Twenty-five years ago, Chrysler was selling the country’s stodgiest full-size pickup truck. Boxy and characterless, the 1993 Dodge Ram lacked the gently curved body of the Ford F-150 or the extra-brash angularity of the Chevrolet C/K.
The company flipped the script for the 1994 model year. A prominent crosshairs-style chrome grille stood tall and proud on the front end, with low headlights swelling into bold fenders.
Though it remained the country’s No. 3 best-seller, always behind its Ford and Chevrolet competitors, the Ram continued to be the most aggressive American truck. It solidified its image by introducing the famous “Hemi” V8 engine in 2003 with best-in-class horsepower.
But with its latest redesign, which just hit dealerships as a 2019 model, the Ram has become more mild-mannered. An all-new front end design raised the headlights and revised the grille, abandoning the signature look of the last two and a half decades. Gone are the fender bulges and the crosshairs grille. If it weren’t for the big “RAM” lettering on the new grille, the front end would be almost entirely anonymous. LED light bands ringing the headlights resemble the Dodge Charger sedan’s, but for several years Ram has been its own brand anyway, no longer a Dodge.
Moreover, the new Ram continues to focus on comfort, quietness and luxury. Like the last generation, its claim to fame has been an advanced suspension design that yields a smoother ride than most competitors.
For 2019, it also enjoys a stunning new interior with top-grade design, materials and technology, along with handy storage options and well-executed controls. And as with several other recent Chryslers, the new Ram has lots of clever “Easter eggs” — logos, drawings and other details hidden inside tail-lamps or under the lid of a console bin.
To be clear, no full-size pickup is exactly mild-mannered. With towering seating positions, throaty engine sounds and high levels of capability, the Ram and its competitors are still trucks. The 2019 Ram 1500, technically a “half-ton” pickup, can carry up to 2,300 pounds and tow up to 12,750 pounds. Even as the most comfortable truck, it’s still bouncier, bulkier and less agile than a passenger car or a car-based “crossover” SUV. The Ram is edging out similarly capable competitors for its car-like qualities, but its roots are clear.
The competition isn’t sitting still. Ford heavily overhauled the bestselling F-150 for the 2018 model year. Its claims to fame include a host of powertrain options, including two turbocharged V6 engines that promise a mix of power and fuel economy, which Ford calls “EcoBoost.” The tested F-150 came with the smallest-displacement engine in any full-size truck, a 2.7-liter V6. That compares to the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 in the tested Ram, which is the only available engine so far. It has 395 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque.
But the turbocharger keeps the F-150 lively. You’ll lose much of your fuel economy advantage if you’re always flooring the accelerator or carrying a heavy load. But if you often use your big pickup for everyday commuting, you can enjoy impressive mileage of up to 22 miles per gallon in mixed driving. Compare that to 17 mpg for the Hemi-powered Ram. Also, the Ram requires mid-grade fuel while the Ford engines accept regular.
In addition to the tested 2.7-liter V6 turbo, which has 325 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, there’s a base 3.3-liter V6 engine with no turbo (290 horsepower, 265 lb-ft of torque); a turbocharged 3.5-liter (370 horsepower, 470 lb-ft of torque); and a 5.0-liter V8 (395 horsepower, 400 lb-ft of torque). A 3.0-liter V6 diesel engine is also due within the next few months.
Most of these engines, including the tested 2.7-liter, use an advanced 10-speed automatic transmission to eke out further fuel savings. In fact, except for the off-road-oriented Raptor, every F-150 beats or equals the 2019 Ram’s only engine.
The 2019 Ram will soon offer two “mild hybrids” — gas engines with slight assistance from an electric motor — and a six-cylinder diesel. Their fuel economy estimates aren’t yet available.
Pickup truck wars will heat up even more when the redesigned 2019 Chevrolet Silverado and its GMC Sierra cousin hit the market later this year. And all four trucks face off against the aging but value-priced Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan, which have seen updates in recent years but largely date back more than a decade.
All of these models tend to have base prices in the $30,000s, but sticker prices can quickly soar into the $50,000s with upgraded engines, leather upholstery, a four-door configuration, four-wheel-drive, and other popular options. Healthy discounts are frequently available, though, so if you’re open to multiple models, don’t compare only the sticker prices.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.