Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stylish 2009 Dodge Ram delivers power and innovation


As bad news swirls around Chrysler, the 2009 Dodge Ram pickup arrives to remind us that the automaker is very good at some important things.

The sophisticated and stylish full-size pickup could serve as a rolling prospectus as Chrysler's owners shop the company to buyers.

"You want to know why Chrysler's worth owning? Here are the keys; take the 2009 Ram for a spin."

The pickup showcases the styling flair and innovation that have always distinguished Chrysler's best vehicles. It complements them with a high-quality interior that rectifies one of the company's longstanding weaknesses.

Prices for the 2009 Dodge Ram start at $21,270 for a rear-wheel drive regular-cab model with a 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission. Like most pickups, the Ram comes in a bewildering array of models.

Choices include rear- or four-wheel drive, three cab sizes, three bed lengths, three engines and two automatic transmissions.

The least-expensive V8-powered Ram has a 310-horsepower 4.7-liter engine and costs $22,330, while the lowest-priced four-wheel drive runs $25,725.

I tested a near top-of-the-line model, a rear-drive Crew Cab -- the roomier of two four-door models -- with an upgraded 390-horsepower version of Chrysler's 5.7-liter Hemi V8, five-speed automatic transmission and a base price of $40,020.

The well-equipped pickup I drove had a $45,520 sticker price. All prices exclude destination charges, and the Ram's prices compare well with other leading full-size pickups like the Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-150 and Toyota Tundra.

Some people will argue that introducing a new pickup in the face of high gasoline prices and an economic slowdown is a symptom of the inept management that's crippled Chrysler, but they're mistaken.

There will be a big and profitable market for pickups as long as there are farmers and contractors, or Joe's not a plumber.

Chrysler builds pickups, minivans and big sporty cars as well as anybody in the business. The company's dire state stems from not putting the same effort into building great small and midsize cars.

The solution to Chrysler's problems, if there is one, will come from hooking up with a partner who values vehicles like the Ram and can provide equally good vehicles in the segments where Chrysler suffers.

Pickup owners are among the most studious and loyal buyers in the market. They know their vehicles inside and out. You don't win their business easily, as Nissan and Toyota can testify.

To keep its current owners and win some new ones, Dodge broke the mold with the 2009 Ram, offering a raft of unique new features that make the truck more useful and comfortable than the competition.

Useful new features abound. The Ram I tested had four new optional storage bins: two under the floor in the rear seat and two in the rear fenders.

They are phenomenally handy, particularly the lockable and drainable fender bins, which are like saddlebags on a horse: they increase your ability to carry stuff by using space that was previously wasted.

The twin fender bins -- Dodge calls them the RamBox -- provide 7.4 cubic feet of storage space to hold tools, fishing gear or up to five cases -- 120 cans -- of 12-ounce drinks on ice. The RamBox is only available on Crew Cab models, the Ram with the biggest interior and a 67.9-inch-long, 50-inch-wide bed.

The underfloor compartments can each hold ten 12-ounce drinks and ice, but you can store anything in them. The bins have removable plastic liners for cleaning and are covered by a nicely fitted floor mat.

The rest of the interior of the Crew Cab is spacious, comfortable and attractive. It's trimmed in high-quality, well-fitted pieces and provides limo-like passenger space.

The Ram offers features that aren't available in other pickups, including luxurious touches like heated and cooled front seats and a heated steering wheel.

The Ram I tested boasted the top entertainment system, which included rear-seat video and three channels of kid-friendly TV from Sirius.

The touch-screen control for the entertainment and navigation systems is easy to use, but washes out in bright light. That's a common failing in touch screens, but this one also requires manual intervention to switch to a dimmer night mode.

It would be simple and convenient to have the screen dim automatically when the headlights switch on.

That minor failing aside, however, the Ram's interior is extraordinary, packing more features, room and comfort than some upscale cars.

Mechanically, the Ram is equally impressive. Chrysler reworked its famous Hemi V8 to produce more power and use less gasoline.

The engine's output rises to 390 horsepower and 407 pound-feet of torque, topping the Chevrolet Silverado's 6.0-liter V8, Ford F-150's 5.4-liter V8, Nissan Titan's 5.6-liter and Toyota Tundra's 5.7-liter V8.

At the same time, EPA fuel economy ratings for V6 and Hemi-powered Rams improves to 14 m.p.g. in the city and 20 m.p.g. on the highway. That's about 1 m.p.g. lower than a comparable Silverado or F-150, but considerably better than either the Titan or Tundra.

The Ram's 8,800-pound towing capacity is lower than other full-size pickups offer, but Dodge compensates for that with improved handling thanks to a unique new coil-spring rear suspension.

All the other pickups use rear leaf springs. The Ram's car-like setup provides a smoother ride than most big pickups, but the huge improvement comes in handling: the Ram tracks through corners and smoothly and directly as a sporty sedan.

The Ram's steering is correspondingly fine. Sharp and precise, it nearly lets you forget the steering wheel is connected to a full-size pickup that can tow more than 4 tons.

The Ram looks as good as it feels. The new design combines fuel-saving aerodynamic tweaks with bold styling. A bulging hood and forward-leaning grille are oddly reminiscent of the Chevrolet Corvette Mako Shark concept car, while a flowing lip on the tailgate gives the Ram's rear a modern appearance.

These are dark days at Chrysler, but the new Ram is a shining example of the company's ability.

If Chrysler doesn't get a new lease on life, it won't be the 2009 Dodge Ram's fault. Lay the blame at the feet of lousy management that didn't insist every vehicle Chrysler builds be this good.

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