So, Chrysler has been rescued by an Italian, again.
Three decades after Lee Iaccoca squeezed a measly $1 billion out of taxpayers' pockets to keep the company afloat, Fiat is taking control of the recent recipient of $7 billion in government write-offs to try and save what's left of it with an injection of small, fuel-efficient cars that Americans have proven to be so fond of over the years.
But what exactly does Chrysler bring to this relationship that makes it worth saving in the first place, aside from a couple of brand names and shrinking dealer network?
Well, there are the minivans standing proudly at the top of a dwindling market segment like Leonardo and Kate on the stern of the Titanic, and the Jeep Wrangler, which is the only Chrysler product that is seeing a sales increase this year. Then there is the best of both of those worlds, the Dodge Ram, which is by far the best-selling vehicle the company makes.
This is a good thing, since the popolo at Fiat probably wouldn't know a full-size pickup from a Papa John's pizza. If they expect to succeed in America this time around, the executives relocating from Turin to Auburn Hills had better get used to both of them.
For 2009 the Ram is all-new and comes in the usual compliment of configurations, from a stripped down, 2-door, 2-wheel drive work truck priced at around 22 grand, to the full-zoot $43,240 Laramie Crew Cab 4x4 that we decided was fancy enough to carry our pants around in for a week.
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After years of looking like a half-size semi, the new Ram turns the tables on the big boys with an even bolder face filled with the kind of chrome and clout that could make a Freightliner green with envy. If you forget what it was like to play with a Tonka as a child, spend a few minutes staring at one of these parked in your driveway and see how far your giddy goes up.
Not enough? The Laramie has a 390 horsepower 5.7 liter HEMI V8 underhood with so much torque on tap that it is advisable not to use all of it if you are driving near the San Andreas Fault. At idle the motor sends a slow tick through the exhaust that sounds almost like a diesel’s, but open her up and the roar is pure NHRA. Fitting, because even carrying the extra weight of two extra doors and a backseat, the 5000 pound cargo carrier can accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 7 seconds, less if you skip the 72 ounce porterhouse steak the next time you eat at The Big Texan.
Laugh if you want at the thought of so much metal moving that quickly, but the Ram delivers the performance without making its drivers think every one of those seconds to 60 mph is their last. In an effort to stand out from the crowd, Dodge took a gamble and installed a multi-link rear suspension with coil springs like a car has to give it better ride quality, instead of the low-tech leaf springs traditionally found on pickup trucks. The tradeoff is that it can't carry or tow quite as much as the competition, so if your trailer weighs more than four and a half tons you'll need to look elsewhere.
If not, the Ram offers unmatched handling that is king among pickups, as good as most truck-based SUVs, and even better than a few sedans I can think of, but won't embarrass by outing here. The responsive steering offers resolute control and, if anything, the suspension is a little on the stiff side. If you fondly remember the days when you could use the tailgate of a pickup as a diving board, I'm sorry to tell you that this one is as firm as a 10-meter platform.
Ignore the lifeguard chair view over the bulging hood and on a winding country road you can almost imagine that you're behind the wheel of a muscle car instead of a half-ton. There's hardly any roll, little bounce, and the only time it reminds you there is an empty bed behind you is when it spins an inside rear wheel a little to easily in a 90 degree turn.
Dodge touts the added off-road skills the coil setup provides, as well, and, while I didn't take it to Baja, my experience on some hardscrabble inclines was that the Ram is as surefooted as the beast it takes its name from.
(Disclaimer: I have never tried to ride on the back of an actual ram, not even of the football variety. It's an interesting thought, however, as the Dodge Ram is assembled just outside of St. Louis. At least it will be until July 10th when Chrysler idles the factory and consolodates pickup production in Warren, Mich.)
As the top of the line model targeted more at gentlemen farmers than the Sanford and Sons of the world, the Laramie comes with a list of features and options that could've been taken straight from the Chrysler Town and Country catalogue, all stuffed into one of the snazziest interiors found inside a pickup truck. The materials may still be an iota or two below what the latest Ford F-150 has to offer, but the design and functionality need no excuses.
The $500 leather bucket seats on my test car were heated and ventilated, though the fans that do the cooling part suffer from a high pitched whirr. Rear passengers get warm bottoms, too, and there’s a hidden compartment under the one on the left, accessed by flipping up the seat. On the Laramie, the cubby on the right is filled with a subwoofer that gets its groove from a 506-watt Alpine stereo tied into Chrysler's voice activated UConnect multimedia system. The infotainment on hand includes satellite radio, hard drive music storage, and a Bluetooth phone hookup. Navigation with live traffic is a $945 add-on, and a $1,695 video system complete with a fold-down screen for the rear passengers and three channels of children's television programming is available courtesy of the Sirius Backseat TV service.
That last item may seem out of place in something that's supposed to be "Ram Tough," but keep in mind that this truck was designed before the market crumbled, back when gas was consistently cheap and pickups were still a common sight in the commuter lane and at soccer games. It's clear that not as many people will be buying them for such uses in the future, but, since Dodge went to the trouble of building this one, I took it on a family vacation to see how it measures up in the non-commercial world.
What I found was that while the ride and comfort are as accommodating as we could've asked for, an open bed isn't exactly ideal for luggage and strollers, especially when mother nature is in a weepy mood. Dodge partly alleviates this shortcoming by installing enclosed compartments in the sides of the bed. But while the $1,895 "RamBoxes" are perfect for storing beach umbrellas, and can be filled with ice and used as coolers, their narrow shape and the intrusion of the wheel well make them useless for a soggy Samsonite. This is probably because they are really intended to be used for things like power tools and ammunition. Quite a lot of both should fit just fine.
Speaking of size, a worthwhile option box to check is the one for a 32 gallon gas tank that can be had for $75, about what it costs to fill it up at the moment. It should come in handy on long trips since the HEMI gets only 13 mpg city and 18 mpg highway, even with an engine management system that shuts down four cylinders when you don't need them. These are not bad numbers for a pickup with the kind of power this one has, but nothing to brag about either. Come to think of it, when it is operating in 4-cylinder mode - most often between 30-45 mph I found - the words "Fuel Saver" pops up next to the odometer in a font so microscopic that you get the impression that the Ram is embarrassed to even mention it.
This, more than anything, is why pickups find themselves with such a bad rap these days. Dodge promises to have a hybrid-powered Ram on the road someday soon, but even the most basic workaday version is sure to cost nearly as much as this glitzy Laramie, while offering insignificant monetary relief from the pump when all is said and done.
In the end, if you need a pickup for work or play, and don't want to shell out the extra cash for a second car for the family, the Ram plays both roles very well. If the new management at Chrysler still doesn’t understand our love for these things, just hook a bright red one to a trailer with a Fiat-owned Ferrari F430 on it and they will.
2009 Dodge Ram 1500 Laramie Crew 4X4
Base Price: $43,240
As Tested: $52,305
Type: front-engine, 4-wheel drive, 5 passenger pickup truck.
Powerplant: 5.7L V8
Power: 390 hp, 407 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
MPG: 13 city/18 hwy
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