The Ram 1500 is perhaps the best example of the pickup truck segment moving steadily upmarket. The 2013 model can be optioned with Nappa leather, a navigation system, an air suspension, and even real wood interior trim, the sort of goodies previously reserved for luxury cars. While plenty of buyers lust after all those luxury features, we remain adamant that there is no greater need than a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, and back in 2011, Ram introduced just the truck to prove our point. The Ram Express is an affordable, go-fast hotrod among workhorse trucks.
The Ram Express follows a simple concept that makes horsepower freaks smile: lots of power, no equipment, and a low price. For just $25,820 you get a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with 395 hp and 407 lb-ft of torque. Standard equipment is pretty much limited to air conditioning, cruise control, and 20-inch wheels. The big engine helps the truck easily live up to its Express name. The Hemi engine produces so much power and torque that the Express rockets forward like a muscle car, easily spinning the fat rear tires. The big V-8 idles with a low thrum, roars under acceleration, and settles into a deep rumble when cruising. Straight-line performance is seriously impressive for a vehicle that weighs 4752 pounds. No other truck produces this many smiles -- or this much tire smoke -- for so little money.
Acceleration aside, the Express exhibits the same civilized driving manners as any other Ram pickup. While the ride is a bit bouncy and the electric power steering overly light, those traits are par for the course in this segment. Even if the Express reveals its truck roots in corners, it still manages to elicit grins when the pavement straightens and you unleash all 395 horses. As a bonus, the Express can still tow up to 9250 pounds and has a payload rating of 1620 pounds. Try that in a Ford Mustang GT or Chevrolet Camaro SS.
Keeping The Sticker Price Low
The low entry price -- $5170 less than a Hemi-powered Dodge Challenger -- means you don't get many of the fancy features available on other Ram pickups, resulting in an interior of black plastics and gray vinyl seats. Power windows, power locks, and power mirrors are absent on Regular Cab models like our tester, although about 70 percent of buyers pay extra to add those features. The dearth of accessories is made evident by a row of unused switch blanks on the center stack, though buyers desperate for more equipment will be reassured by a lengthy options list.
That's not really a problem, as the whole point of this vehicle is to offer lots of performance without the attendant cost of luxury add-ons. The Ram Express is the second-cheapest new vehicle you can buy with the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, a claim to fame that may be worth the price of admission alone. You can save a bit of money by equipping a Ram 1500 Tradesman with the Hemi engine for $24,895, but the Tradesman comes with 17-inch steel wheels, a quieter single exhaust, and unpainted bumpers. It's not very pretty, and so the $25,820 Ram Express is the cheapest Hemi-powered vehicle that we'd actually consider driving.
At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter that the Ram Express has a short equipment list because the main attraction is the 395-hp engine. Customers who want lots of creature comforts can spend $40,000 or more on other versions of the Ram 1500. Enthusiasts like us will be more charmed by how the simplicity of the Express model highlights this truck's muscle. For those who want to drive fast without spending much money, the Ram Express is an eight-cylinder monster with a six-cylinder price tag.
2013 Ram Express Regular Cab 4x2
On sale: Late 2012
Base price: $25,820 (including $995 destination charge)
Price as tested: $25,820
Engine: 5.7L V-8, 395 hp and 407 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 14/20 mpg (city/highway)
Towing Capacity: 9250 pounds