2002 Dodge Ram 1500 - First Road Test - Motor Trend
Good enough to again challenge Ford and Chevrolet?
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.
Power from Chrysler's next-generation single-cam 4.7L 16-valve V-8 feels adequate, but not exceptional, at least in this heavy 4x4. It's rated 240 hp at 4800 rpm and 300 lb-ft at 3200 rpm. Coupled with the optional 45RFE multi-speed automatic, in which a computer chooses gearing to suit your driving style and needs, acceleration feels decent, but, at times, a bit sluggish. We'd guess the multi-speed in our preproduction Ram sometimes misunderstood our journalistic acceleration desires. Until the 5.7L Hemi V-8 replaces the old 5.9L Magnum V-8 as the top option, the 4.7 is our engine of choice. A 3.7L/215-hp V-6 is available only on the 2WD regular cab truck (we'd recommend it only if you're buying 25 trucks for a road-construction crew). A five-speed manual is available in all Ram iterations except for those equipped with the 5.9.
Fresh styling is good enough to overcome the truck's few deficits. The new Ram looks like a softened version of the old one, much as the '03 Viper softens the current car's lines. Rear fenders have a hard, square crease that gives a broad-shouldered edge to the new lines and almost recall the rear fenders of the '73-'93 Ram. Filing down some of the hard edges has added a certain voluptuousness.
Whereas the old Quad Cab was added to the lineup four years into the Ram's lifespan, the new truck was designed as a Quad Cab from the get-go (and will account for 80 percent of sales). As a result, the four-door-with four full-size front-hinged doors-looks very well-proportioned. The only other available body is a conventional cab-there'll be no extended cab model. Both can be had with a choice of 6-ft, 3-in. or 8-ft beds. That 6-ft, 3-in. bed length is significant, as it's just 3 in. shorter than a classic short-bed yet 4 to 6 in. longer than many of the really short beds found on some of the smaller trucks-which the market has yet to truly embrace.
The interior is pleasant and straightforward, but the quality of its materials still doesn't measure up to the likes of Ford and Toyota. The bottom cushion of the driver's seat is too soft to support some backsides adequately on long drives. At 76.6 in. in overall height, the 4x4 Ram makes you climb up into the cabin for a very tall ride height-perfect if you have a Napoleon complex, but a hike otherwise. Still, Kenworth types will love it: taller than its competitors, but with superb handling. Interior packaging is state-of-the-art, with hideaway storage bins below the front-middle seat and the rear-seat cushions. Additionally, these cushions easily fold up and out of the way to haul dirty or rough stuff. Overall, it's a thoughtful handy truck cabin that serves as a roomy family sedan.
So, celebrate Dodge-don't blame it for changing the nature of the Great American pickup. The '02 Ram will please white-collar suburbanites and hard-core truckers alike. And a roster of Hemi, turbodiesel, and V-10 powerplants is just a year away.