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Dodge Ram 1500: the pickup as Prozac

The general excellence of the redesigned-for-2009 cargo carrier provides a hedge against despair.

March 20, 2009|DAN NEIL

Perhaps you're eyeing the overhead beam in the basement, wondering whether it will hold your dangling, strangling weight. Perhaps the muzzle of that .44 magnum is looking oh-so-flavorful. Perhaps that cross-town bus roaring down the street seems less like public transportation and more like a 30,000-pound cure for what ails you.

Wait. Stop. Get back on the curb. To quote an annoying, button-eyed orphan, the sun will come out tomorrow. The stirrings of an American rally are just underfoot, as the first birds of spring are chirping overhead.

I have been given a sign. I like the new Dodge Ram pickup.

When I drive around in this monster pickup, I am reminded that, though Germans fairly own the luxury sedan business and Italians still make unconquerable sports cars, Americans -- that's us -- completely dominate the full-size truck market. Even with the Detroit automakers hanging on by the increasingly strained mercy of U.S. taxpayers, and with the full-size truck segment down a well like nobody's seen since Baby Jessica, the Detroit Three are pickup gods. Honestly, comparing these guys' trucks with those of Nissan and Toyota is like pitting the Carolina Tar Heels basketball team against the Pasadena Polytechnic's boys junior varsity squad. It's just a slaughter.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 27, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Dodge Ram 1500: Dan Neil's column in Business on March 20 said the Dodge Ram 1500 pickup comes in two bed lengths, 6-foot-4 and 8-foot. Some configurations also have a 5-foot-7 bed length.

Ah, but the rope sellers and pistol merchants will say, so what? Maybe the D-3 can build decent pickups, but isn't the reliance on sales of big, thirsty trucks and SUVs what put them in the fix they are in?

This is poor, clumsy logic that blames the automakers for the public's folly. Notwithstanding all the other factors -- the miserable failure of the federal government to levy a significant gas (or carbon) tax, oscillations in the price of oil, the sucking economic quicksand of Depression 2.0 -- pickups are the single bright spot for the domestic automakers, a tent pole of reliable sales and profitability around which to rebuild these companies.

Look, America is a huge country whose economic backbone is the entrepreneurial class. Pickups are an utter necessity for work, business and recreation. We can demand that they get far better fuel economy; we can discourage their use as commuter vehicles. But we can't just ban them. Even the Sierra Club needs pickups.

Meanwhile, the general excellence of the redesigned-for-2009 Dodge Ram provides a hedge against despair. It proves that, if and when Dodge really wants to build a class-leading vehicle -- if the company's collective heart is really in it, as it certainly wasn't when it designed trash like the Dodge Nitro -- it certainly can.

The complaints in Ram's past were all related to drift and neglect, an ongoing starvation of investment in engineering, design and materials. Complacency, in other words. The interiors looked and felt cheap, the cabins were loud and booming, and the structural rigidity was substandard, which you could tell because the cargo box shook like a wet dog when you went over rough roads. The Ram's lameness -- a beautiful word, so summary in its judgment -- seemed all the more acute given the steadily improving quality of the Ford, Chevy, Toyota and Nissan full-sizers.

The 2009 Dodge Ram answers with a well-fitted interior stitched together from premium materials; touches of tasteful bright-work; smart, legible electronic readouts; beefier switches and knobs; sculpted seats; and cubbies and storage bins galore.

Up-budget buyers can tick boxes for 10-speaker sound system, Sirius satellite radio, built-in Wi-Fi and a rear seat entertainment system. Among the tricks this pony can do: With the remote start feature, you can fire the truck up on a cold day and it will automatically turn on the heated seats and heated steering wheel. People have been elected governor of Minnesota for less.

The rear-seat in-floor storage bin, one Dodge engineer said, is large enough to hold 10 12-ounce beverages with ice. In other words, beer. This seems like a highly inappropriate metric, and I approve.

The 1500 Ram comes in five trim levels (from base ST to Laramie) and three cab configurations (regular, quad and crew); two bed lengths (6-foot-4 and 8-foot); a choice of engines -- a 3.7-liter, 210-horsepower V6; a 4.7-liter, 310-hp V8 and the heavy-breathing 5.7-liter, 390-hp "Hemi" -- rear-wheel drive; and four-wheel drive.

The base ST with the V6 and four-speed automatic costs $22,420. The Crew Cab Laramie starts at $41,520. If you load it to the gills you can get to $50,000, but that's before the crazy employee pricing, local discounts and cash incentives for credit union and military personnel. By my calculation, our $48,555 test truck would enjoy an $8,479 discount in California.

Truck makers are vying to see which can come up with the coolest storage options for the cargo bed. Ram's entry in this competition is the RamBox storage system, which comprises large and lockable storage compartments built into the side of the cargo box. These are terrific.

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