Back in 1993, truck drivers had no choice but to depend on domestic automakers for work-ready pickups, and only Ford and General Motors offered competitive haulers. That all changed a year later when Dodge set the pickup truck market on its leaf springs with the introduction of its all-new Ram. With a big-rig appearance thanks to an imposing front grille that looked ready to kick you in the Truck Nutz, Dodge's truck sales tripled inside of 12 months and gave load-hauling manly men a real alternative to Ford and Chevy. But while Dodge hit a home run with the 1994 Ram, the Penta-horned brand didn't have a heavy-duty option in its lineup until 2003, and an all-important diesel powerplant didn't come online until 2004. In 2008, Dodge filled out its pickup lineup with heavy-duty 4500 and 5500 variants, finally giving Chrysler's trucking arm the range of choices necessary to get plucky with the competition from Detroit and Dearborn.
Last year, Dodge introduced a new light-duty Ram, with sleek updated aesthetics and controversial coil springs that provide a superior ride at the expense of some towing and hauling capability. Fast-forward a year and the truckmakers at Chrysler are set to unleash a new heavy-duty Ram that's been redesigned to provide customers more capability, more options and a better ride while competing against offerings from its crosstown rivals with a lower cost of entry. We headed out to Ann Arbor, MI to drive, tow, brake, climb and traverse in the new Ram HD to see if Chrysler's truck team has succeeded. Follow along with us after the jump.
Related GalleryFirst Drive: 2010 Dodge Ram HD
Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.
When it comes to passenger cars, it's difficult to discern exactly what your customer base is after. An automaker can make a sedan with good power and handling, fine interior appointments and tons of room for four adults, yet the final product can still go over like a herpes flare-up. Trucks are a bit different. If you can deliver rugged good looks; strong, usable power; plenty of storage and top-notch reliability, chances are customers are going to find you. After all, there were 1.6 million trucks sold in the U.S. last year; about one-in-eight of the total consumer-grade vehicles sold, so there's plenty of reward for a job done right.
But the trick to nailing a top-notch pickup is working tirelessly with customers to figure out who buys trucks and how they're used, and the guys and gals at Dodge have it down to an exact science. How exact? Dodge's marketing team tells us that a typical truck buyer is a 55-year-old male, about 5' 11" and 203 pounds. There is a 67-percent chance that customer is going to have at least one dog (half the animal owners have two or more), and there's a 58-percent chance he tows a trailer.
To cater to that core customer, every Dodge Ram HD comes with a standard Class IV hitch, along with both four- and seven-pin hookups. As is increasingly common these days, Dodge is also offering an optional trailer brake package integrated into the dashboard. And since the guys who use their truck for work all week typically also use that truck on the weekends, the new Ram HD now has a crew cab configuration to ensure there's enough room for the camper, the family and the dog.
Truck buyers demand a lot out of their pickups, and utility will always take precedence over appearance in the heavy-duty segment. But that doesn't mean looks are unimportant. HD-class pickups need too look, well, heavy-duty, and this new Ram has bad-ass written all over it. For 2010, the Ram's already substantial crosshair grille gets even bigger, with enough chrome to fry even the most bling-resistant of retinas. The shiny metal parade continues with the bumper, which has been impressively fashioned from a single chunk of metal.
The hood now has a prominent power dome that seems to be all the rage these days and the headlamps received the same treatment as Dodge's light-duty model, only bigger. Arguably the most impressive design feature of the new Ram is a dually exclusive. Dodge decided to shy away from the composite body panels to cover the rear tires, instead opting to stamp the dually rig's rear quarters using honest-to-goodness steel. The look is smooth, maybe even a bit sexy, especially if trucks that can tow 17,000 pounds is your thing.
In all, Dodge manages to make an already manly looking truck even more rough and ready. Gaps are tighter, sheetmetal is curvier and everything just looks brawnier. But today's heavy-duty truck buyer is shelling out anywhere from $30,000 to over $60,000 for the right to go big, and they demand a functional, configurable and comfortable interior. The 2010 Dodge Ram HD has an interior for every taste, from a regular cab for work applications to the crew cab and even a largest-in-class mega cab.
We spent the majority of our time in a Ram 2500 SLT crew cab with a 6' 4" bed. Dodge says this is their volume truck, so we were more than happy to take the Cummins diesel-powered example as our test model. Over the course of our testing at Chrysler's Chelsea, MI proving grounds, it proved to be a nice place to work. First off, the crew cab's cabin is huge – which is expected of a four-door pickup weighing more than 6,000 pounds. There's so much room inside the new Ram HD that Dodge engineers found enough space to throw in 42 storage areas – up from 24 cubbies in the last-gen Heavy Duty. While some of those compartments are only big enough to handle a cell phone or a couple packs of gum, others are large and quite handy. The massive glovebox can fit drinks for everyone in the cabin, while the in-floor cooler can fit added refreshments plus ice.
Beyond a plethora of cab configurations, Dodge is also offering two different levels of interior refinement. The base interior, in which we spent most of our time, is fine for most applications, with harder plastics better suited to a work site than a trip to the opera. It'll be fine for most truck owners, though, with comfortable seats and armrests aplenty. We did manage to spend some time in an upscale Laramie model, which contains the same top-notch materials found in the higher-spec light-duty Ram. Soft touch, leather-like materials abound, and the hide-wrapped steering wheel is one of the best in the business – even eclipsing the offerings from Ford or GM's truck.
But while a great cabin certainly helps both the recreational and work truck buyer do their job in comfort, the most important factor is capability. And since the Ram HD can haul up to 24,500 GCWR, we're confident the newest Dodge has all the skills that most truck buyers could ever need. During our stint with the Ram HD, we were given the opportunity to drive three Dually 3500 models, each towing or hauling something significant. The first model, a regular cab model with a six-speed manual transmission and an eight-foot bed, had over 1,200 pounds of straw strapped to its back. The 350 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque provided by the 6.7-liter Cummins inline-six diesel engine (which carries a $7,615 price tag over the standard HEMI V8) hauled this big load without breaking a sweat, though rowing our own gears isn't nearly as much fun when motivating 8,000 pounds of truck.
The giant bale of straw was only an appetizer, though. The big fun was to be had when we got behind the wheel of a Ram 3500 Crew Cab Dually with an eight-foot box. Latched onto the truck's bed was a trailer containing a Case IH Maxxum 125 tractor. That's 16,500 pounds of tractor and trailer – exactly the sort of payload you pictured yourself hauling as a kid playing with Tonka Trucks. With all that weight in tow, the Ram HD's best-in-class 650 lb-ft of torque at 1,500 RPM came in handy. Taking off from a stop was a snap, and coming to a halt wasn't as laborious as expected. The Cummins I6 displayed steady grunt when towing the load, never feeling overmatched. Once up to speed, we were able to shift our own gears thanks to Dodge's Electronic Range Select feature, which lets the driver manually limit the highest available gear. ERS comes in handy when traversing steep grades while hauling a big load, as there are only so many algorithms engineers can program to provide up/down shifts exactly when you need them. Turning was made a bit easier with the aid of the new Ram's excellent sideview mirrors, which kept a crystal clear picture of everything going on around our super-sized cargo.
The Ram HD also has a few features that make hauling a big load safer. Diesel models now come with a standard exhaust brake that can be turned on and off via a switch on the dash. The exhaust brake shuts down the turbos, using engine compression to slow down the mini big rig, which also reduces brake fade when hauling loads on downhill grades. We weren't able to test the exhaust brake during our time hauling the Case IH Maxxum 125 tractor, but we did try out another way Dodge engineers were able to make the Ram HD easier to stop. While coasting at 60 MPH, we were instructed to simply ease off the accelerator and tap the brake. The integrated trailer brake controller worked in concert with the Ram's six-speed auto 'box to quickly slow over 24,000 lbs of steel, glass and rubber without overtaxing the truck's disc brakes.
Dodge appears to have built a work truck for everybody from the grunt to the site foreman, and the horned beast is looking to appeal to the ardent off-roader as well. The new 2010 Ram HD Power Wagon is no joke. Its 33-inch LT285/70R17D BF Goodrich All-Terrain tires, solid axles, locking front and rear differentials and electronic sway bar disconnect have banded together to accomplish one goal: making you a superstar when tackling the wild. Dodge set up a sweet off-road gauntlet within its proving grounds to properly test the Power Wagon's prowess. We simply put the Ram into 4WD low and headed off into the rough stuff.
The course contained uphill and downhill grades, massive boulders, several inches of mud and even a steep, dirt-encrusted log bridge. The Power Wagon cut through all of the obstacles without breaking a sweat, with the 383-hp HEMI V8 (the Cummins diesel isn't available on the Power Wagon) providing plenty of punch for anything we were able to throw at it.
Dodge management challenged its truck engineers to deliver similar ride quality improvements to its heavy-duty offerings as it did with the light-duty Ram, but without the use of coil springs. We wouldn't exactly say those engineers nailed this request like a Rodney Dangerfield Triple Lindy, but we would definitely call the new Ram HD a more comfortable cruiser than the outgoing model. Among the engineering changes for 2010 are mounts that connect the C-Pillar to the truck's frame, resulting in less cabin shake on rough roads. The new Ram is also quieter on the inside with the aid of triple sealed doors and improved aerodynamics. The change is noticeable when holding conversations on the open road, and we were even able to talk in muted tones when traversing the gauntlet in the Power Wagon.
After spending a day with the extensive lineup of heavy-duty Dodge Rams, we're confident that Chrysler's truck division has a reasonable shot at improving upon its 23-percent share of the HD truck market. That's already a big chunk of pie in a segment Dodge has only played in for seven years, and a new-and-improved truck for 2010 that will retail for less money than the model it replaces makes the fight for customers a bit more interesting. Dodge's new trucks are now more competitive than ever with improved aesthetics and ride quality, terrific interiors, more configurations and improved capability. At the very least, the Mopar brand has put a lot of pressure on the competition to hit a home run with new product offerings next year. Because if Ford or GM miss, Dodge will be more than happy to take their customers and run.
Related GalleryFirst Drive: 2010 Dodge Ram HD
Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.
Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own – we do not accept sponsored editorial.