New Car Reviews

2020 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel Driven: The Nuclear Option

Diesel’s black eye doesn’t stop FCA from offering its new powertrain.

DULUTH, Minnesota—Forty years ago, the Three Mile Island accident made nuclear power public enemy number one among environmentalists. Yet nuclear plants haven’t disappeared, even after later disasters at Chernobyl in the mid-1980s and Fukushima eight years ago. In fact, the first new U.S. plants to be built since Three Mile Island are currently under construction. And in a bizarre about-face, some environmentalists have recently been advocating for the nuclear-power industry as a necessity to combat climate change.

Of course the auto industry suffered its own recent environmental meltdown in Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal, which since expanded to include other automakers, Fiat Chrysler included. But for all the bad publicity and public outrage, the diesel market trucks on, with each of the Big Three truckmakers offering a light-duty diesel for 2020. While we expect exactly none to be endorsed by the Sierra Club, clearly the turnaround for oil-burners is in progress.

Which brings us to the 2020 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, the most surprising of this new trio, and not just because it boasts a class-leading 480 lb-ft of torque. The ink is barely dry on FCA’s settlement agreement over the last generation of EcoDiesels, those 2014–2016 models that in May earned their owners a check from Auburn Hills (but no admission of wrongdoing) for alleged illegal emissions. Those vehicles will also get a software update and extended emissions warranty to insure EPA compliance. If that was the elephant in the room at Ram’s launch of its new, third-generation 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6, well, nobody much noticed it behind the fleet of shiny new pickups.

The big news, besides all that torque, is that for $4995 FCA will now let you spec an EcoDiesel in any Ram 1500 pickup, trim level be damned. Yes, that includes for the first time the rock-crawling Rebel. Also the base, two-wheel-drive Tradesman Quad Cab, which starts at $38,585, making this Ram model the least expensive diesel half-ton on the market. It undercuts Chevrolet’s lowest-priced diesel Silverado, the two-wheel-drive LT Double Cab at $45,200, as well as the $46,255 diesel Ford F-150 XLT SuperCab.

The top-of-the-line Longhorn crew cab we drove, however, topped $65,000. As expected, it was an exceptionally nice truck, and would have still been so if stripped of a few layers of frippery. The Ram’s signature features—its optional air suspension, multifunction tailgate, and 12.0-inch infotainment system—were all present and accounted for. Notably absent was much indication that this new engine was a diesel, save for some audible injector ticking at lower speeds.

While the second generation of FCA’s EcoDiesel was already a smooth-running, modern diesel engine, the third-gen is better, with no vibration at idle and minimal clatter. FCA says 80 percent of the Italian-built diesel’s parts have been redesigned, including the turbocharger, intake ports, exhaust-gas recirculation system, injectors, combustion-chamber geometry, pistons, rings, piston pins, oil sump, selective catalytic reduction system, and brake vacuum pump. So, yeah, pretty much everything. Even the tried-and-true eight-speed automatic the EcoDiesel shares with the Ram’s V-8 gas engines has been updated with new shift maps.

Combine the new EcoDiesel with the current Ram’s frame and chassis improvements, add in features such as an acoustic glass windshield and active noise cancelling in some models, and the result is a calm and quiet cabin at cruising speed. The driving experience was nearly indistinguishable from a Ram equipped with the gasoline Pentastar V-6. At least not until we hooked up a trailer and pulled out into traffic.

We had the opportunity to test the new truck’s towing capabilities with a 20-foot trailer carrying a pair of side-by-side UTVs. The rig weighed about 5000 pounds, well below the Ram EcoDiesel’s 12,560-pound capacity. So of course the Ram handled the trailer with aplomb, merging onto a busy road without drama. At lower speeds the Ram felt almost unencumbered, but when accelerating onto the highway the EcoDiesel reminded us that efficiency is a large part of its product brief. With just 260 horses on tap, getting up to 70 mph took some patience.

Speaking of which, Ram buyers will be kept waiting a bit longer for diesels to make their way to dealers, with availability of the new EcoDiesel slated for “early in the fourth quarter” of this year. FCA says official EPA fuel-economy numbers will be announced closer that time as well. The onboard display of our test vehicle had us at about 25 miles per gallon after half a day of mixed-speed driving. Ram has promised the new engine is more efficient than the second-gen, which in the old 1500 chassis managed a combined 22 to 23 miles per gallon in EPA testing.

FCA actually continues to build and sell that old truck, now dubbed “Ram 1500 Classic.” Its long 2019 model year will soon see the reintroduction of a diesel model—it’s been promised for the third quarter—but one fitted with the older, second-generation EcoDiesel V-6. (Yes, the same engine that was in the Ram trucks involved in the settlement agreement.) And while we’re on the subject, it’s worth mentioning that FCA lumps sales from both new and old trucks together, which helps explain why the Ram 1500 has been leading the Chevrolet Silverado this year, leapfrogging from third to second in sales.

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If that’s a rather clever ploy to goose the numbers in the face of the historically tribal behavior of pickup buyers—and it is—that doesn’t take anything away from the new Ram 1500, which has proven itself a successful moonshot. Its smart handling, compliant suspensions, and first-class interiors have generated a nearly unanimous critical consensus to anoint it as the new leader of the full-size pickup field. The new EcoDiesel doesn’t change that analysis one bit.

2020 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel Specifications
ON SALE Late 2019
PRICE $38,585/$65,000 (base/as-tested, est)
ENGINE 3.0L DOHC 24-valve turbo-diesel V-6; 260 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 480 lb-ft @ 3,950 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, RWD or 4WD pickup truck
EPA MILEAGE 25 mpg (combined, est)
L x W x H 228.9 x 82.1 x 77.7 in
WHEELBASE 140.5 in
WEIGHT 4,500-5,600 lb (est)
0–60 MPH 5.9 sec (est)
TOP SPEED N/A

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2020 Ram 1500

MSRP $31,895 Tradesman 2WD Quad Cab