Those expecting a knockout punch from the new Dodge Ram 1500 will be disappointed. While slightly more refined than its predecessor, the changes are evolutionary, and some of the best differences weren't available on our test vehicle. On the lighter side, the Ram provides a measurably better experience than the Ford F-150 - and, if it can get one tenth of the F-150 buyers to switch sides, without losing any to GM, Dodge will have done very well for itself.
The upgraded base V6 engine, with an additional 40 horsepower and slightly better gas mileage, is smoother and quieter than past models, and comes with a five-speed automatic. (When we refer to that transmission as a five-speed, keep in mind that it has two second gear ratios - so it won't go through five different gears getting up to highway speed, but is more responsive and smoother when passing.) The base V8 is more powerful and economical than the past 318 engine, finally retired after decades of loyal and reliable service.
Our test vehicle had the venerable 360 which, for its extra five horsepower (35 lb-ft of torque), takes a pretty substantial hit in gas mileage, adds $600 to the price, and replaces that lovely new five-speed automatic with an older four-speed. We expect the 360 (or, as it's now called, the 5.9) to be taken out of production next year, replaced with the new Hemi or with an expanded version of the 4.7 - either option would let Dodge retire the 46RE transmission and gain more power.
Our test vehicle had a sensibly priced towing package ($465), which we recommend even if you don't plan to tow, because it comes with an upgraded battery, auxiliary transmission fluid cooler, heavy duty engine cooling, and extra wiring in case you change your mind and do tow something. Likewise, the $300 anti-spin differential is just common sense. The 46RE automatic transmission is the traditional thousand dollars.
We were surprised to see Chrysler borrowing GM's "lift-and-pull" door handles, since we never much liked them on GM vehicles, but at least they're placed in a more sensible location. At least the brake release was in a sensible location, right where generations of buyers have grown used to it. An overdrive-off button is in the shifting stalk, where GM places its tow/haul mode. We found it hard to shift directly into reverse, overshooting nearly every time.
The "luxury" option adds $6,805 for a good Infinity stereo, fog lights, tilt-wheel, power adjustable seats, dual zone climate control, remote keyless entry, an alarm, and other features. The Quad Cab base price of $23,000 actually gives you nearly as good a vehicle as the $31,440 our test truck listed for, just with fewer frills.
The seats in our test vehicle were very adjustable and hence comfortable, but they are part of a rather pricey option package. If you're relatively short, you may want to try that package regardless, since it includes a unique and easy-to-use feature: electrically adjustable pedal height. A simple switch on the dashboard makes it possible to bring the pedals up to your feet, or down to a comfortable depth.
The styling was very good, inside and out, with a mean Peterbilt look outside and a luxury-car look inside. The white-faced gauges had sharp backlighting at night, making them easy to see day or night, though the numbers could get washed out if the headlights were used in twilight. Door controls seem to be lit whenever the key is in the ignition; other controls are illuminated well at night, though shedding some light on the little storage nooks would also have been helpful. (There are little places to put coins, highway passes, and such in the dashboard, along with small map pockets in the front doors.)
Gauges were all sensibly placed, as were most of the controls. We feel that the cruise control should have been placed on a stalk, because people without oversized hands will find it hard to operate the wheel-mounted cruise. A light went on when the cruise control was active, but not when a speed was actually locked in.
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 lack of power memory is especially strange given the clever customization feature offered by the trip computer, which allows you to set your preferences for door locking and other features. It also provides the outside temperature, compass setting, time to the next service (adjustable), and the rather painful average gas mileage display.
In the "clever new features" department are the center console/seat, which provides underseat room when used as a seat (or for that matter when used as a console), and has 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. Another clever feature is storage room under the rear seats; yet another, the best-in-class-beyond-all-doubt ratcheting cup holders which, like their cousins in minivans, can hold large or small containers tightly.
We also liked the little touches - overhead lights that go on when you press them, the overhead sunglass holder, the built-in, universal garage door opener (built into the trip computer) with room in its memory for three different garage doors or gates.
While the heater is powerful and works quickly, the vent fan can be noisy - despite huge, square vent openings. The air conditioning did not seem to have any drag on the engine.
Going back to utility for a moment - we found acceleration to be impressive, moving the heavy vehicle quickly yet very quietly. While we didn't test the 3.7 and 4.7, they have been very quiet in other vehicles. The transmission shifted firmly, but downshifted readily and generally chose the right gear at the right time. Gas mileage is par for the course and makes us wish a diesel or hybrid option was available. Braking is on par with the Silverado, better than the F-150, in our estimation.
Handling is a mixed bag, better than the previous generation, but prone to tire squealing on initial acceleration and around sharp turns. It seems to be roughly on par with the Silverado. The turning radius has been shortened, so that it is a foot less than Chevy's and about 18 inches less than Ford's - and 18 inches can be a long distance. Ride is best described as bouncy, with bumps being felt strongly in the cabin along with their aftershocks. The truck didn't seem to lose control, but it can be disconcerting for the driver and passengers, and rough roads can be a problem. The Silverado seems to handle bumps better, though the Ram admittedly does a good job of smoothing out moderately rough surfaces.
The rear gate lifts easier than the Silverado's, and the cargo light seems to be more effective. However, there is no step built into the bumper, and it can be hard to launch one's self into the bed.
As the chart shows, we cannot find much of a compelling reason to go with the Dodge. Yes, we are Dodge fans, and would buy a Ram over a Silverado for that reason alone - but we'd be hard pressed to convince anyone else to do the same. The Silverado is a relatively well proven design, while the Ram is in its first year; the Silverado offers more power and yet gets better gas mileage; and it has an HD version for heavy-duty towing. The Ram offers better styling, a more ergonomic (but not by much!) interior, and some nice features like the side airbag for safety and the adjustable pedals. We also favor the Ram's five-speed automatic transmission, trip computer, and dual-zone climate control, while noting that the Silverado has a moderately convertible Avalanche version with a step built into the bumper.
Given Chrysler's current reputation and market position, not leapfrogging the competition by a substantial margin can be fairly dangerous. Yes, we recommend the Ram; yes, Dodge quality has risen quite quickly, and the Liberty and PT Cruiser had fairly trouble-free launches; but the Silverado is still very strong competition. Only time will tell whether the Ram is far enough ahead to grab some sales, and whether the new engines due to replace the aged 360 will be strong enough. In the meantime, at least the Ram clearly outclasses (not necessarily on paper) the Ford F-150 - which is, after all, the sales leader.
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