Until the late 1980s, pickup-truck styling was pretty vanilla. Remove the grille and cover the badging, and you could virtually hold a blind half-ton comparison test with the Big Three. That all changed in 1994, when Dodge borrowed visual cues from a Kenworth big-rig for its new Ram. Pickups finally took on a bold and brazen look.

For 2002, the Ram 1500 was new from the frame up, and instead of a brief encounter with Dodge's new rig, we asked for a year's worth of seat time. The folks at DaimlerChrysler liked the plan, and we pulled out the order sheet.

We wasted no time checking off the $25,710, 1500 Club Cab SLT 4WD shortbed, then added the 5.9-liter Magnum V-8 ($595), 46RE automatic tranny ($975), trailer tow group ($465), 3.92:1 axle ratio ($50), and limited-slip differential ($285). We also added power folding trailer-tow mirrors ($80), AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo ($100), under-rail bedliner ($245), Sport Appearance package (body-color accents for $170), and the $7085 preferred package 26H (adds eight-way-adjustable power and heated leather front bucket seats, four-wheel ABS, power adjustable pedals, power locks, center console, dual-zone HVAC, and audio/cruise controls in the wheel). Total MSRP for our one-year tester: $35,950.

While we'd hoped for the new 5.7-liter Hemi, it was unfortunately delayed until the 2003 model year and the introduction of the new heavy-duty Ram. However, a torquey new 4.7-liter Magnum V-8 engine replaced the 5.2-liter, and, while smaller in displacement, it boasts an increase to 235 horsepower. The second new offering--the 215-horsepower, 3.7-liter Magnum V-6--replaced the 3.9-liter V-6 and provides 35 more horsepower and about 1-mpg-better fuel economy than its predecessor.

We chose the returning 5.9-liter Magnum V-8, rated at 245 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque. This 360-cubic-inch powerplant would be the center of a love/hate relationship for our 12-month test. All agreed that off-line power wasn't this truck's strong point, but once the tach topped three grand, the mighty 5.9 was in the sweet spot of the powerband, and it felt as though it could move mountains. With a 3000-pound trailer attached to the back, the Ram's a little wheezy at first, but the torque really comes on at around 3200 rpm. "Steep highway onramps are challenging with semis barreling down at you." At the track, our red Ram made the run to 60 mph in 9.7 seconds and ran the quarter mile in 17.4 at 79.2 mph--certainly not fast, but respectable for what has become a smaller V-8.

Mated to a more responsive, efficient, and smoother-shifting 45RFE electronically controlled automatic transmission, this five-speed deserves a platinum medal for excellence. It features a dual second-gear ratio; the transmission chooses the proper ratio for the load situation, and, unlike the Ford and GM offerings in the same class, the Ram's tranny doesn't continually hunt for the proper gear when crossing steep grades. It confidently selects the correct gear at the right time to maximize power output.

The foundation for the Ram is an all-new frame that, at its introduction, featured the highest use of hydroforming on any full-size pickup. Torsional stiffness was improved by 400 percent and lateral bending by 150 percent over the previous model. We found the new rack-and-pinion steering responsive and able to provide a precise steering feel, compared to the recirculating-ball system it replaced.

A new torsion-bar independent front suspension on our four-wheel-drive model maximized ride quality and capability, and, although the new Ram didn't suffer as much rear axle hop as before (unless a good 800-plus pounds were loaded in the bed), the ride was still bouncy. "Found a few expansion-joint sections at 65 mph. The Ram's ride is a bit surprising. The harmonic vibrations shook my belly 'til it hurt," says Editor Mark Williams.

With disc brakes at each corner and a two-stage brake booster, the Ram has some of the most powerful and linear brakes in its class. "This Dodge has binders with big anchors," comments Sessions. Rear-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard on all models, with four-wheel ABS available as an option.

Inside, the new Ram is a breath of fresh air compared to its previous offering. The front captain's chairs provide plenty of lumbar and thigh support, and we were glad to see Dodge address the Ram as a true work truck: all of the interior switchgear are easily manipulated with hands sleeved in thick leather gloves.

Even though the design is clunky, the Infinity AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo is more than worth the $100 upcharge, providing fidelity that many upscale units found in luxury sedans could only hope for. Motor Trend TV Senior Producer John Matthius writes: "The Infinity sound system never fails to impress, although the head unit isn't that user-friendly." This Infinity sound system effectively turns the Ram's cabin into a concert hall.

We found the rear bench seat a bit upright for large adults, but kids and preteens should have a comfy ride. With the back seat unoccupied, we can flip the seat up and pull the package shelf out, converting the area to a flat load area, perfect for storing midsize tool boxes or bulky items that need to be kept locked in the cabin.

During its one-year tenure, our Ram logged a total of 18,332 miles and consumed 1484 gallons of gasoline (over the course of 105 fill-ups) at a cost of $2548.48. We added only a single quart of oil ($2.48), and we never had a single mechanical issue to report.

Our 1500 visited the dealer twice for scheduled maintenance, both times included an oil/filter change and tire rotation for a total of $87.40. Our only concern came at 15,047 miles when the brake pedal developed a squeak during application. Some grease at the offending joint provided an instant cure, at no cost to us.

Of course, our main power gripe has been dissolved with the introduction of the Hemi in the 1500 series. As Sessions remarks, "After driving the Ram with the Hemi, this ol' 360 feels like it needs a shot of Geritol." But during its long-term test, our 5.9 remained a trooper, and the 1500 proved an outstanding appliance at the home-improvement store, a comfortable cruiser to and from the office, and a heavy hauler for weekend toys. It's a winner in our book. TT

2002 Dodge
Ram 1500 Sport
Price $35,950
Engine 5.9L OHV 16-valve V-8
Miles 10,332
EPA, city/hwy 11/15
Observed average, mpg 11.6
Observed worst, mpg 7.5
Observed best, mpg 14.7
Average distance per fill-up 170.0
Average cost per gallon $1.70
Average cost per fill-up $24.27
Number of services 2
Overall service cost $87.40
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