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Creating Rams: in Depth with Director of Ram Truck Engineering Mike Cairns

Part I: Quality, transmissions, link/coil suspensions, fuel economy, and more.

interviewed by David Zatz, February 2015 • Also present: Ram Communications' Nick Cappa

Questions are in blue. Nick Cappa's contributions are italicized. Editorial additions are in [brackets.]

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When you make a luxury truck like the Laramie Limited, do you use thicker glass and such for sound insulation?

No, we do not add that. We already have a very quiet cabin and didn't feel we had a need for that.

Are we going to see more niche Rams?

Well, you never know.

Fuel economy

What do you think your biggest accomplishment has been as Ram's director of engineering?

That's a nice question. How do I narrow it down? Let me state it correctly, it is not me. We have a whole team. I'm part of a large team.

I'm really proud of what we've done with the overall Ram lineup in terms of fuel economy. We've done a lot of work. In the past, Ram did not always have a reputation for fuel economy. It was all Hemi V8, and the image was not-so-great fuel economy. We now are purchased because of fuel economy.

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It's become a positive for Ram, and I'm very proud of that, because that's something we really needed. We tried very hard to improve that image through the Pentastar 3.6 coupled with the eight-speed transmission, the eight-speed transmission behind the Hemi, and then of course the diesel engine which has brought us a lot of accolades and really turned Ram into where it has a reputation now for the best fuel economy. So I'm very proud of that.

Link/coil suspension

I'm also very proud of just the lineup we've got now. Everything we make, from a 1500 through the 5500 Chassis Cabs, and now our commercial vans, these are all top-in-segment. I can stand here and at least argue with anyone that we make the best lineup of trucks and vans in the market. And we can go look at Ford, GM, Nissan, whoever, and we stand up to anybody.

[As for ride], going to a link-coil suspension in the rear transformed the Ram 1500. I don't think it's even arguable. Every article I read still gives Ram credit for being the best ride, the best handling. That is awesome. So now we've brought that into 2014, the link-coil rear into the 2500, and now we're reaping the benefits of that. Sales are absolutely spectacular with the Ram 2500.

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We get accolades constantly about its ride. For a heavy-duty truck, it is really a really great-riding vehicle, still with awesome capability.

So we not only improved the ride with link-coil, but we also increased the capability. And then when you go to the Ram 3500, we are the tops in towing, payload, and torque. That's it. That's what sells 3500s, and we're the king [at 30,000 pounds]. And I'm very proud of that.

The team's worked very hard to get there. It's not easy. And they're genuine. You see that also in articles, and we hear from consumers they love our trucks. They're working them every day and they're working really well.

A while ago, a Jeep engineer said, "Oh, yes, we did that at Jeep X years ago." Is that one of the inspirations for the Ram suspension?

Yes, we even said that in '09. Link-coil design, went into [XJ] Cherokee, certainly Grand Cherokee, and then Wrangler years ago. Vehicles that needed to be very tough, very off-road-capable, that get worked really hard, we saw the success of that in Ram.

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When we were doing the '09 truck, improving our ride was a big goal. When we looked at that design, we built up some prototypes, and recognized the improvement we could get out of it was big. The only real downside is cost. It costs a little bit more money than leaf spring. There's actually a weight save, because leaf springs are heavy. So there's a weight save, huge ride and handling benefits, and no compromise to durability, payload, or towing capability.

Yes, we had the Jeep engineers working with us because they already knew and understood this rear suspension really well. So we don't deny that a bit. We built on the Jeep knowledge and experience for sure.

So why haven't your competitors...

I don't know.

Nick: I hope they never do.

Right, we're thrilled about it. The benefits are large, and it's not that much more cost. I think it's just tradition and maybe image I'm guessing. Maybe they don't want to be seen as copying Ram.

Nick: There was a time there where our competitors were talking against it, trying to build a case against it. There were certain things being said that weren't true.

Not as tough, less stability.

Right. It's all wrong.

Nick: What was wonderful about that is it gave us more time to develop the heavy-duty truck. And now both of our trucks have better ride handling and control.

On the heavy duty (Ram 2500), we increased the payload. Yes, it's coil spring. You make it as big and heavy as you want. You can get any spring rate you want, within some reason. It certainly doesn't limit payload. We pick the payloads for out trucks to gain the balance of fuel economy, ride handling, etc.

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In the 2500, because we put so much torque through the rear with the Cummins and some of the models, we have a wind-up limiting shock - a power hop damper - under the top of the axle to control wind-up, so we didn't use a compromising shock setup.

[The power hop damper is] in the link-coil setup when needed depending on the model. Powertrain, drive line. It's got a lot to do with wheel base, drive line, etc., and torque. So not all models get it, but we put it on those that needed it.

Nick: While you're on the show floor, go to the back of our truck, the Ram 2500, and put your weight on the rear bumper. It actually moves. Then do that with our competitors' trucks.

Well that's friction. That's one of the biggest benefits of a coil spring, is there's zero friction. You want to push, it's just a coil, right? Leaf springs, all those leafs have to slide against each other. That friction is a stick-slip situation. What happens is you load up and it's pushing back, pushing back, and all of a sudden it'll slip. It's not smooth. It's busy, where a coil is just smooth, constant spring force, so you can much better tune a coil spring suspension.

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We take advantage of that. We've got about 18 different rear shocks on a Ram 2500 because we specifically tune each one. On our old leaf spring, I think we only had four because it didn't make that much difference.

12 shocks in the front, I think, and 18 in the rear. Just in the Ram 2500. Because we're able to fine-tune more. We have so many different wheel bases for the different drive lines, but we take advantage of that, so we manage that complexity to give the best ride possible.

Ram Quality

So another piece that I'm proud of is our overall quality. We've worked really hard, working with our manufacturing team, to really improve the quality of our trucks. It shows, and our reputation is continually improving. We've still got to keep working on that. It's a never-ending vigil, to keep the quality up.

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The heavy diesel automatic transmission, back in the day, may not have had a great reputation. When we came out with the 68RFE in '07, it changed that reputation. That's a Chrysler-built trans, and it is bulletproof solid.

We've got a really good reputation with the 68RFE. Very happy and very proud of that. Mike Orman is the head of our Rodeo group; he and his guys, that whole rodeo scene, use Rams. We give them trucks because they use the heck out of them. So they're trailering all the time, horses, equipment, campers, the whole lot. And they're at the extremes. It's a great test bed.

Mike Orman and I were just talking about transmissions, and he said the reputation now, our 68RFE is considered one of those great transmissions, like the days of yore when we had the TorqueFlite. The old three-speed TorqueFlites were known as bulletproof transmissions. Now we've got the eight-speed and the 1500 which we call the TorqueFlite 8 because we knew what a great trans it was and we wanted to harken back to that great reputation that we used to have, that Chrysler had, with the old TorqueFlites. The old three-speeds. And this eight-speed, it has been out there now for two years, developing its own great reputation.

Nick: And on the Aisin. [Pronounced "eye-sin" in case you wondered]

Yes. I don't want to leave that out, you're right.

Nick: I saw a quote recently and somebody said "If you need to tow Australia..."

That's cool, yes. Our max tow package [for 30,000 pounds] comes with the Aisin six-speed trans, and Aisin's been a great partner. They designed and developed this transmission for us so that we could be the king of the hill.

Mike Cairns' walk-through of the 2015 Ram Rebel (w/video)Part 2: Mike Cairns on vans, Ford, and more

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