It’s not unusual when you have a new truck or piece of technology introduced by a truck maker to have key executives (usually from marketing) running around like headless chickens, saying, “This is a game changer! This is a game changer! This is a game changer!”
What is unusual is that, in this case, it might be true. From what we’ve seen in our first opportunity to get behind the wheel of the 2014 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, although it likely won’t be changing the world (it already knows how good diesel can be), this is likely to be the moment we look back and say, “I remember when Ram put that little diesel in their 1500 and it changed everything.”
The new EcoDiesel is sourced from Italian company VM Motori (soon to be fully owned and controlled by Fiat), which updated and upfitted a modern 24-valve 3.0-liter V-6 for Ram, capable of producing 240 horsepower at 3,600 rpm and 420 pounds-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm. It’s worth noting that the original 5.9-liter Cummins B-motor first offered in the Dodge Ram in the mid-1980s only produced 165 hp and 400 pounds-feet of torque.
The engine uses a relatively low compression ratio at 16.5:1, combined with a high-pressure common rail injection for both long-term durability and extremely precise fuel management. The 60-degree dual overhead cam V-6 uses a compacted-graphite iron block with aluminum heads and pistons. Additionally, engineers have used graphite and other composites wherever possible to improve strength and save weight. We’re told the total added weight to the truck over an identically equipped Ram 1500 with the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 is less than 50 pounds, but the added cost for the diesel option over an identically equipped Hemi Ram will be $2,850 (but expect the upgraded transmission to be another added cost).
Dave Sowers, head of Ram 1500/2500/3500 marketing, noted that given where fuel prices are now, Ram expects good mileage ratings from the EPA (as of our drive, EPA-estimated ratings had not yet been released). Given the likelihood that these EcoDiesels would provide stronger resale in the used truck market, Sowers thought new truck owners should expect to effectively break even on the diesel option choice in three to four years.
All EcoDiesel Ram 1500s will be equipped with the ZF eight-speed transmission (the same one mated to the Hemi engine option) have 3.55:1 axle gears and offer a 9,200-pound maximum towing capacity. Ram will offer the small diesel option across all cab configurations and all trim levels (except the regular cab short bed and HFE model). That means whether you’re a fleet buyer or just looking to replace the family pickup, the Ram 1500 will be the first truck in the half-ton segment in a very long time (remember the old Detroit Diesels in the GM lineup?) to offer a light-duty diesel option. Ram executives are cautiously optimistic that as many as 15 percent of their half-ton buyers will opt for the EcoDiesel. All they have to do, Ram says, is get people to try it, and they’ll buy. That’s probably not too far off the mark.
Our drive took place just north of Los Angeles, where our Ram-prescribed route took us up and through the Malibu canyons and along the Pacific Ocean. Temperatures were cool and much of our driving was on two-lane highways through coastal farmlands and through mountain canyons.
The first thing we noticed was that interior engineers likely requested some added insulation for the interior because it will difficult for many, from the driver or passenger seat (windows rolled up), to distinguish between the EcoDiesel engine and the gas 3.6-liter Pentastar. The only giveaway on the inside will be the DEF (the diesel exhaust fluid that is injected into the exhuast stream to clean up the tailpipe emissions) gauge in the lower left corner of the cluster. We’re told there will be plenty of warning steps as the urea tank drops to empty, but thankfully the truck will never completely shut down or lose full power.
As you might expect, much of the beauty of this engine comes from the drive characteristics of the computer-controlled TorqueFlite eight-speed transmission. We really like the throttle response because it does exceptionally well off the line, with very little hesitation, and up- and downshifts happen briskly and often when throttling up or down steep hills. We assume there was plenty of fine-tuning done to make sure the variable geometry turbocharger has very little turbo lag; it’s almost undetectable.
During certain sections of our hill climbing on twisty mountain roads, we did sense the transmission was hunting and quick-shifting (probably skipping a gear or two) trying to keep up with our enthusiastic throttle foot. Downshifts happened solidly and without any big hits or shocks as we pushed the half-ton crew cab Longhorn like we would a Mazda Miata. Make no mistake, although the torque numbers are similar to the Hemi, the truck does not feel as responsive or feel as strong as it does when the truck is equipped with the Hemi, but that shouldn’t surprise experienced diesel owners.
We spent much of our time through the twisties keeping our thumb on the plus and minus button of the transmission shifter on the steering wheel, just above the cruise control settings. If there’s one weakness to having a rotary dial for a transmission selector, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be a good place for a tap-up or tap-down shifter. Some have suggested paddle shifters, but this doesn’t seem the place for it (but maybe a Rumble Bee package might have them). Still, the transmission was good about holding the gear we programmed, allowing us to downshift quickly when approaching a tight downhill decreasing radius corner in the canyons.
Once out of the mountain roads, we kept a steady 50 mph average along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, where we saw our average fuel economy creep up to 26 mpg (remember, that includes our climb up the canyons and then back down), but out on the highway, cruising at freeway speeds (in California, that’s about 70 mph), we saw the instantaneous readouts tell us we were getting between 24 and 26 mpg. If we had to guess where the EPA ratings will land, we wouldn’t be surprised to see 20 city and 29 or 30 highway.
We did get a chance to take some shorter loops later in the day with a Laramie 4x4 with the EcoDiesel; when navigating the wide open city streets on our 12-mile test loop, we averaged 42 mph and 22.7 mpg.
We also got a chance to do a bit of towing. Ram provided us with a small boat and trailer (weighing about 3,000 pounds) for us to drive the urban 12-mile route. We managed to get 15.4 mpg under load in tow mode. In fact, it was while towing that we saw a little of the EcoDiesel’s shine come off the finish. We found that even under the relatively light load of a small boat, the response of the transmission seemed sluggish. Our tow vehicle did have the rear coils springs (not the air suspension), so we expect it to be a little more sensitive to tongue weight, but it was clearly not as quick to respond to our inputs or as ready to drop a gear or two when we needed acceleration help. This was another situation where having another form of manual shifting, beyond the thumb buttons, would have been nice, especially for keeping the gears in exactly the right spots on the powerband.
We should note that when driving empty, especially with the Longhorn’s air-ride suspension, there was nothing jerky or plodding about this powertrain combination. The powertrain, with all its torquey diesel characteristics, fits perfectly with the luxury trim package, and with the added range (our truck’s computer estimated 540 miles for a single tank), this will be a popular option with the luxo crowd. Our test vehicle listed at $57,420.
We did not notice any of our test units dipping into the DEF fluid in a way that moved the gauge needle, but we liked being able to see exactly how much there is left in the eight-gallon tanks (a Ram exclusive). Ram is saying it expects a single tank of DEF to last about 10,000 miles (and assumes that duty cycle includes some towing or hauling), which is also the factory-required distances Ram is recommending for oil changes.
We have to say we’re impressed. It’s not a perfect engine, but it offers a great sound and it has the obvious benefits of longer intervals between fillups, functionally invisible drive characteristics, plenty of low-end grunt and the extra trade-in value, which are all huge assets for this new powertrain option. We’ll reserve our full judgment until we get to see this truck and engine combination during some back-to-back runs with other powertrains in the segment. There’s no telling where the Ram 1500 would have finished in our 2013 Light Duty Challengeif it had had slightly better fuel economy numbers empty and towing than it did with the Hemi during our testing.
Whether this truck will have the 15 percent take rate when it hits the dealerships we feel is a no-brainer. Ram is the first to market in a segment that is looking for smart ways to be more efficient and capable — and this does both. No doubt Ford and GM will respond quickly (Ford is offering a small Power Stroke in the Transit van and GM’s small pickups are rumored to use two different small diesels). Both will be carefully watching to see how consumers respond.
We should note, especially for those with good memories, this is exactly the same posture Ford was taking when it first brought out the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 engine. That turned into Ford's biggest engine homerun in the segment in decades, making it the engine of choice for almost half of all F-150s today. We’re pretty sure the EcoDiesel will never become that popular (barring any unforeseen international issues), but it’s likely the EcoDiesel will be even more popular than the most hopeful Ram Truck marketing folks or engineers might think. The more half-ton shoppers that Ram can get behind the wheel, the more drivers will be convinced that they can live with it without any trouble. We’ll have more when we get one for full-report comparison testing.
Model: 2014 Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn
Configuration: Crew Cab 4x4
Engine: 3.0-liter DOHC V-6 TD
Horsepower: 240 @ 3,600
Torque: 420 @ 2,000
Transmission: TorqueFlite eight-speed
Wheels: 20x9-in aluminum, chrome inserts
Tires: 275/60R20 Goodyear Wrangler SR-A
Brakes: Four-wheel vented disc
Axle ratio: 3.55:1
Suspension, front: Double wishbone, air bags
Suspension, rear: Five-link, air bags
Base price: $48,730
As tested: $57,420