Road Test
Way back when, people who needed trucks-farmers, ranchers, delivery guys, construction workers, linemen-drove trucks. Then something weird happened: Pickups got cool. Everybody wanted to drive one. Suddenly, F-150s and C/Ks sprouted up like Starbucks coffee houses across the suburban landscape. These new drivers liked the "tough" style statement and defended the purchase by making two trips a year to Home Depot. Carrying nothing but air in their beds 99 percent of the time, the truck's capabilities were wasted. Damn poseurs.

But as sales of pickups skyrocketed in the '90s, manufacturers justified putting huge development dollars behind these supposed "work vehicles." The massive infusion of money resulted in fullsize trucks becoming incredibly refined even as their capacity for work increased (think about the luxurious but capable King Ranch F-350). Those damn poseurs paid for these improvements. Now, with gas so expensive, truck sales are in the crapper because the fake truckers are scurrying back to the holes they crawled out of.

So what's with the history lesson? It's our way of setting up a premise: Fullsize trucks may never be better than the Dodge you're looking at (or the '09 Ford F-150 that's coming soon). The '09 Dodge Ram 1500 is easily the best overall pickup from Chrysler-EVER.

The '09 Dodge Ram 1500 made its debut at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show and went on sale the first of September. Compared to the outgoing '08 model, the '09 is a near clean-sheet design. There's new and more aerodynamic sheetmetal, a new frame, a new coil-spring rear suspension, a new interior, improved V-8 engines, and the very cool RamBox.

The truck offers five trim levels to choose from-ST, SLT, TRX, Sport, Laramie-across three cab styles: the two-door regular cab, the two-door Quad Cab with reverse-opening rear half-doors, and the four-door crew cab. Three bed lengths-8 feet, 6 feet 4 inches, and 5 feet 7 inches-back the cabs, but only the regular cab offers a bed-length choice (8' or 6'4"). The Quad Cab gets followed by the 6'4" box, and the crew cab gets tailed by the 5'7" bed. The enormous Mega Cab is history, but not many people will miss it (Chrysler says) because it was just too big. About half of all Rams will be crew cabs. Two- and four-wheel-drive models are offered in every body configuration.

Dodge believes that its two-wheel-drive regular cab Sport model may be the most aerodynamic fullsize truck on the market with a drag coefficient of only 0.399 Cd. The outgoing truck measured about 0.467 Cd while other current fullsize trucks come in around 0.419 Cd. The exterior styling is clearly derivative of the outgoing Ram, which itself was a revamp of the bold original '94 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. Aero details are everywhere. Note the integrated rear wing on the tailgate, the hidden windshield wipers, and the exterior rearview mirrors that are set farther out from the body than you're probably used to. Engineers even put a rubber seal between the cab and bed to make the truck slipperier.

Beyond these aero gains, Dodge could have pushed the styling more. Once your eyes pass the forward canted grille, there's not much to keep your attention. By comparison, the '09 Ford F-150 shows better detailing in the fenders and around back with its ribbed tailgate, providing an example of a more complete design package. Even with this criticism, the new Ram looks good. We also like the way the exhaust pipes are set into the lower edge of the rear valance panel. Paint quality and panel fit on our test vehicles were topnotch.

The new Rams get three engines. The 3.7L V-6 with 215 hp is the base engine for the regular cab and Quad Cab. Based on our previous experience, it's hardly worth considering unless you're buying purely on price. Economy with the four-speed automatic (14 mpg city/20 mpg highway) isn't boast-worthy. The engine's one upside is that it's available with a manual gearbox. The city mpg rating goes up by 1 mpg if you skip the AOD tranny in favor of the manual one. If you're looking for maximum economy, you would be better off waiting for the upcoming Cummins diesel, which Dodge will introduce in calendar year 2009 or the two-mode hybrid Hemi that will arrive in 2010.

Providing significantly more power than the V-6 is the 4.7L overhead-cam V-8 that pumps out 310 hp with fuel economy of 13 mpg city/19 mpg highway for two-wheel-drive models. This engine, and the top-dog Hemi, utilize a five-speed automatic.

We like the 4.7L V-8 a lot, but somehow a Ram isn't really a Ram without a Hemi behind that big crosshair grille. The 5.7L Hemi mill is vastly improved for 2009 and now generates 390 hp. Some might think Chrysler sacrificed fuel economy to get this extra power, but they'd be wrong. Engineers improved the Hemi's cylinder deactivation technology, so the mighty Hemi matches the fuel economy of the smaller V-8. Because the engine is more powerful, it can run on four cylinders more often and can even maintain a 70-mph cruise running on only half its pots. To help drivers optimize 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 to get more miles from every gallon.

As important as the engine is the Dodge's new rear suspension. Unlike most fullsize trucks, the '09 Ram 1500 does not use conventional leaf-type springs but an all-new multilink coil-spring system to keep the solid live axle properly positioned. This system provides a much smoother and quieter ride compared to the traditional leaf designs without compromising load capabilities. This suspension change required a major redesign of the Ram's ladder frame because suspension pick-up and loading points are completely different. Dodge took the opportunity to further stiffen the framerails and crossbeams, and you can feel the results immediately. We couldn't find pavement rough enough to send quivers or shakes through the body.

The front suspension is basically carryover from the old truck, but the upper and lower A-arms work just fine as they are. The steering is rack-and-pinion, and the brakes are discs all the way around.

As has become the norm with cars, the Ram 1500 includes four-wheel ABS as standard along with electronic stability control, trailer sway control, hill start assist, and rear park assist.

The safety continues inside with standard front airbags, side-impact front airbags, and side curtain airbags that extend back to cover the second row in Quad Cab and crew cab body styles. These safety features are all hidden in an interior that is a huge improvement over the outgoing Ram. The new Dodge's interior now meets the high standards set by current Ford, General Motors, and Toyota trucks. Unlike many recent Dodge vehicles, this interior doesn't have a cheap, plasticky feel. The insulated doors close with a quiet yet firm thunk that feels like a high-quality piece. This feeling of quality is literally everywhere you look and touch inside the Ram 1500. Interior features and trim bits get fancier as you move up from the no-frills base ST work truck to the luxo Laramie.

Dodge transferred corporate knowledge gained in the development of its minivan to expand the previously untapped storage space on the new Ram. There are under-floor (second-row) storage bins on crew cab models that hold and hide modestly sized parcels. The seat bottoms easily fold up and out of the way to reveal yet another storage area. There's more storage up front in the Ram's twin upper and lower gloveboxes as well as in the cavernous center-console storage area on models with front bucket seats and a console.

Options include what you'd expect in a modern fullsize truck, including leather seating, high-end audio systems with internal hard drives, and Bluetooth interfaces. Because of the way technology has proliferated, these options just bring the Ram even to its competition, but Dodge has a secret weapon option: the RamBox cargo system.

The Ram Box is headlined by in-the-rear-fender storage areas that are weathertight and lockable. As good as the '09 Dodge Ram 1500 is in other areas, this single option may alone stand out as a reason to buy. The bins, available on crew cab models, provide a total of 7.4 cubic feet (about the capacity of a 55-gallon drum or approximately 240 12-ounce cans if you like your liquids in smaller containers). The space inside the RamBox is lighted and features flexible partitions and drains (just in case you pack them with ice). Additionally, the RamBox options include an adjustable bed divider and rail system, improving the functionality of the 5'7" bed by allowing it to carry loads up to 7 feet with the tailgate lowered. This is space you can really use unlike the lame in-fender storage provided on the Chevrolet Avalanche and Cadillac Escalade EXT. The total package provides more in-bed storage options than any other pickup.

Driving the New Ram
The perfect '09 Ram for Sport Truck to test is the regular cab Sport with the R/T option. With short gears, Dodge tells us this truck will run 0 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds. That's hauling. Unfortunately, we drove these new Dodges well before production started, and there weren't any R/Ts on hand. We picked the next best thing: a Hemi-powered Laramie. While it wasn't as quick at the R/T will be (and we'll test an R/T as soon as one becomes available), when we turned off the electronic nannies, the big Dodge would smoke its 20-inch tires effortlessly.

The new Hemi was impressive in many different driving situations. Flat-out acceleration was great. Passing on two-lanes was easy. Acceleration was even good after we put 1,000 pounds of cargo in the bed. The Hemi just didn't seem to care. Even at full throttle, the engine remained calm and quiet with only a bit of V-8 rumble coming from the exhaust. The Hemi is easily a match for the 6.0L V-8 from GM or the gas engines from Ford and Toyota. Plus, the cylinder deactivation helps you maximize mileage and minimize trips to the gas station.

So, the new Ram is faster than the old Ram (excluding the SRT10). It also handles and rides much better. The five-link coil-spring suspension does a great job controlling the live rear axle. Unlike traditional leaf springs that operate with a great degree of friction (and therefore less smoothness), the coils work smoothly. We think the ride is better than any '08 pickup we've driven. This may change with the introduction of the '09 Ford F-150, but we'll stand behind this impression for now.

Handling and steering are sharp-not exactly like a sports car, but more like a sporty big sedan. Body roll is well-controlled, and the chassis response to steering inputs is nearly immediate. 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 quite capable there too.

From the driver seat, you enjoy a quiet interior. Wind noise is minimal even at 70 or 80 mph. Road noise is likewise low. The seats are comfortable and the controls are easy to reach and use. The instrumentation is clear, and because of the high-contrast design, easy to read. Even the back seat of our crew cab was first-class thanks to the comfortable angle of the backrest and the ample legroom.

Our complaints are limited. The steering is responsive but lacks a level of communicativeness that the excellent chassis deserves. In other words, one might not miss talkative steering on a truck that handled 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 4 or 5 percent.

'09 Ram ID Guide
With five trim levels to choose from, here are some ways to tell which Ram you're looking at:

ST
* Black grille
* Steel wheels

SLT
* Chrome front/rear bumpers with body-color front-bumper upper
* Sirius satellite radio
* Aluminum wheels

TRX &TRX4 OFF-Road
* Two-tone exterior paint (Mineral Gray lower color) with matching wheel flares
* Skidplates
* Towhooks

Sport
* Body-color front and rear bumpers
* Hemi with dual exhaust
* Bucket seats with floor shifter
* Premium interior
* 20-inch wheels

Laramie
* Two-tone exterior paint (Light Khaki lower color) with matching wheel flares
* Hemi with dual exhaust
* Premium interior
* 20-inch wheels
* Leather heated seats
* Rear park assist
* Memory feature for driver seat, exterior mirrors, and radio presets
* MyGig radio (30GB hard drive) with surround sound

The Final Word
Beyond engines, the level of refinement in the new Ram 1500 is impressive and clearly ahead of Chevy, GM, and Toyota. Regarding handling and ride smoothness, this is easily the best truck Dodge has ever produced and moves the benchmark incrementally higher, eclipsing even the trucks from General Motors, our past favorite.

The bottom line from Sport Truck is that if you can rationalize driving the '09 Dodge Ram 1500, do it. You won't be sorry.

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