First Drive: 2003 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

Looks can be deceiving

Greg R. Whale
Oct 22, 2002
Photographers: David Freers
Continuing the trend of separating light- and heavy-duty (over 8500 GVW) pickups, Dodge rolls out the Ram Heavy Duty a year after its 1/2-ton brethren. However, unlike the competition, the Ram Heavy Duty has the same sheetmetal and outward appearance as the 1500.
Given the similar bodywork, only careful looks underneath, different wheels, the standard "Heavy Duty" label on the tailgate, the optional Cummins "C turbodiesel" badge just aft of the headlamp cluster, or dual rear wheels, will distinguish HDs from 1/2-tons. Sharing the same body panels undoubtedly helps brand identity and production costs, and Dodge is quick to point out the 1500 bodywork already renders an image of strength and reliability.
Exterior details aside, the Ram Heavy Duty is all-new underneath with respect to both the previous HDs and the current 1/2-ton. The frame is roll- and hydroformed and boxed from one end to the other, increasing torsional stiffness by a factor of four. It also means that, with less frame and body motion, the suspension can be better tuned for ride control.
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Offering only two wheelbases further simplifies the process, and Ram HDs are regular-cab long box, Quad Cab long, or short box. The short box is a few inches shorter than before, but it shouldn't make any difference if the 2x4 hangs off the bed by 18 in. or 21. Despite just two wheelbases, the new Ram HD has a variant not seen from Dodge for a while: a single-rear-wheel 1-ton. Gross vehicle weight ratings range from 8650 lb (2500) to 12,000 lb (3500 DRW), and since the new trucks are slightly heavier, the rated payload of a 2500 should be lower than last year's. However, an SRW 3500 will be 9900 GVWR, for a stouter alternative to last year's 2500, and the higher GVWR on dualies means top payload should be at least equal to previous 3500 DRWs. The 3500 single-rear may be offered only as a Quad Cab short box and should prove popular with recreational trailer pullers; those with ultra-large RVs will be pleased to hear that top gross combined is now 23,000 lb.
Pulling all this weight are two new engines and the carryover 8.0L V-10 (we'd be surprised if some derivative of the 8.3L Viper engine in the SRT doesn't show up in this truck in the next year or two).
The Hemi name Mopar made famous is back for '03, and it's the standard engine for the Heavy Duty. Using a 5.7L pushrod V-8, it generates 345 hp (at 5400 rpm) and 375 lb-ft of torque (at 4200 rpm), although a fair percentage of that is available at more truck-appropriate engine speeds. The Hemi uses aluminum crossflow heads, electronic throttle, and twin spark plugs for each cylinder. The plugs fire simultaneously, with a coil-on-plug for one and a short wire for the other. The Hemi is teamed with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. In early drives, it proved more than capable and provided an exhaust note even the aftermarket will like. Maximum GCWR with the Hemi is 18,000 lb (max tow 11,600), we expect it'd handle that, but we'd opt for the V-10 or diesel if covering many miles or western states hills with that load.
The other new engine is the Cummins diesel, still a 24-valve 5.9L inline-six, but now with common-rail injection. The new fuel injection allows for variable (and multiple) injection events per cycle, so emissions, economy, and power are all improved.
But the most noticeable improvement is noise level, with most of the diesel knock absent at any speed or load: If you park an '03 Cummins next to a previous engine, you probably won't hear the '03. Torque remains at 460 lb-ft (at 1400 rpm), and horsepower is up slightly to 250 (at 2900 rpm), with another 100-200 useable rpm added to the top end. California emissions mean its market gets the same 235/460 rating as last year, an exhaust catalyst, and no high-output option (Cummins is working diligently on this and hopes to offer an H.O. for 50 states). Gearboxes for the diesel are five- or six-speed manuals and the same four-speed automatic from last year.
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The High Output Cummins is now rated at 305 hp (at 2900) and 555 lb-ft (at 1400). This ranks slightly behind Ford's new 6.0L PowerStroke for hp (325 anticipated), but betters both the competition's larger V-8 engines for torque and delivers 400-600 rpm lower in the rev band. The common-rail injection also helps in low end, with torque at 1000 rpm up by 20 percent and clutch engagement torque (already over 300 lb-ft) up 10 percent. We expect fuel economy to be up ever-so-slightly in the standard diesel and about the same with the H.O.; the truck is heavier but more aerodynamic, and the standard axle ratio is 3.73:1 (shorter than previous Rams' 3.55:1) with 4.10:1 optional. Engine serviceability with any powerplant is slightly tighter than the previous model, but filter locations have been carefully considered.
These gears run in all-new axles, too, with American Axle supplying the full-floating rear-ends of 10.5- and 11.5-in. ring gear sizes. The optional limited-slip unit is a helical-gear design, not a clutch pack, meaning less chatter, less decline in performance over time, and no special lubricant modifier requirements. In 4WDs, the front axle carries as much weight as before, but it uses a smaller 9.2-in. ring gear than the previous Dana 60 axle. More significant, there's no axle-disconnect system, so the front end is always turning and engaging front drive is easier. Fewer moving parts simplify servicing, and the aftermarket is no doubt working on a manual locking hub conversion already. An electrically shifted NVG273 transfer case is available on some models, with a lever-operated unit standard.
Apart from powerplant sounds, the most apparent differences in driving a Ram HD come from the ride and braking. The Ram HD 2WD uses coil-sprung independent suspension with aluminum upper A-arms, similar in concept to 1/2-tons but substantially revised. Steering is now by rack-and-pinion, which has eliminated any trace of wander, gives immediate response and feedback, and compares nicely to a Lightning.
The solid axle used on 4WDs can't be combined with rack-and-pinion, but the recirculating-ball system has been revised. We noticed the much faster response at first maneuver (less than three turns, lock to lock) and suspect it may turn tighter than previous HDs despite the added wheelbase (repeated backing of a trailer demonstrated that the new pump does move more fluid). The 4WD front end remains a coil/link design, and the radius rods are now boxed for more stability.
Out back, the leaf springs have been moved further outboard and lengthened a few inches for a softer ride. You'll notice it more on 3500s, however, because the spring pack has a two-leaf overload/three-leaf main setup. Ride quality is better unloaded and less punishing when weight puts you on to the secondary pack. The rear shocks are staggered, with the driver's side leaning backward and the other side forward to clear fuel tanks and exhaust pipes.
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The last major mechanical upgrade, especially relative to pre-2001 HDs, is the braking system. Standard 17-in. wheels cover rotors almost 14 in. in diameter front and rear, with twin-piston calipers on all front brakes and some rears. Four-wheel anti-lock is standard on all HD Rams and pedal feel is markedly improved over earlier models, and while we couldn't test fade resistance by unplugging the 6-ton-trailer's brakes, we expect it to be similarly improved.
Changes to the Ram HD cabin are much the same as the 1500 that debuted last year. A three-model lineup includes base ST, better SLT, and Laramie to replace the previous SLT+. Top-line Laramies come with aluminum wheels (at least on SRW), adjustable pedals, leather, and dual-zone climate control. Front doors curve inward at the bottom, for less climbing to get into a tall 4WD, rear doors swing almost 90-degrees to facilitate entry, and the pocket in the back edge of the regular cab door looks like an ideal spot for your fire extinguisher. The only changes between the 1/2-ton and HD interiors are shifters and numbered gauges for diesel trucks.
We expect Dodge's sales rates of about 70-percent diesel and 70-percent four-wheel drive will remain for the new truck; the diesel gives big-block torque and V-6 mileage with excellent longevity, and 4WD gives extra traction and the solid axle's ability to carry a camper or heavy payload without realigning the front end.
We'll have a test on new diesels and 1-tons as soon as they become available. Expect pricing to rise slightly.

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