Tow It All

2013 Ram 3500 HD

There are no shiftier sands than those that underlie the heavy duty truck market. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have been locked in the same interminable sniping match for years, each delighting in picking their competitors off with new, more powerful drivelines and ever loftier tow ratings. Right now, Ram sits at the top of the heap with its 2013 3500 HD. With the optional Max Tow package, the truck is rated to pull an astonishing 30,000 pounds. That's ludicrous weight – the kind of heft typically left to the semi world.

In fact, most states require you to have a commercial driver's license just to pull that much ballast around behind you, and for good reason: All that tonnage comes to bear on every aspect of a vehicle's driving dynamics. Every maneuver takes longer, requires more forethought and exacts a larger toll on the vehicle's hardware. Of course, as is often the case, there can be a gulf between what it says on a machine's label and what the rig can actually muster in terms of performance. We hitched a full 30,000 lbs behind the 2013 Ram 3500 HD to find out exactly how well the truck lives up to its reputation.

2013 Ram 3500 HD side view2013 Ram 3500 HD front view2013 Ram 3500 HD rear view

Outside, the 2013 3500 HD boasts a few new tricks. As with the 1500, designers were cognizant of the fact that buyers were plenty happy with the current model's look. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Ram went with a few new grille insert options, including the "Hex-Perf" treatment on our tester. Across the board, the trucks now feature updated headlamps, and the Laramie trim now rocks halogen projectors with LED turning indicators. Look closely and you'll spot details like the Ram shield molded into the lamp housing.

Engineers worked a few aerodynamic tricks from the light duty class into the heavy duty trucks.

Otherwise, the truck remains unchanged. Engineers worked a few aerodynamic tricks from the light duty class into the heavy duty trucks, including full-length step bars. Additionally, the trucks now feature the same portrait-style badging on the doors to make it easier for owners to apply their own company graphics. Case IH fans will be happy to hear Ram has added new special color options, including IH Red. New Holland Construction Yellow and Agricultural Blue are also available for those of you with less taste.

Around back, new LED tail lamps and reverse lamps take the place of the old hardware. Buyers can also go for an optional camera situated in the cab-mounted third brake lamp. The kit makes it easy to keep an eye on cargo or line up a goose neck trailer, and the camera can be actuated from inside the cab with the feed displaying on the 8.4-inch Uconnect screen. Buyers who go for the optional camera still get the standard back-up camera, but that feed moves to the rear-view mirror to reduce confusion.

2013 Ram 3500 HD grille2013 Ram 3500 HD headlight2013 Ram 3500 HD wheel2013 Ram 3500 HD taillight

Overlook the texmex motif and the interior is nicer than what we've seen from the current BMW 7 Series.

Step inside, and you can expect to find all of the niceties we first saw in the 2013 1500 half-ton truck. New materials, better color choices and a more intelligent layout all are part of the dance. Big, easy-to-use knobs stay on hand for four-wheel drive, audio and climate controls, which means you aren't chained to a touch screen for the truck's basic functions. Larger buttons make selections easy even with bulkier gloves, while integrated controls for the trailer brake controller, exhaust brake and tow haul mode are stashed lower in the center stack. Our Laramie Longhorn edition came swaddled in entirely over-the-top leather-trimmed seats, belt buckle satchels behind the front buckets and some very attractive matte wood trim. Overlook the Tex-Mex motif and the interior is nicer than what we've seen from the current BMW 7 Series.

While it's hard to miss the entirely redesigned interior, there's more going on inside the cabin than fresh materials and color choices. Engineers supplied the HD line with an all-new Powernet electrical architecture, which means buyers not only get the large 8.4-inch Uconnect touch screen infotainment system, but a large seven-inch TFT display mounted in the gauge cluster as well. The latter display can give the driver all sorts of pertinent vehicle information that was previously only available through aftermarket solutions. Those include boost pressure, exhaust brake pressure, trailer brake gain, fuel filter life, engine hours and a variety of temperature sensor readings. While they may not all be necessary, they're plenty handy to have around.

2013 Ram 3500 HD interior2013 Ram 3500 HD front seats2013 Ram 3500 HD rear seats

More importantly, every trim receives an analog diesel exhaust fluid gauge. New federal regulations require cleaner emissions from diesel engines starting with the 2013 model year, and like most automakers, Ram accomplished this with a urea-based exhaust additive that greatly reduces particulates. While owners should expect to get around 15,000 miles of range out of the eight-gallon diesel exhaust fluid tank, actual range will vary depending on driving habits and tow loads. Rather than stick drivers with an idiot light, Ram went with an ever-present, easy-to-read gauge.

In Max Tow configuration, the powerplant delivers 385 horsepower and 850 pound-feet of torque.

Under the hood, the 3500 can be had with either a gasoline or diesel engine, though hitting that magic 37,500 GVW requires buyers to opt for the 6.7-liter Cummins turbo-diesel inline six-cylinder engine of our tester. In Max Tow configuration, the powerplant delivers 385 horsepower at 2,800 rpm and 850 pound-feet of torque at just 1,600 rpm. That's a full 50 more lb-ft of torque than the 2012 model, and Ram says the driveline should be good for up to 15-percent better fuel economy than before. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't require fuel economy testing for heavy-duty trucks, and Chyrsler isn't offering up any estimates for the time being. Look for our own observations once we get a little more time in the saddle.

Interestingly enough, the only thing that separates this configuration from the 370 hp and 800 lb-ft of torque output ratings of the standard non-Max Tow variant is ECU mapping, at least on the engine front. Engineers were able to nudge up the power thanks to a rash of other changes, including doubling the vehicle's cooling capacity.



Accelerating to 60 miles per hour happens maniacally fast for something of this girth.

The 2013 Ram 3500 features dual radiators and transmission coolers to keep both the big diesel and its new Aisin six-speed automatic transmission from going critical under heavy loads. As such, the intercooler is now shoved way down low for better airflow. Engineers also worked in a new Ram Air system that switches air intake from the inner fender to the grille in the event of extremely high ambient temperatures. While most diesels will cut power if the ambient air temp gets too high, Ram says its system allows the big Cummins to power along at max output for longer periods of time.

In addition, the front suspension was also redesigned from a five-link configuration to a new three-link design with beefier steering knuckles, ball joints and steering linkages for better roll stiffness than before. Combine those goodies with a stiffer frame that's packed with eight full cross members, and the 2013 3500 is a stronger mule all the way around.

Empty, the 3500 still rides like a big one-ton truck. We wouldn't exactly call the experience buck board, but the machine wastes no time reminding you of the fact that you're piloting a massive, heavy, body-on-frame beast. All that available torque means accelerating to 60 miles per hour happens maniacally fast for something of this girth, and while there's some turbo lag on hand, the gap between foot-down and high-ho silver is short enough not to be a problem.

2013 Ram 3500 HD air intake2013 Ram 3500 HD rear differential

The truck just does the job, and in this case, the job is pulling around the equivalent of more than nine Honda Accords.

But it's when you shove the full 30,000 pounds behind this truck that it really comes into its own. We had to travel to the Chrysler Proving Grounds in Chelsea, MI just to get the chance to do so legally as the fine state of Michigan requires a CDL to pull that much poundage around. With no such certification, we were left to a prescribed route around the company's ride and handling course.

We should take a moment to describe exactly what it's like to get under way with this much weight behind you. Put the truck in gear, gently lean into the throttle and you'd be forgiven for thinking the parking brake is still on. That much mass doesn't get up off its haunches without a little persuasion, and in this case, that convincing comes courtesy of a more zealous right foot. Pile on the fuel and you can feel the big Ram put its shoulder into the load, steadily and persistently piling on thrust as the turbo spools until you're gaining steady and persistent momentum.

At no time does the truck feel like it's being taxed or that the rig is at the upper threshold of its capability, which is perhaps the most surprising thing about the whole experience. Yes, acceleration to 60 mph is plenty slow, but not so much that we'd be concerned about hopping on the highway. The truck just does the job, and in this case, the job is pulling around the equivalent of more than nine Honda Accord sedans.

2013 Ram 3500 HD rear 3/4 view

If you can stay sane with the option sheet, you can walk away with a regular cab Tradesman in the mid-$40k range.

More impressive is just how readily the truck comes down from highway speeds. Engineers graced the 3500 HD with a new exhaust brake that can serve up 250 lb-ft of braking force when required. Push the button on the center stack once and the exhaust brake will engage the instant you lift the accelerator. Press it again and it will slip into Auto mode, which allows a certain amount of coasting. Press the brake pedal and the exhaust brake will do its thing until you release the pedal, and will only re-engage to help you keep your new speed from then on. The tech is certainly handy for tackling long grades without abusing your rotors or pads. Ram says the system helps increase hardware life and reduces the truck's cost of ownership. All we can say for certain is that it doesn't feel like the cart is whipping this mule down the road.

Official base pricing hasn't been announced just yet, but our full-tilt tester rung the dinner bell at $70,285, including destination. That cash buys this huge Mega Cab configuration, a 4.10 gear ratio, four-wheel drive and all of the niceties that go along with the Laramie Longhorn trim. If you can stay sane with the option sheet, you can walk away with a regular cab Tradesman in the mid-$40k range that will still pull the epic max tow weight without all the bells and whistles.

Ram has built one hell of a truck with the 2013 3500 HD Max Tow, and while we don't expect too many buyers to go dragging 30,000 pounds around on a regular basis, the added capability built into the truck means those who pull lighter loads can do so with greater confidence. This isn't just another volley in the trailering wars. It's a step forward in pickup design.