Now that gas prices, the Gulf Coast oil catastrophe and this spoilsport economy have knocked some sense back into American drivers and consumers, more drivers are buying properly sized vehicles instead of commercial-grade trucks for weekday runs to Pottery Barn.
While there’s some black humor in watching suburbanites blast Expeditions and Tahoes over curbs at the local shopping center, driving a right-sized rig might be more logical and safer for all involved — especially those cart pushers!
Such titanic changes in our economy and driving habits have given automakers heartburn, while simultaneously encouraging smaller, lighter vehicles with higher MPG ratings. Have no fear, though, as full-size pickups continue to justify their existence for those of us who have an actual reason to own them – like towing trailers carrying sleds, boats, ATVs and other lifestyle products. There will always be a market for big power, and full-size, heavy-duty trucks, albeit with higher price tags and more fuel-saving technology under the hood.
While it’s no longer technically labeled a Dodge, after its new Italian (Fiat) ownership created the separate Ram division for the company’s trucks, we had seen, read and heard enough about the new Ram 2500 to be excited. It wears a bold, pressed suit of sheet metal, looks to be sporting the most well appointed Dodge/Chrysler interior in recent memory, comes fitted with a monstrous turbodiesel and is also Motor Trend’s 2010 Truck of the Year. Sounds good — let’s get towing!
2011 Dodge Ram 2500 Mega Cab: Sitting Down, Shutting Up
Our 2500 Laramie Mega Cab 4×4 test unit came well equipped with a big (really big!) $54,150 price tag. Options like the 6.7-liter Cummins Turbo Diesel, a 6-speed automatic transmission with push-button manual shifting, tire pressure monitoring, power bucket seats up front, theft deterrent system, rear park assist with camera, remote starting, seat heaters in both rows, in-dash navigation with a 30-gig hard drive, powerful 9-speaker Alpine stereo with satellite radio, a trailer-brake controller and leather seats helped account for the lofty price.
As it was February when our Ram arrived, the snow pack was still in prime condition in the Upper Midwest. We wasted no time after being handed the keys and immediately loaded sleds and gear into an enclosed, four-place trailer for a riding weekend in northern Wisconsin with family and friends.
The long weekend journey involved 75 mph freeway jaunts, cruising two-lane country highways and some around-town driving without the trailer — the ideal voyage for zeroing in on the finer points of the big Ram’s towing abilities and luxuriant coddling.
We checked the trailer lights, entered our destination on the touch-screen navigation system and hit the freeway heading north. Getting acquainted as the miles rolled on was a relaxing, comfortable experience. Everything from the gear shifter, turn signals and secondary controls exudes quality, and the Cummins turbodiesel makes a burly, muted rumble upon takeoff.
2011 Dodge Ram 2500 Mega Cab: A Tony Truck
Settling into the wide, couch-like leather seats, it was immediately clear Chrysler Group, wherever its owners, adorned this vehicle with a better interior than any in the company’s recent history. Gone are the vast expanses of hard, gray plastics of previous Rams, replaced instead by a tasteful, symmetrical dash whose quality and materials is clearly seen and felt up close. While a working truck shouldn’t be masquerading as a Maybach, some creature comforts and a tasteful design should be standard on any vehicle costing more than $50,000. Judging by the pleasantly upscale Ram cabin, it seems Chrysler finally agrees.
The gauge cluster is minimal and easy to decipher, steering wheel buttons are large and straightforward, and the navigation and climate controls are flanked (in our Laramie version) by decently realistic wood-grain trim, satin-finish silver and chrome surrounds. Also, contrasting white stitching provides some added flair to those supple black leather seats.
It was easy to be wowed by the calming interior, which was designed for ease of use, functionality and simplicity. With the 6.5-inch navigation screen leading the way, cruise control activated, satellite radio streaming personalized music, hands-free calling, automatic climate control and a heated seat and steering wheel, there’s little for the driver or passengers to worry about inside the Ram.
Chrysler claims the Mega Cab offers the most passenger volume in its class and, indeed, back-seat passengers are treated to a vast rear cabin with abundant comforts. The rear seat is heated, which the riding buddies appreciated after a bracing ride, behind-the-seat storage bins helped hide some personal effects and the reclining rear seats fold flat when you’re carrying cargo instead of human weight.
As a turn off the freeway approaches, the music gradually lowers around the driver and a soothing feminine voice informs you of the turn, which is also displayed on-screen. There’s very little fiddling with controls in this vehicle, and most functions can be by voice or with the big steering wheel-mounted buttons.
2011 Dodge Ram 2500 Mega Cab: Industrial Class
Yes, riding in the lap of luxury is nice, but your pilot didn’t forget this is a truck that’s destined to work, pull and get dirty. With 350 turbocharged horses and 650 pound-feet of torque from the Cummins diesel, this Ram 2500 has an 8,800-pound towing capacity — in the ballpark for the rest of the HD competition.
Off the line, acceleration is smooth, steady and forceful — without being brutish about it. The truck quickly builds speed, and can hit 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds. It never feels like a sports car, but this diesel puts out the twist to pull a large trailer up a steep hill or to pass with confidence.
It’s not as noisy as previous-generation diesels and, indeed, the 6.7-liter, inline six-cylinder turbodiesel is a remarkably advanced mill that meets the government’s stringent new emissions rules — without resorting to urea injection that requires periodic maintenance. Also, there was limited smell or smoke from this civilized diesel.
Ditching the Ram 1500’s smooth-riding coil-spring rear suspension, this larger Ram 2500 is suspended the old-fashioned way — leaf springs. There’s a small amount of wheel hop in bumpy corners, but handling is quite sharp for a 7,600-pound vehicle. All bumps are absorbed without harsh impact. And, where some heavy-duty trucks are downright flinty without a load, this Ram is composed without any weight in the box or on the tongue.
The six-speed automatic has a dash-actuated tow/haul mode that minimizes gear hunting, maximizes mileage and reduces brake wear. It can also be shifted manually, should the mood (or big hill) strike. We mostly left shifting to the tranny, and it seldom had to search for the right gear. Downshifts often required pressing the pedal down a moderate amount, but shifts were predictable and six speeds appropriately complement the diesel’s power curve.
Steering is pleasant and direct, as the rack is not overly boosted, so constant, minor wheel corrections pose no distraction at speed.
Fuel mileage was consistent, and about what we expected: just over 11 mpg while towing and 13-14 when riding solo. Sure, its dimensions are elephantine, but the truck doesn’t embarrass itself (or frustrate the driver) in city neighborhoods or downtown traffic. Still, towing a heavy trailer on a sprawling country road is this Ram’s natural, favored habitat.
2011 Dodge Ram 2500 Mega Cab: Classy Beast of Burden
The choices have never been better for those in the market for a heavy-duty work truck. They’re more expensive with every passing year, but recent innovations have taken these compression-fired beasts of burden to places recently unimaginable with opulent luxury for the occupants, heroic hauling capabilities, civilized handling — all without the racket and bluish cloud of traditional, old-school diesels.
Compared to its loaded-up competitors from Ford and General Motors, the Ram 2500 comes in a few thousand dollars cheaper for similar performance levels and amenities. Chrysler’s Italian leadership has big future plans for the newly independent Ram brand.
One cannot build such a capable, advanced hauler on the cheap. Sure, $54 grand is a hefty sum, but at least it comes with features and an interior fit for the price range. Whether it’s Detroit, Rome or Washington at the reins, the new Ram 2500 Mega Cab 4×4 is the company’s first post-bankruptcy vehicle that proves it could have a vibrant future. How fitting that its potential savior arrives as an all-American, 350 hp, diesel-powered truck — a good one, at that.