Driven: 2013 Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab 4X4 3.6

By Brandon Turkus

August 31, 2012

—Nashville, Tennessee
 
The pick-up truck market is, to be honest, a game of one-upmanship. Each new truck needs to be able to tow more than the competition, get better fuel economy, have a bigger bed, use more leather in the cabin, come with a bigger grille, be completely plated in chrome, and retail for the price of a decent mid-sized sedan. It should also be able to cook, clean, bathe small children (not as crazy as it sounds), juggle, and be able to compose an award-winning concerto.
 
We may have exaggerated a bit, but our point is this: each shiny new truck that comes off the assembly line needs to offer more, more, more of everything than the cross-town competition.
 
[Click here to read our review of the 2012 Dodge Durango Citadel]
 
That story of one-upmanship extends to a battleground that has become as hotly contested as towing capacity: fuel economy. At 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, the V-6 1500 (the one we drove) now offers best-in-class fuel economy for a half-ton pickup. Ram’s engineers achieved this through a comprehensive, bumper-to-bumper inspection of how different components can affect efficiency.
 
Driven: 2013 Ram 1500 Quad Cab 4X4 3.6The most obvious area to improve efficiency is under the hood. Not only is Chrysler Group’s award-winning Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 available (a $1000 option over the standard V-8), but it’s coupled to a super-thrifty eight-speed automatic (a powertrain combo we’ve raved about before).
 
Fuel economy is up 20 percent, and horsepower is up to 305 ponies, while net torque sits at 269 pound-feet. That compares quite favorably with Ford’s entry-level V-6 (302 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque). It’s also a massive improvement over the 2012 Ram’s 3.7-liter V-6 (an anemic 215 horsepower and 235 pound-feet) while representing a viable alternative to the base 4.7-liter V-8’s 310 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. And it does all this while netting best-in-class fuel economy.
 
Ram’s engineers also placed a large emphasis on aerodynamics, getting so nitpicky that they redesigned the truck’s stepboards to reduce drag. Other changes include the first instantiation of active grille shutters on a full-size truck, while the front fascia itself has been refined in a wind tunnel for prime aerodynamics. Ram’s engineers became so fanatical about economy that the optional air suspension features an automatic Aero Mode that lowers the truck 0.6 inches. The result is only a one-percent improvement in economy, but it shows the dedication that the Ram team had toward making an efficient pickup.
 
Not content with a slippery car, the engineers went all Jenny Craig and significantly cut the weight. The frame itself is 30 pounds lighter thanks to tougher steel (also a big part of the NVH improvements). The hood is made from aluminum and accounts for a 26-pound reduction. Those new powertrain components? 76 pounds lighter. We like lighter vehicles for fuel economy, but we also can’t forget that a lighter vehicle is faster, more maneuverable, and generally offers a better driving experience.
 
Speaking of that driving experience, it was every bit as good as we expected. The vast majority of our day was spent behind the mid-grade SLT. Slotting above the base ST, Tradesman, and Express, our tester came nicely equipped with comfortable cloth seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, adjustable pedals, an 8.4-inch navigation screen, adjustable air suspension, four-wheel drive, and the talented combo of an eight-speed automatic and a Pentastar V-6 (we’ll be testing the venerable Hemi V-8 with the new eight-speed auto at a later date).

Driven: 2013 Ram 1500 Quad Cab 4X4 3.6The first challenge of the day was for our co-driver, who had to make sense of the 8AT’s shifter. Like Jaguar and Land Rover, the eight-speed in the Ram utilizes electronic shifting, and necessitated a twisting knob that selected between the standard PRND, rather than the traditional column- or floor-mounted shifter.
 
Unlike JLR, Ram’s knob was mounted vertically, just to the right of the steering wheel. It was easy enough to reach, and the knob was well sized with nice grooves, allowing for operation with a thicker pair of gloves. We certainly had no issues in blind operation, as the “gates” for park, reverse, neutral, and drive all felt quite easy to identify. To put its ease of use in context, it’s far more intuitive than the complicated shifter on the Chrysler 300 we tested.
 
Our experience with this powertrain meant our hopes were rather high for the Ram. We weren’t disappointed. Shifts were just as well timed and fast as when we tested it in a car-based application. Throttle tip-in wasn’t as sharp as the 300, requiring a bit more assertion with the right foot. When we dove into the skinny pedal, though, the Ram shot forward with more thrust than its numbers would indicate. This was mainly due to the way power was distributed, with 90 percent of the torque spread from 1800 to 6400 rpm. It meant easily accessible power at nearly any speed, and will be an absolute blessing for those who wish to tow.
 
Having such a smooth, broad torque curve, we could forgive the V-6 for lacking in other areas. It continued to impress, though, offering a free-revving and ear-pleasing character. We’re quite curious to see what the sales response is to this powertrain. It’s really excellent, but its sales will depend far more on salespeople convincing buyers to try it over the V-8 that they probably don’t need anyway.
 
We’ve said it before, but we really like what Chrysler Group has been doing with these eight-speed automatics. Like on the Chrysler 300S we tested, it felt well engineered, with intelligent shift logic. It’s fast to downshift, with a minimum of hunting despite the sheer number of cogs. Simply bury the gas and it drops down, with little interruption to the overall driving experience. Upshifts are smooth and timed well, although it did seem prone to short-shifting. Shift shock was kept to a minimum, even under hard throttle applications. Really, this was just an all-around great gearbox.
 
As good as the gearbox was, it’s not the crowning achievement of this truck. No, that honor goes to the ride. To be fair, the Ram was already the smoothest pickup truck on sale, owing to the independent rear suspension it gained in 2009.
 
For 2013, Ram’s engineers have fitted a full-on air suspension, offering a setting for every occasion. With an 8.7-inch ride height in the standard setting, the air suspension grants an extra 4 inches of travel. There’s a load/parking height that drops the truck 2 inches for easier ingress/egress and bed access, along with an aero mode that automatically lowers the truck 0.6 inches at speed for improved fuel economy. Off-road 1 and Off-road 2 increase ground clearance by 1.2 and 2.0 inches, respectively. The air ride was easily adjusted via a series of buttons at the bottom of the center stack.Driven: 2013 Ram 1500 Quad Cab 4X4 3.6
 
On the road, the 2013 Ram 1500 was nothing less than the smoothest-riding pickup we’ve ever tested. Secondary motion, notably that obnoxious shuddering sound that you hear and feel when you hit a big bump in a regular truck, was precisely controlled. It’s this quality that gives the Ram a feeling of real solidity. What pass for potholes in Tennessee just couldn’t disrupt the smooth ride, with little in the way of impact noises or other disruptions. There was some vertical motion over undulating roads, but by and large the Ram feels nicely planted and composed.
 
If, like many owners, you are planning on using your Ram to tow, then the air suspension will be your new best friend. It features a self-leveling system that keeps the body level regardless of just how much of this truck’s towing capacity you may be using.
 
The air suspension didn’t perform quite as well dynamically. This was more an issue of feedback than of actual handling potential. It was difficult to judge things like grip levels or steering input through the chassis, and as we’ll discuss in a moment, the steering wasn’t much help, either. The air suspension did a decent job of countering lateral body motions, although fore and aft movement was more noticeable.
 
As we said, the issue of limited feedback was compounded by the Ram’s electric power-assisted steering system. This tiller felt overboosted and lacked feel. Still, it’s part of what nets this Ram its excellent fuel efficiency.
 
Perhaps our biggest qualm during our drive route was the Ram’s size. Big trucks and Tennessee two-lanes are not good bedfellows. This truck was too big and too uncommunicative to really give us any confidence on the tight roads. The Ram took up our entire lane, and the result made for a very nervous driving experience. This was one of the few areas where the 1500 loses out to its competition. This truck just doesn’t feel as manageable in tight environments as a Ford F-150.
 
We can complain about this being a difficult truck to handle in confined spaces, but we’d be ignoring a key benefit to its size: this cabin was huge. Not only that, it’s darn nice too. It’ll easily accommodate four adults, with nary a complaint from any corner of the cabin. Honestly, we’d like to see how comfortable it’d be with six passengers, as there’s enough room to make that a real option.
 
The seats are comfortable, although we found them slightly flat on the twistier parts of the road. The steering wheel was a large-diameter version of Chrysler’s corporate tiller, and works just as well in a truck application as it does in a small car. The 8.4-inch touchscreen display feels just as massive, despite being in a larger cabin than usual, and it’s just as snappy to respond to inputs. Dash materials are soft-touch, and look and feel great. The door panels have been redesigned as well, with higher-quality plastics. Notably, despite there still being a healthy amount of plastic in this cabin, it didn’t feel rubbery like Rams of the past. Instead, it felt modern and clean, with a degree of functionality that other trucks seem to lack.
 
For the past few years, the Ford F-150 has defined the truck market. Its EcoBoost and V-8 offerings were excellent, its interiors were class leading, and its telematics were unbeatable. In one fell swoop, Ram has countered Ford’s advantages, offering advanced and economical new powertrains, including the first eight-speed auto in a truck, an interior that’s every bit as good as Dearborn’s, and telematics that should be the envy of F-150 drivers. We’ve yet to get our hands on Ford’s 2013 F-150, but when we do, it’ll have some work to do.
 
2013 Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab 4X4
Engine: V-6, 3.6 liters, 24v
Output: 305 hp/269 lb-ft
Weight: 4741 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 18/25 mpg
Towing Capacity: 6500 lb
Base Price: $34,585
On Sale: Now