Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing
Prepare yourselves, fellow truckers, for a brand new day. No more will you be surprised by a sideways leap of the ass end of your truck when you encounter midcorner bumps or cross railroad tracks.
No more will your insides turn into a quivering bowl of gelatin as you traverse a lumpy freeway. And no longer will you and your passengers quiver at the sight of a washboard dirt road or a poorly maintained driveway.
Nay, these things will no longer happen, because the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup has been healed!
Can I get a hallelujah?
Someone Had To Do It
Pickup truck suspensions have needed help since Day One. After all, one of the most common put-downs used to describe an uncomfortable ride is, "This thing rides like a truck." The all-new 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 Pickup most certainly is a truck, from the tip of its optional 390-horsepower 5.7-liter V8 Hemi to the tail of its 9,100-pound maximum towing capacity, but it no longer rides and handles like the usual sort of truck.
A set of gargantuan coil springs now supports the back half of the new Ram, improving ride and stability while miraculously preserving the payload and towing capacity of the 2008 model. If the competition doesn't already have prototypes and test mules running around with this setup at their respective proving grounds, they'd best get on the ball.
Full-size SUVs ditched leaf springs for coils years ago, but they've remained on pickups for one big reason: They're cheap. Stubborn traditionalism probably had something to do with it, too.
A leaf spring is inexpensive because this simple sandwich of steel simultaneously locates the axle while it shoulders the load. But trying to do everything at once creates problems. The locating bushings and shackles can't adequately control deflections, making rear wheel alignment a matter of faith. And the friction between the overlapping leaves fosters a jerky stick-slip motion of the rear axle, making it difficult to keep the tire rubber on a bumpy road. Oh, and they're heavy, too.
The Ram's use of coil springs improves all of the above. Here four trailing links and a Panhard rod accurately locate the rear axle in three dimensions. This leaves the coils — which have no rubbing or sliding surfaces to create friction — free to support the back of the truck. As a bonus, this setup allows better packaging of the shock absorbers (parallel, instead of staggered), enables the fitment of a rear antiroll bar (every new Ram 1500 has one), provides increased off-road axle articulation and saves about 40 pounds.
Coil spring rear suspension is a good deal.
Behind the Wheel
Dodge has not been tentative in its confidence about this. Our initial drive of the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 had been prepared to send us across aged asphalt back roads that had been repeatedly patched over the years with shovelfuls of asphalt and then tamped inexpertly by hand. We also had access to the Ram 1500's every competitor: the Chevy Silverado, Ford F-150, Nissan Titan and Toyota Tundra. And the test trucks we drove were even fitted with P275/60R20 tires, the option least friendly to ride.
It wasn't even close. The other trucks twitched, shook and shuddered over the lumps, sidestepping a couple of inches over one particular midcorner bump. Not so with the Ram; its composure remained resolute. Oh, sure, we could still feel the wretched pavement, because the coil springs still need to be stout enough to handle a payload and the rear axle is still a solid one and therefore still carries the unsprung weight liability of that design. Yet rear impacts were substantially better managed and more in sync with the front suspension.
But the Ram driving experience isn't all rosy. The effort level of the rack-and-pinion steering tends toward the light side, and what effort build-up there is doesn't correlate directly to the level of cornering force being generated by the tires. We found this lack of direct feel disconcerting at times, especially during sweeping turns. It's all relatively benign, but there is no revolution to report here.
Ram prototypes reportedly spent far more than the usual number of hours in the wind tunnel, reducing the drag coefficient to improve fuel consumption. The new 1500 certainly looks sleek and slippery at a detail level, with uncommonly small gaps (for a truck) between the front bumper and the grille, tight-fitting triple-sealed doors and rubber gaskets between the cab and bed. But wind noise did not get taken to a whole new level in the process; our pre-production Laramie Crew Cab 4x2 sample vehicle sounded a tad gusty when cruising at 60 mph.
More Powerful Engines, Fractionally Less Thirsty
Changes to the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 have led to a significant increase in output. Variable valve timing, variable-length intake manifold runners and a higher compression ratio help the revised mill make 390 horsepower (up from 345 hp) and 407 pound-feet of torque (formerly 375 lb-ft).
The extra grunt contributes to increased efficiency by allowing the Multiple Displacement System (MDS) cylinder deactivation to operate in V4 mode more readily. It can also generate a claimed time to 60 mph of less than 6.0 seconds when mounted in the regular cab short-bed 4x2 R/T. Or it'll tow 9,100 pounds in a short-bed SLT 4x2 with the optional (and less fuel-friendly) 3.92:1 rear-end gears.
Optional towing gear ratios are necessary, however, because the new Ram still uses a five-speed automatic. A truck with a six-speed can offer high towing capacity without forcing the customer to buy and live with a less economical rear end.
Still, a small fuel consumption benefit has been realized. Tentative 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 EPA ratings for a 5.7-liter Hemi-powered 4x4 are 13 mpg city and 18 mpg highway, up slightly from 13 mpg and 17 mpg. The same engine in a 4x2 yields no apparent improvement, as the expected EPA rating for the new truck is the same as the 2008 model: 13 mpg city and 19 mpg highway.
The smaller and less powerful 4.7-liter V8 is predicted to have the same EPA ratings as the 5.7 Hemi V8, but the 4.7-liter V8 is a flex-fuel engine that can run on E85. Diesel power and gasoline hybrid powertrains are in development and will be available in 12-18 months.
New Crew Cab
As before, Dodge offers three cab configurations and three bed lengths for the 2009 Ram 1500. The regular cab and Quad Cab are familiar, but the too-big Mega Cab has been replaced with a more traditionally sized Crew Cab. Our Crew Cab sample still offered a generous 39.4 inches of rear legroom, mostly because the huge storage area behind the seat is the bit that was lopped off.
Dodge makes up for this storage loss in several ways. First, the rear seat bottoms flip up to reveal storage compartments and there are two lined wells beneath the rear floor mats sized to hold a six-pack and ice.
A few weeks after the initial Ram launch, the Crew Cab will be available with an optional RamBox, a 5-foot-7 bed with saddlebag-style lockable and lighted storage bins with a combined storage capacity of 7.4 cubic feet, big enough to swallow a set of golf clubs on each side. These bins make the inside of the bed resemble that of a step-side, but it is still wide enough for a sheet of plywood or drywall. Twelve vertical slots are stamped into the inner bed walls, into which a bed divider can be clamped to keep items fenced in.
Dodge focused considerable effort on the interior as well. Improved materials cover the handsome dash, and our Ram Laramie had front bucket seats and a console-mounted shift lever. A three-across front seat and column shifter are still in the mix for those who want it. All seats benefit from improved sculpting and attention to detail.
Rear-seat video and a 10-speaker surround-sound audio system are on the options sheet, as are Bluetooth, navigation, a rear back-up camera and Sirius TV. The hard-to-use touchscreen audio head unit is, unfortunately, also a carry-over item. It has an auxiliary jack and a USB socket, but doesn't provide full iPod control.
Several trim levels are offered, beginning with the work truck ST and moving through SLT, TRX, Sport and finally to the top-line Laramie. A short-bed regular cab 4x2 in ST trim with the 3.7-liter V6 is expected to go for less than $20,000. In Sport trim with a 5.7-liter Hemi and the R/T package, that same truck might go for around $34,000. We spent a lot of time in a loaded 4x4 Laramie with the 5.7-liter Hemi, RamBox and the kitchen sink, and it carried an estimated price of almost $48,000.
Most of the stuff that's new about the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup is what you'd expect: new sheet metal, a clean-sheet interior and some engine revisions are combined with some carry-over bits and pieces.
But the bombshell that makes this truck truly all-new is the use of a coil spring rear suspension. It took a leap of faith — combined with a bucket-load of engineering — for Dodge to get to this point. But now that we've driven it, we're believers.
At least we believe enough to be excited about the prospect of getting a production version in our hands for a thorough vetting. We may be believers, but we're not fanatics — not yet, anyway.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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