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2002 Dodge Ram Gets a Dose of Steroids

Pickup Truck With the Big-Rig Look Undergoes an Extensive Updating

February 07, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been nearly a decade since Dodge wowed 'em with the big-rig looks of its 1994 full-size Ram pickup. And now, with competition from Ford, General Motors and Toyota eating into sales, it's time for a new Ram.

The covers come off today at the Chicago Auto Show--Highway 1 has the first pictures--and Dodge executives are betting that this revamp won't be a repeat of the disappointing debut last year of the redesigned minivans from elsewhere in the corporate truck family.

When DaimlerChrysler unveiled the new Chrysler and Dodge model minivans last year, critics yawned, called

them mildly evolutionary and wondered why the company that created the category hadn't taken a bolder approach in restyling them.

Company designers said they had no choice. Marching orders from the executive suite were clear: Improve and change the content but don't fool with the look.

But the auto market is one that demands change. Consumers hesitate to stick with tried-and-true when there's so much fresh and new out there. Minivan shoppers emulated the critics and yawned too. And Dodge and Chrysler minivan sales sputtered as shoppers went looking for vehicles with more flair.

So with that lesson fresh in mind and with the popularity of its once trend-setting full-size pickups waning, Dodge was determined that the new 2002 Ram wouldn't wrap technical improvement and increased features in a warmed-over package.

"We don't want to rest on the current success" of Ram's styling, said Chuck Rightler, senior manager of Dodge truck business operations.

The new Ram 1500 goes on sale this fall. In a preview last month, Rightler and other Dodge truck specialists showed off a completely re-engineered vehicle that continues to use the brand's signature big-rig styling but does it bigger and bolder than before.

The result is a light-duty truck that won't easily be mistaken for its predecessor but also won't ever be taken for anything but a Dodge Ram.

"I've only seen pictures so far but, from what I've seen, it looks like they did an excellent job of redesigning it," said Jim Hossack, vice president of AutoPacific Inc., a market research and consulting firm in Tustin.

His team's task, said Dodge truck design studio chief Dennis Myles, "was to keep what we own--the Ram image--and yet be different, to exceed our own design."

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To do that, the team basically put the old Ram on steroids. They beefed it up with a more aggressive front end--what Myles calls a "get out of my way" grille capped by a hood that slopes sharply up to a windshield that is canted a full 5 degrees more than that of the current Ram. It gives the pickup a racier, speedier profile. The front and rear fenders are more pronounced; the taillights are integrated into the fenders and mimic the "Frenched" taillights of custom hot rods of the 1940s and '50s.

The new truck will ride on standard 17-inch wheels and tires that add to its heft, and 20-inch alloys and tires are optional. Disc brakes on all four wheels are standard, as are rear-wheel anti-lock brakes and electronically controlled brake-force proportioning.

Dodge will offer two new engines: A base 3.7-liter V-6 rated at 210 horsepower replaces the 3.9-liter, 175-horsepower engine that now is standard, and an optional 4.7-liter, 240-horsepower V-8 replaces the current 5.2-liter, 230-horse V-8. At the top of the line is the workhorse 5.9-liter, 245-horsepower V-8 that's been around for years.

In addition to the five-speed manual transmission, there's a new four-speed electronic transmission available in both two-wheel- and four-wheel-drive models. The 4x4 also offers an electronically shifted transfer case and gets its first-ever independent front suspension.

The big V-10 and diesel engines will continue to be offered in the medium-duty Ram 2500 and heavy-duty 3500 models, which won't be changed over to the new platform and styling until next year.

On the new model, an all-new frame of hydroformed steel has five times the torsional, or twisting, strength and 2 1/2 times the lateral bending strength of the old frame, says Scott Kunselman, senior manager of Dodge truck development.

He says Dodge engineers ran exhaustive tests of how its trucks are used by real customers and then designed the new Ram to stand up to all but the worst abuse and to do it for a full 150,000 miles--a 50% greater durability cycle than the present Ram was designed to handle.

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In a daring move defying conventional wisdom--that pickup truck users want big cargo beds--Dodge decided to cut 3 inches from the bed to make room for a larger cab.

"We are redefining the size and proportions of the full-size truck," Rightler said.

The overall redesign added almost another inch to the cab, enabling Dodge to stretch it by 3.7 inches without increasing the truck's overall length.

"It still fits in a standard garage," Rightler said. "We think it's the perfect balance between cargo and passengers."

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