LAS VEGAS – In the winter of 2013, Fiat Chrysler held a media ride-and-drive program in Michigan’s snow-prone Upper Peninsula, intending to demonstrate how stably the automaker’s vehicles equipped with its on-demand all-wheel-drive system perform in slick climates.
“We’re hoping for awful, inclement weather,” a Chrysler engineer said before the media drive. They didn’t get it. Instead, they got an unseasonable warm streak. The snow melted. There were no tricky roadways on which FCA’s AWD could show its stuff.
FCA canceled the last wave of the event due to nice weather.
Late this winter, FCA held a media drive event in Las Vegas for its ’19 Ram 2500 and 3500 Heavy Duty pickup trucks. Las Vegas, a desert town, leans toward warm weather. But something odd happened during the FCA program. It snowed. In Las Vegas. What are the odds?
“This is our first ‘snow’ drive for the Ram Heavy Duty,” quips Jim Morrison, Ram’s brand chief in North America. “We weren’t expecting this.” Ironically, he notes, “We did snow tests back in Michigan.”
The big trucks – ranging in weight from 5,953 to 7,281 lbs. (2,593 to 3,320 kg) and many of them 4x4s – easily plied through the white stuff on roads in and outside of town. (Mind you, it wasn’t a blizzard or even heavy snow, but it was such a climate-zone oddity for Las Vegas that many non-snowbirds pulled off the road to make snowmen and snowballs.)
That the pickups took it in stride is no surprise. After all, these rugged behemoths are engineered and built for tough going. Of course, the Ram HD media event included off-roading so these vehicles could demonstrate their rugged agility. You almost expect a day when future models can scale Mount Everest.
In the U.S. vehicle market, the Ram brand is hot and “growing faster than ever,” Morrison says, citing a 7.2% growth rate from 2017 to 2018 when the automaker delivered 536,980 pickups, according to Wards Intelligence.(From left, Ram 2500 HD Longhorn, Power Wagon and 3500 HD Dually.)
Ram competes head-on with Ford and General Motors counterparts. The Detroit cross-town rivals are civil but don’t demur when it comes to pickup product boasting. Morrison calls it “the tailgate wars.” Joining the action, he and his Ram colleagues say repeatedly Ram HDs “out-power, out-tow and out-haul every other pickup available.”
Specifically, that means the king-size Rams with optional all-new 6.7L Cummins high-output turbo diesel engines have achieved a milestone 1,000 lb.-ft. (1,356 Nm) of torque at 1,800 rpm and 400 hp at 2,800 rpm.
Ram also claims these highest numbers for diesel- and gasoline-powered pickups: 35,100 lbs. (1,522 kg) towing and 7,680 lbs. (3,306 kg) rear-bed payload.
The Ram HDs demographically cover a swath of buyers. They include rich people who need a big truck for towing their prized horses. They also include tradespeople who need a workhorse truck to make a living.
Product displays set up in a Las Vegas exhibit room reflect that ownership diversity. On one side is a Ram HD hitched to a flatbed trailer carrying serious construction equipment. On the other side is a Ram joined to a $170,000 camper trailer. Elsewhere in the room is a posturing Ram 2500, its left-front tire positioned atop a faux-boulder.
Because of that variety of buyers, there’s a wide range of pricing for the different grades of truck. It starts with the 2500 4x2 Regular Cab Tradesman with a $33,395 MSRP. It tops off with the 3500 4X4 Mega Cab Limited stickered at $67,050. (A relatively hefty $1,695 destination charge is tacked on to all models, they are a lot of cargo to haul to a dealership.)
The top-trim models cross over into luxury pricing. Those plush pickups aren’t officially called luxury vehicles, but at those prices, they are.
Accordingly, they come with all the premium accruements, ranging from rich leather interiors to a new 360° surround-view camera with trailer-reverse guidance that assists in maneuvering towing setups. It can slash hitching time from 15 minutes to 30 seconds. There’s also a cargo-view camera and a bed-lowering function.
No, it’s not IMAX, but a big 12-in. (30-cm) infotainment screen is an HD first. Its size stems from feedback from customers saying they want more onboard information, such as weather reports, Morrison says.
All the Ram HD models come with more than 100 safety and security features, such as adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking and AEB with trailer brakes.
An overall auto industry trend has been to keep trim levels reasonably limited. Simplifying the variations makes manufacturing easier. But Ram HDs are the exception because of their demographic multiples.
Ram HD versions include Tradesman, Bighorn, Laramie and Power Wagon and variations thereof. Slice and dice them, and FCA offers 57 different model versions. Morrison acknowledges that’s a lot – and a lot to ask of manufacturing engineers. (The truck is made in Coahuila, Mexico.) But it’s necessary, he adds.
“It gives each a different personality and reflects our varied buyer base,” he tells Wards. “One fits in nicely in California, another in Texas. That’s why we do it.”
As a truck guy, he’s of a mindset to declare, “Everyone needs a truck.” But he qualifies that. “There are times when everyone needs a truck, yet the number of times varies, and it might not be enough to actually buy a truck. But there is a tipping point when you need a truck to the point that you buy one.”
Today’s light-truck makers are making it more palatable for more consumers to cross that point but still get a vehicle that’s civilized.
By infusing modern-day pickups with amenities and sophisticated suspension systems, those vehicles offer well-appointed interiors and smoothed-out rides. “It means more people can have their truck when they need it, and then also enjoy it,” Morrison says.
One journalist on that wintry Las Vegas ride-and-drive had never before driven a truck as big as a Ram. At first, he was apprehensive. Then he sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the ride and the ease of driving that comes with it. There’s no need to go to truck-driver school to handle one of these biggies.
An improved ride quality stems from new suspension tuning that includes Frequency Response Damping shocks and re-engineered bushings. “When I started, luxury in pickup trucks was a seatbelt to keep you from banging around because of the rough ride,” Morrison quips.
Inside, active noise cancellation, anti-vibration equipment and acoustical glass contribute to what Ram bills as the “quietest cabin yet.” That’s another thing pickup truck product developers of yesteryear didn’t pay much mind to.
The Ram HD’s base engine is a 6.4L Hemi V-8 with 8-speed transmission. Consumers who opt for that Cummins turbodiesel with the massive torque numbers will see $9,100 more on their bill.
The Ram brand enjoys one of the highest loyalty rates in the auto industry. That’s ironic, because when Nissan launched its fullsize Titan pickup in 2004, the brand’s market research indicated that although Chevrolet and Ford truck owners were highly brand-loyal, Ram owners were not as much, and therefore more susceptible to conquesting. So Nissan went after Ram in particular. (Ram HD with Cummins diesel engine claims highest towing capacity.)
That research was flawed, though. Ram market share grew, and the Titan U.S. sales remain relatively modest: 50,459 units last year, about a tenth of Ram deliveries.)
The most noticeable exterior design change is the Ram HD front. The barrel-chested appearance of the grille plays well visually.
Optional headlamp accents stand out, too. “There’s no doubt it’s a Ram coming at you,” says exterior designer Mike Gillam.
Today’s designer headlights aim to do more than just illuminate, he notes. “On the Ram, they are a visual showcase. That was part of our intent.”