2003 Dodge Ram 3500 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
New Hemi V8 brings more power.
Dodge Ram boasts high levels of refinement and comfort. Completely redesigned and re-engineered last year, this latest-generation Ram has re-established Dodge as a leading product among full-size pickups. While the previous-generation Ram had fallen behind the GM and Ford in terms of refinement, the current Ram competes head to head with the other full-size trucks.
The latest Ram offers a much smoother ride and a bigger, more comfortable, and more convenient cab. But all this refinement doesn't mean the Dodge Ram has gone soft. The new-generation Ram also delivers improved towing and hauling capability, plus more powerful and efficient engines.
For 2003, Dodge has introduced a sophisticated new five-speed automatic transmission. A more capable Off-Road package has been added, along with a rugged Work Special. Also new for 2003 is a line of heavy-duty 2500 and 3500 models, not covered here.
In January 2003, the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 replaced the aging 5.9-liter V8, increasing power by 100 horsepower and 40 pounds-feet of torque while improving fuel economy by 10 percent.
Dodge Ram is available with two cab configurations, Regular Cab and Quad Cab. Prices start at $18,525 for a 2WD Regular Cab short wheelbase. Ordering the four-door, six-passenger Quad Cab adds $4200-$5200 to the bottom line. Quad Cab models ride on a wheelbase that's 20 inches longer than comparable Regular Cab models.
Two bed lengths are available, a 6-foot, 3-inch standard bed and an 8-foot long bed. Ordering the long bed adds $300-$350 to the price, and another 20 inches to the wheelbase. Long-bed models also get a bigger fuel tank, 35 gallons in place of the standard 26-gallon tank.
Three engines are offered: The most popular choice is an overhead-cam 4.7-liter V8, which is standard with four-wheel-drive. For maximum economy, two-wheel-drive Rams can be ordered with a 3.7-liter V6 that's similar in design to the 4.7-liter V8. The most powerful engine in the line is the new 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with hemispherical combustion chambers for improved airflow and burn. The new Hemi produces 345 horsepower and 375 foot-pounds of torque. When properly equipped, that increases the towing capacity to 9200 pounds and payload by an additional 500 pounds. The Hemi adds about $800 to the price.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard with the 3.7-liter V6 and 4.7-liter V8. Optional is a new five-speed automatic ($975) that includes an alternate second gear for hill-climbing and towing (so it's technically a six-speed). This new transmission is more responsive than the unit it replaces.
Three trim levels are available, ST, SLT, and Laramie.
ST is the base level and comes standard with air conditioning, but is equipped with vinyl upholstery, wind-up windows, and manual door locks.
SLT adds $1700-$3200, depending on cab style and driveline, and includes the 4.7-liter V8, plus cloth upholstery, nicer interior trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a host of convenience items, and wider tires.
Laramie is the luxury package, which costs in the neighborhood of $7800-$8900 and brings leather seating surfaces, dual-zone air conditioning, a premium stereo, 17-inch cast aluminum wheels, and a long, long list of luxury features.
Sport body-color trim for grille and bumpers is available for $470 with any trim level; that price includes fog lights and 17-inch aluminum wheels. Add another $1600 or so if you want aggressive, street-rodder-style 20-inch wheels and tires.
New for 2003 is optional Work Special trim, with gray bumpers and grille and gray-painted 17x7 steel wheels. Also new this year is an Off-Road Package ($870-$1405) for 4WD models consisting of a 3.92:1 limited-slip differential, heavy-duty engine cooling, LT275/70R17 all-terrain tires, skid plates, tow hooks, and fog lamps.
Ram's radical big-rig styling turned the pickup world upside down when it was introduced in 1994. It was a highly successful design, one that gave the Dodge pickups a look of power and capability. The bold styling also helped boost sales exponentially. So Dodge had no intention of turning away from the big horse-collar grille and Freightliner fenders when it redesigned the Ram. This latest Dodge pickup maintains and even reinforces the look established nine years ago.
The sheet metal is indeed all new. Park a 2002-3 Ram next to a 2001 or earlier Ram and the differences are striking. The design has been extensively re-sculpted for reduced wind noise and better rainwater management. The new Ram looks sleek and refined compared with the previous model. The old one looks mashed down compared with the new one.
Few grilles are as instantly recognizable as the massive horse collar grille of the Ram. Even more massive this year, the grille also provides trim-level identification: The outside rim is all chrome on the SLT model, with a gray honeycomb center. Laramie features a body-color grille surround and chrome cross hairs. Sport trim includes a body-color surround and cross hairs with unique chrome billets in the center.
Moving rearward, the new Ram presents a more robust appearance than before. The broad, sloping hood has a pronounced crown that falls over the sides to the prominent front fenders. A faster, raked-back windshield improves aerodynamics and water management, and gives the new Ram a more modern appearance. The leading edge of the front door overlaps the A-pillar, creating a smoother transition from the front of the cab to the side. Everything is smoother and more integrated. The big side mirrors, great for visibility, are now mounted on platforms to reduce wind noise, and a channel has been specially designed to keeps water off of the mirrors. An integrated air dam improves engine cooling and air conditioner performance.
Standard bed length is 6 feet, 3 inches, but an 8-foot bed is now available for both cab styles. That makes the Ram Quad Cab the only half-ton crew-cab pickup with an 8-foot bed. (By comparison, the Ford F-150 SuperCrew only comes with a 5.5-foot bed, while the new Chevy Silverado 1500 HD only comes with a 6.5-foot bed.) The 160.5-inch wheelbase for a Dodge Ram Quad Cab with an eight-foot bed is 20 inches longer than short-bed Quad Cab or long-bed regular cab models, which increases the turning diameter by 6 feet; but it's just 3 inches longer than Ford and Chevy long-bed extended-cab models. Regardless, Ram beds are fitted with boat cleats designed to handle 1,000 pounds each.
Rams sit pretty high off the ground, particularly the four-wheel-drive models. Tailgate load height is 35 inches on four-wheel-drive models, 33.6 inches on two-wheel-drive Rams. That's a bit much when trying to heave heavy gear aboard.
Ram interiors were completely redesigned last year.
The new interior is more comfortable than before. That comfort starts with roominess. To fit more space in the cab, Dodge stole 3 inches out of the bed and added it to the cab's total length. So you sacrifice a little bed space for a lot more wiggle room.
Two cab styles are available: a Regular Cab and the four-door, six-passenger Quad Cab. (Club Cab extended-cab models are history; people stopped buying them when Dodge introduced its first Quad Cab in 1998.) Regular Cab and Quad Cab offer identical roominess in the front seats. Dodge claims its Regular Cab has the largest interior of any full-size standard-cab pickup.
The cloth 40/20/40 split bench front seat in the Sport model is quite supportive, better than some of the seats we've seen recently in other brands. The optional leather seats are also comfortable and supportive during long drives. Three-point shoulder belts are used at all locations, including the rear center seat. Optional power adjustable pedals ($120) let shorter drivers adjust their seating position better so they aren't sitting so close to the airbag; it's a great, affordable option for two-driver families that offers significant comfort and safety benefits. Adjustable pedals are usually offered only with an automatic transmission, but for 2003 Dodge has made them available on manual-shift pickups as well. We believe that's an industry first.
Side-curtain airbags are a $390 option on Regular Cabs, $490 on Quad Cabs. The Ram was recently awarded the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest possible rating in its off-set frontal crash test.
Nice big mirrors make it easier to see what's behind. A big fold-down center armrest/console comes with adjustable dividers and a power outlet. White-faced instruments with turquoise numbers look sporty and trendy, but don't offer the legibility of traditional white-on-black designs, particularly at dusk. At night, the instruments are nicely illuminated in green.
The design of the audio system could be improved for ease of use. Sometimes you have to search for the right button to press. Setting a button for a station, for example, requires pressing a separate 'set' button, rather than just holding the station button down. Sliding bass and treble controls are harder to adjust than knobs when bouncing around in a pickup truck. Optional steering wheel audio controls ($75) solve this with brilliantly designed buttons behind the steering wheel that are easy to use. Likewise, cruise controls ($390, including tilt steering) on the steering wheel are easy to operate.
Otherwise, the center dash is a paradigm of convenience. Large heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) buttons can be operated while wearing gloves. A textured fabric is used for trim around the audio and HVAC controls, somewhat similar to what's found in Volkswagens, gives the center dash a nice look and feel. Just below the HVAC controls is a slot lined with a rubber mat that's perfect for a wallet or other small items. A big panel below that folds down with adjustable cup holders. Overhead is a console with an effective pair of map lights, a trip computer, a compartment for sunglasses, and a compass, which every self-respecting truck should have.
Regular Cab models come fitted with a tray behind the seats big enough to hold a large bucket. Dodge even supplies the bucket, a tray designed to carry tools and such. Big hooks behind the seats are handy for hanging dry cleaning or plastic shopping bags so your groceries don't roll all over the place. There's even a hook just to the right of the center dash that's useful for hanging onto a couple of grocery bags; the Brits call these curry hooks.
The Quad Cab is quite nice. About 80 percent of all Ram buyers will opt for the Quad Cab. It's easy to see why. The rear seat is roomy, with enough rake to the seatback to make it comfortable for two adults. Its size also makes the r.
A pleasant ride quality and a responsive engine characterize the driving experience. This latest Dodge Ram rides much more smoothly than the pre-2002 model.
A rigid new chassis has reduced vibration dramatically. Dodge used an increasingly popular manufacturing process called hydroforming to fashion the frame. Instead of having to weld a bunch of straight pieces together, hydroforming uses ultra-high water pressure to force the metal into any shape needed. This highly rigid frame is arguably the key component of this new pickup. It allowed Dodge engineers to redesign the Ram suspension and to tune it precisely, without having to work around a lot of chassis flex.
A new rack-and-pinion steering gear sharpens handling, and 17-inch wheels are standard. The result is better handling, a better ride, and a truck that feels much tighter. Handling and maneuverability were key goals of the Ram design team, according to Dodge, in an effort to help drivers avoid crashes. All Rams come standard with big four-wheel disc brakes that are smooth and easy to modulate. Dodge claims they are the largest brakes in the segment.
Pickup trucks don't seem to be getting any smaller. One of the first sensations of driving the Ram is awareness of its immense proportions. This truck feels big and tall, and its fenders seem to fill small country roads. The ride height of the Ram adds to this sensation. It's sometimes difficult to be sure exactly where your fenders are, so it's not the best truck for the timid. In this regard, the Ram is the opposite of the Toyota Tundra, which feels smaller and nimbler by comparison. The big Ram reminds us a bit of driving an off-road race truck. It handles reasonably well and powers through or over just about anything, but the tires aren't always precisely where you wanted them.
Most Ram buyers will get the new 4.7-liter V8, and it's the best choice unless you have specific reasons to order the 3.7-liter or 5.7-liter engine. The first thing I noticed about driving a Ram pickup with the 4.7-liter was its responsiveness. This truck feels very eager around town and on winding roads. It accelerates quickly onto freeways and has no trouble powering up grades. It's a smooth, sophisticated engine that always feels ready to go.
The 4.7-liter V8 and 3.7-liter V6 are overhead-cam designs, smaller and more efficient than the overhead-valve engines they replace. The 4.7-liter V8, for example, offers a 1 mpg improvement (13/17 mpg City/Highway for a 4WD automatic) over the 5.2-liter V8 engine it replaced; it revs higher and produces 240 horsepower, 10 more than the 5.2-liter, although torque was reduced by 5 pounds-feet to 295. In practical terms, this is splitting hairs. What you will notice is that the 4.7-liter engine feels smoother and more refined, emitting a pleasant American burble while underway. I really liked it.
The 3.7-liter V6 is smooth and works just fine with the manual five-speed gearbox. It might be a good choice for someone who lives in the flatlands at relatively low altitudes and neither pulls trailers nor hauls heavy loads.
The new 5.7-liter Hemi V8 uses hemispherical combustion chambers for improved airflow with a bump inside for better swirl. It adds up to more power and better fuel efficiency. The Hemi generates 345 hp at 5400 rpm and 375 lbs.-ft. of torque at 4200 rpm.
Trailer towing capacities range from just 3050 pounds for a 3.7-liter V6 Quad Cab with 2WD and manual transmission, to 9200 pounds for a 5.7-liter V8 Regular Cab with 2WD. A 4WD Ram with the 4.7-liter and automatic transmission is rated to pull a 7450-pound trailer with the 3.92 rear axle ratio. Those who need to pull trailers up to 9200 pounds will want to opt for the 5.7-liter engine. It delivers 245 horsepower and 335 pounds-feet of torque. The available 20-inch wheels reduce towing capacity by 1000 pounds.
Payloads range from about 1300 pounds to 1850 pounds for a 2WD regular cab with the 3.7-liter V6.
Dodge has done it again: Eight years after breaking the rules for pickups, Dodge redesigned its Ram and reasserted itself as a top contender among full-size trucks. The 2003 Dodge Ram remains stylish and highly capable. It's also comfortable.
Quad Cab models offer a brilliant combination of comfort and utility. Regular Cab versions are far roomier than they used to be, and are thoughtfully set up to accommodate gear behind the seat.
2WD ST Regular Cab short-bed 120-inch wheelbase ($18,525); 2WD ST Regular Cab long-bed 140-inch wheelbase ($18,810); 4WD ST Regular Cab short-bed 120-inch wheelbase ($22,785); 4WD ST Regular Cab long-bed 140-inch wheelbase ($23,125); 2WD ST Quad Cab short-bed 140-inch wheelbase ($23,000); 2WD ST Quad Cab long-bed 160-inch wheelbase ($23,870); 4WD ST Quad Cab short-bed 140-inch wheelbase ($26,790); 4WD ST Quad Cab long-bed 160-inch wheelbase ($27,120).
St. Louis, Missouri; Warren, Michigan; Mexico.
Options As Tested
SLT Package 24G ($3315) includes 4.7-liter V8, five-speed automatic transmission, cloth 40/20/40 split bench seat, power windows w/driver's one-touch down, power door locks, power heated foldaway mirrors, overhead console with compass and trip computer, cruise control, tilt steering column, cab back storage w/bin, leather-wrapped steering wheel, rear view auto dim mirror, floor mats, body-color upper fascia, gray bodyside molding, SLT badge, bright grille; Premium cloth seats with center seat storage cushion ($405); Sport Appearance Group w/20-inch wheels ($1610) includes anti-spin rear differential, 3.92 axle ratio, P275/55R20 tires on 20x9-inch cast aluminum wheels, fog lamps, body-color grille, front fascia, and rear bumper; Trailer Tow Group ($465) includes 750-amp battery, auxiliary transmission oil cooler, heavy-duty engine cooling, Class IV receiver hitch, 7-pin wiring harness, 7- to 4-pin adapter; Security Group ($415) includes remote keyless entry, Sentry key theft deterrent system, security alarm; four-wheel ABS ($495); sliding rear window ($140); AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo w/6 Infinity speakers ($875); steering wheel audio controls ($75); power-adjustable pedals ($120); under-rail bed liner ($245).
Ram 1500 4x4 short-bed Regular Cab 120-inch wheelbase ($21,575).
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