When the '02 Dodge Ram 1500s came out, there was a lot to like. A new chassis, stiffer hydro-formed frame, more spacious and convenient interior, and an efficient 4.7L V-8 made for an impressive truck. Half-ton buyers had a lot to be thankful for, but as a group, they typically don't get close to pushing their trucks too hard too often. Three-quarter and 1-ton truck buyers, however, are a different breed.

Whether wearing a Ford, Chevy, or Dodge grille, these heavy-duty customers usually have a pretty clear reason why they need something with huge payload, towing, and power capacity. Dodge may know this as well as anyone, given that three of every four 2500 and 3500 Dodge Rams are typically ordered with a diesel engine and four-wheel drive. People who buy the HDs know their trucks will work hard and often. The newest arrival to the full-size heavy-duty-truck dance are the Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 pickups, fresh on the heels of last year's all-new Dodge Ram 1500.

The outside of the new heavy-duty Ram stays consistent with the additional Dodge styling changes from last year. A large, sloping windshield, the massive, cross-hair grille, rounded front fender and hood curves, and bubble-style headlamps clearly bring the bigger trucks in line with the smaller 1500 Ram. For the first time, Ram 3500 vehicles can be ordered in either dual-rear-wheel or single-rear-wheel configurations, as well as providing a four full-size-doors Quad Cab. Inside, the similarities continue with a completely new dash, gauge cluster setup, and numerous storage and modular seat configurations--again consistent with the features offered in the 1500 Ram.

Following the same formula as the '02 1500 Rams, the HDs now use hydro-formed box sections that allow for much stiffer tolerances, which simplifies the build process, reduces the number of weld spots, and improves overall integrity and durability. Likewise, hydroformed technology allowed payload, GVW, and towing capacity to increase, pushing the Gross Combined Weight Rating (truck plus payload plus maximum towing) of a 1-ton dualie to a class-leading 23,000 lb. The newly stiffened chassis also includes a different rack-and-pinion steering setup for 4x2 Rams and a revised recirculating-ball gear for the quickest steering ratios for any pickup. The intended result is better high- and low-speed maneuverability.

Dodge decided to keep the solid front axle on 4x4 heavy-duty models, revising the coil/link front suspension for better handling empty and loaded. A bigger and stronger rear axle is now held in place with longer leaf springs to help soften the typically harsh ride associated with empty heavy-duty pickups.

In addition, Dodge has included an industry-leading front- and rear-brake package: standard four-wheel ABS with 13.9-in. vented discs front and back. This gives the new Ram more than 40 percent extra braking area than previous Rams and is promised to have best-in-class stopping distances.

Probably the most anticipated component on the new Ram is the 5.7L Hemi V-8 (see sidebar). Named after the hemispherically shaped combustion chambers, the 345-hp (365 lb-ft of torque) engine has little else in common with the Hemi of the '70s. The Hemi will be the powerplant for 2500 and 3500 Rams, with a new High Output Cummins diesel making its debut as well. With high-pressure common-rail technology, the new HO Cummins 5.9L I-6 delivers 555 lb-ft of torque at 1400 rpm and 305 hp at 2900 rpm. Rounding out the engine options is the 8.0L V-10, the biggest V-10 sold in the class.

This is a completely new heavy-duty pickup, built to be bigger, stronger, smoother, and more comfortable to cruise empty all day or on that rare (or maybe not so rare) occasion at max GCW. We have to say that, on paper and from what we've seen, this is just the right mix of brute force and stylistic function to be the moving target Ford and Chevy have to shoot for. We'll know better when we get our hands on one and put it through a few tests. Expect pricing to be competitive with other HDs, but look for the Cummins and Hemi, as one might expect, to cost a premium.

HEMI & CUMMINS
The all-new Hemi 5.7L V-8 makes 345 hp at 5600 rpm and 365 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm by using cross-flow aluminum heads, hemispherical (of course) combustion chambers, two sparkplugs per cylinder, and a fully balanced cast-iron crank with cross-bolt main bearing. Offering the strongest base (5.7L V-8) and optional (8.0L V-10) gas engines of the 3/4- and 1-ton big-three pickups, Dodge seems to have the power war won on paper.

On the diesel side of engine choices, the all-new 5.9L I-6 Cummins diesel uses a gear-driven and electronically controlled high-pressure common-rail injection system with pilot injection (the injection of a small amount of fuel that starts combustion before the main fuel charge is injected). Designed to help smooth out engine noise, produce cleaner combustion, and allow for easier (extreme) cold-weather starting, pilot injection makes for more precise tuning that results in higher horsepower and torque numbers.--M.W.

New Option: 3500 SRW
Previously not available in a 3500 uniform, a single-rear-wheel 1-ton Dodge Ram is now offered by Dodge. That's right. If you wanted a 1-ton for big towing and hauling, you had to buy a truck with two extra tires and almost 15 in. of extra width. No so for '03. The new configuration will allow people to choose between dual or single rear wheels, as well as long- and short-box configurations much like Ford. Now Chevy is the only maker to require 1-ton buyers to use training wheels on its trucks. 3500 SRW Rams can be ordered in two-door regular-cab and four-door Quad Cab models. Pricing was not available at presstime.--M.W.

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