Just over two years ago a 2010 Dodge Ram 3500 finished last in a comparison test with more powerful V8 diesel pickups from Ford and General Motors. Today, with the introduction of the new 2013 Ram 2500 and 3500, this truck may have catapulted itself from worst to first on the strength of two new variants of the venerable 6.7-liter Cummins turbodiesel engine and a host of complementary skeletal upgrades.
We're currently piloting a 2013 Ram 3500 Regular Cab dually, and the gooseneck trailer we're towing weighs some 30,010 pounds. You read that right. That astounding number demolishes the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra 3500 twins (23,100 pounds) and the Ford F-350 (22,800 pounds). Even the class-apart F-450 pales in comparison with 24,700 pounds of maximum towing capacity.
At the fifth-wheel end of the spectrum, the 2013 Ram 3500 dually is literally tons ahead.
But the truck in our 2011 comparison wasn't a dually rigged for the marquee number. It was a Ram 3500 4x4 with single rear wheels decked out the way most people buy them. Has the needle moved appreciably there? Would our test have turned out differently with the 2013 equivalent?
Quite Possibly The reason for the 2010 3500's weak showing and the source of the 2013 Ram's newfound prowess is one in the same: a 6.7-liter Cummins turbodiesel straight-6. Then it made 350 horsepower and 700 pound-feet of torque. Now there are three versions.
Cummins version number one has a similar peak output of 350/700 that is compatible with the class-exclusive six-speed manual transmission. Next in line is version two with 370 horses, 800 lb-ft of torque and last year's six-speed automatic. Version three makes 385 hp and a class-leading 850 lb-ft of torque. A new high-capacity Aisin six-speed automatic transmission with optimized ratios and beefy internals is mated to this engine to accommodate the sky-high torque.
The massive increase in grunt comes from the switch to a diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) strategy to reel in NOx emissions. Earlier versions had to run high levels of EGR and backpressure, which choked output. The presence of DEF fluid and a new SCR catalyst allow the uncorked beast to breathe deeply and exhale even more cleanly.
Ram diesels now have "Ram Active Air," a dual-path intake system. Air typically enters the air cleaner from a protected underhood spot where snow and rainwater can't get sucked in. In hot, dry conditions and high load Ram Active Air switches to a direct ram air intake directly behind the grille. Trucks without such a system are subject to power loss on hot, dry grades where underhood temperatures skyrocket.
All three diesel engines and transmissions are available in 2013 Ram 2500 and 3500 series trucks. But the 5.7-liter Hemi, previously standard and available in the Ram 2500 alone, is now standard in the 3500, too. And it now comes with a six-speed automatic instead of last year's five-speed.
New Chassis Torque alone does not a hauler make. To reach the loftiest towing and hauling heights, the 2013 Ram Heavy-Duty trucks were given a new frame and a new front suspension as well.
Higher-grade steel is used in the main frame rails, and the front frame horns are 2 inches farther apart. There are eight crossmembers, one of which is an optimized attachment point for fifth-wheel and gooseneck hitch mounting hardware, which can be factory-installed for $400.
A new integrated Class-V 2.5-inch receiver hitch makes up the rearmost crossmember. It's now structurally able to tow 17,000 pounds in deadweight fashion, a far cry from last year's 2-inch receiver that was good for only 12,000 pounds. With the right engine, that's a cool 5,000-pound increase in tow rating for those who tow with a conventional hitch.
Much higher roll stiffness is needed to handle the 3500's extreme load potential, so the four-link front suspension has been jettisoned. Instead, massive dual radius arms now locate the solid front axle. The four-link front end remains on the Ram 2500, however, because it's rated to tow and haul less. It's also more likely to need the off-road articulation, the Power Wagon 4x4 being a prime example.
Comparison Reprise Looking back at our comparison test, we'd need a 2013 Ram Crew Cab 4x4 with single rear wheels to see if the pecking order has changed. And we'd have to choose between the 800 lb-ft Cummins and the six-speed we had last time or the 850 lb-ft version with the new Aisin. It all depends on whether we're willing to spend an extra $2,150, the difference between the two.
The resulting tow rating in Laramie Longhorn trim is 17,160 pounds with the 800 lb-ft engine and 17,000 for the 850 lb-ft one. Why does the torquier variant tow a smidge less?
Both share a GCWR (gross combined weight rating) of 25,000 pounds because that's the single-rear-wheel limit. Since the Aisin-equipped truck weighs 160 pounds more, its tow rating will drop a like amount. All we can expect from the extra 50 lb-ft is a more relaxed pull up a steep grade. This is not the case in the dually world, where the Ram 3500's GCWR can range to 37,600 pounds with the more powerful engine.
Here's the impressive bit for our single-wheel scenario: Both engines achieve their higher 2013 ratings with 3.42 final-drive gears. Our 2010 test truck was rated 700 pounds lower despite the gearing advantage of shorter 4.10 axles and smaller-diameter tires.
And so the new 3.42s allow the new engines to rev 340 rpm slower at 60 mph in top gear, which makes the claimed 10-percent improvement in fuel consumption easy to buy into. Ram engineers say the 4x4 versions gain another 1 mpg from a new electronic front differential disconnect system that greatly reduces rotational losses in two-wheel-drive mode.
On Flat Ground In the end, the performance of the new engines is hard to gauge on these flat Michigan roads. There's plenty of punch off the line, but there are no long grades to make them earn their keep.
We can say the Cummins diesel is not ashamed to make diesel engine noises, and the new intelligent diesel exhaust brake works well to prevent a loaded rig from picking up speed on gently rolling terrain. The engineers say the system will even improve brake pad and rotor life, and we can instantly see why.
Far and away the most tangible improvement is the upgraded interior. In a nutshell, the Ram 2500 and 3500 benefit from everything that was introduced on the Ram 1500 last year. The interior materials have been upgraded, the seats are more comfortable and even the volume SLT trim is a pleasant place to spend time.
And the same truck-wide electrical system upgrade has been applied to the 2500 and 3500 models as well. They now benefit from the outstanding 7-inch TFT dash display with multiple information screens that include diesel-specific information in addition to everything else. The well-executed Uconnect touchscreen infotainment systems are top-notch, whether you opt for the 8.4-inch high-end model with navigation or stick with the 5-inch one without.
Like the 1500, the HD trucks now have their tailgate lock and optional RamBox locks tied into the central locking system. Unlike the Ram 1500, the 2500 and 3500 offer a second camera in the high-mount third brake light housing so those towing fifth-wheel and gooseneck trailers can see the hitch as they hook up.
Up and Down Pricing At first glance, pricing for the Ram 3500 has plummeted. That's because the 5.7-liter Hemi and its six-speed automatic is now standard and a diesel engine is optional. Oddly, the Cummins diesel engine seems to cost $7,795 regardless of output. But that's not the real deal because each version is tied to a particular transmission, and each of those carries a different price.
And so the 700 lb-ft diesel with the six-speed manual costs $7,795 because that transmission is "free." Pay $500 for the basic six-speed automatic and the real cost of the 800 lb-ft Cummins is $8,295. (Ford currently charges $8,095 for its 800 lb-ft diesel engine option.) Finally, the Ram's high-torque 850 lb-ft setup effectively costs $10,445 because the Aisin six-speed that can handle the torque costs $2,650 on its own.
The Laramie Longhorn trim didn't exist when we conducted our heavy-duty truck comparison test, but our test truck had a suite of options that effectively made it one. A quick pricing comparison suggests we'd pay $62,080 for a 2013 Ram Crew Cab 4x4 with a short box, the 800 lb-ft Cummins and Laramie Longhorn trim versus $64,010 for a 2013 King Ranch Ford F-350 Crew Cab 4x4 with a couple options to match equipment.
The 2013 Ram 2500 and 3500 have really upped their game, on paper and behind the wheel. But we need a steep grade and a stout trailer to quantify how well these engines have bridged the gap to the competition.
We wouldn't be surprised to discover that the 2013 Ram has pulled ahead. And even if it has merely pulled alongside, the 2013 Ram 3500 is a much stronger contender on other fronts. It's certainly no longer in any danger of getting its butt kicked. And it's hard to argue with 30,000 pounds no matter how you slice it.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.