If pickup trucks are macho, this one is the World Wrestling Federation on wheels. Big, brawny and bad, the Ram 1500 SS/T is one of those special sport packages that Dodge does so well: vehicles for those who wish to be seen and heard. The audible part of this formula is important, and Dodge hit it right on the nose with the SS/T. In fact, the exhaust sounds raise this truck's appeal -- for this trucker, at least -- by a bunch. For guys like me, no automotive sound on earth rivals the rumble of a big ol' American V8. When the engine is dormant, the SS/T's personality seems to shrink. I found myself thinking that the vinyl interior looked pretty cheap for 24 grand, and the SS/T logos mortised into the hood stripes seemed just a tad over the top. But twist the ignition key, start the music, and none of that stuff seems to matter. The 5.9-liter V8 starts throbbin' that old sweet song: low, insistent and elemental. You're hooked. I should add here that the SS/T's level of audibility falls well short of offensive. It's a little louder than ordinary V8-powered pickups, but a long way from the sociopathic racket you hear from exhaust systems that have been modified by their owners -- the kind of bellow that makes young moms and dads herd the kids into the storm cellar and cops reach for their radar guns. The SS/T exhaust system lends more than mere aural gratification to this truck. Reduced back pressure in the exhaust system yields an extra 10 horsepower (from 235 to 245) and 5 additional foot-pounds of torque (from 330 to 335). That's a subtle difference, but it's a difference you can feel against your shoulder blades when you tramp on the gas. This thing can haul it, folks. The incremental increase in power, combined with lots of traction from oversize tires (245/60, on 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels) and aggressive shift management in the four-speed automatic transmission, gets the SS/T's two tons moving in a hurry. Lots of rubber also helps when it's time to stop. So does four-wheel antilock braking, a feature I strongly recommend for any pickup truck. General Motors Corp. provides four-wheel ABS as standard equipment on its full-size pickups, but it's a $500 option here. Let's take a look at the rest of the SS/T package. Besides the lovely sounds, extra power, stylish wheels and aggressive tires, the SS/T includes the hood stripes, fog lamps and body-colored grille and front bumper. Oh yeah, you also get a chrome tip on the exhaust pipe. It all comes to $1,360 over the price of a Ram 1500 Laramie SLT -- $20,025, including destination -- which in turn starts $4,175 north of a basic Ram 1500. The SS/T comes with the slightly stiffer springs and shock damping that are included with the SLT version of the RAM. That yields fairly nimble handling, by full-size pickup standards, without rattling your teeth ov er chatter bumps and potholes. Like most pickup trucks, the basic Ram is a pretty spartan setup. The Laramie SLT model includes a lot of equipment that makes life more pleasant -- air-conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering, power windows, mirrors and locks -- as well as Dodge's clever modular storage systems behind the seats and in the fold-down center armrest. It also includes cloth seats, which are supposed to be part of the SS/T versions, but somehow failed to make their way into my test truck. As a result, the interior was a festival of gray vinyl that probably would look right at home in something like a guided missile cruiser but seem sub-par here. The big bench seat isn't all that comfortable, either, and is absolutely devoid of lateral support. It seems some sort of bucket seating would be appropriate for a sport truck package. But there's so much move-around room in the Ram's standard cab that it doesn't really matter that much. for appearance issues, it's hard not to like the SS/T's stripes and monochrome front end. This package evolved from the Dodge Ram pickup that was the official truck of the Indianapolis 500 in 1996. The original was white with blue stripes, but the palette has been expanded to include red, green and black, all with silver stripes. All in all, it looks pretty cool, doesn't it? The gripes There are only a couple of elements besides the SS/T logo that bothers me. No. 1: The wheels have a bunch of fake bolt heads around their outer perimeter, imitating two-piece modular wheels, which they ain't. Imitations rarely look as good as the real thing, and that's the case here. No. 2: The SS/T rides just as high as the other Rams, which means there's a whole bunch of vacant wheel arch above the tire, even with the 17-inch wheels. Seems to me a sport truck ought to be hunkered down closer to the ground, like the Ford SVT F-150 Lightning of a couple years back. But lowering the ride height would entail a lot of suspension work, which in turn would add to the bottom line. Which brings us to the issue of cost. Besides the SS/T package and ABS, my test truck also included the more muscular version of the 5.9-liter V8 ($860), a heavy-duty version of the four-speed automatic transmission ($960), an AM/FM/cassette audio system ($690), a limited slip differential ($285), a trailer towing package ($245), keyless remote entry ($190), a sliding rear window ($140), revised rear axle ratio ($50), a body-colored rear bumper ($50), and a heavy-duty service group: transmission oil cooler, enhanced engine cooling and heavy-duty alternator and battery ($345). The grand total is $25,720, which, with package discounts, shrinks to $24,535. That's a pretty hefty lump for a two-wheel drive pickup. If the SS/T had a higher collectibility index, I believe it would be more tempting. In this respect, the 1993-'95 SVT Lightnings, which sold for about $22,600, were a much better package. In addition to cosmetics, they included power comparable to the SS/T and a modified suspension that lowered the ride height and provided outstanding handling. Limited annual production of about 5,000 per year also enhanced their potential value later on. Dodge, in contrast, is willing to build as many SS/T Rams as the market will bear. Ford is getting ready to do another SVT truck, by the way, but there's a lot of debate about which truck it should be, the F-150, the new Ranger or maybe even the Explorer. Meanwhile, we have the SS/T, which is not as comprehensive as the Lightning, and as a result not as appealing. But it does have the essentials -- the high-testosterone look of the entire Ram line, backed by plenty of V8 muscle and the distant thunder of that exhaust system. Dodge ought to make the SS/T's exhaust note an essential part of the sal es playbook. When a prospect steps up to take a closer look, all the friendly sales rep has to do is hop in, light it up and the exhaust note will take care of the rest of the sales pitch. If you like pickups and the sound of V8 power, you'll have a tough time walking away from this one. RATING: 3 wheels VEHICLE TYPE: Front-engine, rear-drive, full-size pickup KEY COMPETITORS: Ford F-150, Chevrolet/GMC C-1500 BASE PRICE: $16,490 PRICE AS TESTED: $24,535 STANDARD EQUIPMENT: Rear-wheel ABS, dual air bags, AM/FM radio, intermittent wipers, tinted glass, digital clock SPECIFICATIONS: (manufacturer's data) Engine: 245-hp 5.9-liter V8
EPA fuel econ.: 13 city/17 hwy.
Curb weight: 4,216 pounds
Wheelbase: 118.7 inches
Length: 204.1 inches
Width: 79.4 inches
Height: 71.8 inches
Where assembe : Warren
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