Late this summer I did a comprehensive road test of a Ram 1500 pickup truck, equipped with Chrysler's new six-cylinder engine, very sophisticated eight speed gearbox and height-adjustable suspension.
It's an interesting vehicle, and the best full-sized pickup I've ever driven
As chief instructor of British Columbia's premier resource road driver-training program, I spend a lot of time in pickup trucks. I've also worked with development engineers on a couple of truck platforms, and it's a testament to them that they've made something as awkward in its basic form as a pickup truck drive reasonably well.
Unfortunately, at some point reality has been cross-checked by marketing, with the resulting mythology that pickup trucks are dynamically as good as, or better than, well-designed road cars. That's simply not true, so the Ram should be compared to other pickup trucks -- in other words, apples to apples. By that standard, the Ram really is a very well-done vehicle.
My test vehicle had the Outdoorsman package, and looked good with a body-coloured grille. (I'm not a big fan of chrome on utility vehicles -- to me, it's like wearing a necktie with tennis shorts.) Climbing inside, I was greeted with a proper bucket seat and nice cloth upholstery, not the faded mouse-fur stuff that looks and feels cheap. Cloth is a better seating surface than leather, naturally cool in summer and warmer in winter, though its lacks that gentleman's-club appeal.
The driver's compartment is one of the best aspects of the Ram 1500. Seat position, relationship to the steering wheel and controls and the overall ergonomics seemed to be a design priority for Chrysler, not an afterthought. The steering wheel is wonderfully executed for this class of vehicle, with nice thumb spats for a nine-and-three hand position. Brake-pedal feel is firm, again rare in this class.
The air-adjustable suspension is a great feature, with two off-road height positions -- a normal one for everyday driving and a highway mode that lowers the truck a bit for better aerodynamics and stability. The park mode brings the truck lower still, for easy entry and exit. A couple of times, at longer stoplights, I kicked the thing into that mode just to see who noticed.
On the road, there was more good stuff to be found. The steering was superb, better than many so-called sports sedans. That's astonishing, since that's a weak point with so many pickups. The coil spring rear suspension is also a solid step above the crude leaf springs that dominate the industry. Leaf springs do a relatively poor job of locating the axle in terms of fore-aft movements, so there is always steering from the rear end over bumps. With coils, wheel and axle movement can be better controlled.
On my way north, I took a dirt-road shortcut through ranch country, the Clinton-Pavilion highway. There was little axle hop, even on washboard sections. As for structural integrity, the Ram felt solid, thumping in an almost European way across changes in road surface.
On the way home, the RamBox bins along the sides of the bed carried cones and equipment from an advanced driving session, as well as a week's worth of groceries. I've built similar things in my own trucks, and they were okay, though sealant and duct tape didn't always keep out the water. These were neat, weatherproof and lockable.
My quibbles were few. It would have been nice if the engineers had been a bit bolder -- the low position for entry and exit would be great for highway use. Wheel-travel considerations might have been an issue. A driving position as good as the Ram 1500's really calls for a left foot brace, or dead pedal -- something needed but rarely seen in pickups. If it were my truck, I'd add that. The turn signal lever is a couple of centimetres too far back from the steering wheel. And the number indicting gear selection, when in manual mode, is too small and too low in the instrument cluster.
You have to get used to the high-revving engine, especially if your brain's sound track is expecting a rumbling V8 or growling diesel. The V6 works very well with the 8-speed gearbox, a ZF unit which is also used in some European luxury cars. The truck is not a powerhouse, like the Hemi version I tested earlier this year, but it's a more balanced package and a better overall road vehicle.
Fuel economy was very good, around 12 L/100 km, even though my drive include towing our team trailer and crossing the Coast Mountains as well as some dirt-road work.
Of course, I took the truck off-road, where the high position of the adjustable suspension reduced the chance of gutting the unit on a sharp rock. I also took it to our advanced driver-training facility to confirm that, for a pickup truck, handling dynamics were excellent.
As an automotive pragmatist, I'm unlikely to choose a pickup as a daily driver when there are so many superb road cars available. But, having said that, this is the first truck I would actually consider as a support vehicle for our advanced driving school.
Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca.