Review and photos by
Jil McIntosh, Autos.ca
I’ve never stood at the helm of an ocean liner, my hand on the controls, watching as the enormous ship responds to my commands. But way up in the cabin of my 2011 Ram test truck, I think I have some inkling of how it feels.
This truck is big. This truck is very nice, but it is very, very big. And while that may appeal to many buyers, it’s unnecessarily large, as are all of its oversized competitors these days. My 1995 Dodge 1500, purchased at a time when it was pretty much the biggest of the big, looks more like a Dakota when parked alongside. It will be interesting to see who will be the first truck maker to finally pull back the reins. And now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s see what this Ram has to offer. (That’s the proper name of it now, by the way; Ram has become its own brand, although I still think of this truck as a Dodge.)
There aren’t a lot of changes from the 2010 model, but one that applied to my Laramie 4×4 was a new, active on-demand transfer case, which is also standard on the Big Horn and Outdoorsman trim levels. A dial on the dash allows you to set it into two-wheel, four-wheel auto, four-wheel lock and four-wheel low, so you can drive the truck in four-wheel on dry road surfaces. Also new and added to my truck were an optional Garmin navigation system and a spray-in bed liner.
Like its competitors, the Ram 1500 offers numerous configuration choices. I had the largest cabin, the Crew Cab. I also had the largest engine offered in the half-ton, the 5.7-litre Hemi V8 with five-speed automatic. The Hemi – named for its hemispherical-shaped combustion chambers – is pretty much a bulletproof unit, and having driven many of them and owned a couple, I’ve long considered it one of the better engines on the market. Producing 390 horsepower and 407 lb-ft of torque, it was certainly a great fit to my truck, offering impressive acceleration and grunt despite the Ram’s size and weight. Other available engines, depending on the truck model, are a 3.7-litre V6 and 4.7-litre V8.
The Hemi engine features Chrysler’s Multi-Displacement System, or MDS, which shuts off half the cylinders under light load. It’s seamless and does a great job with fuel economy. Against the published figures of 15.8 L/100 km (18 mpg) in the city and 10.8 (26) on the highway, I averaged 12.2 (23) in combined driving. Of course, that was while I was hauling air for the week, and working any truck will naturally take its toll at the pump.
Towing capacity for the 5.7 Hemi runs from 2,267 kg (5,000 lbs) to a maximum of 4,127 kg (9,100 lbs), while payload ranges between 616 kg (1,360 lbs) and 766 kg (1,690 lbs); that’s less towing capability than advertised for half-tons from Ford and GM, but remember to always look at the figures for the truck you’re considering, rather than the number the automaker advertises in big print, no matter what the brand. Towing and payload capacities depend on several factors, and in many cases, the bigger and heavier the truck, the less it can handle, since it’s the combination of the truck and trailer, or the truck and its load, that’s a major factor in determining the maximum. (The truck’s weight must be subtracted from the combination, which is why the huge flashy towing numbers often apply primarily to regular-cab 4×2 trucks.) Be sure to do the proverbial apples-to-apples comparison when you’re determining how much towing power you’re actually buying.
The rough “trucky” ride you may remember from these vehicles in the past has been gone for some time now. All of the full-size trucks ride more like luxury sedans, and the Ram’s is exceptionally smooth. Dodge went to a rear coil spring setup rather than leaf springs when the Ram was redesigned for 2009, claiming it would provide a better ride and less wheel hop, especially when the truck was empty. It’s still a hot debate with many truck enthusiasts, but I’ve driven the Ram loaded and hauling a trailer, and I have no complaints about the suspension, even when compared to similarly-loaded trucks with traditional rear leaf supports. In any case, with nothing in the bed, the Ram’s rear wheels stayed pretty much planted even on the rural road that leads to my house, which heaves into a lunar landscape whenever the frost gets into it.
The Ram definitely earns top marks from me for its looks. I think it’s the best-looking truck on the market right now – I just love how the bumper curves over those twin tailpipes – and my Laramie trim line’s interior fought to a draw with Ford, my other top-ranked cabin choice. It’s a long way from the cheap, plasticky interiors that used to be Dodge’s calling card. There were a few extra-charge items in my Laramie, including the ventilated leather seats, but the heated steering wheel was standard equipment for the trim line. Once again, truck enthusiasts looked down their noses at such puffery, but let me tell you: when you’re out on a cold day, especially when you’re messing with a trailer or tying down a load, a hot place to put your hands feels more like a necessity than an extravagance.
My truck was equipped with an optional Garmin navigation system in its media centre. I’d never used a Garmin before, but it also gets two thumbs up. By far and away, it’s the simplest navigation system I’ve ever used in any vehicle. The entire media centre has been simplified, at least by comparison with the version in my husband’s 2008 Dodge car. It’s really nice to see someone making it easier to use these gadgets than the prevailing custom of adding features that look nice and flashy in the showroom, but make them tougher to figure out and especially to operate with eyes off the road as little as possible. And speaking of good ideas, my tester’s tow mirrors are also an exercise in simplicity that works really well. They can be positioned either horizontally or vertically by simply pushing or pulling on them.
Along with an optional bed divider, my truck’s storage options also included the RamBox system, a $1,695 add-on that includes two deep locking boxes set in the sides of the truck box. They have to be ordered with the truck and can’t be added on later, and while you can still put in certain soft tonneau covers, you can’t put a truck cap on the bed. They turned out not to be water-tight when I took the truck through a car wash, and you have to love regulations: although an infant would probably be the largest human being capable of fitting inside, the boxes are equipped with glow-in-the-dark emergency release handles. The RamBox systems fit over the wheel wells and so the interior of the bed has flat sides. At least, I think it did, once I jumped up and down a few times to get a glimpse inside. Okay, that’s hyperbole, but the fact remains that the Ram’s height can be a fairly serious impediment to actually getting inside the bed. The sides are too tall to reach over (my husband complained that he couldn’t gain a toehold on the rear tires, which is usually how he gets up and over, because the bed sides are too wide), and when the tailgate is down, it’s too tall to comfortably climb up on it, and there’s not enough bumper edge showing at the side to place a foot. If you do precariously step there on your toes, there’s nothing to grab to pull yourself in. The fact is, these trucks have been sized out of usefulness for many buyers. Ford has a brilliant system with its folding tailgate step and kick-out side step, but they’ve only been added because few people can actually get into the truck without them.
It’s the same in the cabin, where I got tired of getting out by swinging my legs around and sliding down off the seat – as did a six-foot-plus friend who came along for a ride. I really love Ram’s new truck, at least once I’m up in the driver’s seat, but while I was giving some serious thought to replacing my 16-year-old pickup in favour of this newer one, I’m sticking with my old reliable. The most useful truck out there is the one you can really get in and use.
Pricing: 2011 Dodge Ram Laramie Crew Cab 4×4
Base price: $46,415
Options: $5,970 (Heated and ventilated leather seats, $1,150; Protection Group of skid plates and tow hooks, $200; 3.92 rear axle ratio, $525; 121-litre fuel tank, $100; media centre with navigation, $450; P275/60R20 all-season tires, $200; rearview camera, $325; remote starter system, $375; RamBox cargo management system, $1,695; class IV receiver hitch, $250; trailer brake control, $250; spray-in bedliner, $450)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $53,885
Crash test results