It's interesting to observe the current heavyweight four-wheel-drive offerings from DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Company, and General Motors, noting both the similarities and the unique aspects of each company's product. The concepts shared between the Ford Super Duty, the Chevrolet/GMC Heavy Duty, and the all-new Dodge Ram Heavy Duty include the use of the following: a rear solid drive axle suspended with leaf spring packs, a fullsize bed, a gas or diesel engine, a strong, heavily crossbraced ladder-style frame, and the spaciousness of a four-door crew cab configuration.
Although the three big trucks share these major traits, there are nuances evident in both design and construction in keeping with each truck maker's heritage and corporate goals. As to the major differences between the Dodge, GM, and Ford trucks, there are many, but the three major differences that set the trucks apart are styling, the front suspension, and the drivetrain.
We're not going to get too far into the front sheetmetal styling cues of the Chevy, Ford, and Dodge trucks, but let's call the General's front end conservative and clean and the Ford's nose distinctive and aggressive. The Dodge Ram HD's face is unique - bold with a capital B and unmistakably Dodge Ram.
Just as there are distinct faces on the three trucks, the front suspension on each of the trucks is equally unique. The Ford Super Duty uses the tried-and-true solid drive axle with leaf spring design. The GM HD trucks are equipped with modern, unequal-length upper and lower control arms with half-shafts (drive axles) and torsion bars to provide suspension. As with its styling, the big Dodge 2500 Heavy Duty takes a unique approach to a front drive axle and suspension, using a solid drive axle positioned by a modern five-link design and suspended by coil springs.
As if the styling of the '03 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty and its multi-linked solid front axle weren't enough to warrant a review and on-dirt test of the 2500-Series 4x4, add in the fact that this big Mopar is powered by an engine Dodge is counting on to bring Ford and Chevy owners into the Dodge fold, as well as to keep the Mopar faithful satisfied, the all-new, way-powerful 5.7L Hemi V-8.
We lived with our Dodge test truck for two weeks and added 3,225 miles to the Heavy Duty's odometer, including approximately 2,800 pavement miles (commuting on the highway, city driving, and long, open-road trips) and 400-plus miles on fire roads, desert trails, muddy logging roads, and sand dunes. Here's our report.
First Impressions: Handsome!
When you take a long, hard look at the '03 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty 4x4, there's a lot to like. The 2500 is a big truck with large doors and windows and vast expanses of sheetmetal along its sides. It's big, but the Ram carries its size well. It's a handsome truck, sporting details such as the clear lens, projector-beam-style headlights, the various creases and character lines on the body, and the swept-back windshield and A-pillar. Our test truck was supplied with Bright Silver Metallic clearcoat paint and a host of options, including the Hemi engine backed by a five-speed automatic OD trans, a leather interior, full interior power accessories, a set of 4.10 cogs for the axles, and a limited-slip differential for the rear axle.
When the all-new Ram was in its design stage, it was widely known that Dodge executives had issued orders to carry on and enhance the unique front-end styling cues of the previous-generation Ram and to focus on building the boldest, most capable, and most durable heavy-duty truck Dodge had ever produced. After a quick look at the 2500 HD and an initial drive, we were stoked about this truck's potential. Obviously, the Dodge boys took their executive orders to heart and crafted the best truck to ever roll out of the Dodge factory.
Interior: A Well-Appointed CockpitThe Ram Heavy Duty's interior is a stylish and well-equipped place to do business. In regards to safety, the big Ram gives nothing away to the competition, as it's equipped with side curtain airbags and next-generation front airbags. Power-adjustable brake and accelerator pedals were present on our truck, as were large exterior mirrors that can be folded flat for standard use or flipped upright and out for trailer towing.
Anyone familiar with the redesigned '02 Ram 1500 will find the 2500 Ram interior quite familiar. Both trucks feature best-in-class interior space and unique storage options that include hidden boxes under the rear seat. All four doors on the new Heavy-Duty models are now fullsize, and the rear doors open forward to an 85-degree angle. Bed length has been slightly reduced on Quad Cab Rams but remains a useable 6 feet, 3 inches in length. A long-bed option is available, offering an 8-foot bed on the standard-cab or Quad Cab Ram.
On our test truck, stylish medium-gray leather covered the seats and the steering wheel. Although the seats are spacious and multi-adjustable, thanks to the eight-way power adjustment option, the seats' bottom cushions were a bit firm. Maybe they'll loosen up as time goes by. Also, for sporting use, the seats could use more lateral support; there's an absence of any type of side bolster on the lower seat cushion, which makes for easy ingress and egress, but when the going gets rough, occupants can be subjected to a lot of lateral movement.
We really enjoyed the Infinity sound system with seven speakers. It's plenty powerful, pumps out an acceptable level of bass, and the in-dash CD player holds six discs. Also handy were the electrically adjustable control pedals, which move longitudinally and, in concert with the power adjustable seat, allow the big Ram's steering wheel/control pedals/seat combination to be adjusted for just about any human's comfort.
The center console is huge and can be folded down for an armrest/storage bin or flipped up for additional passenger seating space. The rear seat is hampered by an overly upright back cushion, so short-term use is the best plan. When the seat bottom is folded up, a cool folding metal floor flips down, providing a useable behind-seat storage area that isn't restricted by the rear seat foot wells.
Trim Levels And Optional Equipment: Well Equipped
The '03 Ram 2500 is available in three trim levels. The base ST includes air conditioning, an AM/FM cassette player, vinyl seats, and 17-inch-diameter steel wheels. Mid-level SLT models get a body-colored upper front fascia; a chromed grille; power, heated fold-away exterior mirrors; an overhead console (with outside temperature, compass, and trip computer); power windows with a one-touch-down driver window; A/C; front seat area carpeting; cloth seats; sun visors; a CD player; and chrome-plated 17-inch wheels. We tested a premium-trim Laramie model, which included A/C; foglamps; a chrome- and body-colored grille; body-colored side molding; a sliding rear window; dual-zone climate control; wood trim around the instrument panel; HomeLink; an auto-dimming rearview mirror; power adjustable pedals; a 240-watt Infinity sound system and a six-disc in-dash CD changer; leather-covered seats and steering wheel; and cast-aluminum 17-inch wheels with all-terrain BFGoodrich tires.
Engine: The Power And The Glory
DaimlerChrysler supplied us with a 5.7L Hemi V-8-powered Ram. Many enthusiasts familiar with high-performance automotive history know the name Hemi comes from the combustion chamber design used on performance and racing engines in Chrysler's past. By using a hemispherical-shape combustion chamber, the spark plug can be optimally positioned between the intake and exhaust valves, which serves to ignite the compressed air and fuel mixture in a manner that optimizes the burning of the mix, thus increasing horsepower. Good as the original Hemi design was, ever-tightening emission standards forced the Hemi engine into retirement in 1971. The all-new 5.7L Hemi is the first use of hemispherical technology on a production Chrysler V-8 in more than 30 years.
By developing Hemi-head technology for the 21st century, Chrysler has been able to meet today's emission standards while creating an engine with impressive operating traits and maximum performance potential. The proof is in the Hemi's output: 345 peak hp, 375 peak lb-ft of torque, and a wonderfully smooth, rpm-friendly feel.
Dodge officials claim an 8 to 10 percent advantage in fuel efficiency compared with competitive (non-Hemi) offerings. Advanced features, such as a multi-point electronic fuel injection system, a direct ignition system with high-power coils, and electronic throttle control, contribute to the new Hemi's clean and efficient nature.
Paired with our Ram's Hemi was the optional five-speed automatic transmission. In use, the five-speed was faultless, exhibiting smooth, well-placed shifts. And with five forward gears, the Hemi is always in the fat part of its powerband, no matter if the truck is on the highway, in the city, or on the trail. Our Laramie model Ram was equipped with the optional electronic, shift-on-the-fly, two-speed transfer case. With a Low range of 2.72:1, the truck had excellent low-speed pulling power. When locked into 4-Hi, easier obstacles and higher-speed running was effortless. The only limitation in 4WD was the OE tires' all-terrain tread. With an aggressive tread design, the combination of Hemi power, 4-Lo, and a supple suspension would make the Rammer nearly unstoppable on a wide variety of off-road surfaces.
Chassis And Suspension:Rugged And Well Tuned
The new Ram boasts an all-new chassis that uses a hydroformed frame to provide chassis stiffness while reducing the number of weld points. A reduction in weld points means fewer variations in the manufacturing process and an improvement in overall quality control. Hydro-forming the framerails actually creates a boxed frame structure that's much stiffer torsionally than if the frame was boxed in the traditional manner with welded-in steel plates. In use, the Ram is extremely rigid, with that rigidity showing up as a solid feel when traveling over rough terrain or diagonally placed obstacles such as speed bumps and railroad tracks. There is also a noticeable lack of shake at the cowl during rough off-road conditions.
Four-wheel-drive 2500 Ram models use a redesigned, recirculating ball steering system that offers the quickest steering ratio in the industry (13.4:1), meaning that only 2.75 turns of the steering wheel are required to go from lock to lock. The feel of the steering is excellent; it's nicely weighted on-center and isn't over-boosted off-center. The stiffness of the chassis is also at work here, as the steering feels precise and accurate.
Braking power is high, as you would expect from a four-wheel disc system with antilock. Brake pedal feel was firm, not mushy, although the usual problems associated with ABS brakes is present on dirt surfaces - longer-than-average stopping distances as the ABS computer reduces brake line pressure, sensing the wheels' slip on the dirt.
The rear leaf sprung suspension on the Ram is typical; that is, it's stiff when unloaded because the rear of the truck is set up to haul cargo. The front five-link is another story, as it's impressively smooth, well damped, and shows 9.9 inches of ground clearance. The coil springs have sensible spring rates, and the solid front axle belies its non-independent design by exhibiting excellent ride and handling characteristics, on- and off-road. The front and the rear suspension are controlled by gas-charged dampers. On the dirt, we'd prefer additional wheel/suspension travel, but we say that about every truck on the market.
Epilogue: We'll Take It!
DaimlerChrysler has a lot of faith in the build quality and reliability of the '03 Ram 2500; the company has given the Ram a 7-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranty. DC claims its 2500 models were put through the harshest duty cycle engineers could design, including testing in negative 40-degree weather in the Arctic Circle, as well as during a 130-degree heat wave in Death Valley for the equivalent of 150,000 miles.
While our time with the Dodge Ram 2500 4x4 was limited to a couple of weeks, we really came to enjoy and respect the prowess of the big Ram. Especially noted was its nimble-on-its-tires trait, which made the truck seem smaller and lighter than it actually was. If there was a downside to the Hemi Ram, it was fuel mileage. It's a big truck, to be sure, and the Hemi connected to the throttle pedal was always asking to be turned loose, but 10.5 mpg in town and 11.8 mpg on the highway is tough, especially with today's rising fuel prices. Maybe with a new computer chip and a free-breathing intake and exhaust system, a Ram 2500 owner could have performance and acceptable mileage. Or maybe a lighter throttle foot would be the answer.
|Vehicle/make/model ||'03 Dodge Ram 2500 SLT Quad Cab |
|Engine ||5.7L Magnum Hemi V-8 |
|Transmission ||5-45RFE five-speed automatic Overdrive |
|Transfer case ||Two-speed, electronic shift-on-the-fly, 2.72:1 |
| ||Low-range gear ratio |
|Brakes ||Four-wheel disc with antilock |
|Stereo ||Infinity, six-disc CD player, seven speakers |
|Wheels ||17x8-inch cast aluminum |
|Tires ||265/70R17E BFGoodrich All-Terrain Radial |
|Axle gear ratio ||4.10 with rear limited-slip differential |
|Curb weight ||5,954 pounds |
|Horsepower/torque ||345 hp at 5,400 rpm/375 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm |