Park a 2013 Ram 1500 in plain sight at your local home improvement store and a random shopper will likely push his cart straight past without a glance. The Ram's new midcycle refresh just isn't that dramatic on the outside.
After all, the Ram's cab, hood, front fenders and bed look no different. Its headlights and taillights appear similar and fit into the same openings. The only substantive new styling element is a larger grille that gapes about an inch lower at the bottom lip, with a resculpted front fascia and bumper styling to match.
But that "carryover" hood is now made of aluminum and weighs a full 26 pounds less. The use of high-strength steel in the reshaped front bumper lops off another 4 pounds. Then there are the active shutters that lurk behind the enlarged grille to improve aerodynamics when cooling demands are low. All together, the subtle front styling tweaks help shave critical points off the drag coefficient, dropping it from 0.386 to 0.360.
If you smell an emphasis on improved fuel economy, you would be right. But these changes are mere tweaks compared to the 2013 Ram 1500's big improvements that are hidden out of sight.
That aluminum hood conceals the most familiar of the Ram's improvements. That would be the 305-horsepower 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, an engine that makes its first Ram truck appearance after being spread far and wide across the Chrysler landscape, from the Dodge Challenger to the Chrysler 300 to the Jeep Wrangler.
Compared to the 3.7-liter lump it replaces, the Pentastar brings 90 additional horsepower, 34 more lb-ft of torque and greater efficiency to the table. In so doing it transforms the Ram 1500 V6 offering from a loss-leader no one wanted to a legitimate choice worthy of serious consideration.
Unlike last year, you can pair the V6 with four-wheel drive. You can also get it with a Crew Cab or SLT trim or both. You can even have all of them at once, like the SLT Crew Cab V6 4x4 test sample we're sitting in now.
The result is surprisingly good as there's enough motivation on tap to make us buy into Ram's 7.5-second 0-60 claim for the lighter 4x2 version. The Nashville-area roads we're driving today don't feature the sorts of grades we're used to back home, but in this environment, at least, the Pentastar goes about its business smoothly, with no thrashing or shortness of breath.
Eight Is Enough
A heaping helping of credit goes to the revolutionary piece of pickup hardware the Pentastar is bolted to, a new eight-speed Torque-Flite automatic transmission. For now this gearbox (code name: 8HP45) is limited to use with the Pentastar V6, but a beefier 8HP70 version will come out for the 5.7-liter V8 Hemi in early 2013.
The presence of eight closely spaced gears means its torque converter is not a particularly slushy one, and since the added ratios primarily tighten the gaps at the low end it's able to lock up readily in any gear, right from the get-go, for increased efficiency.
Between this and the new V6, 4x2 fuel economy soars from last year's 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway up to an estimated 17 city and 25 highway, a massive 20 percent jump that boots Ford's 3.7-liter V6 (17 city/23 highway) off the best-in-class podium. A new Ram 1500 HFE model adds a start/stop system and other tweaks that are good for 18 mpg in the city.
For our part it's hard to detect a distinct progression through the transmission's eight ratios. We expected lots of activity, but the gear changes are so smooth they're often hard to pick out. Instead the Ram motors along confidently, the V6 never far from its sweet spot as the electronic brain quietly chooses from among 40 available shift strategies as needed.
The engineers at Ram say this has rendered the familiar tow-haul switch unnecessary, even with a tow rating of 6,500 pounds, some 2,700 more than the old V6 setup. We'll reserve judgment until we test it on steeper terrain with a sufficient burden latched behind, but manual shifting via a thumb-operated steering button is available if they're wrong.
Drilling farther down we get to the very frame itself, which has been redesigned to incorporate high strength steel, hydroformed sub assemblies and larger cab mounts. Ram engineers tell us the reworked skeleton delivers significant improvements in torsional stiffness, noise, vibration and harshness while managing to shed up to 30 pounds of weight.
Along with the frame's new structural changes, there's a new size offering, too. It's a 149.5-inch wheelbase version that allows the Ram 1500 lineup to offer the popular Crew Cab with a 6-foot-4-inch standard-length bed for the first time.
Running along that frame is an entirely new wire harness that does more than passively supply power to all the subsystems; it's more of a smart grid that can also communicate effectively with them. Things like the electric fuel pump and engine cooling fan can now be adjusted to meet demand.
Additional fuel savings (and NVH improvements) come from changing the 2013 Ram 1500 over to electric power steering. Feel and composure are improved over the old hydraulic setup, but we could use a smidge more natural return-to-center behavior. That said, an F-150 provided for comparison suggests the tables may have been turned on Ford, as the EPS calibration in that truck seems to have backslid from our favorable initial first drive and full test impressions toward a bygone era of overboosted numbness.
Riding on Air
There are significant suspension upgrades as well. The front end's upper control and lower control arms are lighter, with the lower ones making the switch to aluminum. We're unable to say exactly how this unsprung weight reduction affects ride and handling, though, because our test truck is also equipped with a significant new option: four-wheel height-adjustable Ram Active Level air suspension.
The Ram's exclusive use of a five-link axle and rear coil springs made this relatively simple to execute by swapping out the coil springs for airbags at each corner. Height sensors, a compressor, under-bed accumulators and a control system add or subtract air to keep the vehicle at its normal ride height no matter how the truck is loaded.
A switch on the dash allows the truck to kneel 2 inches to ease liftover and step-in heights when parked. Two off-road settings also allow increases of 1.2 and 2 inches above standard height for extra clearance. The suspension automatically drops 0.6 inch at freeway speed to save a bit of fuel, too, but the fuel savings aren't captured by the window sticker because the system is a $1,595 option.
As expected, the ride is buttery-smooth much of the time, filtering out coarse textures as only air springs can. On a handful of rougher surfaces, though, the ride seems a tad tight, giving the impression that the bump stops are closer at hand. More time on familiar home soil will prove whether this means much.
Take a Seat
Our 2009 long-term Ram 1500 Laramie was certainly a pleasant place to sit, but the 2013 Ram 1500 is markedly better. Similar in overall design, the new cabin benefits from a subtle restyling of the A/C vents on the center stack and new upgraded climate control switchgear that gives off a more premium vibe.
And the center console is more spacious because?hey, where's the shifter? Turns out a mechanical linkage can't handle eight gears, and Ram designers seized this opportunity to replace the clunky column and console shifters with a chunky rotary knob mounted just to the right of the ignition key. Positive detents give it appropriate heft, and it's less odd to use than we expected — certainly less weird than any goofy Prius joystick.
New for 2013 is a large 7-inch TFT display between the speedometer and tachometer. Switches on the steering wheel provide access to numerous data screens, ranging from towing and off-road status to real-time readouts of transmission temperature and the like. Or you can choose a big, fat digital speedometer.
There's also a new 8.4-inch touchscreen on the center stack, which opens the door to a vastly more capable and user-friendly UConnect system that controls audio, phone and optional navigation functions. It's a massive step up from the previous setup, and within minutes of use it's clear to us this interface is likely more responsive and intuitive than anything coming from the competition.
Prices for the 2013 Ram 1500 are similar to 2012, beginning at $23,585 for a Tradesman regular cab with two-wheel drive, including destination charges. The SLT V6 Crew Cab we're driving today didn't previously exist, but the base price of $34,515 for the 4x2 is only $225 more than last year's similar 2012 Ford F-150 XLT. Our Crew Cab 4x4 V6's $37,735 price tag can't be matched by Ford, which sells its competing version with a 5.0-liter V8.
As for the 2013 Ram 1500 V8s, the 4.7-liter continues in a diminished role, appearing as the base engine in the Tradesman and nowhere else. The marquee 5.7-liter Hemi soldiers on in the Sport and Laramie with a six-speed until its high-torque eight-speed transmission arrives a few months down the road.
No EPA fuel economy hints are available for this combo just yet, but the hidden improvements detailed above apply equally here. The 2013 Hemi eight-speed rating will likely gain a point or two over the 14 city/20 highway mpg earned by the current six-speed, and beyond that there's a Hemi HFE model with start-stop that'll go one better.
It's no surprise that the average parking lot pedestrian would overlook all of the Ram's improvements. To him the new 2013 Ram 1500 looked like it had a few minor upgrades; a good job, but nothing special. Lurking beneath the surface, however, are substantive improvements that make the 2013 Ram a significantly more competitive pickup. Whether it's better mileage you're after, a more useful interior or an innovative new suspension, this Ram delivers in ways that you'll never expect from just looking at it.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.