The 1993-2002 Dodge Ram 2500 V-10
Old-timers may remember the days when you could choose your differential, engine, and a few dozen other options when you ordered a car. Then came the foreign makers, with standard packages that made it possible to offer more while increasing quality. Still, if you hanker for customization, you can always get a pickup. Dodge, GM, and Ford all let you choose axle ratios, engines, suspensions, bed and cab size, and other technical details, because pickups are meant for work; and because each automaker makes pickups in only two sizes, so it must be customized to fit each customer's needs. In the end, a base Ram 1500 seems more like a base Chevy Silverado 1500 than a diesel Ram 3500.
(Old-timers may also remember when there were two basic varieties of Plymouth: A and B, each of which was given several names and body styles, not unlike the current Dakota/Ram or S-10/Silverado lines).
Of course, not everyone drives a pickup because they have to. Some people like the feeling of being macho, some seem unaware that station wagons and minivans exist, some want to be high up in the air, some want the safety of size, others are just used to pickups. For these people, we say "grow up." Pickups are meant for work, not play or commuting, and they have the gas mileage to prove it. If you must have a pickup, consider a compact (like the Chevy S-10) or a mid-sized (the Dakota); they can be optioned out to tow fairly heavy trailers, but with less steel to carry around, tend to get better mileage. They are also heavily discounted so automakers can sell more full-size pickups without violating fuel economy guidelines. Minivans are very spacious inside, more so than most SUVs, and Chrysler versions are available with all wheel drive - a better option than four wheel drive for most people.
If you are considering a pickup or SUV because of safety, consider that its weight makes it harder to stop; rear wheel drive is a liability on wet, icy, or snow-bound roads, and the four wheel drive, when active, widens turning circles and does not help you to stop. A well-handling car designed for safety can prevent accidents from happening in the first place. (There is also the question of whether you want personal safety at the expense of everyone else on the road). We recommend the Subaru Outback to safety-minded people who think they need to carry cargo.
That said, the base model pickups have a nice ride, and can be purchased with a spacious cab and all the amenities of a low-end luxury car.
Pickup truck options
Diesels are good for gas mileage and longevity; their low-end torque is helpful for serious towing. When you rack up the miles, the diesel pays for itself: Cummins claims its engines can go 400,000 miles before their first overhaul. They are expensive (about $3,000 extra) but in the long haul there will be much better gas mileage and fewer major repairs. Large engines do not cost as much up front but their costs can add up in the long run. For heavy highway use and trucks meant to be kept for a long, long time, a diesel is eminently practical. They also have good pulling power, with strong torque at low engine speeds.
Gear ratios are very important: a low ratio (e.g. 3:1) increases gas mileage, but cuts towing capacity. Few need the highest ratios (over 4:1). One expert said that the same truck (diesel, automatic) would get over 20 mpg at 65 mph with a 3.08 ratio, but only 15 mpg with a 4.10 ratio; lowering the speed to 55 mph could raise mileage by 15%!
Engines are like gear ratios: you should get what you need, not too much or too little. Engine overkill leaves you with constant trips to the pump, but getting an engine that is too small can result in early failure. Bumping up to the next small-block engine does not exact much of a gas mileage toll (e.g. 318 to 360, 305 to 350), but going from a small block to a big block (or V-10) does.
The capacity of the pickup is also related to what you need. Get too much capacity, and you have an unnecessarily stiff suspension, lousy gas mileage, extra wind noise, and poorer handling; get too little, and you can run out of load or face steep repair bills. Capacity is about weight, not bulk; not many people will reach the payload limits of a base pickup unless they tow or modify the bed.
Four wheel drive adds extra weight that takes a toll on fuel and speed. 4x4s only have better traction when accelerating; the weight hurts handling and braking. If you need more traction, consider a car (or minivan) with all-wheel-drive, which is always active.
Unlike cars, pickups generally come with five-speed transmissions on the premium engines as well as base versions. Manual transmissions can aid gas mileage and avoid the power losses of automatics; this allows one to use a lower gear ratio, which saves even more gas. Manual transmissions have been improving in smoothness and ease of use. If you do get an automatic, consider a transmission intercooler (which comes with some engines), which can increase the transmission's lifespan if you tow or haul heavy loads.
There are generally three cab sizes: regular, extended, and crew. Though larger cabs are more comfortable for people in the back, they also make the truck longer, harder to park and turn, and heavier (which hurts handling, economy, hauling, and acceleration).
In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were two major full-size pickup makers: GM and Ford. Chrysler had let its truck lines (first Fargo, then Dodge) age and wither.
Then Dodge came back with the Ram, featuring powerful engines, better interiors, decent handling, and Peterbilt styling. Ford responded by redesigning their pickups, using overhead cam engines and a round shape which was quickly superceded by a Ram-clone look. Then GM redesigned theirs, with revamped the engines, interiors, brakes, and other pieces. Finally, Toyota replaced the T100 with what can only be called the anti-T100. Dodge is left with the oldest pickups, but a redesign is in the works, with a new series of overhead cam engines; and a new Cummins diesel in the meantime.
The model number of full-size pickups roughly indicates the payload: the 1500/150/100 is 1/2 ton, the 2500/250 is 3/4 ton, and the 3500/350 is 1 ton.
Dodge Ram 2500
The Dodge Ram is available with time-tested V-8s (318 and 360), a V-6 and V-10 based on the V-8s, and a Cummins diesel which was recently redesigned to increase power and cut emissions. An all-new V-8 and V-6 are in the works, for the 2001 model year at the earliest.
Our vehicle had the 8-liter V-10, a $1,000 option; it was quiet, smooth, and always ready. While tame under partial throttle, it could easily break the rear tires loose. We averaged about 12 mpg in mostly highway driving; the Cummins diesel, which has an excellent reputation for longevity and efficiency, is said to average 18-22 mpg.
The automatic transmission shifted firmly and had a tight feel. Unlike the other pickups, it did not let the engine wind down when we took our foot from the pedal for a second, so when we hit the gas again we got an instant response (the down-side may be lower fuel economy). The shifts were noticeable but not jarring, and the transmission stayed in a low gears while accelerating instead of up-shifting; the computer predicted our needs well.
Braking was decent, but not up to Chevrolet standards. Traction was surprisingly good, and rough roads did not seem to hurt the handling much, despite the jouncing of the cab.
Though the engine itself was quiet, there was wind noise at highway speeds, and the exhaust was fairly loud. The heavy duty suspension and four wheel drive may have been partly to blame, as the truck was higher off the tires and ground than normal; the base 1500 actually has a better drag rating than the Dodge Shadow.
The Ram was much more comfortable than the previous-generation Chevy on bumps and uneven road surfaces, but did not feel as tight on the road, and bumps tended to "jounce" the truck more. Neither vehicle could be recommended on a full stomach and an empty bed. Carrying even a light load made the ride much better. Getting in and out of our higher-than-usual, heavy-duty version was difficult, but using the bumper as a step helped us to get into the bed. The rear gate is supported by two cables, something Ford could learn from.
The interior of the Ram was clearly designed for work. Six people can fit in the cab, though the ones in the back won't have much legroom (on the other side, the space saved in the cab helped in parking and turning). The four doors were handy, though you can't open a rear door unless the front door is open; the normal 3-door option is, overall, just as good. The instrument panel was clearly laid out, and only the ventilation controls were poorly designed: rather than having a separate air conditioner control, Dodge assumes that you want the air conditioner to run when the defroster, vent, or bi-level is on (we'd understand the defroster, but the others puzzle us). The horn required a major effort.
The seat belts were attached to the seats, making them harder to put on, but easing rear access. Controls were clear and visible, and the optional radio was quite good.
Another reviewer, who drove both trucks, said the Ram 1500, with Chrysler's mainstay 318 (5.2) and no special suspension packages, had a much nicer ride, and substantially less wind noise. The shifter was smooth, and the engine seemed to be nearly as peppy the 2500 (credit the manual transmission and lower weight of a standard suspension and two wheel drive).
The Dodge Ram is still the best-looking truck by far, and it feels and looks like it's down to business; but the competition has gained, and it could really use those new small V-8s, better brakes, and sensible ventilation controls.
Though the Dodge is still the most attractive pickup, in our opinion the Silverado was the most pleasant truck to drive, and its small-block engines are a cut above Dodge's aging motors. Wait two years, and the field will probably reverse itself, but for now both Ford and GM can boast more powerful, fuel-efficient small-block V-8s. At the high end, the Dodge V-10 and Cummins diesel are still kings of the hill.
You can buy a full-size for $16,000 -- or for nearly $40,000. Choose your options carefully, and make sure you can live with them.