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FIRST DRIVE

New engine adds noticeable boost to Ram 3500 performance

The heavy-duty pickup, the lineup's workhorse, offers a surprisingly smooth ride.

August 27, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

It's time for the 2003 Dodge Ram 3500 Quad Cab 4x4 SLT to fill the driveway -- and that's fill as in "to the brim."

In fairness, not only has the heavy-duty Ram pickup been redesigned for '03, it also has been tweaked to provide surprisingly good road manners.

The Ram 1500 was redesigned for '02 and the heavy-duty models underwent surgery for '03, though basically adopting much the same look as the light-duty because the 1500 looked tough enough for a bigger pickup.

The most noticeable appearance change is that the "horse-collar grille" is even bigger and bolder. The most noticeable performance change is the new standard V-8.

The heavy-duty Ram was the first beneficiary of the new 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that develops 345 horsepower and delivers 375 pound-feet of torque, a considerable increase from the 245 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque from the 5.9-liter V-8 it replaces. The Hemi was added to the Ram 1500 after the 2500/3500.

The heavy-duty Ram is the workhorse in the lineup, and that means 75% are purchased with a diesel engine. For '03 there's a choice of a turbocharged 5.9-liter, inline 6 rated at 250 horsepower and 460 foot-pounds of torque or, for the first time, a high-output 5.9-liter turbo diesel rated at 305 horsepower and 555 foot-pounds of torque that gives the truck a 16,300-pound towing rating, up from 14,400 pounds in '02 with the lower-output Cummins 5.9-liter turbo diesel.

We tested the Ram 3500 SLT 4x4 with the optional Cummins diesel that provides lots of the let's-get-going, low-end torque demanded from a heavy-duty pickup. Dodge boasts that it also delivers 10% better mileage than the regular diesel last year but doesn't say what that translates into because vehicles with more than 8,500 pounds gross weight don't carry an EPA fuel-economy rating. The Ram 3500 weighs 9,900 pounds.

Suffice it to say you don't buy a heavy-duty pickup as a high-mileage commuter; you buy it to have a heavy-duty workhorse capable of towing trailers and boats without straining off the line or up the incline.

Final word on the diesel: Outside the cabin the combustion ping-ping-ping leaves no doubt there's an oil burner under the hood -- as your neighbors will readily vouch. However, the cabin is sufficiently insulated to keep the commotion within to a minimum.

The biggest surprise was the smooth ride. You'd expect a workhorse to bounce you around the cabin. The heavy-duty 3500 was very civil.

Another nice touch: For the first time the heavy-duty Ram sports power adjustable gas/brake pedals that motor to you so that you don't have to slide the seat forward to reach them. Now if there were only power-operated running boards to help get you into those seats.

Quad cab means a four door, in this case four swing-open doors for access to front or rear seats. If you need even more cargo room or to carry items without exposing them to the elements, the rear seat bottom cushion flips up and folds against the seat back.

The heavy-duty line accounts for about one-third of all Ram sales, the same percentage of heavy-duty pickups to all truck sales.

Dodge is counting on the heavy-duty line to keep Ram moving up the sales charts. At the end of July, Ram was the third best-selling vehicle, truck or car, in the industry (218,301) behind the Ford F-150 (381,378) and Chevy Silverado (321,668).

Base price of the Quad Cab 4x4 SLT tested is $32,770. Options quickly run up the price, such as $5,225 for the turbo diesel and $1,095 for the optional 4-speed automatic. The preferred package, which adds the power pedals along with 17-inch all-season radial tires, dual-zone air conditioning, power leather seats and shift-on-the-fly transfer case, runs $4,935.

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