What’s the biggest difference between the Dodge Challenger and the Dodge Ram? More than 200,000 units of production volume. While the Challenger has captured the lion’s share of attention from car enthusiasts and automotive journalists, it’s the workhorse Ram that pays the bills and puts food on the table at Chrysler.
It’s not hyperbole to say the professional livelihood of almost every Chrysler employee could hang on how well the new 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 is received by truck buyers. The Germans knew not to mess with the success of Chrysler’s big Dodge pickups when they owned the company. It was DaimlerChrysler chairman Dieter Zetsche who opened the corporate purse strings wide in 2004 to fund the Ram’s latest redesign.
But neither Daimler nor the hometown team in Auburn Hills, Mich., could have predicted how quickly the American full-size truck market would crater in the face of soaring fuel prices and a shaky economy. Ram sales are off 30 percent year-to-date through July 2008.
That makes launching this new Ram even more risky; design decisions made four years ago are going to have to be lived with for a long time to come. The biggest risk? The truck team’s decision to emphasize everyday usability over top-end capability. In short, there will be no chest-pounding ads that the Ram can pull the Titanic from the bottom of the Atlantic.
“Competing for the most towing is a battle of diminishing returns,” said Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s new design chief and the man responsible for leading the Ram’s redesign. “We wanted to make a truck our buyers can live with. One that’s well-rounded.”
Improved usability, according to Chrysler, started with replacing conventional leaf springs under the cargo box with five-link coil springs for improved ride and handling, particularly when the truck is unloaded.
“We’ve taken leaf springs as far as they can go [for ride comfort and handling],” said Scott Kunselman, Chrysler’s vice president of truck product development, and Gilles’ engineering counterpart. “Coil springs are the next step. We’ve made them without sacrificing any of the towing or payload [ratings] that we had on the previous Ram. Plus, we save 40 pounds in weight.”
Chrysler also overhauled the interior in every Ram model. No more gray wall of cheap vertical plastic or hard-to-the-touch surfaces. The composites are higher-grade. Exposed stitching across the dashboard, complimentary two-tone colors and molded shapes provide depth and are pleasing to the eye. Even truck guys want their pickups to look good on the inside.
Chrysler’s segment-exclusive RamBox has been molded into both sides of the pickup box. The two weatherproof, lockable storage trunks are large enough to hold a set of golf clubs on each side, or 240 12-ounce cans of your favorite beverage. Even with RamBox storage, there’s still 49 inches of horizontal space between the bed walls inside the cargo box to fit the most important cargo-carrying metric of any pickup: a flat 4x8 sheet of plywood. There’s also an integrated bed extender that acts as a bed divider. It can be indexed to almost any point inside the bed and stowed out of the way, near the cab.