If you're looking for a reliable argument to start a bar fight with, you could do worse than the subject of our national obsession with full-size pickup trucks. Put a Ford guy next to a Chevy loyalist and watch the sparks fly; ask any hardworking American how they feel about a $100,000 pickup; or simply remind the right person that the Nissan Titan exists. People have opinions on this stuff, man.
And since Ram Trucks spun off from Dodge in 2010, the general consensus has been that the company makes a pretty solid pickup—even if its underpinnings are almost a decade old at this point. Sure, it may not enjoy the explosive popularity of the Ford F-Series or General Motors's fraternal Silverado and Sierra twins, but Ram's sales have grown by a whopping 150 percent since the depths of the recession—more than double the rate of its domestic rivals.
Now, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is hoping to ride that momentum to new heights through the next decade, starting with the launch of the all-new 2019 Ram 1500.
We may be on the cusp of some sort of electric revolution where many people ride around in autonomous pods that look like the waiting room of a fancy doctor's office, but trucks will be here to stay. And of all the full-size models you can buy today, none offer as clear an expression of that reality as the 15th-generation Ram pickup. This is how the future comes—in bits and pieces, like a 12-inch touchscreen in the cab of pickup; or a mild hybrid "eTorque" system attached to an old-school Hemi V8; or a body-on-frame truck that legitimately drives like a car.
And the result of this conservative progress is probably the most well-sorted truck available right now, one that nails how we as owners use our vehicles in the present: for everything. We can talk payload capacity and tow ratings all day—2,300 pounds and 12,750 pounds, respectively—but the 2019 Ram 1500 is designed just as much for people who will drive around with an empty bed and a full backseat the majority of the time. It's civilized and capable in equal measure, with new features and options across the board aimed at making a full-size truck easier to live with and enjoy. Its few faults boil down to missed opportunities, like a true off-road monster trim to compete with the Ford F-150 Raptor or a standard cab model (supposedly coming next year) to drive the base price down even further.
I never heard the word "crossover" used once during the three days I spent in Arizona testing the new 1500. But the message was clear: This is the pickup for the people.
2019 Ram 1500 Retires The Big Rig
Since you're reading this, I presume you have eyes, which means you can also tell that Ram has finally done away with the whole "big rig" look that defined the brand ever since Bill Paxton (R.I.P.) drove one into a tornado more than 20 years ago. Gone are the tall hood, low-mounted headlights, and the crosshair grille, replaced by a sleek and modern fascia that hints at the past while cleanly establishing a new look for the company. Squint and you can still see the tractor-trailer, but the hexagonal motif is a clear departure.
Ram's designers clearly dig it; the public's reaction has been a little more polarized. It helps that between the different grille and headlight options on various trims, there are six different fascias to choose from. I was a fan of the chrome bars and adaptive LED lamps on my Laramie Longhorn tester, which made the whole front end contrast nicely with the dark paint. It's not nearly as ostentatious as Ford's current designs or the upcoming 2019 Chevrolet Silverado, which counts as a win in my book despite the loss of heritage.
The rest of the truck is, well, a truck. At launch, the 1500 will be available in full Crew Cab and smaller Quad Cab configurations (Ram reps promised the standard three-seat cab is coming), with 5-foot-7-inch short beds and 6-foot-4-inch long beds. The bed rails have been raised to be flush with the truck's beltline, giving it a more horizontal, composed profile. One trick I appreciated: The active air dam tucked behind the front bumper that automatically extends once you hit 35 mph to lower drag, improve efficiency, and prevent the Ram from sporting the bigger (and obnoxious) chin strap found on so many other trucks.
The Spinning Stuff
The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 engine is mostly a carryover from the last generation with the same 395 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque, though some engineering wizardry makes it more efficient. Combined with a host of structural improvements to the 1500's high-strength steel frame, those numbers give the truck a max payload capacity of 2,300 pounds and the ability to tow up to 12,750 pounds.
Though only the standard V8 will be available at launch, the truck will eventually be available with a 3.6-liter V6 hooked up to the company's new eTorque system. Pickup buyers have generally reacted to the word "hybrid" with a mix of pity and disgust, but Ram is betting that a belt-driven generator-battery back combo designed to boost torque and smooth out the start-stop function will get people in the pool. The system promises to add 90 lb-ft of torque at launch to the Pentastar V6.
The option will eventually be available on the V8 as well, where it will add up to 130 lb-ft of torque, but it's not yet ready for primetime, and Ram didn't make any trucks with it available to journalists. Ditto for the promised turbodiesel power plant, which will come even later down the line. All will be connected to the same TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic transmission, which shifts smoothly and unobtrusively. The plain ol' Hemi V8 is perfectly decent, but it's a bit underwhelming compared to the whiz-bang nature of everything surrounding it. It has plenty of grunt, but it's slightly unenthusiastic under load. There's no question that a 3.5-liter EcoBoost-equipped Ford F-150 or a Chevy Silverado with the 6.2-liter V8 would be much faster. (Hey Dodge, how about sending over a few Hellcat crates?)
Four-wheel-drive is a $3,500 option on all trims of the Ram, and the truck's generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance grows to 10.7 inches with the optional air suspension set to its maximum height. One of my favorite things about the new truck is the optional off-road package that adds a 1.0-inch lift, skid plates, and an electronically-locking rear differential, which makes it basically the perfect base for a weekend-adventure-mobile. A BorgWarner 48-11 transfer case gives the new 1500 all-wheel-drive capabilities, in addition to rear- and traditional four-wheel drive. A quick note about the Rebel trim here, which doesn't offer much more than that package: While it's certainly a tough truck, it's not quite the purpose-built basher that the Ford Raptor is. Think of it as an overlanding vehicle, not a Baja racer-in-training.
And while it's deeply unsexy, it's worth mentioning the ridiculous lengths Ram engineers went to preserving the truck's 15 mile-per-gallon city/22 highway/17 combined fuel economy figures, despite the optional 33-gallon tank. In addition to implementing start-stop and eight-to-four cylinder deactivation, the team also redesigned the cooling fan so it sucks less power from the engine, and added a thermal exchanger that uses engine heat to warm up the rear axle gear oil to increases efficiency. And the aero tricks extend beyond that—there's that active front air dam plus grille shutters and an automatic lowering feature at higher speeds on trucks equipped with air suspension.
Inside, Ram 1500 Really Goes All Out
It felt a little hollow when Ram representatives said that the company made it a mission to design the best full-size pickup interior on sale today—in what version of capitalism is it the goal to not be the best in a competitive segment?—but really, the interior is leagues ahead of the outgoing truck and far nicer than any other full-size rig on sale today. That includes both tangible improvements like the 12-inch touchscreen and intangible luxuries, like the amazing lengths designers went to insulate occupants from road noise and engine vibrations.
The Tesla-like computer screen in the middle of the dash is a beautiful and functional piece of technology that gives the interior of Laramie Longhorn and Limited Trims a greater wow-factor than any of Ram's competitors. You can divide the screen in half and use the top and the bottom for different functions, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, or run full-screen apps like navigation. Every conceivable option and feature can be accessed through Chrysler's UConnect interface, which remains one of the most usable on the market. And unlike in Volvo's new buttonless interiors, the screen is framed with redundant physical controls for important business like climate control.
Sitting just below the touchscreen in higher-spec models is the centerpiece for Ram's other interior achievement (no, not the bank of toggle switches, though those are cool too): A mind-boggling array of storage options that can swallow a seemingly infinite amount of junk before you even think about filling the bed. The multi-level reconfigurable center console boasts a staggering 151 liters of space, more than double that of the F-150 and Silverado. Bigger "RamBins" provide underfloor storage behind the front seats, while a hidden long box offers more stash space beneath the back row thanks to a newly-flat floor.
Speaking of which, the 4.0-inch-longer wheelbase in Crew Cab models is all for the benefit of the rear seat passengers, who enjoy a ridiculous 45.2 inches of legroom and newly-reclining outboard seats. In the higher trims, the back of the center seat can flip down to form a center console and convert the interior into a luxurious captain's chairs layout. Available in vinyl, cloth, and leather, the seats themselves are well-designed, comfortable, and supportive in both rows.
In the Laramie Longhorn and Limited trims, there are real wood accents and pieces of brushed aluminum trim that do all they can to justify a starting price of more than $50,000. But even in the lower-spec models, the sensible approach to design results in a truck that feels well-made, comfortable, and more expensive than it is. And every version of the Ram 1500 benefits from sound-deadening technologies like acoustic glass and active tuned mass modules attached to the frame that work to cancel out engine vibrations. All the better to hear that premium 19-speaker Harman Kardon sound system.
Looks Like a Truck, Drives Like a Car
To many people, how a truck drives isn't nearly as important as what it can do. If it can tow 10,000 pounds or haul a load of mulch or make you look super cool, great. Why do you think you see so many pickups ruined by non-functional lift kits and low-profile tires? The Nurburgring this ain't.
So all the new Ram 1500 needed to do, dynamics-wise, is not fall on its face. Instead, everything mentioned thus far adds up to a driving experience that feels more like a car than some crossovers, which should give first-time pickup drivers hope that they too can saddle up and ride without fear. Pickup trucks traditionally ride poorly because they have a stiff frame, and basically no weight over the rear end. To counteract that, Ram offers standard progressive rear springs or an optional air suspension that help the unladen bed soak up the bumps. That small change makes the truck feel far more planted on the road than its competition, which gives you that much more confidence in just about every maneuver.
Up front, the cylinder deactivation feature works like a charm, and is completely unnoticeable if you don't have the center instrument panel gauge screen set to tell you when it's on. The ZF-sourced eight-speed is the rare high-count gearbox that makes a persuasive case for itself rather than just excusing its existence; the spacing between cogs is short off the line, and it has absolutely no trouble dropping down to the perfect passing gear on the highway.
The ease of operation extends beyond its driving dynamics, thanks to a whole suite of safety features including goodies like a 360-degree surround view camera, blind spot monitoring that automatically extends down the length of a trailer when it's attached, and parking assist. Another neat trailer trick: with the air suspension, you can lower the truck so that it's beneath the trailer's receiver, back up so the hitch is underneath it using a camera to line things up, and raise the truck up to make the connection.
The Future Truck Wars Have Already Begun
From the ground up, this is a truck built on the idea that owning one for the few days you do need it shouldn't mean compromising the rest of the year. This is what happens when you design a pickup to exist both today and tomorrow.
And whether or not you're still salty about it ditching the big rig look, the 2019 Ram 1500 is an important evolution for both the automaker and the concept of a full-size truck. Granted, we still haven't seen the eTorque hybrid system in action, and it's anyone's guess how long those touchscreens will hold up under real-world use. But the 1500 is an interesting, and most likely accurate, glimpse at what the future will look like.
It won't be some angel of death, coming in the middle of the night to make off with all of our first-bought internal combustion vehicles in one fell swoop. No, it is—and will continue to be—a slow and ongoing process in which things gradually change while the rest of the world keeps on going about its business. A giant screen in a pickup truck may seem like a strange example of this, but the combination of a tried-and-true form with inescapably-progressing technology is far more realistic than anything science fiction has presented. (Compare how most 20th Century science fiction writers thought we'd be living in the new millennium to the way life really panned out.)
Oh, and one more thing: The future will also be expensive. The lowly Tradesman trim may start at just over $34,000, but you can spec a Limited out with all the bells and whistles and hit $70,000 in a heartbeat. Too much for a pickup? Maybe in theory....but the smart money says Americans will keep forking over the bucks. Especially because this one just might be worth it.