It's a pickup truck, a work tool, and an appliance designed to pull tree stumps or trailer a steamroller. It's heavy duty, to be sold to contractors and farmers, worthy of a 10-page review in Commercial Heavy Equipment Monthly.

Now it has an independent front suspension and what Dodge says is the first rack-and-pinion steering in a heavy-duty truck (both in the 4x2 only). But this is no girly pickup or suburban SUV.

What more could we possibly say about such a truck?

A lot. We at Motor Trend have done our share in considering heavy-duty pickups as personal family conveyances. In 2001, we named the Ram HD's nemesis, the Chevrolet Silverado HD, Truck of the Year over smaller rivals that more readily serve as alternatives to midsize sedans.

Dodge, whose 1500 Series Ram has fallen a tad short of living up to its advertising as "Mayor of Truckville," finally is rolling out a truck with the right V-8: a 5.7L Hemi. The new engine is competitive, with 345 hp at 5400 rpm and 375 lb-ft at 4200 rpm in the Ram HD. Alternative engines are the Magnum V-10 and a new common-rail injection High-Output Cummins Turbo Diesel.

Its builders won't say what kind of fuel mileage the Hemi gets in this truck (the 2500 and 3500 Series Rams aren't subjected to EPA tests).

Chrysler will talk EPA mileage when the Hemi gets installed in the Ram 1500 and probably a few rear-drive LH sedans. As noted in the sidebar, Dodge expects most Heavy Duty Ram buyers will stick with the new six-cylinder turbodiesel. Of the three basic engine choices (counting two versions of the TD as one) only the V-10 is carryover--its torque has been reduced by 10 lb-ft for 2003, to 440 lb-ft, because of emissions changes. Horsepower remains 305.

The new 5.9L Cummins comes in two flavors: powerful and extra-powerful. The standard, value-leader TD makes 250 hp (up from 235 hp at 2900 rpm over the 2002 HD Ram's 5.9L Cummins TD) and 460 lb-ft of torque. The stump-puller is the High Output Cummins, rated at 305 hp at 2900 rpm and 555 lb-ft at 1400 rpm, propelling the Ram to what Dodge claims is a class-leading tow rating of 23,000 lb gross combination vehicle weight rating. Dodge says the engine is quieter than the diesel it replaces, thanks to the high-pressure common-rail fuel system. Pilot injection sprays a small amount of fuel to start combustion before the main fuel charge is injected. This smoothes out combustion pressure in the cylinder and produces better sound quality.

The Heavy Duty adds up to two numbers for 2003: the 2500 and the 3500. There's a new single-rear-wheel option for the 3500, available only as a Quad Cab diesel, wedged for payload capacity between the 2500 and the 3500 dualie. Like the Ram 1500, the HDs feature hydroformed box-section frame rails (beefier than the 1500's) and the new, more rounded big-rig look. In a concession to the heavy-duty truck's newfound status as big family car, Dodge has cut 3.0 in. from the standard bed on the short-wheelbase Quad Cab, to 6 ft, 3 in. This makes way for more interior room with a 3.6-in. increase in overall length. An 8-ft bed is standard on the regular cab and optional on the Quad Cab.

For '03, the Laramie replaces the SLT Plus as the top-of-the-line Ram Heavy Duty. Like the new-for-2002 standard Ram, the Heavy Duty line makes excellent use of the big truck's space, with myriad storage cubbies and folding seats. There's a big compartment in the huge center armrest of the optional front 60/40-split bench, with more storage under the seat, hidden storage in the rear, and hooks on the back of the seats. Windows roll down all the way and the doors open 85-degrees for easy loading of large objects.

Dodge has gone to major lengths to assure buyers the Heavy Duty Ram is a serious work truck, but with exemplary road manners and exceptional comfort and convenience. Do we buy the changes? From our fairly limited drive, we think they're worthwhile, even though the HD Ram still feels like a big, lumbering pickup you have to climb up into, something with a much bigger footprint than an Intrepid. If you like the Ram 1500's larger-than-thou feel, you'll love the 2500 and 3500.

Dodge says the 4x2 Hemi will do the 0-60-mph dash in 8.3 sec, which puts it in a dead heat against a GMC Sierra HD with the monster 8100 Vortec V-8. The Hemi HD feels quicker than any GM-truck gas V-8. Acceleration is extra-smooth, with no jerk or lash in the five-speed automatic's shifts, thanks to Dodge's first use of electronic throttle control. Last year's standard Ram closed the gap with the Silverado and Sierra for ride and handling, and the big rig achieves similar parity.

Dodge provided laden versions of its 3500 diesel and a Chevy Silverado 3500 with the Duramax turbodiesel to compare on a freeway loop. The Dodge was the smoother of the two, with a diesel that felt like a truck version of the new generation of European car turbodiesels, while the Chevy suffered a choppy ride with a heavy load. Truck for truck, unladen heavy-duty Dodges, Chevys, and Fords appear close competitors with enough comfort to work as everyday family vehicles. The Dodge feels a bit sharper, if slightly harsher, than the Chevy, with quicker and more direct steering on the rack-and-pinion-equipped 4x2s. And the suspension on 4x2 and 4x4 models takes the middle ground between the softer Chevy and GMC models and the new direction Ford is taking, exemplified by its latest SUV offerings. But we'll wait until we can compare them on our own playing field before reaching any solid conclusions.

When the Ram 1500 launched a year ago, we found it had nearly caught up with the Chevy/GMC pickup truck state of the art, save for its lack of a true big-truck V-8. Dodge won't officially admit it's putting the Hemi in the 1500 -- still -- and yet quick drives in the Hemi-powered 2500 convince us the full Ram line finally is about ready to take the Chevys, GMCs, and Fords head-on. To pickup-truck lovers, that's saying a lot.