Back in 1986, Chrysler designer turned Dodge car marketing manager Bob Marcks had the idea that a tough "big rig" look could transform Dodge pickup sales. He made a couple of rough sketches, and even though trucks weren't his business, his idea was picked up in the creative ferment of the Bob Lutz/Tom Gale era at the old "New" Chrysler Corporation, resulting in the production vehicle that debuted at the Detroit auto show in 1993. That the aggressive styling really mattered was proven by results: with pretty much the same old underpinnings, sales tripled less than a year after the Ram went on sale. At one point, the Ram pickup was the third best-selling vehicle in America, ahead of all passenger cars and behind only the perpetual leaders, Ford's F-150 and Chevrolet's Silverado.
Today, pickups are far from the king-of-the-hill products that they once were, and fewer families are choosing a truck as their main vehicle. But a great deal of America's middle-class, working-man economy depends on pickups, so new ones are still constantly being developed. The latest Dodge, as seen here, is a nice piece of work in terms of styling and engineering, building on the previous generation and replacing the traditional leaf springs in back with coil springs for an improved ride. As is usually the case with Dodge trucks, the powertrains are strong and well suited to their purpose.
There have been three big changes in pickup trucks in the past few decades. Dodge emphasized the "truck" part with the new exterior aspect, and Ford changed its design and trim approach from "work" to "leisure" with its new-for-1997 F-150, providing a nice template of pickups as primary family vehicles. Unfortunately, the third big change is bloat. Pickups today are bigger and far more powerful than the ton-and-a-half, dual-rear-wheel, flatbed trucks that did a large part of American commercial hauling in the years when Detroit was at its peak.
The handsome four-door pickup you see here is representative of the new breed. It weighs more than two tons empty but has a short load bed that would have seemed ridiculous to a farmer or a tradesman in 1958. It has a more spacious cabin than almost any four-door sedan, and it provides the high viewpoint that was one of the chief factors in the popularity of SUVs. Putting lockers in the top of the rear fenders is a good idea that ought to have happened long ago, but the rest of the design is almost generic. Curved creases defining front and rear fenders are a nice touch, subtle enough not to detract from the desired over-the-highway image, yet giving a certain elegance to the whole.
A curiosity is that there likely will be no single-row, regular-cab version available in the forthcoming heavy-duty Dodge Ram lineup, another sign that things really have changed in the pickup world.
1 Bumpers are integral parts of the design composition, more like passenger cars than utility vehicles.
2 Big, lockable bins for small items are a long-needed innovation for pickups. A lot of empty space inside the rear fenders becomes useful, but the RamBox option costs $1895.
3 Add-on lips to the wheel openings are a bit clichéd, but they do add to the impression of toughness and capability.
4 These curved crease lines over the front and rear wheel arches add some distinction to the flat body sides.
5 The domed hood gives an additional feeling of power, over and above the raised section inboard of the front fenders.
6 Chrome crossbars look neat in these retouched photos, but in reality, the diagonal edge of the grille texture reflects a bit too much. Cost considerations eliminated the matte black areas that designers originally wanted.
7 Having the grille lean forward at the top seems antiaerodynamic, but it allows a longer hood, increasing the sense of strength and power.
8 The back end is quite tall, but these strong horizontal feature lines reduce visual height and further increase the notion of strength.
9 The highly styled rear bumper includes nice cutouts for the exhaust pipes, another nod toward family rather than artisan use.
10 The side indents just above the doorsills draw the eye downward, making the blocky vehicle seem longer and more elegant.
11 Short front overhangs enhance the impression of massiveness and improve maneuverability.
A A-pillar handhold is a boon for small people climbing into the cabin, and it's angled to avoid blocking outward vision too much.
B Composition of the entire instrument panel is a clever and successful blending of square-cut, trucklike elements and a passenger car-style instrument cluster.
C The center stack and console are exceptionally wide, really separating the driver and the front-seat passenger. Not a vehicle for dating.
D That thing got a laptop? Very possibly. There's a lot of storage space in the cab, a requirement established during research done for the last generation of Dodge pickups.