Mountain Wheels: Stripped-down Ram 1500 still provides power and value
April 19, 2013
You’d probably noticed that these weekly reviews occasionally provide glimpses of higher-end automobiles that, on the whole, might not exactly be the first ride of choice for regular county folks – I do apologize, sort of, though I also have a feeling you’d be bored out of your tree reading about Subaru Outbacks or Chevy Cruzes every week of the year.
That said, I recently had an experience with a truck that looked, from the outside, like the most austere thing I’d been given to review in years.
And I fell in love with a stripper.
Back in the old days, that was the lingo for the model found hidden in the back corner of the car lot, devoid of fancy options like the chromed wheels, the high-end stereo and the heated leather seats – the automobile you see pictured as the lowest-priced example in the Denver weekend ads. In short, not really all that appealing.
When a 2013 Ram 1500 Tradesman Crew Cab arrived, with plain-jane steel wheels and center caps, a black plastic bumper and grille assembly and – hell, even a curious rotating knob on the console instead of a shift lever, I was a bit perplexed.
What would I learn from the equivalent of a fleet truck, a work vehicle more likely to be repainted with a school district’s or an HVAC company’s logo and filled up with toolboxes and 7-Eleven sandwich wrappers?
Quite a bit, it turns out. If a relatively basic version of a popular vehicle is as well-sorted and powerful – and reasonably comfortable, as well – as its potentially much more expensive, high-end variations, the company’s probably doing the right thing.
For $35,675, my Ram might not have had the chrome, the leather seats or the sophisticated navigation systems found on the flashier models (or the Escalade-like flash of the Laramie Longhorn), but it had all the heart that it needed.
Instead of the impressive but borderline insane 5.7-liter Hemi V8, mine had a 3.6-liter V6 – no slouch, at 305 horsepower and 269 foot-pounds of torque, all from a regular, non-turbocharged engine blessed with intelligent variable valve timing.
That means you get a healthy percentage of the larger engine’s power (only 5 horsepower less than the mid-line 4.7-liter V8) and trailer-pulling torque, but I also got more than 23 mpg in regular combined use. That’s the same as the highway figure the EPA puts on the window sticker.
Consider that my Ram was still a commodious crew cab, and a full-fledged 4×4, and that’s not too shabby. You can comfortably cruise on a lower-altitude freeway at 75 mph on those 17-inch tires, and you can electronically engage the 4×4 system on the fly, or slow down and drop it into 4-low for a little off-road action.
The new eight-speed transmission, optimized for more fuel savings, does indeed take a little getting used to when managed by a rotating knob on the dash – kind of like a vertical version of Jaguar’s horizontal control. But you have the option of manually selecting gears for long uphill climbs or descents, using controls on the wheel. Your brain just takes a bit of retraining to stop grabbing for three on the tree.
Come to think of it, I kind of liked the stripped-down look, as well. That black grille is extra ominous, and probably not quite as prone to worksite disfiguration as a massive chrome number, and the wheels are so straightforward as to make the truck look a bit different. I could only find a couple with similar footwear at a local dealer.
Cab room is spacious and the cloth seats still big and supportive; in the back, the rear bench seat swivels up to allow you to load the floor with goods, or you can also secure your valuables in a tray that’s hidden under the seat.
In the back, the same aerodynamic, wedge-shaped tailgate is in full effect (a look that General Motors stole for its new trucks), and an industrial-grade, sprayed-in bedliner was standard.
As for the modern age of a stereo with no CD player, you can sync your iPod or phone (or even plug a flash drive into the USB slot in the massive center console box), or listen to XM satellite radio.