Driven: 2009 Dodge Ram 1500

Reviews I By Rex Roy I August 26, 2008

If you’ve driven pickups much over the last thirty years, when you’re behind the wheel of the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500, the notion might occur that pickups shouldn’t be so quiet, ride so smoothly, carve corners so competently, accelerate so quickly, or have so many features. These were our prevailing thoughts as we drove a Laramie 4×4 through the Tennessee countryside, enjoying a driving experience so good that it provides a compelling argument to drive a full-size truck if you can figure out how to rationalize it.

And if you don’t require frequent hauling for work or hobby, rationalizing driving the Ram 1500 is going to be tough with fuel prices where they are. Fuel economy of 13 miles-per-gallon city and 19 mpg highway for Hemi-powered two-wheel drive models (13/18 for four-wheel drive) will quickly burn through the truck’s fuel tank (26- or 32-gallon). The bottom line is, people who need a full-size pickup will be able to make the argument, but those posing or posturing will have a harder time.

Regardless of why one might buy a Ram 1500, the truck performs as designed. Most of the new Ram is evolutionary—there’s little new ground broken, but we’ll get to the Ram’s two notable exceptions.

Starting outside, the look is clearly derivative of the outgoing Ram, which itself was a revamp of the bold original 1994 Ram. The overall design is smooth, the result of multiple trips to the wind tunnel that began when the new shape was still made of clay. We do wish Dodge had pushed its styling team more, as once your eyes pass the forward canted grille, there’s not much to keep your attention. By comparison, the 2009 Ford F-150 shows better detailing in the fenders and around back with its ribbed tailgate, both of which give it the impression of a more complete design package.

The interior is likewise evolutionary, but it is well laid out and (thankfully) covered in high-quality materials. The analog gauges are especially easy to read given their blue/white over black design. Wisely, Dodge transferred corporate knowledge gained in the development of their minivan to expand the previously untapped storage space on this new Ram—witness the under-floor (second-row) storage bins on crew cab models. The rear seat of the Crew Cab Laramie we drove was comfortable thanks to the well-chosen rake of the back rest, and the seat bottoms easily fold up and out of the way to reveal yet another storage area.

While interior storage is important, you buy a pickup for the bed. It’s back here where Dodge did something truly revolutionary: the Ram Box. This option provides in-fender, weather-proof, lockable storage that is easy to access and genuinely practical to use (unlike the lame in-fender storage provided on the Chevrolet Avalanche and Cadillac Escalade EXT). There’s room for plenty of gear on either side, including items as large as golf clubs. The Ram Box option also includes a movable bed divider and bed rail cargo management system. The total package provides more in-bed storage options than any other pickup.

The second revolutionary feature on the Ram is under the bed; it’s a multi-link coil spring rear suspension that positions the solid rear axle. Unlike traditional leaf springs that operate with a great degree of friction (and therefore less smoothness), the coils provide a vastly improved ride compared to the outgoing Ram—or any other 2008 pickup we’ve driven. This may change with the introduction of the 2009 Ford F-150, but we’ll stand behind this impression for now.

The 2009 Ram’s stiffer frame makes a solid platform for the new rear suspension. Together, the new Ram delivers ride and handling that are the current best of breed. The big Ram doesn’t bob or weave or toss your head about over rough pavement, and the interior remains surprisingly quiet regardless of the road surface—or lack of road surface. We drove the Laramie off road and it proved usefully capable.

Another element that made the Laramie an impressive drive was its 390-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. The improved engine delivers on its power, and the Laramie never felt as if it needed more juice, even when it was loaded with half a ton in the bed. Dodge has also tuned the powertrain so there’s virtually no induction noise. The only thing you hear when you’re on the throttle is a pleasantly muted rumble from the exhaust.

The Hemi’s cylinder deactivation technology is also improved for 2009. Because the engine is more powerful, it can run on four cylinders more capably and therefore more often. The Ram can maintain a 70-miles-per-hour cruise running on only four cylinders—something it couldn’t do in 2008. To help drivers better modulate their fuel economy, an attentive pilot can now hear when the engine shuts down half its cylinders, and this audible but unobtrusive cue helps change one’s driving habits.

Our complaints are limited but significant; the steering is responsive but lacks a key element of communicativeness that this chassis is good enough to deserve. Said another way, one might not miss talkative steering on a truck that handles less well, but you do miss it on the Ram. The second issue is the lack of a six-speed automatic transmission to back either V-8. As we’ve seen in other applications of six-speed gearboxes, mileage can increase four or five percent.

Beyond engines, the level of refinement in the new Ram 1500 is impressive, and clearly ahead of Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota’s current offerings. In terms of ride smoothness and handling, this is easily the best Dodge has ever produced. In fact, the Ram moves the benchmark incrementally higher, eclipsing even the trucks from General Motors, our past favorite.

The team from Chrysler made it clear that this is what they’re capable of producing under their leadership of Cerberus. If this is the standard, then we’re looking forward to seeing more.

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