Asheville, North Carolina - Dodge grabbed truck guys by the throat with the launch of the 1994 Ram, the first domestic pickup that made personal convenience its top priority. Now, Dodge has reinvented the Ram for 2002, and this truck, once again, makes its competition look fainthearted.
That Class 8 look is back, as Dodge goes further with the heavy-truck styling it introduced to pickups. The visage always has been controversial, but the Ram still does it with a far more deft touch than some of its imitators. The "horse collar" grille signifies the model designation: The conservative SLT gets a chrome surround with chrome cross-hairs; the personal-use SLT+ has a body-color grille with chrome cross-hairs; and the SEMA-style Sport has a body-color surround and body-color cross-hairs. There's also more than just style at work here, as the passenger compartment of the '02 Ram--in both the regular-cab and the Quad Cab models--has been usefully stretched a noticeable three inches, while the short bed shrinks by the same amount, to six feet, three inches. (The available long box is still eight feet long.)
The Ram's interior is a big improvement over that of the outgoing vehicle. Materials and ergonomics are far better, if not quite Toyota Tundra-like. The center business console is again large enough to store a laptop computer, and it has a power outlet. Dual-zone air conditioning is available. Power-adjustable pedals accommodate shorter drivers, three-point harnesses and child-seat tethers across the Quad Cab's rear seat accommodate families, and optional side curtain air bags are for everyone. An optional steel section beneath the Quad Cab's rear seat extends to provide a flat load floor with separate storage bins in each of the footwells.
Even better, the trucklike portion of the Ram's package has been brought up to the standard set by the carlike portion. A strengthened chassis increases torsional rigidity some 400 percent, while the duty cycle required from all the components has been increased to 150,000 miles. Rack-and-pinion steering has been adopted, as well as four-wheel disc brakes. Big 245/70R-17 tires are standard, and 275/55R-20s are optional. The 235-hp, SOHC 4.7-liter V-8 is the primary powerplant, and the recently introduced 215-hp, SOHC 3.7-liter V-6 is the economy choice. The old, torquey 5.9-liter V-8 is optional (we expect a Hemi V-8 big block to arrive with the Ram 2500/3500 in 2003).
All this makes a difference in the way the Ram drives. We hammered it extensively on narrow country roads around Asheville, while Chrysler's marketing chief, Jim Schroer, pleaded for mercy beside us. The Ram is poised in the turns, although it's hardly a sports car. The Sport does the job with high-fashion twenty-inch wheels, although the SLT+, with seventeen-inch wheels, is probably the best all-around setup. The un-trucklike firmness of the brake pedal significantly improves your confidence. The only worrisome item is the automatic transmission; we drove several examples of the new Ram that shifted gears with a noticeable lurch.
There will be lots of disputes in the wake of the 2002 Ram 1500's introduction about which company has the best truck. But the Ram's undeniable advantage lies in its ability to serve people who drive trucks because they want to, not just because they have to.