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Dodge Ram sports a tougher new look

January 27, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

The business of building rough-and-ready pickups with all the latest gear is serious business for domestic auto manufacturers. Down in the trenches, it's an all-out slug-fest between the Big Three. Who has the latest and greatest offering . . . this week? That depends on who you talk to, or maybe even what day it is, but Dodge has been working overtime to update the Ram platform to keep it fresh and current.

Why? Competition, of course, and the Ram 1500 is one of the most popular vehicles in the DaimlerChrysler fleet and the revenue backbone for the entire Dodge division. 'Nuff said.

Since pulling up its socks and aggressively going after perennial league-leaders Ford and Chevrolet/GMC in the mid-1990s, Dodge has managed to carve out a sizable slice of the pickup pie. A combination of unique, big-rig styling, advanced content and a huge marketing push seems to have made the difference and, although the Ram truck remains third in what is essentially a three-horse race (the import-based models remain far back in the pack), the gap has been narrowing of late.

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On the surface, the '06 Ram appears much the same as the '05 version that was launched in 2002. But subtle as the differences might appear, they're important. Physically, the latest Ram has been treated to a new front fascia, including headlamps, fenders and a tasteful new chrome grille. To the casual observer, the already over-the-top look now conveys added brute force and toughness, not bad attributes considering the predominantly male target audience that ultimately buys pickup trucks.

The Ram's body and pickup bed are now attached to a stiffer frame that, according to Dodge, helps improve both ride refinement and handling characteristics. Four-wheel-drive models now share the same double-wishbone front suspension as 4x2 models, replacing last year's torsion-bar setup with coil springs. In addition, steering modifications are intended to make the Ram go where it's pointed in a more precise manner.

The overhauled interior features redesigned seats, instrument panel, floor console along with measures to reduce infiltration of road and wind noise.

Lurking beneath the Ram's massive hood is one of a trio of familiar motivators. Light-duty pickup buyers can go with a modest 215-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6, while anyone requiring extra thrust can select either the 235-horse 4.7-liter V-8 or top-grunt 345-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8. The latter, dubbed the "Hemi,"deactivates half its cylinders under light-load and coast situations. The system is claimed to reduce fuel consumption by up to 20 percent.

A six-speed manual transmission is the basis for the 3.7 V-6 and 4.7 V-8 , with a four-speed automatic optional on the 3.7 and a five speed automatic available with the 4.7. Hemi-equipped models, the choice of nearly 50 percent of all Ram buyers, can only be ordered with the five-speed automatic.

Of course, four-wheel-drive is an option on V-8 Rams, but this year the system is of the "on-demand" variety and can be activated by simply turning a knob on the instrument panel.

As if to underscore its serious attack on the light pickup category, Dodge has created the "Mega Cab" body style, which features significantly larger rear doors that provide access to a living-room-like rear seat that reclines up to 37 degrees, in addition to regular and four-door Quad Cab units. The back seats on Mega-Cab and Quad-Cab models can also be folded for use as a storage/transportation platform.

As with the Ford and General Motors competitors, the Ram is a rolling platform of constant change, new ideas and improvements. All the serious tinkering, tweaking and stretching that has gone into the 2006 offering will no doubt make more heads tilt in Dodge's direction in its battle of one-upmanship with heavy-hitting domestic competitors.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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