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2009 Dodge Ram 1500 test drives: three perspectives

David Zatz takes the Ram out for a week, while Rob Martini and Vincent Nowaczyk put it through the Challenge

Week-long 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 Crew Cab test drive

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The Dodge Ram 1500 seems like an advancement almost as big as the truck itself. Like the original Ram 1500 brought out in 1993, it leapfrogs its competitors, even the new, no-holds-barred Toyota Tundra out there. From the coil-spring suspension to the 390 horsepower Hemi engine to its unique styling, the 2009 Ram is a real successor to the 1993 Ram. It just had to wait for Daimler to take a step back (and out of the picture).

Our test Ram 1500 had a solid feel, with no rattles, buzzes, or squeaks; going around corners, there was little body roll or protest, though, as with just about any pickup (due to the weight distribution), sudden starts tended to break the rear tires loose. 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 correspondingly better than normal. Unlike many pickups, the Ram only reacted once to each pot-hole, rather than having secondary bounces. Braking seems better than the past generation.

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Our test vehicle was a deluxe Laramie which started at a whopping $40,000, but you can get essentially the same truck, with fewer frills and less chrome, for a lot less. The base engine is a V6, which provides enough power for most tasks though it limits towing potential; trucks in the old days used to have half the horsepower of the six, though they made up for it with gearing and patient drivers. Now that trucks are supposed to have all the comfort and performance of cars, most drivers will opt for either the 4.7 liter V8 or the big Hemi. The 4.7 provides the ability to use E85 and pushes out a formidable 300 horsepower; the Hemi shuts off half its cylinders and varies cam timing to get decent-for-a-pickup mileage. According to the EPA, our big Ram managed to beat the average gas mileage of its class by a fairly large margin.

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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. Despite the high engine power, the Ram can be driven as gently as a lamb, 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. This may account for feelings that the 390-hp Hemi did not feel as strong as expected - just as a speedy Lexus somehow feels slower than a manual-transmission Neon. That said, the Ram is indeed quite swift, with the Ram Sport model in sports-car territory and our Laramie easily beating most normal cars.

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Cornering is quite good compared to other pickups, but there is no denying that this is a large truck designed for people who haul heavy loads over rough terrain. Grip is better than most big trucks, especially over bad roads; it can take turns remarkably well for a truck of its size despite having a relatively smooth ride. Indeed, it's quite possible to throw the Ram around sharp turns and take it at inadvisable speeds around a tight cloverleaf without activating the stability control; and you can slam on the gas as you're turning and still not activate the ESP or break the rear tires loose. Body roll is surprisingly low.

All that said, and realizing that the Ram can probably out-corner quite a few passenger cars, there is little weight over the rear tires, and a coil-spring suspension can't do much to change that basic equation. It's easy to get overconfident in the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 - fortunately, the massive tires give a lot of warning in the form of squeals before losing traction, preventing drivers from going too far without realizing it.

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The first impressions of the Ram can't help but be favorable; the exterior has numerous aerodynamic touches which help its appearance, such as flush-mounted fog lights and carefully beveled edges. The styling is unique in pickups, which is good since Ford and Toyota have copied the 1993 Ram's "big-rig" styling; yet, unlike the Ford heavy-duty chrome bars, the truck's face was not cast with bluntness. The 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 garners nearly as many compliments as the Challenger, and not just from men. Again, our Laramie model benefited from extra chrome on the outside including the door handles and rearview mirrors (which are only chromed in front, so reflections don't distract the driver.)

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Inside, the Laramie looks more like a luxury car tan a work truck, aside from the massive glove compartments. Extensive use of large, curved chrome bezels provide an upscale touch, the bevels adding to the effect; thick chrome bevels surround the speedometer and tachometer, with thinner ones setting off the gas and oil pressure gauges as well as the voltmeter and oil temperature gauge (for towing or obsessive owners, the built in information center provides these temperatures and the transmission temperature in degrees.)

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The chrome treatment is extended to the climate control vents, all the knobs, the door handles, and the door pulls, as well as a rounded-cornered woodgrain rectangle on each door. Woodgrain is also applies to the center stack bezel; the grain looks about as real as most actual woodgrain in automotive use (where wood has to be impregnated with plastic for safety and durability reasons.)

The gauge cluster seems to have been designed for information junkies; in addition to the six gauges, drivers get three squares for warning lights, so they can see multiple problems at once if needed; the usual warning lights scattered across the cluster; and a large central vehicle information center designed to show numerous pieces of information at once.

Whenever the truck is started, the display first shows the Dodge logo, then defaults to the number of miles before the tank is empty. Shown at all times in bold type along the top is the temperature and compass heading; the radio station (or, if satellite radio is active, the name of the station) is shown in regular type underneath the direction. At the bottom, the odometer (or a trip odometer, or a timer) is always shown.

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By default, the system shows the number of miles to empty, the number of warning messages (usually 0), and the words "System Info." A series of four buttons on the steering wheel can take you up and down from here; going down shows the average gas mileage, lets you change to metric, and lets you enter Setup. Going back up lets you explore more system information: coolant temp, oil temp, oil pressure, transmission temp, and total engine hours. Setup lets you change things like whether the wipers activate the headlights, whether a single press opens all door locks, etc. This particular system is easier to use than in the past, because it shows options with a check (or no check) to show if they are active, letting people quickly page through the options. However, defaulting to distance-to-empty is quite annoying, especially for those who have a good reason to be monitoring, say, their transmission temperature; every time the engine is shut off and restarted, no matter what you were looking at before, you will be looking back at distance to empty.

Finally, this box shows the words Fuel Saver on Hemi-equipped vehicles when running on four cylinders. Like the GM system, there seems to be a time delay built in, which is no surprise since the cylinder deactivation can engage and disengage far faster than the time it takes the human eye to see a light flicker; presumably there's some sort of programming to determine when it's worth putting the light on.

The whole gauge cluster is backlit with a particularly even light, possibly a filtered version of the Indiglo lighting used on many Chryslers; the vehicle information system is white on black regardless. The effect is clear but attractive in bright light, twilight, and night driving.

Overall, the controls in the Ram 1500 were convenient and sensible. The parking brake was far from the hood release; the audio controls on the steering wheel are placed on the back instead of sharing space with the info system; the headlights had an automatic, driving lights, and headlights mode as well as "off;" and pushing the knob turned on the fog lights. The dual climate control used one knob for fan speed (with six settings), and pushed in for air recirculation; a second knob was for the vent control, with a push activating the mirror defrosters; and up/down buttons for driver and passenger temperature. Pushbuttons synchronized the two temperature settings, or turned on the a/c compressor. Button strips controlled the tow/haul mode, ESP, hazards, 110V AC outlet, parking alert, heated seats, and heated steering wheel.

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Those who work from their trucks should be happy with the 110 volt AC outlet, and the folding center console that can hold a laptop (swallowing up our MacBook with room to spare); the console has two flip-up dividers to subdivide the area, a removable coin holder that assumes no pennies, a padded top (inside and out, to avoid damaging oversized objects when closed, and a DC outlet. What's more, underneath that huge storage area is... another big storage area, of almost the same size, but where you wouldn't think of looking for it (under the seat cushion).

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.

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There are amenities more suitable for driving, including the rubberized sunglass/EZ-Pass holder on top of the center stack, the huge glove compartments - two of them, one atop the other - and map pockets on every door. Cupholders abound with two molded into the door pockets and three in a dropdown gizmo in the center stack; rear passengers also get two cupholders in a fold-down armrest. Of you can put all the dropdown things up and seat six people (though there are only two shoulder belts in front, there is a lap belt for the center position). The transmission hump does make it a bit awkward for anyone in the center, but the leg room in our crew cab was prodigious.

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.

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Okay, we did find one example of cheapness, and that was the rear floor vents, which really looked as though they needed some sort of stitching or cover instead of just a hole stamped through the carpets. The fact that this is worth mentioning shows how little fault we could find with the rest of the truck.

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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.

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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.

The four wheel drive system used a knob, unusual for a system capable of low-gear operation; normal options were rear wheel drive, automatic four wheel drive engagement (when slippage is detected), full 4x4 lock mode, and neutral, engaged with a pushbutton.

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Another unusual feature for a Dodge was the electric steering wheel heater, which quickly warmed the wheel to a nice warm temperature. Other upmarket features included express up/down windows (all four), an electric rear window opener, satellite radio with a 30 gigabyte hard drive, parking alert (to warn you of objects in your path when you back up), universal garage door remote, and remote starter. The parking alert system is perhaps the most useful of these (though satellite radio is very desirable), as it can easily save a life, makes parking far easier, and can avoid an accident. Apparently more kids are now killed by being backed over than any other kind of accident, and rear visibility on a pickup is naturally restricted by the height of the vehicle; though the Ram has huge rear-view mirrors and the door glass goes down farther than usual, that "low object directly behind the truck" area is an inevitable blind spot that is ameliorated by the parking alert. Dodge's system is nicely done, with both a good number of amber and red lights to provide an indication of distance - visible in the rear-view mirror - and an audible alert to make sure people know what's happening.

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Keys are a mix of old and new: our test vehicle included remote start, and since all these trucks now have radio-controlled ignition keys for security, the old mechanical portion was dispensed with entirely. You can unlock the doors by sliding out the "real" metal key from inside the fob, but you're meant to always use the remote buttons, and there is no traditional ignition lock. Just shove the plastic end of the key into the slot and turn; the radio control will unlock the system (or not). There are provisions for low batteries, as you might expect. Even the key fob, by the way, has been improved, with a more "giving" feel than in the past.

Extensive work was done on the Ram to increase gas mileage and cut interior noise, and it shows. Minor changes were made to numerous areas to reduce drag, getting the 2009 Ram back to roughly the same place as the aerodynamic 1993 Rams. The fog lights were put into flush bevels, the grille was tilted forward, the roof slipped back, the mirrors modified... the list goes on for a long time, reflecting over 200 hours of wind tunnel time. (It's a far cry from the "drive fast with cotton strips glued on while someone takes pictures" method.)

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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. The EPA rated our truck at 13 city, 18 highway; we'd say they were a bit optimistic about city mileage, though the engine went down to four cylinders fairly often.

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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. Front passengers get a pull-handle; rear passengers have to clamber in however they can. Once inside, passengers have very 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, but otherwise there is little to complain about.

The truck we tested had the optional hard-drive stereo, with both satellite radio and a hard drive to substitute for your iPod, holding a generous 30 gigabytes of music, pictures, and such; it can be filled by "ripping" CDs and DVDs, or by connecting via USB. You can also just plug in a device with the auxiliary cord, though then you can't use the convenient wheel-mounted controls. Sound is excellent, though being able to shut off the subwoofer would be nice; the controls are generally intuitive. This system, with its touch screen controls, is a bit more distracting than the standard stereo, and we suspect that most people would find satellite radio entertaining enough without the hard drive and its associated touch-screen display.

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The 2009 Ram 1500 Laramie Crew Cab with 4x4 starts at a whopping $44,140, compared with the base Ram 1500 ST Quad Cab at $22,170. Yes, it's nearly double the price, before options. However, this is a very well outfitted truck - and it's both cheaper and better equipped than its 2008 predecessor.

Standard safety features include electronic stability control, four-wheel ABS disc brakes, side curtain airbags for front and rear, security system, tire pressure monitoring, oversized mirrors, and fog lights. Standard "pickup truck" features include a 3.55:1 axle ratio, electronic shift-on-the-fly part-time 4x4 transfer case with low gear, 28-gallon gas tank, 205mm heavy-duty front axle. There's also a three year, 36,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty and the "lifetime" powertrain warranty.

Luxury features include intermittent wipers, air with dual-zone temperature control, satellite radio, UConnect phone system, hard-drive-based stereo (that can store many hours of your music), nine amplified speakers with a subwoofer, wheel-mounted audio controls, split front bench seat (with "bucket effect"), 60/40 rear folding seats with storage compartments under the cushions, power 10-way driver's seat with power lumbar adjustment, power six-way passenger's seat, leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, universal garage door opener, remote starter, cruise, trip computer with thermometer and compass, 115-volt AC power outlet, power rear sliding mirror, 20-inch chrome-clad wheels, automatic four-bulb headlights, and power fold-away heated mirrors. Driver memory is given to the radio, driver's seat, mirrors, and power-adjustable pedals. All that for $44,140.

Our test vehicle came with a few options, but not many. The red paint added $225; the class IV hitch added $335. Package 26H, including the rear park assist system, electronically controlled transfer case, and dual rear exhaust, added $800.

Overall, the 2009 Ram 1500 can claim a clear victory over every other pickup in its class when it comes to daily driving feel and features. Gas mileage is above average, despite the class-leading horsepower rating, thanks to variable cam technology, aerodynamic tuning, and the cylinder shutoff system. It looks like Dodge has a winner here, at just the right time - when the market is shrinking, leading the class can keep you in the game.

The Dodge Challenge, by Rob Martini

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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.

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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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I was surprised Dodge will be offering both the Quad and Crew cabs. A Dodge Rep informed me the Crew, having a smaller bed, will appeal to people hauling people, whereas the Quad Cab, having a larger bed, will appeal to people hauling cargo.

I thought Dodge did a great job promoting the Rams and I especially liked exploring them without having a salesman breathing down my neck. There wasn't any mention of additional models, the Cummins diesel, other engine choices or an SRT10 replacement.

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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.

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I personally liked the 2009 Ram without the center console, and my wife commented that she felt a little closed in when sitting in the Ram with the center console. That said, the interior is still a knock out, much better than the Ford and Toyota, and even better than the Silverado. The RamBox was nice, but I don't think I would put heavy tools in it (I carry a floor jack in my truck, but I would not put it in the RamBox, it doesn't look like it's made for such heavy things). 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.

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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.

More Dodge Ram 1500 impressions (by Vincent Nowaczyk)

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Vincent Nowaczyk wrote: I have 38 relatives that have worked for, or still work for, Ford Motor Co. My father and stepmother both retired after 38 years.

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After driving all the competition, if the new Ram's gas mileage is really as it states (up to 22 highway and 17 city), there is no reason other than personal choice to pick something else. The 2009 Ram 1500 Crew cab with the "RamBox" will be possibly the best truck available for 2009!

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The Challenger's design and price will pull more customers into our showrooms that we have never seen before and hopefully is my fellow sales professionals in all the Dodge dealerships do everything they can to shed the "CAR SALESMAN" image. This will be the turning point for CDJ Dealers, as big as when the minivan was introduced. I am confident that if the quality maintains we will be successful.

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