Twenty-five years ago, the first diesel-equipped Dodge Ram pickup went on sale. Then, twenty years ago, Dodge made the pickup world sit up and take notice. The 1994 Dodge Ram pickup, with its big-truck styling, transformed an also-ran vehicle line with a seven-percent market share into a major player with an 18.5% share at the end of August 2013. Significantly, from the crash in 2009 to the end of 2012, Ram achieved the highest growth of any American pickup.
For 2014, these trends converged as Ram became the only American full-size pickup line with diesel engines across its range.
A group from the Texas Auto Writers Association met the newest Rams on a hazy morning at Ventura Farms in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains about 43 miles northwest of Los Angeles. They were all there: the new Ram 1500 with the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine; the new 2500 with the five-link coil suspension; the 3500 with a demonstration version of supplemental load-leveling air suspension, and an assortment of ProMaster commercial vans.
The event kicked off with presentations of the new technologies. The keynote speaker was Ram CEO Reid Bigland, whose speech was liberally sprinkled with the phrase “best-in-class.”
Kevin Mets, head of Ram Heavy Duty Pickup Engineering and Greg Corey, from Ram Power Engineering, gave us a briefing on the new technologies, including watching a pre-production prototype of the big Ram's suspension. A Ram 3500 was hooked up to a gooseneck trailer loaded with a 19,841-pound Case-IH 140 tractor. A pole with a moving arrow showed the height of the rear wheel opening. As the trailer's landing gear was retraced, the arrow moved down as the truck took on the load. The new air suspension kicked in and the arrow slowly moved back up to its original position.
While diesels and new suspensions took most of the limelight, Kevin Mets introduced the new truck-specific 6.4-liter HEMI engine. In addition to best-in-class 410 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque, the new engine can be equipped with dual alternators to support heavy electrical loads.
After the briefing, it was time to pick a truck and head out. I picked a Ram 2500 4x4 with a manual transmission and fewer bells and whistles. Kimberly Shults, the Chrysler Communications rep for the Southwest Region, came along as the navigator.
I have often wished that manufacturers would offer more "real world" vehicles in their media fleets, especially in trucks that are more likely to be purchased for their work capabilities than the level of bling. The Ram 2500 was set up as a fleet buyer might take it; even without the extras, the Ram 2500 was very comfortable and the coil suspension worked exactly as advertised, delivering a ride superior to light-duty trucks from Ford and GM, including the new 2014 Silverado.
To test handling and maneuverability, we headed out on Protero Road to Westlake Boulevard, a boulevard in name only. Westlake is a narrow road with no shoulders, but enough twists and turns to give a snake a conniption fit. It heads up a mountainside and then comes back down, where we picked up Mulholland Highway, another twisty two-lane with delusions of grandeur. Even when the lanes narrowed down to being barely wide enough for the exterior mirrors, the Ram was able to stay in-lane through the turns.
If you're going to take a big truck up a mountain, it would be hard to beat that silver Ram 2500. The Cummins diesel provided plenty of power and the smooth-shifting six-speed made the nearly constant gear changes easy; it had a fine clutch feel despite the high torque.
Seating was comfortable enough for a solid day's driving; supportive without being too firm. Truck seats have come a long was since the last pickup I owned.
Mulholland Highway deposited us on the Pacific Coast Highway, a real highway this time, where we paused at one of California's many beaches to stretch our legs, take some photos and change drivers. The return route to Ventura Farms was less dramatic and we enjoyed a comfortable ride.
After a lunch at the red barn on Thornton Ranch, a portion of Ventura Farms used for motion picture filming, I took one of the Ram 1500 diesels on an offroad loop. The loop was a narrow, graded dirt trail that went up a hillside. It had a few bumps and dips, but was otherwise typical of a Texas farm or ranch road. The new diesel provided plenty of power, even on steeper grades and it was very responsive, especially coupled with the eight-speed automatic transmission.
The EcoDiesel should be the mileage champ among light pickups: Chrysler says more than 25 mpg on the highway, but some of the writers that drove the 1500 on the morning loop reported indicated mileage of more than 26 mpg (according to the EVIC) despite the fuel-eating twisties through the Santa Monica mountains.
One of the surprising things about the new engine is the relatively small price penalty: a 1500 equipped with the EcoDiesel and eight-speed transmission starts at $28,045, including destination. That's just $2,850 more than a comparably equipped truck with the 5.7-liter Hemi. Truck diesels typically cost quite a bit more, and Ram says the small diesel will offer the same reduced maintenance and extended service life of the larger Cummins diesels used in the heavy-duty Rams.