual gas mileage, compass heading, temperature, remaining fuel, distance to empty, and elapsed time. The center console/seat provides underseat room but can also function as a standard center console, with pop-up subdividers so that you can either store large things in it, or lots of small things in separate compartments. It also has an internal power outlet and a sensibly designed, removable coin holder with no room for pennies. The console can actually hold our laptop along with the charger, so that we can charge it up while driving (we don't really recommend this because some laptops and chargers generate heat in the process.) The best-in-class-beyond-all-doubt ratcheting cup holders can hold large or small containers tightly.

Gauges were all sensibly placed, as were most of the controls. The 4x4 control uses a simple knob, with three positions: all wheel drive, four wheel drive high, and four wheel drive low. Most of the time, the average driver will use AWD. An LED indicates when the differential is in neutral. Door controls are no longer illuminated, but can be discerned by touch; other controls are illuminated well at night, though shedding some light on the little storage nooks would also have been helpful. Headlights are placed on the dashboard, with a large, traditional switch. However, the ignition key was high up on the steering wheel, a moderately inconvenient place. Oddly, while the cargo and interior lights go on when you unlock the doors, there is no power memory - when you take out the key, the radio and power windows suddenly stop working.

The climate control is easy to operate, with a traditional rotary vent control, and, in our Laramie, separate driver and passenger sliders for heat mix. Separate buttons activate the air conditioner compressor, recirculation, and rear defroster. A console below the climate control includes seat warmers and the four wheel drive control, while the stereo sits in the top pod. The usual Chrysler unit with Infinity speakers, it provides excellent sound with a deep bass that can sometimes rattle the door panels; knobs control balance and fade, while sliders control bass and treble, which makes it easy to adjust quickly without distraction. Separate buttons switch modes (tape, CD, AM/FM).

The six foot, three inch bed is guarded by a rather heavy liftgate. Getting into the bed is easier than in some other trucks, thanks to a step in the bumper. Our test model had a Mopar bedliner, a $245 option which protects the bed from inevitable scratches and then rust. It also had a soft tonneau cover ($290) which is easy to remove and not so easy (but not impossible) to put back on again.

We also recommend the $490 side curtain airbags, the $285 anti-spin rear differential, $70 rear window defroster and $90 engine block heater (for those in cold climates), and $90 front hood protection shield - the latter looks like a natural part of the truck and isn't obviously an add-on.  Other options on our test vehicle were the inexpensive off-road protection group, trailer towing group (mainly wiring, a hitch receiver, and a bigger battery), heated front seats, and full-time shift-on-the-fly transfer case. The 7/70 powertrain warranty is free, along with towing assistance during the entire warranty period. Airbags are of the low-force variety which protects without as much risk of injury (or death) to smaller passengers.

Performance-wise, the Ram Hemi is about as quick as the Silverado SS pickup, but reportedly faster around turns and in stops. That's pretty good since the SS is designed for performance and the Ram for hauling. Compared to a similarly priced Silverado 1500 we tested earlier (not the SS model), the Ram provides far more power (60 hp, 50 lb-ft), 2 mpg lower gas mileage, a longer bed, and a somewhat smaller cabin but more convenient and better looking interior. The Silverado had an overhead DVD player, OnStar, satellite radio, a near-silent vent system, and a driver control center. Both trucks are at the top of their class, well above the Ford F-150. The Ram is, thanks to the Hemi engine, more comfortable with very heavy loads, barely noticing added weight.

If more Ford pickup buyers tested out a Ram, Dodge might find itself short of trucks and long on cash.

Criterion Dodge Ram 1500 Chevy Silverado 1500 Ford F-150
Base engine power 215 200 202
Base engine torque 235 260 252
Middle engine power 240 270 (4.8); 285 (5.3) 231
Middle engine torque 300 285 (4.8); 325 (5.3) 293
Top engine power (Hemi) 345 300(HD 6.0) 260
Top engine torque (Hemi) 375 360(HD 6.0) 350
Base engine mileage 15/21 16/21 17/21
Base engine payload 1,830 2,117 1,840
Base engine towing 3,300 4,100 2,000
Turning radius 39 ft 41 ft 42 ft
Middle engine mileage 14/19 (4.7) 16/20 (4.8); 15/19 (5.3) n/a
Top engine mileage 13/18 (Hemi stick) n/a (6.0) n/a
Figures from PR sources and AutoSite. Figures vary by body type and options. Includes the Silverado 1500 HD.

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