Despite sky-is-falling reports on slow truck sales and rising fuel costs, the 2009 Dodge Ram is, by far, the most important product launch for Chrysler this year. These trucks are more than just some of the most profitable vehicles for Auburn Hills - the Ram is also the best-selling vehicle in the Chrysler portfolio. And this time around, Dodge decided to roll the dice with its approach.
Gone are the traditional leaf springs that have been a staple of the pickup truck since its invention. Now we find a pair of coil springs and five links connecting the live rear axle to the frame. This may be sacrilege to die-hard truckers, but the friction reduction associated with coil springs makes a heck of a lot of sense in a half-ton vehicle. Driving an empty truck no longer punishes your body, and the loaded ride is just as controlled and confident as the competitors' leaf-sprung trucks. The coils don't give up any towing ability, either (up to 9100 pounds). Dodge now has the most comfortable half-ton on the market, and there's absolutely no trade-off in capability.
The available 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 also sees significant improvements for 2009. Thanks to variable valve timing, more compression, a variable-runner-length intake manifold, better cylinder-head porting, and a less restrictive exhaust, the Ram's cylinder-deactivation fuel-economy system now operates at speeds up to 70 mph. As a bonus, output rises to 390 hp and 407 lb-ft of torque.
Fuel economy improves by a modest four percent, which means that the Hemi-powered trucks ought to return about 13/18 mpg in the EPA cycle. Dodge estimates that a two-wheel-drive Ram with the 3.7-liter V-6 will achieve a fairly impressive 14/20 mpg.
All Rams will use automatic transmissions; V-6 models get four-speed gearboxes, while the 4.7- and 5.7-liter V-8 models are equipped with a five-speed. A Cummins turbo-diesel will become an option in 2010 or 2011, and a two-mode hybrid Ram will join the lineup in 2010. Both of these powerplants should be about 25 percent more fuel efficient than the regular 5.7-liter Hemi.
Step inside the Ram and you'll be greeted with the nicest interior of any Chrysler product. Ralph Gilles - Chrysler's newly appointed senior vice president of design - told us that the Ram's interior is the "beginning of a new era at Chrysler." Gilles didn't just upgrade the materials used inside the Ram - he also added more usable space. Crew cab models have storage cubbies with removable liners that hold ten beverage cans and ice. Dodge's uconnect technology is also available; it includes everything from Bluetooth connectivity to in-car TV and Internet access.
Dodge officials realize that the truck market is shrinking, but they're still anticipating hundreds of thousands of annual sales in the segment. Mike Cairns, the Ram's chief engineer, went so far as to say, "We're confident we are going to pick up market share with this vehicle." Bold words in the current climate, but everything we experienced during our drive of the Ram gives credence to Cairns's claim.