Bold and brash, the Ram is Chrysler's entry in the traditional full-size pickup market. The 2011 Ram is available in Regular Cab, Quad Cab (a long extended cab with forward-hinged doors), and full four-door Crew Cab versions. (No longer a Dodge, the Ram is now its own brand.)
The Ram 1500 offers a choice of three engines: A 3.7-liter V6 rated at 215 horsepower, a 310-hp 4.7-liter V8, and the 390-hp 5.7-liter Hemi. The V6 is fitted with a four-speed automatic transmission and the two V8s have a five-speed automatic. The V6 is available with rear-wheel drive only, but the two V8s are available with either two- or four-wheel drive.
On the outside, the Ram carries the familiar big-rig look started by Dodge. On the inside, it's full of interesting features. The Ram is an American full-size pickup truck, but it is different in several ways from its primary competitors, the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado 1500. The interior has its own flavor and offers several interesting amenities, and the cargo box has some unique features.
Underneath, where for decades pickup trucks have had live axles with leaf springs, the Ram's live axle is suspended by coil springs and it is located by four trailing links and a lateral Panhard bar. And the Hemi is the stoutest V8 available across the range.
The Ram lineup gets only minor changes for 2011. A new Ram Outdoorsman replaces the previous TRX model. Repackaging has made some 2011 Ram models less expensive, others more expensive. Other changes for 2011 include power folding mirrors (taken from the Ram Heavy Duty), a factory spray-in bedliner, Garmin navigation, and an active on-demand transfer case for 4WD models.
Everything on the Ram looks big, yet the truck takes up no more real estate than its competitors. The illusion comes from the shape, which has a definite presence.
One distinction of the Ram is that a lot of the usual gaps and spaces are noticeably narrow and tight, such as spaces between tires and fender openings, and between the cargo box and the cab. This not only looks nice and clean, but it also helps reduce wind noise and improve efficiency. From the outside the Ram looks neat and tidy. The side mirrors stand off from the door glass, the sides are fairly flat, and the tailgate spoiler and windshield are both rounded for improved aerodynamics. Seen from behind where the tires appear almost flush with the body panels, the truck looks quite trim.
There is no large seam between the front bumper and the grille and lights, and if the truck does not have fog lights the bumper does not have the outline marks that show it's missing something. The large rear bumper has half-round openings for the sport exhaust on trucks so equipped, and both seven- and four-pin trailer plugs are fitted adjacent to the rear license plate. The tailgate has a torsion bar system that cuts its apparent weight in half for ease of lowering and raising it.
Even the least expensive model has some chrome on the front rather than the complete industrial gray that typifies base models from some other manufacturers and there are plenty of paint choices. On upper trim-level variants the mirrors have LED puddle lamps and the headlamps are dual-bulb units, and on the Sport the front bumper is deeper and body-colored. The more you spend, the more chrome you get.
An aluminum hood is used on all models to save weight, and there is plenty of space below it for the aftermarket to fit superchargers and other go-fast goodies. Laramie models come with two-tone paint but you can specify a single shade, and rather than chrome-plating the aluminum wheels plastic chrome covers are used for dress-up.
A couple of things we didn't like: The tail gate is not damped. Unlatch it and it'll slam down with a bang unless you lower it down. The doors spring back easily when opened, rather than remaining open as intended, which can be annoying when loading and unloading.
The RamBox Cargo Management System, available only on the Crew Cab, includes a cargo box with a rectangular interior and no wheel-well intrusions. It measures 49 inches wide inside, so it can accommodate the ubiquitous 4x8 sheet of building material flat on the floor. Side rails with cleats secure the cargo, and a bed divider that locks into place segments the bed into smaller areas or can be flipped over and used as a bed extender with the tailgate down. Moving the interior walls inward results in sidewalls with much thicker sections, and in the tops of the two sides of the RamBox are two locking bins, capable of holding 120 standard 12-ounce cans on the left side (where the fuel fill is located) and 130 on the right, or anything else of that same volume, such as dirty clothes, tools, golf bags and so forth. These boxes have locking lids, drains, lights and 90-degree opening lids; together the volume exceeds that of a 55-gallon drum. You can fill them with ice and beverages for tailgate parties and camping. They might even hold trailer sway control equipment, though the heavy bars may be pushing the limits of the boxes. The RamBox Cargo Management System has its trade-offs. It reduces total cargo box capacity and, since the lids for the cargo bins open upwards, it is not compatible with such things as camper shells or tonneau covers.
The seats are finished in a durable fabric that you won't stick to you in summer heat or be crusty and chilly in a blizzard. They offer good support and plenty of room. We swapped through a few Ram models back-to-back to compare the trim levels and found the seat in the base model is the same design as in the top-line models, and we had no complaints after a full day of driving. We also found we could sit in the back of a Quad Cab for 20-minute jaunts, but a six-foot passenger will be happier in a Crew Cab where rear dimensions are essentially the same as the front; only the Crew Cab has a center rear headrest.
Instrumentation includes a tachometer. The gear indicators are orange with the gear chosen shown in green. The gauges are illuminated amber at night while the controls are bathed in green. The electronic stability control switch (standard) and 4WD switch are on the dash (both 4WD systems are electrically-switched).
A typical steering-column lever controls the transmission, with a thumb toggle for independently selecting any forward gear; some people with small hands may prefer this to the bulky floor shift that comes with center console trucks. Common operating controls such as lights, wipers and cruise control are on column-mounted stalks.
The dashboard is nicely framed, with symmetry on both sides of the wheel and both sides of the truck. Upper models may be ordered with bucket seats and a fixed center console that houses storage areas and a stubby T-bar shifter on the driver's side; the shifter has chrome bulges on either side that look suspiciously like buttons but aren't. The only drawbacks to this arrangement are the loss of one seating position and the space under the central dash.
With so many trim levels to choose from you should be able to find one that meets your requirements. We found the basic ST work truck model particularly impressive. Entry-level pickups have a tendency to be penalty boxes lacking any amenity beyond a seat cushion and an ashtray, but we didn't feel penalized at all in the ST. The ST models have plastic door panels that are easy to clean and fairly scuff resistant. The standard radio does an exceptional job in light of the budget-conscious price.
As trims and prices rise so too do standard goodies and optional extras. The key goes in the dash on base trucks but others have pushbutton start, and mid-grade trucks add a voltmeter and an oil pressure indicator. Chrome rings the gauges, leather wraps the wheel on upper models, and the vehicle information center between the larger gauges offers myriad functions from trip computer and transmission fluid temperature to radio data.
The MyGig infotainment system with 30GB hard drive is available, along with navigation, dual-zone climate control, rear park sensors with audible beeps and LED warnings above the rear window, and a 150-watt, 110-volt AC outlet. A moonroof is offered on both four door cabs as is a rear-seat DVD entertainment system (though you can't get both on the Quad Cab). Alpine supplies the premium Surround Sound system, with speakers in the Crew Cab headliner above the back seat and a subwoofer under it.
Storage in all models is good, including double gloveboxes. On the Crew Cab, Chrysler claims 42 places to put things (we got bored after counting up the first 18). On some four-doors you can get under-floor insulated storage compartments, which are a clever idea and handy. The Crew Cab has a pair of AC vents mounted low in back, coat hooks that will hold plastic hangers, and cupholders in the center armrest, but there are no reading lights in back. The tunnel hump in the floor is just a couple of inches high yet plenty wide enough for the center rider to have both feet on the same level.
We found we could converse in normal tones at highway speeds back seat to front, with less than average wind, exhaust and tire noise from behind. Even a base model, with a V6 engine never recognized for a quiet or smooth demeanor, does a fine job of minimizing distracting and fatiguing noise and vibrations.
We'd rank the Ram cabin at or near the top of its class. It is closest in design and style to GM and Ford. A Ram Laramie cabin is not quite as smooth and sleek as a Chevy Silverado LTZ cabin and it is not as complicated or multi-hued-and-textured as a Ford F-150 Lariat cabin. The Nissan Titan offers good instrumentation and controls, but doesn't quite reach the refinement of the Ram. The Toyota Tundra offers similar features but the instrument panel is less integrated.
The powerful Hemi V8, with variable intake valve timing, is rated at 390 horsepower and 407 pound-feet of torque, and delivers a wide powerband. Match the engine's power with the truck's clean aerodynamics and one result is that the Hemi's Multiple Displacement System (MDS) operates fairly often, enhancing fuel efficiency. The MDS essentially shuts off half the engine when not needed to save gas, and Chrysler says the Ram can be run past 70 mph with the MDS active. With the Hemi the Ram is among the most powerful of the full-size half-ton pickups.
Although the Ram's 4.7-liter V8 scores basically the same EPA numbers as the Hemi, it will realistically get better mileage; you can't use the Hemi's 80 extra horsepower without using more gas. The 4.7 feels the smoothest and is the quietest engine in the Ram line. It uses the same five-speed automatic as the Hemi.
The 3.7-liter V6 provides 215 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. This is adequate for trucks that don't tow more than a garden tractor or routinely carry around landscape, handyman or pool service equipment. Although it comes with only a four-speed automatic, proper axle gearing (we'd recommend the 3.92:1 ratio) makes it livable and able to merge at highway speeds.
Transmissions work as expected with modern, electronic-authority automatics. If you wish to select a gear manually use the thumb toggle on the column-mount stalk or slide the floor shift left for downshifts and right for upshifts. To revert back to full automatic control, simply hold the toggle on the column shifter or push the floor shifter right for about one second.
A Tow/Haul mode is standard and is useful when towing. Activating Tow/Haul may take the truck out of top gear but it does not lock it out; you can still cruise in overdrive with tow/haul on. The Tow/Haul mode keeps the transmission cooler when towing by holding gears longer (and reducing hunting between gears) and shifting faster (and harder).
The 4WD systems have a 48/52 nominal torque split (a slight rearward bias to power delivery), 2.72:1 low range for climbing or steep descents, and are electrically shifted from 2WD to 4WD without stopping; engaging low range is done most smoothly rolling at about one-two mph with the transmission in Neutral. The 4WD systems have a Neutral position for flat-towing a Ram behind an RV or heavier construction truck. Two 4WD systems are available, and one has an Auto mode that allows 4WD-on-pavement use for inclement weather. This system will only help you accelerate and turn under power, it does not help you stop or change directions to avoid something.
We found the brakes work well. Antilock and stability functions are standard so all you need to do in evasive maneuvers is push the pedal and steer. In daily driving they deliver good feel and are easy to modulate, and although they handle the truck well we'd advise trailer brakes on any trailer more than 1500 pounds (less if your state requires it, of course).
A Ram will never a racecar make but it benefits the same as a racecar when weight is removed from the suspension, axles, brakes and wheels. Using aluminum in some protected front suspension pieces takes 10 pounds off each corner, and the coil/link rear suspension takes 40 pounds off the back and allows more precise wheel control. In addition, friction in the rear suspension as it moves up and down has been cut by 60 percent, so the rear axle is allowed to travel more up and down yet requires less stiffness to keep it controlled.
The Ram rides very well and in comparing it to the competitors it comes across as the best blend of ride and control, whether you're on 17-inch wheels or the big 20s. It goes where you point it without drama, the rear end feels less inclined to step sideways over a mid-turn bump or invoke the stability control, and the Ram has a feeling of good directional stability with a trailer in tow. Steering is direct, but the effort is low during maneuvers and cruising, and it increases nicely as you push the truck harder. Body roll is kept in check by stabilizer bars at both ends, yet a small amount is apparent as you turn the wheel just to keep you aware; too much roll stiffness increases ride harshness. In sum, the whole truck exhibits less of the shuddering typical of body-on-frame designs used on all full-size pickups and some big SUVs.
Off the highway the suspension offers good articulation, and keeping the wheels on the ground longer always works best. We had no issues with suspension pieces dragging or being vulnerable to rock or stump impacts. And while we didn't have a sand box handy we could not invoke any axle hop even from full-throttle standing starts in a field. Our only complaints in off-road travel are that close-in visibility suffers from the big hood, making it harder to judge the corners through rocks or trees, and the wide A-pillar base may present its own visibility issues. Also, there's little compression braking in high-range. The only apparent drawback of the suspension design is that the optional larger fuel tank is perhaps smaller than it might be otherwise, offering just six gallons more than the standard tank.
The Ram felt smooth and quiet, even on the 20-inch wheels. To our ears the Ram has the competition covered, but every ear has its preferences and many pickup owners like noise.
Payload, or how much weight in cargo and passengers a truck can carry, varies by cab, bed, drive wheels, and engine. Ram payload ratings run from 1340 pounds (for a 2WD regular cab, short bed, 4.7-liter) to 1860 pounds (for a 2WD regular cab, long bed, V6) and that's for trucks without options; if you routinely carry more than 1000 pounds of cargo it may be better to think about a Ram 2500 or another heavy-duty pickup.
Tow ratings top out at 10,450 pounds (for a regular cab, long bed 4x4, 5.7 V8 with the 3.92:1 axle ratio and 17-inch wheels), and range from 3450 pounds upwards. Most V8 models will be comfortable with a 5000-pound boat and a full load on board. Remember that the more options you add the less weight you can tow. Also, choosing those stylish 20-inch wheels will knock a significant amount off the tow rating. We'd go for the 17-inch wheels because we use trucks for towing things.
We found the Ram suspension works well for towing. With a significant trailer it still drops down in the rear (as all half-ton pickups do), but the extra lateral stiffness inherent in the coil/link design minimized the tail from moving side to side as the trailer pushed against it. Also, the electronic stability control system includes trailer sway control, a nice feature. Cooling systems appear up to the task, and towing mirrors are offered for pulling an eight-foot-wide travel or large box trailer.
The Ram 1500 has the bold and brash style for which it is well known, and it's a refined package with loads of amenities for the occupants.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report after his test drive of various Ram models in California and Tennessee.
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