Steven Cole Smith, Contributor
With gasoline and diesel fuel topping $3 a gallon, any new vehicle with "Mega" in the name had best be the "Mega Mileage" model. No such luck with Dodge. People who need heavy-duty pickups won't be swayed by the charm of a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, so the 2006 Dodge Ram Mega Cab is likely to find a limited but very receptive audience, regardless of gas prices.
Well, it should. Dodge has realized that for many buyers, capacity inside the cab is more important than capacity in the bed. "Since the year 2000," said Darryl Jackson, Dodge marketing vice president, "demand for full-sized crew cab pickups has tripled." Dodge still offers the regular lighter-duty Ram 1500 Quad Cab models, and the Mega Cab, Jackson insists, will appeal to a different audience.
To make it Mega, Dodge took the heavy-duty Ram platform and its 160.5-inch wheelbase, and had designers replace the 8-foot bed with a bed that measures 6 feet, 3 inches, freeing up an extra 20 inches for the cab. While there are 1500, 2500 and 3500 Mega Cab models, all are built on the heavy-duty platform.
This makes for a lot of "biggest" and "first" claims for the Mega Cab: The largest, longest cab in its class, at 142.2 cubic feet and 111.1 inches, respectively. Largest interior cargo volume of any full-size pickup, largest second-row legroom, largest rear-door open angle, at 85 degrees; and the first ever reclining rear seats, which go from a 22-degree seatback angle to 37 degrees.
As the numbers would suggest, the Mega Cab's rear seat is remarkably comfortable and accommodating; after all, the cab is a full foot longer than the Ford F-250 Crew Cab. Even the middle position isn't bad. Flip the seats, and rear cargo room is downright cavernous, and with the 85-degree-opening rear doors, even big stuff, such as a large television, will fit nicely in the rear. As for the bed, 6 feet is plenty, especially since you have the option of lowering the tailgate.
If Room Isn't Enough
Add to that the extra premium options offered, and you have a heavy-duty pickup that is as nice inside as any luxury SUV. There's a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, a power sunroof, a power rear window, and — new for 2006 — a genuine full-screen navigation system, replacing the near useless system that was incorporated into the radio faceplate. Instruments and controls are well placed, and there's the expected plethora of cubbyholes, cupholders and storage bins.
There are mechanical updates, too. Dodge is especially proud of the new independent front suspension and steering system and justifiably so: It's as precise and compliant as any big truck we've driven.
Four-wheel-drive models still use a conventional live axle in front and it's executed quite well, too. Even the stiffest-sprung model has a surprisingly tolerable ride. It's clear the Dodge suspension engineers really sweated the compromise between drivability, comfort and utility, and they've hit the target.
Hemi or Diesel
Under the hood, it's a familiar choice: The 5.7-liter Hemi V8, with 345 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque, or the 5.9-liter Cummins Turbodiesel, with 325 hp and a stump-pulling 610 lb-ft of torque. The Hemi is standard on the 1500 and 2500, the diesel is optional on the 2500 and standard on the 3500. A five-speed automatic comes with the Hemi, while the diesel gets a four-speed automatic or a six-speed manual.
My favorite is the diesel with the automatic. This big Cummins has become slightly more civilized over the years. I recall sending my wife to the McDonald's drive-thru with an early model, and they told her to come inside, as they couldn't hear her over the engine noise. The diesel's torque remains incredible as its numbers suggest. That said, the Hemi is no slouch, either, though it obviously isn't having as much fun hauling around 6,000 pounds of truck as a 4,000-pound Charger.
On the road, the central revelation is how this truck, big as it is, drives smaller. The four-wheel disc brakes are effective, handling is better than you'd think, and its weight is only oppressive when you jam the Mega Cab into a tight turn.
The price seems in the ballpark, too: The Mega Cab 1500 starts at $32,760, and for four-wheel drive, $35,980. It's offered in the uplevel SLT model, and the even more uplevel Laramie — no strippers are available. A Mega Cab 2500 SLT starts at $35,065, and if you want the diesel, add on a whopping $5,555. Load up a 3500 Laramie model with the diesel — base price $48,645 with shipping — and you can top $50,000 very quickly, especially with the rear-seat DVD system ($1,200), the stereo with the navigation system ($1,595) and side airbags ($490).
Production has already begun at the Saltillo plant in Coahuila, Mexico, and the 2006 Dodge Ram Mega Cab should be available at a dealer near you by October.
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