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2011 - 2012 Dodge Ram 1500 Express pickup truck test drive

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The 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 leapfrogged its competitors, from the multi-link rear suspension to the 390 horsepower/407 lb-ft Hemi engine to unique, aerodynamic styling. Following the initial launch came several specialty models, two of which provided the Hemi engine at low cost: the Ram Tradesman and Ram Express. That’s a good thing, because the Hemi is clearly king of the Mopar truck engines, giving the same gas mileage as the 3.7 V6 with power similar to the best competitors’ engines; big V8 to big V8, Ram does quite well. (Note: Chevy and Toyota both sell smaller V8s, but they generate less power and are not directly comparable.)

RWD mpgFord F-150 V8Chevy Silverado 6.2 V8Toyota Tundra V8 Ram 1500 V8Ram 1500 4x4 V8
City mpg1313141413
Highway mpg1818182019

The Ram Express with the short bed and regular cab is the hot rod of the Ram series; it’s relatively light, and the power-to-weight ratio is very favorable. Acceleration was not instant-on, but it was very close to it, and we never had a situation where we were short of power. Passing was satisfying and easy regardless of grade, and the truck rocketed forward without much pause, on the slightest provocation. Yet the throttle was not oversensitive, and the sensible tip-in meant that the Ram is easy to drive smoothly and gently.

The transmission is geared for fine gradability, and our test truck barely registered the presence of long, steep hills; the transmission stayed in gear most of the time, and the engine did not falter. When passing, kickdown was quick and easy, but there was no hunting for gears. The Ram can be driven as gently, with barely noticeable shifts; that's combination of torque control (power is briefly reduced during shifts for smoothness and transmission life) and a throttle calibrated to provide relatively little fuel until the pedal is pushed down into the power range. (The transmission was called a five speed in 2011 and a six speed in 2012, but the “sixth” gear is a kickdown gear which, starting in 2012, was also available via the manual override sitting on the stalk.)

Ram pickup

When needed, the transmission quickly but softly kicks down and puts the Hemi into power mode. Acceleration is effortless, with swift and easy highway-speed passing, aided in our case by the standard cab and on every Express by the standard bed, which both presumably cut down weight; with the larger cabs (three cabs are available on Express), presumably acceleration is slightly lower but ride comfort should be better. The Ram is quite swift, easily beating most normal cars.

A 2012 Ram Express with standard cab and rear wheel drive starts at $23,080, with some surprising features standard. Its monochromatic appearance, relieved by the door handles and grille, is neat and sporty; it almost looks like acompletely different truck from the heavily chromed, two-tone Laramie.

Inside, it’s also hard to believe the Ram Express is essentially the same truck as the Laramie; it’s presentable but far more worklike, with a two-toned gray dashboard that blends into the background when you’re driving. The “chunky look” is more clear than on higher Rams, especially on the door, which does boast usability features including dual map pockets, one actually shaped to hold maps (that one is, unfortunately, too far back on the door to comfortably reach when the door is closed). There’s no good place for an EZ-Pass but these should be Velcroed on anyway. The upper glove compartment has fallen victim to cost-cutting — the cheap price doesn’t come from magic — and while most bins have removable rubber bottoms, the upper glove-ledge and center console do not. The gauges are not surrounded by shiny chrome, but by wider silver offsets. Still, the same gauges are in the same places, and while there’s no trip computer, it’s not obviously absent. At night, the backlighting is functional and elegant.

dashboard

The controls in the Ram 1500 were convenient and sensible. The parking brake was far from the hood release; the automatic headlights had all standard manual modes; and pushing the knob turned on the fog lights, which made it consistent with the button/dials of the climate control. The climate control knobs were still adorned with silver rings, and each of the three knobs was also a pushbutton for recirculation, a/c compressor, or rear defroster (which, incidentally, our test truck didn’t have); these knobs and buttons have an unusually pleasant, high-end feel. Button strips controlled the tow/haul mode, ESP, and hazard flashers. Higher-end models have other chrome touches, including one on the end of the shifter. The huge vents kept noise low even when the fan was blasting at full strength, and provided good control over airflow.

Those who work from their trucks should be happy with the folding center console that can hold a laptop with room to spare; the console has two flip-up dividers to subdivide the area, and a padded top (inside and out, to avoid damaging oversized objects when closed. Unlike upper models, there is not a second container underneath.

The front seat moves back far enough to let someone type on a laptop, if they don't want to turn to the side and have it sit on the wide center armrest. The fixed-in-place headrests, though, are intrusive and annoying. Otherwise the seats are comfortable and supportive, with tough fabric that promises a long lifespan and hot/cold comfort.

behind-the-seat storage

Buying a regular size cab doesn’t necessarily mean giving up storage space. Behind the seats is a row of hooks and, underneath that, rubberized containers which are deceptively large, easily swallowing up overstuffed backpacks, pillows, and laptop cases. The bins appear to be watertight as well, though we didn’t test them. We did, however, put three people into the cab, with their bags behind them. Visibility was better than usual due to the small pillars, though a backup alarm would be nice — people can easily disappear behind the bed. [I could write about how pickups keep getting bigger and taller every generation, but I won’t.]

There are amenities more suitable for driving, including the rubberized sunglass holder on top of the center stack and cupholders, two in a drop-down from the center stack. The transmission hump makes it a bit awkward for anyone in the center, but you can fit three people in the cab without rubbing shoulders.

Our test Ram 1500 again had a solid feel, with no rattles, buzzes, or squeaks; going around corners, there was little body roll, though the rear tires had a natural tendency to squeal, given the lack of weight pressing them to the ground; still, they held the ground even when slamming on the gas around a turn (which we don’t recommend but test in safe conditions. The standard stability control helps, but it can’t overcome really bad driving.)

Overall, handling was good for a big pickup, but Charger owners have nothing to fear from Rams on the track. Without a tire and possibly wheel swap, the Ram 1500 Express isn’t a sports truck, except on the straights. Don’t get me wrong — the Ram’s handling is quite good for a pickup — but the straight-line power leaves you wanting more around the curves.

The suspension was a bit stiffer than a passenger car, but far more compliant than a normal pickup; the ride was much less jiggly, especially over uneven surfaces, than full-size, full-capacity pickups normally are, and control on broken pavement was also better than normal. Still, without a load to damp the heavy duty shocks, any sort of rough road will result in bouncing; the luxury car ride we had when three people were in the cab and a bunch of gear was in the bed disappeared when the truck was unloaded. It remains at the top of its class, but the Ram is no car.

hemi engine

The Ram was designed with a lot of care, perhaps because the team knew that they would be going up against a new player in the big-truck arena — Toyota — and perhaps because even in the last gasps of Daimler rule, Dieter Zetsche had taken over and tried to provide more freedom and less cost-cutting. Numerous little touches show that the short-sighted, tunnel-vision school of cost-slashing was barred, from the extensive chroming to the soft-touch door and armrest surfaces to the rubberized top of the bumper, designed to prevent people from slipping if they climbed on the bumper to get into the bed. The license plate lights were set back into the bumper to shed light on the step and the trailer hookups. The tailgate was easy to open and close, and locked with a gentle click.

bumpers

Under the hood was another little touch which appeared in the early 1990s, a centralized fusebox including a legend so owners wouldn’t need to hunt down their owner’s manual when a fuse blew. Spares are included, as they have been for many years. It’s quite a little city of fuses in there (as is the case in all modern trucks, and cars and minivans for that matter — but trucks tend to have features like trailer wiring which add to the volume of fuses and relays.)

fusebox

Our test vehicle had some unusual features for Dodge. One was the AutoStick, which has been present on numerous Chrysler vehicles for many years, but never as up/down buttons on the gearshift; these are more convenient than the past gated controls, and are integrated well into the traditional column shift. When + or - were pressed, the transmission shifted and the gear number showed up in the central display as a large, clear number; and the PRNDL went from showing D to ±. Shifting rapidly up past 5 moved the system back to Drive. Photos are from the Laramie.

transmission shifter on stak cupholders

This brings up the PRNDL, which was a neat design showing all the gears and changing the color of whatever letter was selected electronically, with Reverse in red. Again, whether shifted automatically or manually, the transmission moved quickly but smoothly. We never saw a need to second-guess it; it was always in the right gear for the time and conditions, well-behaved and easily forgotten about. A tow-haul button was in the center stack. Four wheel drive (full time only, with low gear available) was electronically controlled by a knob, with a button for neutral; part-time four wheel drive is optional.

Inside, a combination of thick glass, lots of mastic, and the aerodynamic work give the interior luxury-car sound levels, keeping the noise of traffic and unmuffled contractor engines out, and reducing wind noise at highway speeds. There wasn’t much the designers could do about the bed; a tonneau cover is a worthwhile option to raise gas mileage by cutting drag.

Getting in and out is a bit difficult for shorter people due to the truck’s ride height; but the generously sized door openings certainly help, making it hard to bump head against roof. Once inside, passengers have comfortable seats that seem to work for both large and small people, and generous headroom, shoulder room, and legroom (especially in the crew cab). The front passenger could use a grab bar, and the seat belts are way too far back (with no loop on the seatback to keep them handy); and you have to lean back to let the sun visor pass (on this model, there’s no mirror on the driver’s visor — and there shouldn’t be!). As a quick side gripe, while the visors do slide on their supports, they run into the roof bulge very quickly when they’re up front — the sliding feature doesn’t seem very helpful.

factory bedliner

The trunk bed seemed well designed; a notch in the wheel wells presumably makes carrying large boards easier, and tiedown hooks near each corner make it easier to use bungie cables to keep loads in place. The $450 anti-skid spray-in bedliner, applied at the factory, protects the steel from damage, and is resistant to scratching. The price is not much more than the typical drop-in bed liners, which can rattle or catch the wind, and may trap water underneath. Given how quickly a mere painted bed seems to rub to bare metal, a spray-in bedliner is a good investment; while a DIY may cost far less, and a Rhino or similar aftermarket may work equally well at lower cost, both carry a time penalty. You don't have to leave your truck at the body shop, and you don’t have to take your chances that the guys are honest, trained, and using good material — or that you prepped as well as you needed to. In short, this may be the best option available.

The stereo (part of the Popular Equipment Group) was highly satisfactory, containing two of the better new features — an auxiliary jack for connecting to iPods (future-proofed by its generic nature), and satellite radio as an integrated component. The stereo plays CDs, including data CDs with MP3s, using a single slot. The setup was highly usable and eminently discoverable, unlike many new stereos; it was easy to operate single-handed, with gloves or without, and had fairly large text on large buttons, reducing distraction. While there were no audio controls on the steering wheel in our 2011 model, they also weren’t particularly needed. The two-line display LED display was clearly readable but not annoying at night, and while bass was strong — perhaps too strong — it could be dialled down sufficiently. The sound quality was very good, better than usual, with strong stereo separation, perhaps aided by the small size of the regular cab. UConnect cellphone and voice control was integrated into the stereo.

In 4x4 trim, the Ram ST starts at $25,265. That includes 26-gallon gas tank, automatic transmission, side curtain airbags, stability control, four-wheel antilock disk brakes, electric part-time 4x4, locking tailgate, air conditioning, six-speaker CD stereo, tilt wheel, day/night mirror, full size spare, trailer wiring (four and seven pin), automatic headlights, 6x9 mirrors, and tinted glass.

The Express model shows up as Customer Preferred Package 26C, atop the ST; it includes the 20x8 wheels (versus 17x7), wider and lower profile tires, body-color grille, dual chrome-tipped rear exhaust, fog lamps, temporary-use spare, and locking lug nuts, Hemi engine, heavy duty engine cooling, and transmission oil cooler. The $2,045 Express package is cheaper than buying the pieces separately, by $1,310.

truck review

Options on our test vehicle included the power and remote entry group, at $735, including folding heated power mirrors, highline door trim panel, express-down power windows, power locks, and remote. The ST Popular Equipment Group, $750, added 40/20/40 bench seat, front floor mats, cruise control, satellite radio, and rear sliding window. For 2011, adding deep cherry read crystal clear coat paint added $225; that charge was dropped for 2012. Finally, the spray-in bedliner cost $450, and the plain rear sliding window ran $140. Add in $975 for destination, and your cheap “Road Runner style” truck ends up at $30,585.

Two features did not appear anywhere on the spec sheets, but were included: a reasonably powerful bed light, and dual 12V power outlets, one switched and one unswitched.

The frills really don’t add up to much — though if all you want is the Hemi, and you don’t mind a base stereo, manual windows and locks (power locks on a two door truck aren’t a huge benefit), and the like, you can also get a base Ram ST with the Hemi as a standalone option. We put one together for $24,480 — rear wheel drive — $27,795 in 4x4. That’s not a huge savings; we’d just as soon spend the extra $2,800 for the Express (which comes with the 20-inch wheels). Of course there’s also the wildly popular Tradesman, which takes the ST and adds the Hemi, spray-in bedliner, and a hitch, all for $23,335 (including destination) — and that’s a serious bargain.

ram 1500

The R/T does have a fairly hefty advantage, albeit at a higher cost — the bigger 22 inch wheels with lower profile tires. The combination is better for managing the power and weight of the Ram, which is, after all, pretty high up off the ground compared with a Hemi Charger.

Overall, the 2011 Ram 1500 can claim a clear victory over every other pickup in its class when it comes to ride comfort and features; and the Hemi coming in at the same price point as the competition’s V6 models is impressive. Gas mileage is above average for its class, despite the class-leading horsepower rating, thanks to variable cam technology, aerodynamic tuning, and the cylinder shutoff system.

The Dodge Challenge, by Rob Martini

I participated in the 2009 Ram Challenge at Belmont Park, Long Island. The parking lot was arranged into three courses: the "Mother of All Nature," demonstrating ride and handling, "Havoc Highway," demonstrating ride quality, and "Off-Road Ram Jobsite," demonstrating touch and durability. Dodge supplied competitor's trucks: the Ford F150, Chevy Silverado, and Toyota Tundra. I thought it was humorous to see the F150 sitting idle most of the time I was there.

I thought all of the Rams rode well and felt solid. The seats were comfortable; the interior fit and finish appeared to be high quality, especially in the Laramie edition. The woodgrain was beautiful, and all of the controls are large, logically placed and clearly labeled; outward view all around was unobstructed; the rear doors on the Quad and Crew cabs opened wide; and I even liked the Ram Box and interior infloor storage bins.

ram chassis

The ride was comfortable, especially when two family members rode in the rear seat. Rear leg room in the Quad cab was adequate. The family members did not feel cramped. The Crew cab had even more legroom (and the seats were just as comfortable). Cornering was firm, not mushy/sloppy and the steering was tight when I drove the "Mother of All Nature" and "Havoc Highway" courses, which simulated an accident avoidance situation. The Ram was sure-footed when driving through the "Ram Jobsite" course:  crossing a temporary bridge and a railroad crossing, on a steeply pitched curve and through a simulated stream.

The interior is a knock out, much better than the Ford and Toyota, and even better than the Silverado. The torsion bar on the tailgate is a nice feature, the tailgate is no longer heavy. Rear seat position in the Crew Cab is wonderful. I'm 6'-2", adjusted the drivers seat for me, then sat in the back with plenty of room to spare. Seats were very comfortable too.

One thing surprised me, though. On the obstacle course, you start from a dead stop, punch it, then weave around some cones, then come to a stop sign, and continue on. It seemed to me that the Toyota had the best acceleration of the group. Even though the Dodge was a 4x4, I guess I was expecting more oomf from the Hemi (not that it was a slouch, not at all!).

I thought all of the Rams rode well and felt solid. The seats were comfortable; the interior fit and finish appeared to be high quality, especially in the Laramie edition. The woodgrain was beautiful, and all of the controls are large, logically placed and clearly labeled; outward view all around was unobstructed; the rear doors on the Quad and Crew cabs opened wide; and I even liked the Ram Box and interior infloor storage bins.

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