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New engine, new life for Ram 1500

Starting with the 2013 model year, the trucks produced by Chrysler Group LLC will be known as Rams, not Dodge Rams.  This is the 2013 Ram 1500.
Starting with the 2013 model year, the trucks produced by Chrysler Group LLC will be known as Rams, not Dodge Rams. This is the 2013 Ram 1500.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Never mind that, almost since its inception, a leaping Ram was used as Dodge’s radiator mascot. Never mind that over the past few decades, many Dodge trucks have used the name Ram.

Starting with the 2013 model year, the trucks produced by Chrysler will be known as Rams, not Dodge Rams. Ram is now more than a model name; it’s a marque in its own right, alongside Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep.

Semantics aside, the Ram sees some significant improvements this year, although you might be hard-pressed to tell from the exterior, unless you already own a Ram truck.

So you might not notice that the grille, lighting, hood and wheels are new. Or that each trim level is given distinctive grille textures to their price point. But you might sense that this year’s grille is 30 mm taller than the 2012 model’s. “On a Ram, you can never make the grille too big,” said Joe Dehner, head of Ram and Dodge exterior design.

That’s true; subtlety hasn’t been part of this truck’s DNA for some time. But the Ram does look more refined, mostly because of its improved aerodynamics aimed at improving fuel economy. Going further, the Ram’s grille employs shutters that close when the engine doesn’t need to be cooled.

That’s all well and good; it reduces the Ram’s drag coefficient to .360 from .386. But most importantly, the truck’s driveline has been replaced.

The 2012 Dodge Ram used a wheezy 215-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 that produced a mere 215 horsepower and, with its ancient four-speed automatic transmission, returned fuel economy of 14 mpg city, 20 mpg highway. You can almost hear the oil barons raising a toast to this engine.

Mercifully, that driveline has been replaced for 2013 by Chrysler’s new3 05-hp 3.6-liter “Pentastar” V-6 engine and new eight-speed automatic transmission which has been dubbed the “TorqueFlite 8.”

This heart transplant transforms the base Ram pickup from a truck that you’re stuck with because you can’t afford a V-8 into a truck well worth considering — especially if you’re looking for better fuel economy.

The standard rear-drive Ram V-6 returns 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway according to the EPA. Opt for the fuel-efficient HFE model, and it gains an extra mile per gallon around town.

“When we did the research back in ’05,” said Bob Hegbloom, director of the Ram truck brand, “99 percent of the people said, ‘I will not sacrifice power, performance or capability for fuel economy.’ Well, that’s changed.”

Of course, fuel economy is useless if you can’t haul or tow. Here too, Ram has it covered. The new V-6 has an additional 90 horsepower when compared to the old V-6, an increase of 42 percent. Fuel economy has also increased by more than 20 percent. Towing is now rated at 6,500 pounds.

On the HFE model, Ram installs a start/stop system on the V-6, which shuts the engine off when coming to a stop, restarting it when you lift your foot off the brake to increase fuel economy. The system can be shut off.

For those who must have a V-8 engine, the 310-hp 4.7-liter V-8 returns, although you have to wonder why. The superior fuel economy and similar power of the V-6 renders this engine redundant. The 395-hp Hemi 5.7-liter V-8 is a better choice. Both V-8s are mated to the six-speed automatic used last year, but the Hemi V-8 will be paired with the new TorqueFlight 8 transmission later this year.

While the Ram folks were fiddling around, they made all sorts of changes to things that you can’t see, but can feel, like the optional air suspension system first used on the Grand Cherokee. It allows the ride to be controlled automatically or through one of five modes. “Normal” is the default mode, which sets ground clearance at 8.7 inches. “Aero Mode” lowers the truck a half inch. In contrast, “Off-road 1” raises the Ram 1.2 inches higher than “Normal mode,” while “Off-road 2” lifts the truck 2 inches. Finally, “Park Mode” lowers the vehicle 2 inches below “Normal” for easier entry and exit.

This added technology works remarkably well, no matter which of the many configurations you choose. Both rear-wheel and four-wheel drive is offered. Cab styles consist of regular, Quad, or four-door Crew Cabs attached to 5-foot-7-inch, 6-foot-4-inch and 8-foot bed lengths. Trim levels include Tradesman, Express, SLT, Sport, Laramie and Longhorn. A high-efficiency HFE model will also be available.

At the press introduction for the Ram, I had the chance to sample two Crew Cab models: an SLT equipped with the V-6 and eight-speed transmission, and a top-of-the-line Laramie Longhorn 4 x 4 with the Hemi V-8 and six-speed transmission.

What’s surprising is how satisfying the new V-6 is for most applications. Unless you’re hauling something truly heavy, the V-6 should provide all of the power you need. The new eight-speed shifts promptly and helps the V-6 easily return or exceed its EPA mileage ratings.

The Hemi had noticeably more power, but unless you need the towing capacity, it may not be worth giving up the V-6’s fuel economy.

Handling is a pleasant surprise for a pickup. While the Ram still suffers from a bit of ambiguity in its feel – like all pickups – the new electric power steering is quick and nicely weighted, but somewhat lacking in feel.

The suspension is well controlled when driving on road, yet soft enough to remain comfortable in off-road situations or on construction sites. The Ram felt just as capable and comfortable off-road as on.

Like the rest of the truck, the Ram has seen extensive interior upgrades, making even lesser models much more pleasant. While high-end models get stitched leather trim and real walnut veneer, lower models still have plenty of soft surfaces and nicely textured plastics.

The center stack used in last year’s high end models is now being used on entry-level Rams, while upper-end models get a new 8.4-inch monitor in the center of the instrument panel and a smaller 7-inch information screen in the instrument cluster.

Trucks that have an eight-speed transmission now employ an easy to use rotary knob mounted in the center of the instrument panel to the right of the steering wheel, along with buttons for the transfer case. Six-speed transmissions retain their traditional levers.

Sound fancy for a truck? Maybe. But Ram folks have really tried to enhance the driving experience. Two thoughtful touches make the point. First, the electric door locks now also lock the tailgate and the optional Ram Boxes, the built-in storage boxes integrated into the side of the cargo bed. Secondly, the truck can now be transformed into a wireless hot spot, handy for those who use their trucks as rolling offices.

Like many models throughout Chrysler’s lineup, taken together, these changes clearly make the 2013 Ram 1500 far superior to the 2012 Dodge Ram it replaces —no matter what you may call it.

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