Celebrate-or blame-Dodge for changing the very nature of the Great American pickup truck. Chrysler's truck and performance division reinvented it all for the '94 model year with that big, seriously in-your-face-looking second-generation Ram (and won our Truck of the Year title). Considering that the first Ram ('71) lasted 22 model years, replacement of the current one after only eight caps a revolution in the way pickups are designed, engineered, equipped, and marketed. During those years, the competition fanned the flames of revolution with great leaps toward carlike refinement and ride quality with the '97 Ford F-150, '99 Chevy Silverado, and 2000 Toyota Tundra-also well deserving recipients of Motor Trend's Truck of the Year award. That revolution complete, Dodge is now left with little room for a giant leap in truck design. As a result, the '02 Ram must succeed in its details.
With its all-new truck, Dodge has in fact caught up with the state-of-the-pickup art-with some pluses here and a few minuses there. Just how different is the pickup market these days? While truck makers used to call on Country & Western musicians to perform music for pickup-truck marketing, Dodge has signed Aerosmith.
Those evergreen hard-rockers may sound pretty much like they did in the '70s, but the new Ram 1500 is light-years better than the outgoing model as an everyday driver. The handling is downright surprising for a full-size pickup, especially considering our test model is a 5133-lb Quad Cab Sport 4x4. Buyers will enjoy an independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering whether they choose a 2x4 or a 4x4 driveline. The new truck's frame is now constructed of fully boxed rails from tip to tail, and all but the section behind the rear wheels is hydroformed. This production process preserves the metal's grain structure and adds structural stiffness.
Our test model was equipped with optional 20-in. wheels and tires. Rolling stock so decidedly handling-and-appearance-biased would've been unthinkable in '94. The 20-in. wheel/tire combo adds enough unsprung weight over the standard 17-inchers that engineers increased shock rates and fattened the front anti-roll bar just to accommodate them. They partially succeeded: The ride gets a bit more rough and bouncy than other state-of-the-art pickups on the Kosovo-like roads of Detroit. On the plus side, the steering is most carlike (and a good car, at that), offering precise response and plenty of feedback. Damping is stiff, but more controlled than what you'll find on Old-School trucks. Yet the Ram Sport 4x4 tends to reverberate back and forth on its chassis after coming to a complete stop. A 2WD model we also sampled with 17-in. wheels was softer over bumpy roads. The Ram's 13.2-in. four-wheel discs (rear ABS standard, four-wheel ABS optional) are quite Germanic in their feel and response.