2020 Ram 1500 First Drive: A Better Diesel Returns

Now With More Torque, Towing and Thrift


What is it?

The Ram 1500 is a full-size pickup truck that was fully redesigned in 2019. It debuted to much fanfare, but the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 option sold in prior years was absent from the initial engine lineup. For 2020, the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 returns, and it's an improved version that generates more power and torque and can support substantially higher tow ratings.

At first glance, not much has changed: The 3.0-liter EcoDiesel is still a turbocharged V6 diesel engine that will come paired with a proven eight-speed automatic transmission. But nearly every component of the engine has been rethought, and the transmission has been recalibrated to match.

The result is 260 horsepower and a class-leading 480 lb-ft of torque. These represent significant gains over the replaced engine, which made 240 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. Torque hasn't only increased by 14%, it also occurs 400 rpm lower in the rev range, where its effects will be even more useful when towing or hauling.

These significant gains in engine output add up to a big increase in the EcoDiesel's maximum tow rating. Last time around, the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel couldn't manage even 10,000 pounds. But the new 2020 engine will be rated to pull as much as 12,560 pounds, the highest diesel tow rating in the class. It also comes very close to the 12,750-pound maximum tow rating of a Ram 1500 equipped with the available 5.7-liter V8. The small difference boils down to the extra weight of the diesel engine, its intercoolers, exhaust aftertreatment system, and the diesel exhaust fluid tank.

Why does it matter?

Diesel engines are hugely popular in the 2500 and 3500 HD end of the pickup spectrum despite their sometimes significant price premiums. For a time, the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel had the half-ton diesel pickup market to itself, but then it was pulled from the market because of emissions certification problems. Consumers can once again opt for this impressive and desirable powertrain, and it's even stronger than before.

Despite their higher upfront buy-in cost, diesel engines appeal to truck buyers for simple reasons: They offer better fuel economy and overall range, and their abundant torque makes towing and hauling feel more effortless. Diesels are particularly good at doing both at once by providing respectable fuel economy and range while towing a trailer.

Ram continues to make it easy to get one. The competition doesn't offer diesel options to non-fleet buyers at the work-truck end of the price scale, but you can get one in a Ram Tradesman. Ram has also leapfrogged the competition by adding the popular Rebel trim level to the list. Simply put, the EcoDiesel V6 is available in every trim level.

No official fuel economy numbers are available for this second-generation EcoDiesel engine, but the Ram's chief engineer dropped some hints. He let on that the truck could be driven from Duluth, Minnesota, to Dallas without stopping for fuel. We did some checking, and that's 1,089 miles. The Ram's optional fuel tank holds 33 gallons of fuel. These numbers imply a 33 mpg highway rating.

If it indeed plays out that way, the Ram EcoDiesel would tie the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Duramax diesel for best-in-class highway mileage. It would also best the old EcoDiesel's highway rating by a full 6 mpg, and it would outclass the highway rating of the Ram 1500's current 5.7-liter Hemi V8 by a whopping 11 mpg.

What does it compete with?

Detailed pricing and fuel economy details have not yet been released, but both are imminent because the EcoDiesel engine goes on sale in the fourth quarter of this year. Generally speaking, you'll pay $4,995 more than the base gasoline V6 engine. A two-wheel-drive Tradesman Quad cab with EcoDiesel power costs $38,585 with destination charges included, and that's the lowest diesel cost of entry in the segment by a wide margin.

The Ford F-150 is available with a 3.0-liter Power Stroke turbodiesel V6 engine that's backed by a 10-speed automatic transmission. But its ratings of 250 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque are less impressive than the Ram's. Rated fuel economy in mixed driving is 25 mpg combined (22 city/30 highway) for two-wheel-drive models and 22 mpg combined (20 city/25 highway) for four-wheel-drive versions.

In the F-150, the diesel engine costs $4,000 in a Lariat that comes standard with a 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 and $3,000 in a King Ranch that comes standard with a 5.0-liter V8. Ford does not offer the diesel engine in its low-priced XL model aimed at the work-truck end of the market unless you are a fleet buyer. The least expensive Power Stroke F-150 XLT we were able to configure cost upward of $46,000 because a luxury trim package is a prerequisite.

General Motors will soon offer a 3.0-liter Duramax diesel in the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500 trucks, and it will arrive in showrooms at nearly the same time as the Ram. The Duramax differs in that it is a straight-six engine instead of a V6, but it remains to be seen if this will be an advantage. It has a higher power rating of 277 hp, but its torque rating of 460 lb-ft is a bit lower. Like the Ford, it comes with a 10-speed transmission. But its fuel economy ratings are significantly better than Ford's: 27 mpg combined (23 city/33 highway) with two-wheel drive and 25 mpg combined (23 city/29 highway) with four-wheel drive.

Chevrolet does not offer this engine in the low-priced Work Truck or Custom trim. Nor does it offer it in the Trail Boss off-road version that competes head-on with the Rebel. And the engine's true pricing is foggier because in the case of the LT and the RST you must also spend money on prerequisite options to get one. The least expensive Silverado 1500 diesel we were able to configure was an LT that cost just over $45,000.

How does it drive?

Our past experience with the 2014 EcoDiesel V6 was mostly positive. But we did note its slight lack of horsepower and its slightly delayed initial response at stoplights. Despite this, there was an underlying effortlessness to how it drove, so its slight initial hesitancy was never enough to keep it from being an office favorite. Still, we all noticed it and wished for a little more oomph.

Now it's got it. The new EcoDiesel V6 feels altogether more willing to respond to inputs, and it has no trouble getting the truck up to speed and merging with traffic. For its part, the eight-speed automatic is just as smooth as it ever was. If anything, the extra performance from the engine makes it an even more willing participant, probably because it's easier for Ram's engineers to calibrate the transmission if they have more power and torque to work with in the first place.

The 2020 Ram 1500 itself is still the same great truck as last year. Its link-coil rear suspension gives it exceptional stability and comfort, and the cabin is nicely insulated from external noise. We test-drove a diesel-powered Rebel. It rides on somewhat knobby off-road tires, but both the road noise and the characteristic diesel engine sound are nicely muted. You still hear some of each, but only enough to know you got what you paid for.

As for the Rebel, its extra ground height and reshaped front bumper give it more clearance in tight places. The standard coil spring rear suspension articulates more freely than a leaf spring suspension might. But we're not sure we can say the same about a Rebel with the optional air suspension after watching one have difficulty with certain obstacles that our truck cleared easily. The diesel's torque certainly comes on dependably when climbing steep hills, and the hill descent control works much smoother than most.

What's the interior like?

Nothing much has changed inside the 2020 Ram 1500, and that's totally fine with us. Its interior is very attractive and well-finished, leaving the others in the segment some distance behind. The controls are logical and visually appealing, and they feel good to the touch. The seats are comfortable, supportive and adjustable to suit all shapes and sizes, and they look and feel fantastic.

We've previously spent time in our own Laramie long-term test truck, but this time we focused on the Rebel off-road package. The inside looks tougher because of its black tones and red accents, but as with the Laramie, none of it looks or feels cheap up close. Even here the designers have managed the trick of conveying a tough-truck theme without hitting you over the head with it or compromising everyday comfort and livability.

Just like last year, the crew cab is immense. There's plenty of room for tall folk up front, and the center console that comes with the optional bucket seats must be seen to be believed. At the same time, there's no shortage of room in the crew cab's rear seat, even when a 6-foot-2-inch car reviewer tries to sit behind the driver's seat adjusted to fit him. Rear legroom is so abundant that a reclining mechanism is offered for the Laramie trim and up. But the fact that the Rebel doesn't have this feature isn't much of a bother.

The infotainment system is easy to access, simple to use, and pleasant to look at. That applies to the 8.4-inch Uconnect system, of course, but it's doubly true of the portrait-oriented 12-inch touchscreen. This option wasn't offered on the Rebel when the 2019 Ram 1500 debuted, but it was added to the mix about six months ago. Both systems support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and they can accept smartphone inputs via multiple USB and USB-C data jacks.

How practical is it?

All full-size trucks are practical in a basic sense, but the Ram 1500 is loaded with details that go beyond the truck bed. The center console is larger than anything in the class, and it has several built-in compartments and bins. The crew cab's rear seat bottoms flip straight up to reveal a broad, flat load floor. And if you peel back the rear floor mats, you'll discover a pair of deep hidden bins.

The bed itself can be upgraded with LED lighting and extra tie-downs on sliding rails. You can also opt for the RamBox, a unique optional bed that has lockable exterior storage boxes, and a movable cargo fence in the main part of the bed. There's also a multifunction tailgate that lowers normally or can be opened barn-door style with a 60/40 split. You can even pair the RamBox with the multifunction tailgate if you're so inclined.

The 1500's coil spring rear suspension allows Ram to offer an optional four-corner air suspension, which substitutes air springs for the standard coil springs. Enhanced ride comfort is one benefit. Others include load leveling or adjusting the ride height, which can help out with cargo loading or hitching up a trailer.

What else should I know?

The 2020 Ram 1500's top-level tow rating requires the purchase of the Max Tow package, which includes a 3.92 rear axle with a stronger center section, a firmer rear suspension, and specific 18-inch wheels and tires. The result is an 18,200-pound gross combined weight rating (GCWR) that delivers a 12,750-pound tow rating for the V8 and a 12,560-pound rating for this year's EcoDiesel. But there's a catch. You can only get this setup on an EcoDiesel Quad Cab two-wheel-drive Tradesman or Big Horn/Lone Star.

Max Tow is not available if you buy any crew cab, any 4x4, or if your EcoDiesel Quad cab is the Laramie trim or higher. You can still opt for a 3.92 axle ratio — and you need to if you want to tow much — but the stiffer suspension and stronger axle center section are not part of it. Here you get a 17,000-pound GCWR that enables tow ratings in the neighborhood of 11,000 to 11,500 pounds. Specific 2020 EcoDiesel figures have not yet been released, but they should track about 200 pounds below today's corresponding 2019 V8 ratings.

Though the above configurations will still deliver solid fuel economy, neither will net you the maximum. For that you need to stick with the standard 3.21 axle ratio. The regulations around fuel economy labeling allow 3.21- and 3.92-equipped trucks to share the same window sticker mpg ratings, but you can bet that the Duluth-to-Dallas boast applies to the standard 3.21 gearing. The downside here is a marked reduction in the truck's tow rating. In 2019, the reduction in the V8's tow rating attributable to this factor amounted to about 3,100 pounds. It remains to be seen what this does to a 2020 EcoDiesel tow rating.

Edmunds says

We're glad to see a diesel engine back in the Ram lineup for 2020. The new Ram 1500 is an excellent truck, and we're believers in the EcoDiesel engine. We put 50,000 miles on our long-term 2014 Ram EcoDiesel, and we were impressed with its smooth driving and strong fuel economy. Now that we've driven the new version, it's easy to recommend the EcoDiesel. It has the extra power, torque and towing capacity we always wanted, plus even better fuel economy.