Monday, September 8, 2008

Where's the hybrid?

'09 Dodge Ram won't get one for a while
BASE PRICE: $22,170
DRIVETRAIN: 3.7-liter, 215-hp, 235-lb-ft V6; RWD, four-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT: 4,525 lb
0-60 MPH: N/A

The new 2009 Dodge Ram pick-up is loaded with genuine improvements, starting with aerodynamic and powertrain efficiencies that increase fuel economy 5 percent on average. What it doesn't have, at least initially, is the dual-mode hybrid powertrain arriving now in the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicles. That is at least a mild surprise.

Nor will the Ram debut with a next-generation diesel engine. Dodge promises both the hybrid and a new diesel "sometime after 2009," and given the market's sudden thirst for more fuel-efficient vehicles, a reasonable question arises: Why wait?

"It's kind of like trying to cover every bet on a roulette wheel," says Joe Veltri, Dodge director of truck marketing. "No one has the money it takes to cover every possibility at launch. If you want to execute a well-designed product with maximum quality, you have to set some priorities. We set our priorities, and we're pretty happy with the [Ram] product mix."

The new turbodiesel, being developed with longtime partner Cummins, won't be reserved for heavy-duty trucks. Dodge hopes to have the Ram's 50-state-legal diesel ready for showrooms before the hybrid.

"Every study we've seen suggests that in every other segment, buyers want hybrids more than they want diesels," Veltri says. "In pickups, they want diesels more than hybrids. I think that's a function of familiarity with diesel technology and a comfort level among truck buyers."

The Ram hybrid's powertrain will be essentially identical to that in the Aspen and the Durango: a Hemi and the dual-mode variable automatic transmission, with two integrated electric motors. Developed jointly by BMW, General Motors and former Chrysler parent Daimler, the dual-mode hybrid typically increases mileage ratings 40 percent in city driving and 25 percent overall.

What the redesigned and reengineered Ram does get for 2009 is a plethora of new features, starting with a softer-riding rear coil-spring suspension (versus traditional leaf springs). Chrysler engineers say the truck maintains the same load-carrying capacity, but the coil setup reduces lateral movement to help keep the rear end more planted, especially when driven unloaded. In our test drives, the truck exhibited surprisingly little body roll, rear skate seemed minimal, and the head toss usually noted in high-strung pickups was low, despite driving the truck with an empty cargo bed.

"The idea was to provide the same drive quality, loaded or unloaded," says Ram engineer Steve Williams.

The Ram's 5.7-liter Hemi V8 gets an upgrade that boosts output to 390 hp and 407 lb-ft of torque, up from 345 hp and 375 lb-ft. The multi-displacement system is retuned to allow the engine to operate in fuel-saving four-cylinder mode across a wider rpm range. Brakes are improved to reduce dead space in the pedal stroke.

In addition to adding a weight-saving aluminum hood, design chief Ralph Gilles also lowered the front end, tightened wheel-well openings and extended the side sills to reduce aerodynamic drag. While the truck's overall size is slightly smaller, it appears bigger and bolder than ever.

Cool new features include RamBox weatherproof, lockable bins integrated into the bed sides and in-floor storage bins.

Retail prices for the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 range from $22,170 for a regular-cab V6 4x2 in base ST trim to $44,140 for a Hemi-powered Ram Crew 4x4 in luxo Laramie trim. Prices include a $900 destination fee.

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