Putting The Pentastar To Work

2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 - front three-quarter view

It's been over five months since we first heard word that Chrysler was planning to grace the Ram 1500 with the company's do-all Pentastar 3.6-liter V6. At 305 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, the new-generation six-cylinder handily embarrasses the antiquated 3.7-liter Magnum lump found in the base 2012 model in both power and efficiency. As fuel prices have continued to inch upward, that latter category has evolved into a more critical piece of the capability puzzle for both private and fleet buyers.

Paired with a new ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, the 2013 Ram 1500 two-wheel drive should return 20-percent better fuel economy than its predecessor. That, sirs, is a huge number. More importantly, the addition of the Pentastar to the Ram line means buyers may now opt for a four-wheel-drive truck with a V6 under the hood – something that wasn't possible with the old 3.7. But as interesting as the drivetrain is, it's a small part of Ram's plan to carve out a larger chunk of pickup sales for itself. Engineers and designers have loaded the 2013 Ram 1500 with more available technology than ever before, as well as the first available self-leveling air suspension in the half-ton class. The result is nothing short of impressive.

Styling certainly wasn't one of the complaints we had about the 2012 Ram 1500, and we weren't alone. According to Joe Dehner, head of design for Ram, customers had been pretty clear on how they felt about the truck's current aesthetics.

"Our objective was simple: don't screw up the design," he said.

2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 side view2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 front view2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 rear view

The truck nabs a new drag coefficient of .376 for the standard model, best of any truck on the road.

To that end, much of the pickup's exterior has been left alone. New headlight housings, a slightly larger grille and a honkin "hero" metal bumper with larger tow hook access ports are all new for 2013, and Sport and Laramie Longhorn models benefit from new projector headlamp housings with either black or chrome surrounds depending on trim. The new lamp arrays are optional on Laramie trucks, and our volume SLT tester came with the old halogen design. Higher rungs also get new 20-inch wheels and LED taillamps.

Down the side, Ram has worked in new, optional "wheel-to-wheel" running boards that not only allow better bed access, but also help the truck nab its new drag coefficient of .376 for the standard model. According to the company's engineers, that number is the best of any truck on the road. By comparison, most pickups land in the .40 range or higher. Much of its slickness comes from tricks like standard active aero shutters behind the front grille, which automatically seal off airflow to the engine compartment unless necessary. The 2013 Ram 1500 also uses a new lower air dam. Interestingly enough, the new HFE (High Fuel Efficiency) model walks away with a drag coefficient of .36 due to its standard tonneau cover.

2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 grille2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 headlight2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 wheel2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 taillight

While the truck's exterior may not have received a substantial overhaul, Ram gave the 1500's interior a solid once over. The door panels have received significant attention and now wear mostly soft-touch materials in attractive color combinations, while the center stack has been revised to incorporate the excellent eight-inch touch screen Uconnect interface found elsewhere in the Chrysler family. As in the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 300, the infotainment package continues to be one of the most intuitive, easy-to-read and functional systems on the market right now. Ram has also color-keyed the screen's background to each truck's interior via the Vehicle Identification Number so that the display better matches the rest of the cabin.

Rather than opting for a traditional console- or steering-column-mounted transmission lever, the company went with a rotary dial.

A new climate control package has also jumped on board for 2013, allowing the driver to use either the touchscreen or a set of easy-to-manipulate dials and buttons. Likewise, the center stack features redundant controls for the audio system as well, which means buyers aren't forced into playing with the Uconnect system unless they want to.

Designers came up against a new challenge when it came to selecting gears for the Ram 1500 with the new ZF eight-speed automatic transmission. Rather than opting for a traditional console- or steering-column-mounted lever, the company went for a rotary dial mounted just to the right of the steering wheel. Paired with a push-button transfer case selector, the set up takes some getting used to, but performs as it should. We only found ourselves absent-mindedly putting hand to shifter once while fumbling for the HVAC controls. The company says the shifter was built with specific detents for Drive and Reverse, though in our maneuvering we found it a bit too easy to glide past Reverse and all the way into Park for quick three-point turns. The push-button transfer case selector works well, however.

2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 interior2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 front seats2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 rear seats

Ram also got its hands on the same seven-inch TFT gauge cluster display as the Dodge Dart, which means buyers can customize their clusters with information they find pertinent. Ram says there are over 350 screen combinations, and the truck will automatically default to pertinent towing information like transmission temperature when hooked to a trailer. Very clever.

Ram Box buyers will be happy to hear the bins can now be locked automatically from the key fob.

The remainder of the cabin benefits from the same handsome looks found on the 2012 model, and the addition of the Uconnect system and intelligent gauge cluster help push the 2013 Ram 1500 well ahead of the plasticized Chevrolet Silverado. Engineers had to completely revamp the truck's electrical infrastructure to handle the new systems. While Ford has managed to keep pace with the interior of its F-150, the aging Silverado and GMC Sierra are stuck bumbling along with truly ancient-feeling cabins. With its attractive color options and nice material options, the volume 1500 SLT feels like a nicer place to spend time than many of GM's Denali models we've had our hands on in the past year. That's serious trouble for The General.

While our tester did not come with the optional Ram Box cargo system, buyers who opt for the in-bed storage will be happy to hear the bins can now be locked automatically from the key fob. The same goes for the tailgate, which should cut down on gate thefts significantly. The 2012 model required each bin to be locked with a key manually.

2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 steering wheel2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 instrument panel2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 door

These changes all help make the 2013 Ram 1500 more competitive than before, but the biggest edge comes from under the hood. Ram ditched the paleolithic 3.7-liter V6 and six-speed automatic transmission that sat behind it in favor of the new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 and eight-speed automatic gearbox. That move alone shed 76 pounds from the truck, more than half of the total weight savings from the 2012 to the 2013 model year, but it also helped the pickup walk away with more power and better fuel efficiency. The new engine bests its predecessor by 90 horsepower and 34 pound-feet of torque, while yielding 17 miles per gallon city and 25 mpg highway in two-wheel drive guise, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That marks an impressive increase of three mpg city and five mpg highway over the old powertrain and puts the Ram 1500 V6 well ahead of its most efficient competitor, the Ford F-150, at 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.

The Ram 1500 V6 is well ahead of its competition with an 18/25 mpg EPA rating in two-wheel-drive guise.

Some of that efficiency comes from a bit of engineering cleverness where the transmission is concerned. Ram incorporated a new heat exchanger that pumps engine coolant to the gearbox to get the automatic's fluid up to operating temperature more quickly. Doing so reduces wear and gets the fluid to the proper viscosity as quickly as possible, thereby increasing efficiency.

Unburdened by cargo or trailer, the V6 and new transmission work flawlessly. As in other applications, the Pentastar requires reaching into the north end of the rev band to really dig into the power. The full 305 hp is only available from 6,400 rpm and up, and the 269 lb-ft of torque hits at a somewhat lower 4,175 rpm. Shifts from the eight-speed are nice and smooth and the logic doesn't get flustered easily. Hook a trailer to the truck, however, and the story changes drastically.

2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 engine

Ram provided us with a small trailer loaded with a UTV good for a combined weight of around 2,200 pounds. That's just under half of the truck's 5,630-pound tow rating as equipped, though we would feel uneasy about getting anywhere close to that number. With our trailer in tow, the transmission didn't want to downshift going uphill to allow the engine to hit its peak power. As a result, the truck felt dogged by the additional weight and we could feel the driveline lug as the engine dropped to around 2,000 rpm before the transmission finally gave up a gear. As anyone who has ever done a substantial amount of towing can tell you, the last thing you want to do is force your driveline to lug along. Doing so puts unnecessary stress on you engine and transmission internals while stepping up heat in a big way. Using the steering-wheel-mounted buttons to nudge the truck up or down a gear certainly helps, but it felt like we were constantly fighting the transmission to let the engine build revs and stay there. This engine likes to spin. Let it.

2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4 rear 3/4 view

The "Active Level" air suspension can give the truck anywhere from 7.6 to 10.7 inches of ground clearance.

But whereas the V6 and transmission seem at odds when there's a load behind the truck, the brakes, steering and suspension are all on the same page. The 2013 Ram 1500 now uses an electric power steering system in place of the old hydraulic gear found on the 2012 model. The system feels a little on the light side, but isn't over-assisted. Given that the rack is pushing around a set of 265/70/17 tires, we don't mind having the help. Likewise, the brakes are solid and confident. While they lack the initial bite of stoppers found on the Ford F-150, the Ram 1500 delivers a more linear pedal with positive feedback. It doesn't ever feel like you're going to need to push through the carpet to bring this train to a stop, even with plenty of pounds stuck on the hitch.

Much of that poise can be attributed to the optional "Active Level" air-ride suspension fitted to all four corners of our tester. At $1,595, the system uses pressurized tanks to give the truck a full 8.7 inches of ground clearance on its default setting. Switch to Off Road 2, and the height jumps by another two inches, all the way up to 10.7 inches of clearance. Off Road 1 doles out 1.2 inches of extra height over default, while an aero mode lowers the vehicle by 1.1 inches to eke out the best possible fuel economy at predetermined speeds. That's fun and all, but the airbags have a more useful purpose for those of us who spend time with a trailer behind the truck. The kit will actually level-out the suspension to normal ride height with a load on the hitch. Very cool. Check it out in our video below.

Autoblog Short Cuts: 2013 Ram 1500 Crew Cab SLT 4x4

And what about a price tag? Expect to hand over $23,585 for a base 2013 Ram 1500, including a $995 destination fee. That marks around a one percent increase over the 2012 model despite all of the extra goodies on board. Opt for the 3.6-liter V6 and eight-speed automatic in our tester, and Ram will charge you an additional $1,000 over the 4.7-liter V8-powered Tradesman model. Throwing tricks like the Crew Cab and four-wheel drive of our tester put the bottom line to a hefty $39,330 loaded to the hilt.

Excellent fuel economy, a decent ride and a sorted interior make for a quality product.

Is the 3.6-liter V6-equipped 2013 Ram 1500 the perfect truck for everyone? Certainly not, but it will scratch the full-size truck itch for a wide swath of buyers. Those who tow infrequently won't find any complaints with the drivetrain, and every truck owner can appreciate the flexibility of the air ride suspension. Excellent fuel economy, a decent ride and a sorted interior make for a quality product.

For the first time in years, a domestic automaker is taking a clever look at building a better truck. The result is a model that embarrasses the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra at their own games while giving the F-150 something to sweat over. GM may be hard at work on the company's next-generation full-size, but until it bows, the company's trucks can consider themselves eclipsed by the newest Ram.