LAS VEGAS – Admittedly, the number of people who need a smooth-riding highway truck that can also climb a rock face under its own power is a small subset of the driving public. But for those who do, the ’17 Ram Power Wagon may be unequaled.
We get behind the wheel of the latest iteration of FCA’s niche heavy-duty pickup during an on- and off-road expedition in Nevada and in a half-day of driving easily size up its capabilities: This thing is a beast in the trails, but a beauty on the tarmac.
“Nobody does this kind of capability out of the factory,” says Kevin Metz, head of marketing-Ram heavy-duty truck.
“It’s a great everyday truck, but it’s capable of being the ultimate off-road truck as well,” he says. “If you have to drive that truck to work every day, there’s no sacrifice in ride and handling, but you still have all that off-road capability.”
For the ’17 model year, the refreshed Power Wagon borrows design cues from the successful light-duty Ram Rebel, starting up front with the “no crosshairs” blacked-out grille framing the bold billet “RAM” logo. Inside, the Rebel’s tire-tread print seats are an option. In addition, vertical “Power Wagon” script on the truck bed sides brings back a design theme from the ’79-’80 Power Wagons made famous by television’s “Simon & Simon” brothers.
The Power Wagon gets one powertrain, a 6.4L V-8, producing 410 hp and 429 lb.-ft. (582 Nm) of torque, plenty for purposes of moving this nearly 7,000-lb. (3,175-kg) truck, which also is capable of towing up to 10,030 lbs. (4,550 kg) or hauling a 1,510-lb. (685-kg) payload.
Metz says the Power Wagon isn’t a candidate for a diesel option due to cost (the diesel is $9,000 pricier) and weight (the diesel is 900 lbs. [408 kg] heavier). The diesel also would require an air cooler roughly in the same location as the Power Wagon’s standard front-mounted winch.
Regardless of engine type, it’s what happens when that power leaves the engine via the standard 6-speed automatic transmission and routes through the Borg Warner 44-47 transfer case to the solid front and rear axles with electronically locking differentials that makes the Power Wagon an otherworldly vehicle.
The transfer case’s 2.64-ratio low range combines with a 4.10-ratio axle to produce a 35:1 crawl ratio, seemingly giving the Power Wagon capability of clambering over just about any obstacle short of a fallen redwood.
While most off-road-capable trucks can dig their way through loose sand, power through mud, ford streams and handle steep and rough terrain, the Power Wagon’s extraordinary skills become evident in climbs up severe rock walls where guides are needed to direct steering angle and call for power as needed.
Besides the locking diffs, accessible via a dashboard knob, the truck also features a class-exclusive electronically disconnecting front stabilizer bar, unhooked via a simple dashboard switch. The e-disconnect sway bar allows maximum articulation of the front axle – up to 26 ins. (66 cm) of wheel travel – in severe off-road driving, but also softens the ride and reduces head toss when disconnected at speeds below 18 mph (29 km/h) on rough or rocky trails.
The truck’s Hill Descent Control works to perfection, using brakes and gearing in 4WD Lo mode to manage downhill speed, with nine available settings from 0.6 mph (1 km/h) to 5.6 mph (9 km/h).
Should the Power Wagon’s powertrain alone prove lacking, the truck comes equipped with a 12,000-lb. (5,443-kg) Warn electric winch, though Ram officials joke the winch typically comes in handy yanking competitors’ trucks out of danger.
Once we finish playing in the sand, rambling up and down steep inclines and roughing it up rock faces, we roll back onto the highway for the cruise back to civilization. Though some body roll is to be expected in a heavy-duty pickup with a standard 2.5-in. (6.4-cm) lift and 14.3 ins. (36.3 cm) of ground clearance, the Power Wagon’s coil-spring suspension works to keep the truck stable and smooth at speed.
Metz says the Power Wagon, like the similarly capable Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, is borne out of an engineering desire, not a marketing whim, and appeals to buyers who want a turnkey off-road-capable pickup. Some 5% of Ram heavy-duty customers fit that description, he says.
The Power Wagon, built at FCA’s Saltillo Truck Assembly Plant in Coahuila, Mexico, is on sale now priced at $51,695, plus $1,320 destination.
[email protected] @bobgritzinger