First Drive: 2013 Ram 1500

Maybe the Lincoln Blackwood wasn’t such a stretch after all. Maybe the notion of a pickup truck that’s as much luxury car as it is utility vehicle has more credence than the Lincoln’s one-year run suggests. Maybe the Blackwood -- with its $53,000 price tag, air springs, and trunk in place of the bed -- was simply ahead of its time. Because starting this fall, you can buy a 2013 Ram 1500 that feels strangely reminiscent of the 2002 Lincoln.

While the Blackwood was one of the greatest automotive flops since the Edsel, we expect things to work out far better for the Ram. For one, the Ram is an established truck targeting a proven market. Secondly, the clever RamBox storage bins, air suspension, and sticker prices that stretch well beyond $50,000 are all optional here. The Blackwood’s demise was brought on by the fact that it was offered in one impractical form, with seating for four, rear-wheel drive, black paint, and a carpeted bed. The Ram, like any proper pickup truck, is offered in hundreds, maybe even thousands, of configurations with a lengthy list of cab sizes, bed lengths, drivetrains, engines, and convenience features. If you want a bare-bones work truck, the folks at Ram are happy to oblige.

Our obsession with the high-end versions is rooted in the fact that the Ram really distances itself from the competition when it’s loaded with optional equipment. Ever since its 2009 redesign, the Ram has carved itself a niche as a gentleman’s truck -- a truck for owners who can comfortably admit they move people more often than they move a stack of pressure-treated southern yellow pine. While the Ford F-150 and the Chevrolet Silverado duke it out in a blue-collar bar brawl, the third-place Ram is sipping cognac in the corner and looking on in disdain. The 2009 Ram 1500 introduced truck owners to radical concepts like the interior doesn’t need to be made out of melted Legos, and you shouldn’t have to dump 300 pounds of dirt into the bed for the ride to be civil. For 2013, a thorough mid-cycle update delivers even more comfort, luxury, and technology. The Ram 1500 can now be had with an eight-speed automatic transmission, a more powerful V-6 engine, air springs, fuel-saving auto stop-start, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and an 8.4-inch touch-screen infotainment system.


Sixes with eights and eights with sixes

Stepping down into the world of $30,000 trucks, the Ram receives a significant upgrade as the 3.6-liter V-6 replaces the tired 3.7-liter unit. Also found in vehicles such as the Chrysler 200, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the Dodge Caravan, this engine has a higher output in the Ram -- 305 hp and 269 lb-ft -- than in other applications. It’s strong and smooth with particularly lively performance at about 4000 rpm.

Sharing the spotlight with the new V-6 is its new eight-speed automatic transmission. Chrysler engineers have clearly learned a few things since first installing the ZF-supplied transmission in the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. Those cars used a final-drive ratio designed to maximize highway fuel economy, and the eight-speed’s broad ratio spread was largely wasted. The calibration left the transmission hesitant to downshift and throttle response was tepid, making passing and part-throttle acceleration particularly underwhelming. It appears that the Ram team heard our complaints, because the same powertrain is far livelier in this pickup. Single-gear downshifts happen earlier on slight uphill grades and full-throttle kickdown occurs much quicker. Driving an unloaded, crew-cab Tradesman model through Nashville streets and Tennessee interstate, we enjoyed satisfying acceleration, smooth shifts, and agreeable logic.

Tuning for drivability hasn’t compromised fuel economy, either. At 17/25 mpg with rear-wheel drive, the Ram is able to claim the best fuel economy of any full-size truck. There’s also an HFE package (HFE stands for high fuel economy) that adds engine start-stop to squeeze out one additional mpg in the city, but it’s an option that you’ll only be interested in if you have a heavy environmental conscience. Start-stop can induce unpleasant shudders when the engine restarts and the HFE package can only be had on a regular-cab, rear-wheel-drive Rams. We’re told there’s also an HFE model in the works for Hemi-powered trucks, but we doubt the effect will be any greater than what you get on the V-6 version.

The 4.7-liter V-8 remains in the lineup, but it’s largely there to satisfy stingy fleets and small businesses that require towing power. In fact, the entry-level Tradesman model comes with the 4.7-liter engine while the V-6 engine is a $1000 upgrade. Consumers looking for eight-cylinder power will want to lie, steal -- whatever it takes, really -- to get their hands on the burly 5.7-liter Hemi. Early 2013 Hemis will come with six-speed gearboxes, but the eight-speed becomes standard in the first couple months of 2013. While calibration of that transmission isn’t yet finished, we were granted a drive in a pre-production model. Shift timing and throttle responsiveness were dialed in, but there was some room to smooth out shift quality. Still, the eight-speed injected new life into what has been a great engine held back by a mediocre five-speed automatic. Where the outgoing Hemi truck was undeniably strong but not particularly quick, the driver now feels all 395 hp and 407 lb-ft of torque when indulging in full-throttle acceleration.


Aired up

Since 2009, all Ram 1500 models have ridden on coil springs rather than traditional leaf springs. These wound steel springs are the key to Ram’s uniquely comfortable ride and we swear by them. For 2013, the ride gets even better when you add air springs (a $1595 option). Available on all quad- and crew-cab trim levels, the air suspension allows four inches of ride-height adjustability. Two off-road modes can add up to two inches of ground clearance to the standard height while park mode brings the truck two inches closer to the ground. There’s also a mode that automatically lowers the truck at highway speeds to reduce aerodynamic drag. The real reason to spend the extra money, though, is if you intend to haul or tow heavy loads. The air suspension includes a self-leveling feature that will lift the rear end back to normal ride height roughly twenty seconds after a load has been placed on the rear axle.

All 2013 Rams have traded the hydraulic power steering for electric power steering in the interest of improving fuel economy and simplifying manufacturing. The Ram’s tiller is precise and we’re largely willing to write the Ram a free pass on steering feel and weight, being a truck and all. Yet we’d be lying if we didn’t say that it all feels a bit overboosted. It’s strange to pilot such a large, heavy vehicle and exert less effort than is required in some minivans. The Ram also doesn’t handle as deftly as an F-150, feeling like it has a higher center of gravity and less roll control than the Ford. On winding, Tennessee roads with lanes that were only as wide as the truck itself, the Ram felt tall, bulky, and a bit clumsy.


Toys for trucks

Inside, the Ram remains the most pleasant and luxurious pickup truck you can buy. High-end models like the Laramie and Longhorn feature supple leather seats, rich cabin materials, and high-end convenience features. New this year, a massive 8.4-inch touch-screen that’s tastefully integrated into the center stack replaces the dumpy brick-style head unit. The Uconnect system boasts attractive graphics, intuitive layouts, and quick responses. Best of all, the Garmin-based navigation that’s been integrated into other Chrysler cars has been tossed. Its elementary graphics, slow load times, and massive icons have been replaced by a far more competent, unbranded system. There’s also an option for an in-car WiFi hotspot that uses Sprint’s cellular network.

Interestingly, eight-speed trucks move the gear selector from column-mounted lever to a knob on the center stack, opening up a large storage bin for cell phones, wallets, sunglasses, and snacks. This also relocates the manual shifting controls for towing or off-roading to the front of the steering wheel where they are operated by your right thumb. It’s a bit odd, but given how infrequently you manually shift a pickup, it gets the job done.

Perhaps one of the neatest features of the Ram are the RamBox storage cubbies, the optional weather-tight bins on either side of the bed just above the wheel wells. They eat into the width of the cargo bed, but they’re also perfect for stowing and securing towing hitches, tie-downs, gloves -- even groceries. RamBox isn’t new; it debuted with the 2009 truck. But for 2013, Ram engineers have given us an item off the wish list we made after spending a year with a Ram: on most trim levels, the RamBoxes (along with the tailgate) are tied into the central locking system, so you can secure your belongings with the keyless remote.


The lux-truck lives

They may be indulgences, but we think a load-leveling air suspension, weather-tight storage boxes, and a posh interior make a lot of sense in America where buyers use their trucks for both commuting and weekend home improvement projects. Even if the price of such frivolities exceeds your budget, there’s new reason to look at the Ram. With its new V-6 engine and eight-speed automatic transmission, the Ram 1500 has the powertrains to stand up to the competition from Ford. This upscale pickup truck may draw some strong parallels with the failed Lincoln Blackwood, but there’s one area where we confidently predict the Ram will be running in the opposite direction: sales.

The Specs

On sale: Late 2012
Base price: $23,585-$48,415
Engines: 3.6L V-6, 305 hp, 269 lb-ft; 4.7L V-8, 310 hp, 330 lb-ft; 5.7L V-8, 395 hp, 407 lb-ft
Transmissions: 6- or 8-speed automatic
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel
EPA Mileage: 17/25 mpg, 14/20 mpg (V-6, V-8 models; rear-wheel drive)

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