2019 Ram 1500 Test Drive Review: America's Hottest Segment Just Got A New Contender

Test Drive

Yes it's a hybrid, and yes, you're going to fall in love with it.

The beginning of summer in Arizona brings around another type of hazard associated with drinking and driving. The first is the kind we all know: boozing and cruising, drunk driving, whatever you want to call it. The second involves forgetting to stay hydrated when the sun is out and becoming dizzily dehydrated behind the wheel. This was exactly the flavor of heat that was infecting our bodies with fatigue as we descended onto Phoenix to drive the 2019 Ram 1500.

For Fiat Chrysler, this is the big refresh. Last year alone Ram sold 500,723 copies of the 1500 in America, making it the third best-selling vehicle in the United States. Educated gearheads know that spots two and one are reserved for Ram’s crosstown competitors, the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado. Trucks make up such a significant portion of Detroit's bottom line that when the Big Three invests in a redesign, tens of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars and the livelihoods of entire corporations hang in the balance. The last full update to the Ram came in 2009, and with Ford and Chevrolet having recently revamped their offerings, the 2019 Ram comes as a necessary reinforcement for FCA during this enduring battle.

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Problem is, we made a rookie mistake on the way to the drive: misinterpreting the effects of the heat for a lack of sleep. To cope, we tried to quench our thirst with RedBull, making it so that once tech presentations were over and mirrors were adjusted to let our eyes better scan the road around the pretty sheetmetal, our white crew-cabbed Ram Big Horn rushed into Phoenix traffic with plenty of haste. However, misguided efforts and a thrilling drive led us to a wonderful revelation: that FCA did its homework here. Just a few minutes of hard driving in an overheated city confirms a silent fear all truck lovers harbor: that hints of the crossover have made into the segment.

Calm the reflex emotions, though, because we mean this in the best way possible. Relying on a new frame that’s comprised of 98% high-strength steel and a redesigned cab and box that retains a 54% split of the stuff, the Ram’s chassis feels as rigid as a church pew. No need to stifle sinful driving though, because the suspension soaks up a rude lead foot or a ruffled road without losing its sense of dynamism. That familiar truck feel—the sensation of being on a memory foam mattress that rides so straight it may as well be nailed to a freight train—is still present in the Ram. The surprise, however, comes in the corners.

Crank the wheel when it’s time to turn, an act that tends to reinforce the freight train comparisons in the worst way possible, and the Ram follows through with confidence-inspiring agility. Clever? Definitely. Magic? Not a chance. Pulling off that party trick is properly weighted steering that relies on the chassis to inspire confidence because of its failure to convey what the front wheels are doing (electric-assisted steering rarely does), a coil suspension that comes standard if the optional air suspension isn’t selected, and weight-loss tactics that shed 225 pounds through the use of that high-strength steel chassis and an aluminum hood and tailgate. These lightweight components, like the rest of the truck, get a whole new look.

Though the six available grilles add variety to the new truck’s face, the Ram’s general aesthetic is one of confidence—the result of swapping the old pickup’s hyper-masculine character for modernity. Not all the Macho is gone, but the new Ram is much more of a Chris Hemsworth than a Sylvester Stallone. The new silhouette, of course, is more than just decoration. Combined with active grille shutters and an active air dam that deploys at highway speeds, Ram claims a coefficient of drag of 0.36 for the 1500, 0.03 less than the previous generation. Opt for the air suspension system and Ram swaps the active air dam for a lowered suspension setting at highway speeds.

Fancy, sure, but improved on-road manners have the dual effect of helping to improve EPA mileage ratings. Lower drag helps fuel economy for obvious reasons, but a polished ride quality—which Ram works hard to achieve by mounting electronically controlled mass dampers (a series of oil filter-sized drums loaded with spinning vibration-killing counterweights) under V8-equipped trucks—helps to maintain comfort and prolong engine life when the motor switches between eight and four-cylinder operation. Given how tight fuel economy restrictions are getting, this tactic isn't enough to satisfy the regulators.

The highlighted feature that allows Ram to preserve its V8 in an era where Chevrolet is deploying four-bangers to Silverado engine bays is a 48-volt mild hybrid system dubbed “eTorque.” The system uses a device that can act as a starter and an alternator and comes attached to the crankshaft via a belt, collecting spare energy from the engine or dispensing it back into the drivetrain when it's needed. Our tester wasn’t fitted with the system, instead relying on the old-school 5.7-liter V8 to send 395 horsepower and 410 lb-ft of torque through an eight-speed automatic and out to the rear wheels (or all four when when the transfer case in engaged). Buyers can outfit the 5.7-liter V8 with eTorque to flush an additional 130 lb-ft of torque down the drivetrain.

eTorque will come standard on the 3.6-liter V6, which already makes 305 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque before a 90 lb-ft torque boost kicks in from the motor. While the main idea behind eTorque is to improve fuel economy—giving V8s equipped with the system a 2 mpg advantage over the unaided V8’s EPA rating of 17 mpg combined, towing capacity can also improve if the truck is properly spec’d. Standard V8 models can haul 11,610 pounds while quad cab models with eTorque and 4X2 can pull up to 12,750 pounds. The eTorque-assisted V6 will lug as much as 7,730 pounds, but it beats V8 models with a maximum payload capacity of 2,300 pounds compared to the eight-pot's 1,970-pound capacity.

We didn’t have the chance to test the eTorque system, but acceleration on the standalone V8—which can hit 60 mph from standstill in the late 6-second range—was quick enough to play a part in upholding the Ram’s image as a friendly daily commuter that just happens to pull double duty as a workaholic or adventurer. As an added bonus, the driver's comfortable confidence behind the wheel is extended to occupants through the cabin, as we learned in both the Big Horn and Longhorn versions. Sitting a tier above the minimalist Ram Tradesman, the Big Horn isn’t outfitted to be a luxury truck, but the optional toys can sure make it feel as capable as one.

A black interior and black cloth seats do nothing to spoil a driver silly, while the round turn-to-shift gear selector knob is sure to catch flak from some owners. But the modifiable center console can be customized to suit any job whether it’s on the construction site or in the middle of a long-haul continent crossing. Four-wheel drive buttons take a logical seat near the shifter knob and switches that toggle tow modes and parking sensors are a nice touch. As most truck buyers have come to expect, none of these toys come cheap. The Big Horn starts at $37,340 including destination, but once the $3,500 4X4 system and the $2,800 Crew Cab configuration is added, our tester’s price tag came out to $43,540 including destination.

The bulk of the extras come from the $2,400 Level 2 Equipment Group, which adds everything from an 8.4-inch infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to 115V outlets (yes, plural), as well as heated seats and a heated steering wheel to go with power adjustable seats and mirrors. Adding the $1,195 Hemi V8 (V8s with eTorque command a $1,995 price tag), fly 20-inch wheels for $1,595 and a few three-figure options packages brings the total to $51,710. The current generation of driver aids, like adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and surround-view parking cameras makes it to the Ram so long as the driver pays for it.

Luckily, it wasn't hot enough for us to turn down a chance to see them all in action in the Ram Longhorn. As the second-highest truck in the Ram hierarchy, the Longhorn Crew Cab starts at $53,696 when spec’d with 4X4. A slew of toys, including power running boards, heated and cooled seats in the front and rear, gorgeous interior appointments containing leather, metal and wood trim, a 12-inch Uconnect display mounted longitudinally and the soft four-corner air suspension system that can be lowered using the key fob so grandma can slide right in, all brought the as-tested price to $66,935. Despite the peaks and troughs during our caffeinated adventure, one emotion remained consistent.

It wasn't heat-induced fatigue, it was the satisfaction of seeing how far the auto industry has gone in the past ten years. The year 2009 touched off the post-crash recovery, where interest rates made loans cheaper and fuel prices spurred the crossover mania that's led Ford to kill off most of its car lineup. Almost a decade later and we're on the cusp of fully autonomous cars and gasoline-free powertrains. Before these changes calcify, driving enthusiasts get to experience this sweet spot where well-refined trucks benefit from the driving dynamics and fuel economy standards set by the crossover while retaining everything we've learned to love about trucks. And now that the final contestant is at the table, may the best truck win.

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