Driving Impressions

By May 1, 2012

At minimum a Ram Heavy Duty is more than 19 feet long, six-and-a-half feet wide, six feet tall, needs nearly 3.5 12-foot traffic lanes to execute a U-turn and is 5800 pounds of sink-in-hot-pavement truck. If you haven't got a lot of weight to carry or pull a 1500 will probably serve better. If you need to tow or haul, however, you've come to the right place.

Once accustomed to the outside dimensions, the Ram HD is not hard to drive. You need to allow a bit more space for stopping distance than the average car but that's easy given the visibility from the higher driving position. The steering is reasonably quick, and the 4WD's steering feels almost as good as that on the independently sprung 2WD. You'll be twisting the wheel more than a car to make the same turn, and the Ram changes direction easily and we couldn't overwhelm the steering pump (making it sluggish and heavy) in parking lot maneuvering or threading a 4WD through mud, trees and rock.

There are good reasons why many enthusiast magazines don't do handling tests on HD pickups because handling is a relative term. The Ram changes directions admirably and has predictable characteristics, but start horseplay in a vehicle where the rear axle alone weighs as much as a big Harley and you'll learn the hard way what those strange terms on NASCAR broadcasts mean.

What stands out the most on the current Ram is the quiet and ride smoothness, which have come a long way since the pre 2009 models. We found all three cabs quiet and solid, but the Crew Cabs and Mega Cabs were superior and nearly shudder free. Part of this solid feel is suspension tuning and part of the smoothness is the advanced body mounting system.

There is now no single aspect of the truck that will wear you out. At 75 mph on moderately good pavement we floored the pedal on a diesel and the engine wasn't heard over the road noise and wind noise wasn't heard above either. We could still converse in regular tones, even with riders in the rear seat. Since it revs higher, the Hemi comes across no quieter than the diesel except at cold idle.

The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is available only on 2500 and with an automatic transmission. The Hemi develops 383 horsepower at 5600 rpm and, like any good truck engine, it makes more torque than horsepower, with 400 pound-feet at 4000 rpm.

The new 6-speed automatic transmission should improve acceleration, in-town economy and mid-level climbing performance more than highway fuel economy. We could cruise along at moderate rpm doing Texas highway speeds and although the Hemi has cylinder deactivation for improved mileage it won't happen much in a 4WD pickup with the aero package of a houseboat and more than three tons' weight. We would expect everyday mileage in the low-double digits, and be happy to reach the teens before getting on a highway. The Hemi is a realistic choice for those not towing severe loads, or heavy loads for long distances, where purchase price is a more important consideration than towing performance, fuel economy or maximum engine life.

The Cummins Turbo Diesel is a proven option. Both Ford and GM have newer diesel engines, and both of them require the use of diesel exhaust fluid (aka urea or trade names such as AdBlue) at regular maintenance intervals. The extra convenience of not having to add the fluid to the Cummins is usually offset by slightly lower fuel economy. (Cab-and-chassis diesel Rams require the additive.) Ram 2500's diesel option costs about $7,200 total. Since the engine is essentially the same as last year's and does not require the added costs associated with urea, it should remain the best buy in diesel options. Ford's and GM's 2012 diesels both offer more rated horsepower than the Ram and should be quicker.

Diesel buyers get a choice of manual or automatic transmissions, both 6-speed. Both are rated at 350 hp, but the manual is rated at 650 lb-ft of torque at 1500 rpm and the automatic at 800 lb-ft. The automatic also offers shorter axle ratios and given electronic control of the gearing, higher tow ratings. Either transmission gets the job done, the manual providing maximum control and minimum prices, the automatic more convenient. The exhaust brake makes grades and slowing stress-free by delivering up to 190 braking horsepower (bhp) to control descent speed, thereby leaving the service brakes cool and free for more immediate stopping.

The Cummins inline six-cylinder is built like a tractor-trailer engine, with exceptional robustness, longevity and low-rpm grunt, and frequently used in fire apparatus and motorhomes that carry 2-10 times what a Ram pickup will. Torque is what gets a load in motion, and with the Cummins making nearly as much torque when you let the clutch out as the Hemi does at 4000 rpm, it is the obvious choice for heavy towing. Many RVers report better fuel mileage towing with their Cummins than a Hemi gets in an empty truck. On essentially the same drive that saw 12.2 mpg in a Hemi 2500, we recorded about 16.5 mpg in a 1000-pounds-heavier, dual-rear-wheel Cummins automatic.

For 2012, Ram has made the integrated trailer brake controller standard on all but ST. In our trailer drives, the system worked as it should, as smooth or smoother than the most expensive aftermarket controllers. Like most such systems it may not be compatible with all electric-over-hydraulic trailer brakes becoming more common on upper-end and heavier RV's. A fifth-wheel plug arrangement is available from Mopar and will maintain the warranty when properly installed.

The Power Wagon needs to be considered a separate model based not only on equipment but also performance. It comes only with the 383-hp 5.7 gas engine and 6-speed automatic, but with shorter gears that maintain performance with the big tires. Locking differentials and a front antisway bar disconnect give low-speed off-highway performance no 3/4-ton pickup can match. It's also quite good at speed across a gravel road or dry wash, though not a direct match for Ford's F-150 Raptor, which costs about the same with the 411-hp 6.2-liter engine, has a regular or Crew Cab, but offers roughly 80 percent of the payload and towing capacity of a Power Wagon.

With the MaxTow package and torque bump on the diesel, the top ratings for the Ram are 22,750 trailer and 30,100 combined. Tow ratings for the Ram HD range from 8900 pounds to 22,750; adding a larger cab, more lux or 4WD will tend to lower the tow rating.

Maximum payload varies by similar parameters although sometimes the 4WD version carries more. Load capacity runs from 1590 pounds (a 2WD MegaCab 2500 Laramie Limited diesel) to 5180 pounds (2WD regular cab long bed 3500 dually).

Note that virtually all pickup truck tow ratings apply to a truck with a driver and only the mechanical options required; any cargo, people, or aftermarket equipment on board (winch, tool box, fifth-wheel hitch, etc.) will have to be subtracted from the max ratings. Double-check everything if you will be pushing the limits: According to the 2012 Ram Towing Guide our test-drive truck had a GCWR (truck, trailer, cargo, people) of 17,000 pounds, could tow a 10,500-pound trailer maximum and weighed 6,366 pounds; that leaves 134 pounds for a driver.

We tested a Ram 3500 Laramie Crew Cab by towing our 20-foot enclosed test trailer loaded to about 6,000 pounds total weight, from Los Angeles to San Diego and back. We found the Ram 3500 comfortable, smooth and supremely stable. It was completely unaffected by crosswinds or passing semi-trailers. We had no trouble stopping, and the integrated brake controller made life easy and worked flawlessly. The Cummins supplied easy power. We hardly knew a trailer was behind us. In short, we think this is a wonderful tow vehicle ready for big, cross-country pulls.