2009 Dodge Ram 3500 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Mechanical upgrades improve the heavy-duty Rams.
The current generation of Dodge Ram heavy-duty pickups has been with us for a few years now. Last redesigned for 2003, the Dodge Ram 2500 and Dodge Ram 3500 models aren't nearly as new as the latest from Ford and General Motors. However, they do benefit from constant updating, such as the addition last year of a 2010-compliant diesel engine and six-speed automatic. (The Dodge Ram 1500 models have been redesigned for 2009 and are covered in a separate New Car Test Drive review.)
The 2009 Dodge Ram HD heavy-duty line benefits from mechanical improvements, a more powerful Hemi engine, and a more extensive options list. Choice has been simplified by offering the Power Wagon only as a Quad Cab, the Ram 3500 only as a diesel, and the Hemi V8 only with an automatic transmission.
The Dodge Ram Mega Cab was created by re-proportioning the relationship between cab and bed on a long wheelbase truck, adding 20 inches to the cab and shortening the bed to 6 feet, 3 inches. The result is acres of cab space, with six seats and plenty of head, shoulder, leg and hip room. Launched as a 2006 model, the extra-large Mega Cab is aptly named. The back seats are roomy and comfortable with reclining seatbacks, separate rear heating and air conditioning outlets, reading lights and a center armrest with cup holders, and available DVD entertainment; there's space behind the back seats for cargo. Folding down the back seats reveals a huge cargo area (more than 70 cubic feet) with a flat load floor. The rear doors open big and wide, making it easy to load stuff inside. Covered bins are provided back there for storing gear and smaller items, and hooks are provided for hanging things.
We found the Dodge Ram Cummins turbo diesel quiet, powerful and responsive. The exhaust brake provides engine braking down long highway grades, thereby leaving the brakes cool, fade-free, and ready for stopping. The diesel's power and fuel economy make it an excellent choice for owners who tow heavy trailers long distances.
The Ram Heavy Duty models are equally at home serving solo contractors, landscape crews, or families with big toys, and everyone in between. Despite a reputation for being the most truck-like, the heavy-duty Rams are civilized and make trucking enjoyable.
The 2009 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 versions come in four trim levels, ST, SXT, SLT and Laramie, and three cabs (regular, Quad, Mega) with a range of payloads and towing capacities. A TRX4 (mild off-road) is available for 2500 and 3500 while the Power Wagon (more severe off-road) is 2500-series only.
The 2500 ($28,185-$43,860) comes standard with the Hemi V8 and five-speed automatic, no manual is offered; the Cummins 6.7-liter Turbo Diesel (about $7,100) is optional with a six speed manual or six-speed automatic. The Power Wagon is $37,520, and 4WD adds about $3,000 to any standard 2500-series.
The 3500 prices ($34,985-$50,195) have increased because the Cummins diesel and a limited-slip differential are now standard equipment.
For adding your own box or work platform, Chassis Cab models are offered in regular and Quad cab, 2WD and 4WD 3500-series trucks, ranging from $24,830-$30,520.
ST models are workhorses, with standard vinyl floor and upholstery, although they do include chrome bumpers and grille outline, air conditioning, ABS, CD player, intermittent wipers, sliding sun visors, a full-size spare, and tinted glass. Options are limited to a diesel engine on 2500, cruise control, towing mirrors, side curtain airbags, and a few cosmetic upgrades.
SXT adds a bit more bright trim and chrome, including the wheels, power mirrors/windows/locks, cruise control, remote keyless entry, carpet, and cloth upholstery. A TRX4 Off-Road package may be added, consisting of aluminum wheels and more aggressive tires, limited-slip differential, skid plates, tow hooks, fog lamps, and unique shocks.
SLT, the standard trim on Mega Cabs, includes an overhead console, speed control, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, and power mirrors. Options for SLT include a power-sliding rear window, a bed liner, powered trailer tow mirrors, sun roof, power adjustable pedals and driver seat, AM/FM/6CD/MP3 with Infinity speaker, navigation, Sirius satellite radio, DVD rear-seat entertainment system, UConnect Bluetooth hands-free wireless communication system, bucket seats, YES Essentials stain-repellent cloth upholstery, and 17-inch forged aluminum wheels. A part-time electric shift transfer case is available on 4WD models.
Laramie models add dual-zone climate control, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, heated front seats, security alarm, auto-dimming rearview mirror, chrome moldings and Sentry Key engine immobilizer. Options on the Laramie package include an entertainment system, sun roof, bucket seats, Bluetooth, and the navigation radio.
The 2500 Power Wagon Quad Cab comes with the Hemi only, electric-locking front and rear differentials, disconnecting front sway bar, 12,000-pound Warn winch, and 32-inch BFGoodrich off-road tires. It can be outfitted with leather, sunroof, DVD entertainment, and towing mirrors, among other items.
Safety features include dual front multi-stage airbags, three-point belts in all seating positions with constant-force retractors, LATCH child-seat anchors, child-protection rear door locks, and four-wheel anti-lock brakes. Side-curtain airbags for front and rear seats are optional.
The Dodge Ram 3500 Mega Cab offers a striking presence, taking the Big Rig look to another level. From the front, its crosshair grille with big chrome collar remains is recognizable as a Dodge Ram signature. With the front-end restyled for 2008 and a dual-rear wheel option added after introduction, the rear gets attention for 2009 with new taillight styling similar to the Dodge Durango and Dakota.
From the side, the Mega Cab makes an even more dramatic impression. Very long rear doors are unique to the immense Mega Cab, with a very large area of full roll-down window glass. The dark glass, rear doors and wide pillar suggest a limousine. Expansive interior volume reinforces the impression. Behind this huge cab, the bed looks small, but it remains significantly large: 6 feet, 3 inches in length and 51 inches wide between the wheel wells. There is no factory long-bed Mega Cab so you'll have to use a sliding hitch for your fifth-wheel.
Long-bed Ram dually models have fender flares that look tacked on but are often cheaper to repair after impact, compared with the more integrated designs from Chevy, GMC, and Ford.
All Dodge Ram pickups offer wide, roomy cabs with lots of storage.
Mega Cab and Quad Cab interior space is nearly identical with the exception of rear legroom. The Mega Cab adds some 22 inches of cab length to what is already a wide cabin, taking second-row spaciousness beyond that of any previous production pickup. The Mega Cab's rear seats offer 44.2 inches of legroom, compared with 36.7 inches for a Quad Cab. And there is room for the rear seats to recline, tilting up to 37-degrees for added comfort. The rear seats also have their own reading lights and a center armrest with cup holders, plus separate rear air conditioning and heat outlets.
DVD entertainment for rear-seat passengers is available, with wireless headsets and integrated game ports. Behind the passengers is a power sliding rear window for flow-through ventilation. Because of the added length of the second-row seating area, the air bag system had to be redesigned with larger side curtain air bags. Each side air bag has its own impact sensor in order to trigger the air bag on the side where impact occurs.
From the driver's seat, the view is of a wide center stack with large knobs and buttons, precisely finished with consistent angles and cut lines throughout. The instrument panel cluster is located under a prominent dash brow to reduce glare and improve visibility of six white-faced gauges, the latter numbered on diesel-engine models. A substantial four-spoke steering wheel houses cruise control buttons and available stereo controls. Rectangular, slat-type air vents close flush.
Interior trim is markedly different among the trim levels. In ST trim, the dash is textured plastic with synthetic-look inserts on the SLT. The Laramie package makes extensive use of woodgrain trim inside, with less plastic, for a more distinctive appearance.
The seats are generously padded and we found them to be comfortable, especially the six-way driver's seat in the Laramie, which can be easily shifted around, which is good because any particular position becomes tiresome on long trips. The leather upholstery adds a rich appearance to the interior of Laramie models.
With the optional front bucket seats, a new center console extends from the dashboard. With the standard front bench seat, a very wide center console flips up to allow makeshift center seating; it may not be comfortable for the center rider but it works.
The rear seats are spacious. In the Mega Cab, we found a six-foot, three-inch passenger has no problem stretching out completely with the rear seats reclined. A tall rear-seat passenger spent an entire day with us, declining all invitations to move up front.
Everything about the Ram is full size. Even those of us used to operating domestic pickups and tow vehicles are aware of the Ram's imposing size and stance. Inside, it is a long reach to hand something across the console to a passenger, and there's no hope of leaning across to open the passenger door, or grab something from the opposite door pocket as could be done in the trucks of our forefathers. Interior door handles are large and heavily built, consistent with the large size of the Ram doors.
The cabin is loaded with nicely sized trays, slots and pockets. It seemed there was always a safe place to put something down, yet keep it within easy reach. The armrest opens in two parts and center console is big enough for a laptop, and is designed with fold-down dividers. The standard front bench seat offers additional storage under the seat.
The navigation screen, measuring 5.8 inches, is surrounded by buttons and knobs that are on the small side but located high for good viewing.
Power outlets are provided for the front seats. The dash power outlet is ignition switched, while the cigar lighter is always on, so we used it to charge a cell phone. A third outlet is available in the center console.
It takes a while to cool on hot days as the rear AC vents are just above floor level; adding heavier window tint may help in sunny climes.
Getting in a 4WD Mega Cab requires a big step up, but the rear doors swing open almost 90 degrees and there's a convenient grab handle on the door pillar, so access is easier for people or cargo. Behind the rear seats is even more storage, in the form of bins that are designed to accommodate tools or sports equipment.
We found the optional seven-speaker, 384-watt Infinity sound system to be remarkably good for a truck of any kind, and especially a pickup. Our suspicion is that this is at least partly due to superior sound deadening and wind noise control (Mega Cabs have laminated front door glass), providing a better acoustic environment.
A Dodge Ram HD feel like big, heavy duty pickup because it is a big, heavy duty pickup. All Rams are wide: eight feet on duallies. On small, rural roads oncoming traffic sometimes required us to edge away from the center line to create comfortable passing for both parties. Fold-out mirrors demarcate width well: The rear fenders should pass through any tight places the mirrors fit.
Parking a big pickup requires care and attention. We found it necessary to execute three-point turns into most parking spaces and often we got out to check our final position. The Ram offers a very quick 2.75-turn steering ratio that helps maneuvering at low speeds. Still, you'll want 50 feet for a U-turn, a condition not unique to the Ram.
The 2WD Ram HD comes with rack-and-pinion steering, while 4WD models come with a recirculating ball system. We found a minimum of bump steer and relatively precise tracking, not easy to engineer on a tall 4x4.
For 2009, the braking system has evolved with larger rotors and calipers. A limited-slip is standard on all 3500 models to help deliver the diesel’s torque, and a 3.42:1 axle ratio is pending for improved highway economy for those owners not towing at maximum loads.
We noticed right away that the use of laminated front window glass and re-designed door seals has cut down on wind noise, inherent in big pickups with wide mirrors. The interior is remarkably quiet, even as we ran the air conditioning, which offers minimal fan noise on the lower settings. With any pickup, especially a 4x4, a certain amount of noise and vibration is to be expected.
We were quite comfortable in an all-day drive in a Ram Laramie 3500 model through Virginia. With the heavier spring package that comes on dual-wheel 3500 models, we noticed some vibration leaking through to the cabin as we passed over rough railroad tracks and bridged creek crossings, but overall, found the chassis to be well damped, with a nice balance between the opposing priorities of comfort, control, and load-bearing capability. As a general rule, the more weight a heavy-duty pickup carries, the more the ride improves.
For 2009, the Hemi V8 was redesigned and now develops 383 horsepower (up 38) at 5600 rpm in Ram 2500 models. Like any good truck engine, it makes more torque than horsepower, up 25 for 2009 to 400 pound-feet at 4400 rpm. The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is standard and available only on the 2500 with an automatic transmission; any real-world mileage in the teens is doing well.
The Cummins Turbo Diesel comes on 3500 models. It was enlarged to 6.7 liters for 2007, meets 2010 emissions requirements and has an exhaust brake as standard. The option price is listed at $6,100 but it requires an Ultra Clean Diesel charge of $995, making it about the same price as Ford and GM diesel options. Unlike the GM, the Cummins comes with a six-speed manual, and unlike Ford the new automatic is a six-speed unit. Neither Ford nor GM offer the exhaust brake that makes intermountain towing stress free; the Cummins does an excellent job of controlling descent speed when wanted, thereby leaving the service brakes cool and free for more immediate stopping.
The vaunted Cummins is an inline six-cylinder built like a tractor-trailer engine, with exceptional longevity and low-end grunt, and it's frequently used in trucks and motorhomes that carry 2-10 times what a Ram pickup will. With the latest injection system, it is very clean (the tailpipe won't even go dark), much quieter (you won't even hear it with the stereo on), more responsive, and more powerful. The Cummins makes 350 hp at 3000 rpm, in the same neighborhood as Ford (350 hp) and GM (365 hp). Torque when paired with the manual gearbox is 610 pound-feet at just 1400 rpm; with the automatic it's 650 lb-ft at 1500 rpm. Torque is what gets a load in motion, so the Cummins is the obvious choice for towing heavy trailers. The Cummins produces as much torque pulling away from the intersection as the Hemi does when revved to 4000 rpm. Many RVers report better fuel mileage towing 10,000 pounds with their Cummins than a Hemi gets in an empty truck.
Top tow rating with the Hemi is about 11,500 pounds on a 2500 series regular cab. Adding a larger cab or 4WD will reduce the tow rating due to the added weight of the truck. Since Mega Cabs are the heaviest models, they do not carry the highest payload or tow ratings, but our Mega Cab rated 2,681 pounds of payload carrying capacity. The highest payload for a Ram HD is more than 5,000 pounds, the maximum tow rating is nearly 17,000 pounds.
The Dodge Ram HD heavy-duty pickups have the power and weight to tow heavy loads for long distances with big comfort for driver and passengers. The Mega Cab is designed to be the flagship of the heavy haulers. The Quad Cab may be big, but the Mega Cab is bigger. It comes down to choosing whether cab space or bed space is more important. For the best ride and handling, our choice is for a 2WD Ram 1500 Mega Cab. For best control handling heavy loads, a 2WD 3500 dually with the Cummins would do the job. For heavy hauling followed by accessing rough terrain when you get there, a 4WD 3500 single-rear-wheel model would be the ticket.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Stewart reported from Virginia, with Mitch McCullough and G.R. Whale reporting from California.
Dodge Ram 2500 ST 2WD regular cab ($28,185); Laramie 4WD Mega Cab ($43,860); 2500 Power Wagon Quad Cab ($37,520); 3500 SLT 2WD regular cab ($37,235); 3500 Laramie 4WD Mega Cab ($50,195).
Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico.
Options As Tested
side curtain airbags; 6-speed automatic transmission; bucket seats; entertainment/radio system; limited-slip differential; towing mirrors sunroof; state surcharge.
Dodge Ram Mega Cab 3500 Laramie 4x4 ($50,195).
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