2013 Dodge Ram: A futuristic bargain

The 2013 Dodge Ram 1500 looks like the

The 2013 Dodge Ram 1500 looks like the same truck, even though there are plenty of subtle changes. Class-leading fuel performance is there now, too, scoring slightly better than the Ford F-150 with its similarly sized and powered 3.7-liter V6. (Credit: Chrysler Group LLC)

The changes were really a long-time coming.

The 2013 Ram 1500 arrives with enough new content engineered into its soul to gain plenty of traction with the tough pickup crowd. Whether it's enough to entice Ford and General Motors supporters to join the Ram flock remains to be seen, but as the nation's economic health shows signs of life, so should the fortunes of all light- and medium-duty truck brands.

Now operating as its own unit apart from Chrysler's Dodge division, the Ram brand - specifically the 1500 series - receives some critical mid-product-cycle adjustments that are significant on a number of fronts.

Outwardly, the new Ram doesn't appear much different, though. The forward-angled grille juts out as before, like an overbite, and fronts the same cab and box sizes. However, the nose is now an inch taller, the headlights are updated and the grille can be specified with fuel-saving shutters that automatically close at highway speeds, forcing air around the body instead of allowing it to become trapped inside the engine bay. There's also a new aluminum hood that's lighter by some 26 pounds.

For fuel-saving measures, that's just the start. A thermal management system rapidly warms engine and transmission fluids, allowing them to function more efficiently, sooner, which also helps save gas. Then there's a stop-start system that shuts off the engine (while still maintaining necessary electric-powered systems) when stationary, such as at stoplights or in stop-and-go traffic. Once you put your foot back on the gas pedal, the system returns the engine to full operation.

These systems, plus installing electric (non-belt-driven) power steering, all help save gas, but the Ram's new base powertain does most of the heavy lifting here. Chrysler has finally seen fit to install its 3.6-liter V6 and eight-speed automatic transmission between the Ram's flanks, replacing the antiquated 3.7-liter V6. The result is a significant 90-horsepower gain (to 305) and a torque increase to 269 pound-feet from 235. The new powertrain makes a world of difference in the Ram's consumption ratings that are now 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway (previously 14/20 for 4x2 regular-cab models and 16/23 for 4x4 units). The Ram folks claim these are best-in-class numbers and until GM's all-new 2014 model-year pickups arrive there's no reason to doubt it.

By mid-season, the "Torqueflite8" eight-speed will also become standard with the optional 395-horsepower 5.7-liter "Hemi" V8. Yes, it's a stout enough piece, helping to boost the new V6's towing capacity to 6,500 pounds from 3,750.

Carrying over, and exclusive to the job-site Tradesmen model, is a 310-horsepower 4.7-liter V8 connected to a six-speed automatic transmission.
Rams fitted with the eight-speed come with a rotary shift dial on the lower left corner of the center stack, replacing the previous column- or console-mounted shifter. The interior also features an available touch-screen access for communications and audio devices as well as for Wi-Fi Internet access.

Further changes to the Ram involve adopting a stiffened frame that's also lighter by 30 pounds. Alone that's not much, but combined with a lighter base powertrain and front suspension and the combined savings reaches the 130-pound range.

The Ram also becomes the first in its class to offer key-fob-controlled air suspension on Quad and Crew models that features five ride height settings: Normal, with 8.7-inches of clearance; Aero, for a lower 8.1-inch ride height; Off-Road 1 that adds 1.2 inches to the base ride height; Off-Road 2 that elevates the truck a full two inches above normal ride height; and Park Mode that lowers the pickup by two inches from normal to aid cargo loading/unloading. The air suspension also comes with load leveling that keeps the Ram at a constant height and level regardless of its load.

The $23,600 (base price) Ram makes giant strides in areas that matter most while actually improving power and towing capacity, things that make people want to buy trucks in the first place. The changes are so dramatic for 2013 that they might even cause die-hard Ford and Chevy truckers to consider the source of their next ride.

What you should know: 2013 Ram 1500

Type: Two-/four-door, rear- / four-wheel-drive full-size pickup
Engines (hp): 3.6-liter DOHC V6 (305); 4.7-liter SOHC V8 (310); 5.7-liter OHV V8 (395)
Transmissions: Eight-speed automatic; six-speed automatic (4.7)
Market position: The Ram 1500 address fuel concerns while actually increasing power and tow capacity. It's win-win as the new V6 will be a huge seller.
Points: New V6 plus eight-speed automatic add more muscle, significantly reduce fuel consumption; Optional "Hemi" V8 might no longer be needed for all but toughest hauling/towing tasks . . . maybe that's the plan; New dash-mounted rotary shift selector makes sense; The trick adjustable air suspension is actually useful; Ram's upgrades make it a more serious rival.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG: (city/hwy) 18/25 (3.6); Base price (incl. destination): $23,600

BY COMPARISON

Chevrolet Silverado
Base price: $23,600
Silverado and GMC Sierra due to be replaced for 2014 model year.

Ford F-150
Base price: $24,700
Top-ranked pickup should retain its title with fuel efficient turbo V6 option.

Toyota Tundra
Base price: $26,350
Perhaps towing the space shuttle in LA recently will help boost Tundra sales. 

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