The stage is set. After one of the most challenging sales years in recent memory, at a time when being an American automaker is like wearing a bull's-eye on your back and the housing and construction markets are described by some optimistic experts as bleak, this is the time when Ford, Chevy, and Dodge have to sell big, heavy-duty pickups.

Clearly, the lighter-duty Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram garnered a lot of attention last year (at least until the roof came crashing down on full-size SUV and pickup truck sales), but the biggest obstacle now on the horizon for 3/4- and one-ton truck builders is the 2010.5 federal NOx emissions regulations for diesel emissions. It's no secret the majority of HD truck sales are made with a state-of-the-art turbodiesel under the hood. And to meet the strict regulations, multiple strategies are being employed. Ford and GM likely will be showing off their new turbodiesels by the end of this year with (if the rumors we're hearing are right) similar after-treatment urea-injection systems. Added to the mix is the fact the EPA looks like it will allow each state to determine its own separate (likely much stricter) set of tailpipe emissions, and things could get complicated in a hurry. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, the new HD trucks are on their way.

Enter the first of the heavy-duty pickup truck players: the Dodge Ram HD. Although sporting a completely new look inside and out, the real story may be what hasn't changed. Mike Cairns, chief engineer for all Dodge Ram (light duty, heavy-duty, and chassis cab), says, "This isn't really an all-new truck for us. When you look underneath the truck, getting past its new interior and skin, we've taken a proven chassis and given it some better tuning and modified a few pieces." One of those important pieces is the 6.7-liter I-6 Cummins, which accounts for more than 85 percent of all Ram HD sales, which has not a single change to it for 2010. Part of that is because it doesn't need to change. When the larger 6.7-liter I-6 was introduced to the Ram HD in 2007, Cummins announced its redesigned turbodiesel would meet (and, in fact, exceed) the mandated NOx and soot levels for 2007 as well as the more stringent 2010.5 levels, three years early. Sure, this was big news at the time (even now), but more important, this meant Chrysler was able to save a lot of money. Bean counters and project engineers alike could now comfortably allocate money to other areas, like a revamped interior and new Dodge Ram HD outer skin, where customers (and more than a few journalists) have been guiding them. The decision was made early in the process to ensure the big pickup could tap into the strong look of its smaller yet beefy half-ton baby brother--with only a few differences.

Much of the exterior design language shared with the smaller half-tons can be seen in the forward-leaning grille, front fenders, and headlights. Likewise, the HD's beltline has been raised and the wheel arches opened up to give the truck a larger presence. The hood is also enlarged to accommodate a larger grille (for the turbodiesel cooling), as well as a stronger "power bulge." As with the new light-duty Ram of last year, Ralph Gilles, VP of design, has his fingerprints all over the Ram HD: "We wanted to make the 'big-rig' styling even more pronounced, keeping the classic Dodge look that conveys bold, powerful, and capable." We especially like what the designers have done with the one-ton dually, making it both more aerodynamic and more muscular. The tailgate has been resculpted for smaller drag numbers, and a new tailgate lift-assist feature now makes raising and lowering it a one-handed operation.

New Ram HDs will continue to offer three different cab configurations; however, the Quad Cab choice (really just an extended cab with conventional rear doors) will be replaced by a true Crew Cab with six more inches of legroom for rear-seat passengers. The Crew Cab will be offered in 2500 and 3500 single-rear-wheel configurations, in long- and short-bed lengths, as well as the dually version of the 3500 (long bed only). Regular Cab models will be offered only with the eight-foot bed, while Mega Cabs (still a huge seller in the Southwest) are offered only with the shortbox option, regardless of dual- or single-rear wheels.