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When we first laid eyes on the Dodge Ram, a few words came to mind: gargantuan, behemoth, colossal. The words that didn't immediately come to mind when the big ol' truck rolled into the CNET garage were "high" or "tech." However, after--literally--climbing into the Ram's cab and spending some time behind the wheel, we found a surprising amount of drivetrain tech and, more surprisingly, some very sophisticated cabin tech.
Test the tech: Backup sensor
With every subsequent revision, the Dodge Ram has gotten larger. New for 2009, this model is no exception. This increased size means a bigger cabin, a commanding seating position, and more towing and hauling capacity. However, as the Ram has grown, it has also become more unwieldy. When many vehicles' rooflines sit lower than the Ram's tailgate, the huge rear blind spot becomes an even bigger liability when parking. However, while Dodge's Web site states that a backup camera is an option, none of Dodge's other information materials even list a camera as a feature. This is all very confusing, but the fact remains that our test vehicle was not equipped with a backup camera. Instead, we got a beeping rear-proximity sensor. We decided to test how effective the sensor could be.
With its huge rear blind spot, the Dodge Ram is sorely in need of a backup camera.
For our back-up test, we found an unobstructed wall in the CNET garage and backed the Ram up against it. The Ram's proximity sensor alerts the driver of rear obstructions in three stages. First, it sounds a single beep to let the driver knowthere's something back there. As the obstruction gets closer, the Ram begins a series of rapid beeps to let the driver know there's something close. As the distance closes to a critical level, the beeping becomes a solid tone to alert the driver to stop. We wanted to see how close we could get without tapping the wall.
With the truck in reverse, we began to approach the wall. At a distance of 10 feet, we got the first beep. Pressing on, we continued to reverse in silence. Suddenly, a series of loud beeps sounded. Stopping the truck, we hopped out and measured a distance of about 11.5 inches. We recorded our results and climbed back into the truck. Reversing slowly, the series of beeps became a solid piercing tone. Stopping, we recorded the distance as just less than 6 inches. Six inches was close, but we wanted closer. Now creeping slowly backwards and ignoring the screech of the proximity sensor, we rolled ever so slightly back. The combination of the loud beeping and our fear of denting a truck that didn't belong to us became too much and we stopped the truck. Jumping out to measure, we found that we'd been able to reduce the distance to a mere hair over 1 inch!
So, we were able to get very close to the wall with the help of the proximity sensor, but the whole experience was a bit nerve-racking with all of the beeping. Also, while we were able to trust the sensor in the controlled environment of the CNET garage, we were less trusting on public roads. Time and time again, when attempting to parallel park the Ram, we found that the beeps just made us more nervous about maneuvering the titanic truck around real vehicles.
If you can find Dodge's phantom rearview-camera option, we recommend that you get it. It'll make parking the Ram much easier.
In the cabin
As much as we hate to keep beating the proverbial dead horse that is the Ram's massiveness, one of the first things we noticed from the driver's seat of the full-size pickup was the commanding view of the road around us. We were able to see clear over most noncommercial vehicles. However, the Ram's tall hood sits at about chest level with most adults, creating a small blind spot extending about 4 to 5 feet in front of the vehicle, which makes placing the truck's corners difficult in the city's narrow, two-lane streets.
Once we'd had our fill of the view, we turned our attention to the cabin and were again impressed by the spacious interior and comfortable, power, leather seats. Readers in colder climates will appreciate the Ram's heated seats and steering wheel. The Crew Cab offers plenty of space in the back seat to stretch out. In total, there's space for six adults to sit comfortably in the passenger compartment, thanks to a hidden front seat under the flip-up center console.
The UConnect multimedia system features a hidden USB port and a 30GB hard drive for ripping tunes.
The jewel of the dashboard is the touch-screen UConnect multimedia system. The system brings a 30GB hard drive and Bluetooth hands-free calling to the standard AM/FM/CD suite of audio sources. The system can rip music to the hard drive from audio CDs or from a USB port located right on the faceplate. The device can't play music from a CD while ripping and doesn't recognize iPods at all. Curiously, the unit doesn't seem to be able to play music directly from USB drives, which means potentially long wait times before your MP3s and WMAs can be played. Once the rip is complete, however, having an indexed library of music available at all times is tremendously convenient.
Our vehicle was also equipped with SIRIUS Satellite Radio, a rear-DVD entertainment system, and SIRIUS Backseat TV. That last option beams television programming into the cabin using Sirius satellite technology. Video can be viewed on the rear flip-down monitor, on the in-dash screen when the vehicle is parked, or both. The only channels offered currently are Disney, Nickelodeon, and the Cartoon Network, so this is definitely a feature aimed at parents or grandparents. Image quality is fairly bad, with high noise and low resolution, but it's better than nothing for entertaining kids in the back seat. For those not wanting to watch children's programming all day, there is a set of RCA A/V inputs at the base of the center console for connecting a portable DVD player or video game console.
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.
With 390 horsepower and 407 foot-pounds of torque, you'd think the Ram would be brutally powerful, but it's actually quite restrained.
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.