2013 Ram 1500 Driving Impressions

Ram's powerful Hemi 5.7-liter V8, with variable valve timing, is rated at 395 horsepower (up 5 thanks to electric steering assist) and delivers broad power with 407 pound-feet of torque. Match the engine's power with the truck's clean aerodynamics and one result is that the Hemi's Multiple Displacement System (MDS) operates more often, enhancing fuel efficiency. The MDS essentially shuts off half the engine when not needed to save gas, and Chrysler says the Ram can be run past 70 mph with the MDS active. We did it, but only on flat ground with no wind and a very steady foot. With the Hemi the Ram gives up just 13-21 horses to the top engines from Ford and GM, but neither of those offer their most powerful engine in a regular cab. The 5.7-liter V8 is EPA rated at 14/20 mpg City/Highway with 2WD, 13/19 mpg with 4WD.

Ram's 4.7-liter V8 does not have the MDS. However, it will realistically get better mileage overall; you can't use the Hemi's 85 extra horsepower without using more gas. The 4.7 also comes across as the smoothest and quietest engine in the range. Although just 5 hp up on the V6 it adds 61 lb-ft of torque; with the V6's gearing advantage (Ram stated no plan to offer the 4.7 with the 8-speed automatic) it can do much the same work but it will be revving more and you will notice the torque deficit. The 4.7-liter V8 is EPA-rated at 14/20 mpg City/Highway with 2WD, 14/19 mpg with 4WD.

The new-to-Ram 3.6-liter V6 provides 305 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, in the same neighborhood as Ford's 3.7, a bit healthier than Toyota's 4.0 and well in front of GM's archaic 4.3. Top tow capacity is 6500 pounds, which we wouldn't make a habit of, but if you don't mind the engine revving often it will pull it. The 3.6-liter engine gets an EPA rating of 17/25 mpg with 2WD, 16/23 mpg with 4WD.

On the road without a trailer the 3.6-liter V6 goes much better than the old 3.7 (something like 30 percent quicker from 0 to 60 mph), credit as much the extra power as the extra lower gears. Although the 8-speed has essentially the same top gear ratio as the other automatic, the much shorter initial gears means it can lope along on tall axle gears (3.21:1) cruising but accelerate much better. On undulating roads or city traffic it shifts frequently but those shifts are smooth and on-demand. A two-wheel drive HFE V6 auto should rate 18/25 EPA, and in a 4WD Crew Cab driven on such roads it averaged 20 mpg by onboard computer. We'd say this drivetrain is more than adequate for the truck fully loaded, or just a couple of passengers and a trailer up to 4,000 pounds. If you're towing more, more frequently or in the mountains it might be better to wait for a V8 with the 8-speed automatic and order taller axle gears than you would have in the past (3.55:1 rather than 3.92:1). A Hemi V8/8-speed with 3.55:1 gears needed 52-55-mph just to get into top gear, very good for highway mileage.

The Ram HFE model incorporates automatic engine start/stop, the first pickup to do so, to save fuel. Much like a hybrid the engine switches off when the vehicle stops (assuming certain parameters like normal operating temperature are met), electric-assists keep steering, audio and ventilation systems going, and it restarts when you lift your foot off the brake (or press the gas for left-foot brakers). We drove a simulated urban loop and it worked every time we stopped for a traffic signal. You hear the engine restart more than feel it, and any delay is measured in fractions of a second.

Ram lists the V8 automatic as a 6-speed because you can manually select two ratios that in earlier years counted as one, but it has the same ratios as it did before. Where the competitors' 6-speed automatics have ratio spreads from about 4-4.2:1 to 0.65-0.69:1 the Ram's so-called 6-speed automatic runs from 3:1 to 0.67:1, meaning the Ram transmission doesn't have the same low-gearing for accelerating, be it on flat ground, a launch or on-ramp, or in the mud. (The technical details: In the previous version there were two different ratios for second gear, one for upshifts from 1st gear, and one kickdown for when you floored the pedal in a higher gear. At 1.67:1 and 1.50:1 the ratios are too close to be compared to any other 6-speed automatic, a typical difference of just 200-300 engine rpm.)

Transmissions work as expected with modern, electronic-authority automatics. Each of the three shifters has a method for manually choosing the forward gears, and each will revert to full automatic by holding the upshift button (+) for about one second.

The Tow/Haul mode is standard and useful when towing. Activating Tow/Haul may take the truck out of top gear but it does not lock it out; you can still cruise in overdrive with Tow/Haul on. The Tow/Haul mode keeps the transmission cooler when towing by holding gears longer (and reducing hunting between gears) and shifting faster (and firmer). It also adds some engine braking, though this is nominal with a 3.6-liter engine in a 5,000-pound truck.

The four-wheel drive systems have a slight rearward bias of power delivery, 2.641 low range for climbing or steep descents, and are electrically shifted from 2WD to 4WD without stopping; engaging low range is done most smoothly rolling at one-two mph with the transmission in Neutral. The 4WD systems have a Neutral position for flat-towing a Ram behind an RV or heavier construction truck. Two 4WD systems are available, and one has an Auto mode that allows 4WD-on-pavement use for inclement weather.

We found the brakes work well. Antilock and stability functions are standard so all you need to do in evasive maneuvers is push on the brake pedal and steer. In daily driving they deliver good feel and are easy to modulate, and although they handle the truck well we'd advise trailer brakes on any trailer more than 1500 pounds (less if your state requires it, of course). The integrated trailer brake controller works very well and is now on the center dash panel where it's easier to reach; if you plan on towing any electric-brake trailer we'd recommend it.

A Ram will never a racecar make but it benefits the same as a racecar when weight is removed from the suspension, axles, brakes and wheels. Ram even lightened the frame with strategically located holes, so some versions are 130- pounds lighter than last year. Using aluminum in some front suspension pieces takes at least 10 pounds off each corner, the new steel wheels save 18 pounds, and the coil/link rear suspension is about 40 pounds less than a leaf-spring arrangement and allows more precise wheel control. In addition, friction in the rear suspension as it moves up and down has been cut by 60 percent, so the rear axle is allowed to travel more up and down yet requires less stiffness to keep it controlled. Less weight means better performance, better efficiency, better braking, better handling.

The Ram rides very well and in comparing it to the competitors it comes across as the best blend of ride and control, whether you're on 17-inch wheels or the big 20s. It goes where you point it without drama, the rear end feels less inclined to step sideways over a mid-turn bump or invoke the stability control, and the Ram has a feeling of good directional stability with a trailer in tow. Steering is direct, but the effort is low during maneuvers and cruising, and it increases nicely as you push the truck harder. Perhaps our best note about the new electric-assist steering is that it feels the same as the previous hydraulic assist, something missing in many such systems, and there is no noise from it. Body roll is kept in check by stabilizer bars at both ends, yet a small amount is apparent as you turn the wheel just to keep you aware (and too much roll stiffness increases ride harshness). In sum, the whole truck exhibits less of the shuddering typical of body-on-frame designs used on all full-size pickups and some big SUVs.

Optional air suspension gives big advantages. It levels the truck regardless of load, maintaining stability and you won't have to adjust headlight aim every time you lash up a trailer. (It might even let you take a link or two off weight-distributing chains but remember not to exceed axle or GVWR limits.) Ride quality remains more consistent from empty to full-load. It has various ride heights to lower the truck for ease of entry/exit and lifting it to aid clearances; minimum ground clearance is at the rear axle and doesn't change, but you can tackle steeper hills and get more under the truck. Use the highest, off-road 2, only if needed because it does generate a relatively bouncy ride. Air suspension, with all the adjustments, is available for two- and four-wheel drive but not Regular cabs.

Off the highway, either suspension system offers good articulation and keeping the wheels on the ground longer always works best. We had no issues with suspension pieces dragging or being vulnerable to rock or stump impacts. And while we didn't have a sand box handy we could not invoke any axle hop even from full-throttle standing starts in a field. Our only complaints in off-road travel are that close-in visibility suffers from the big hood, making it harder to judge the corners through rocks or trees, and the wide A-pillar base may present its own visibility issues. Also, there's little compression braking in high-range. The only apparent drawback of the suspension design is that the optional larger fuel tank is perhaps smaller than it might be otherwise, offering just six gallons more than the standard tank.

The Ram felt smooth and quiet, even on the 20-inch wheels that sing mildly at 50-60 mph. To our ears the Ram has the competition covered, but every ear has its preferences and many pickup owners like noise of different sorts and levels.

Payload, or how much weight in cargo and passengers a truck can carry, varies by cab, bed, number of drive wheels, and engine. Ram payload ratings run from 940 pounds for a Longhorn Crew Cab 4WD to around 1930 for a 2WD Tradesman Regular Cab and that's for trucks without options: Five fisherman in a fancy 4WD Crew Cab towing a boat will have to put their coolers and tackle in the boat, not the truck.

Tow ratings top out around 10,500 pounds (for a regular cab, long bed, 5.7-liter V8 with the 3.92:1 axle ratio and 17-inch wheels), and range from about 4000 pounds upwards. Most Ram versions can be rated into the 8000-pound tow range, and V8 models will be comfortable with a 5000-pound boat and a full load on board. Remember that the more options you add the less weight you can tow. Also, choosing those stylish 20-inch wheels may knock a significant amount off the tow rating. We'd go for the 17-inch wheels if you want to use your truck as a truck.

We found the Ram suspension works well for towing. With a significant trailer the standard suspension still drops down in the rear, but the extra lateral stiffness inherent in the coil/link design minimized the tail from moving side to side as the trailer pushed against it. Also, the electronic stability control system includes trailer sway control. Cooling systems appear up to the task, and towing mirrors are offered for pulling 102-inch-wide travel or large box trailers.

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