The UConnect's Bluetooth integration is controlled almost exclusively through voice command. Pairing a device is relatively simple, thanks to prompts from the system's computerized voice. Our primary beef with the system is that the voice command button is located on the far-right bezel of the touch screen, making dialing and receiving calls tremendously inconvenient, by forcing the driver to stretch across the cab. The steering wheel has four buttons on its face dedicated to navigating the info display in the center of the instrument panel; we don't understand why there's no button for hands-free calling.
On the subject of the steering wheel, there are also rocker switches for volume control and track/channel skip, but they're located on the back of the steering wheel. This makes them easy to access with the fingertips, but as they are not labeled, it is difficult to tell one from another and we found ourselves skipping tracks when we just wanted to lower the volume, and vice versa. There seems to be enough real estate on the front of the wheel, so we don't understand why the buttons couldn't be located where the driver could see them.
Hidden away somewhere in the cab is the Wi-Fi router for the UConnect mobile-Internet connection. While we were able to connect to the router and call up a Terms of Service screen, we were unable to actually connect to the Internet.
Under the hood
One of the most innovative new performance features Dodge has packed into the Ram doesn't live under the hood, but rather beneath the bed. For 2009, Dodge has replaced the old, standard rear-leaf springs with a very carlike multilink coil suspension. The difference is immediately apparent at highway speeds, where the Ram feels much more stable and planted to the asphalt than any pickup truck we've ever driven. At low speeds in the city, the Ram's long suspension travel takes the edge off of all but the most severe potholes.
As fantastic as this suspension is, it's still underneath a truck. Multilink suspension or not, the Ram remains a gigantic body-over-frame work truck, and it handles accordingly. The exceptionally high seating position and massive amount of body roll make driving the Ram feel very much like riding atop a particularly nimble and well-appointed elephant. This isn't a vehicle built for taking turns quickly.
Our Ram came equipped with a 5.7 liter HEMI V-8 engine, yet managed a decent--but by no means great--13.8 mpg during our testing, with about an equal amount of urban and highway driving. This falls on the low end of the EPA's estimates for the truck of 13 city and 18 highway mpg. Dodge manages this using a combination of variable cam-timing and cylinder-deactivation tech that allows the engine to run on four cylinders during light-load situations, such as highway cruising. A tiny fuel-saver light illuminates on the instrument cluster to let the driver know when the cylinder deactivation is happening. Thirteen mpg doesn't sound very impressive by itself, but consider that this is a vehicle that easily weighs more than 6,400 pounds and you'll be grateful for every mile per gallon saved.
While the HEMI feels powerful and capable, it is also very isolated from the driver. With 390 horsepower and 407 foot-pounds of stump-pulling torque, the Dodge Ram is no slouch in the power department. The engine's grunt is very accessible, peaking very low in the power band. Yet, the Ram's engine feels as though it's attached to the rest of the truck with giant rubber bands. Stomp the gas and for a moment, nothing happens. Suddenly, you'll hear the engine roar as the transmission decides its time to downshift. You'll see the chassis squat down when the engine decides to use all eight cylinders instead of just four. Eventually, you'll actually feel the full power at the seat of your pants, but by then the moment will have passed. We understand that it's not realistic to expect the throttle response of a muscle car, but there's just too much complication standing between the driver and the power. When we've got 407 foot-pounds of torque on tap, we want it now!
We don't get many trucks in the CNET garage, mostly because we like cars with lots of tech toys. The Dodge Ram managed to exceed all of our expectations by packing some of the most unique tech options around. Satellite TV and in-vehicle Wi-Fi are pretty ambitious features to include on an automobile. While we feel these features need polish, we're excited to see Dodge pushing the tech envelope. The hands-free Bluetooth and the UConnect media center--with its hard-drive storage--were also fantastic options that made piloting the big ol' Ram a fun experience. Although we're slightly penalizing the Ram for the lack of polish and a few interface qualms, such as the lack of a hands-free button on the steering wheel, we're still giving the Ram a high score for cabin comfort.
The Ram also managed to surprise us with its performance and road manners. While its car-like suspension couldn't tune all of the truck out of the ride, we were quite comfortable regardless of what the road threw at us. And when we wanted to throw something back at the road, the Ram responded with fairly good handling and exceptional power.
Pricing the Ram can get tricky. There are at least four cab and bed configurations, from single cab to crew cab. Multiply that by two drivetrain options, 4x2 and 4x4, and up to four trim levels, and you get dozens of possible configurations before you even get around to choosing options! The Ram 1500 can be had for as little as $22,170 for a bare-bones, standard-cab ST model, or for as much as $43,240 for a Laramie Crew, like the our tester. Add the $795 Customer Preferred Package (which adds a Dual exhaust, rear proximity sensor, and the differential lock), $125 to upgrade the all-season tires, and $1,695 for the UConnect Studios package (1-year subscription to Sirius backseat TV and a rear-seat entertainment option), and you'll come to an as-tested price of $46,755.
While the Ram can be driven with civility in the city, we can't in good conscious recommend the Ram as a commuter vehicle. As impressive as the Ram is, for the money, one could get a well-appointed luxury SUV or wagon that will be less fuel thirsty, easier to park and enter/exit, and will have more cachet. However, we can see how the combination of power and tech would be of immense use to, for example, a contractor who wants to use the Ram as an onsite-mobile office.