The Dodge Ram pickup hasn't had a major redesign since the 2002 model year, meaning it is facing fresher competition from everybody who makes a full-sized truck. The top-selling Ford F-150 was new for 2004, the same year the Nissan Titan debuted. For 2006, we got the Honda Ridgeline, which the company would certainly like you to think of as a full-sized pickup. Redesigned Chevrolet Silverados and GMC Sierras are just now reaching dealers, and in a couple of months we'll get the all-new Toyota Tundra.
But there is one powerful bullet in the Dodge Ram's arsenal: the Hemi V-8 engine. It's probably the only current engine known to the public by its one-word name, sort of the Madonna or Cher or Sinatra of internal combustion.
"Hemi" refers to a hemispherical design of the combustion chamber, that area below the spark plug and above the piston where the mixture of air and gasoline explodes. This sends the piston down, which turns the crankshaft, which results in a speeding ticket. Chrysler did not invent the hemispherical combustion chamber, and there have been plenty of other engines to use the design, but it has been associated with Chrysler since its debut in 1951.
The hemispherical combustion chamber is a good idea, but if it were so much better than everything else, all engines would use it. They don't.
That said, the Chrysler Hemi is an excellent engine. In the Dodge Ram, Chrysler's 5.7-liter V-8 makes 345 horsepower, which means lots of pulling power in the bigger Rams. In the smaller Rams, such as the test model -- a short-bed, regular-cab Ram Sport -- the Hemi means it accelerates with authority and sounds just great.
It's the largest engine offered in this particular model: Standard is a 3.7-liter V-6, and between that engine and the Hemi is a 4.7-liter V-8 that's fine for almost any purpose. Customers who buy short-bed, regular-cab, rear-wheel-drive pickups such as this one are less serious about capability than they are about performance, and this truck performs.
The Hemi engine is a "multidisplacement" model, meaning that when the pickup is just cruising along, the onboard computer can shut down four of the eight cylinders to save gas. It is done so seamlessly that you'll never know when those cylinders are sleeping and when they wake up. Even so, fuel mileage is just adequate at 15 miles per gallon city, 19 mpg highway. Dodge recommends 89 octane midgrade gasoline, but the Ram runs fine on regular.
The transmission is a five-speed automatic that is nicely matched to the engine. Shifts are smooth, and downshifts are made quickly when you punch the accelerator.
The test truck handled quite well, thanks largely to its big P275/60R-20 radials on chromed aluminum wheels, but those tires and a relatively stiff suspension made for a jarring ride on rough pavement. On smoother pavement, the ride is tolerable, but on one particular stretch of concrete interstate, I was wishing for softer springs.
Inside, the Ram Sport had very comfortable bucket seats. Instruments and controls are nicely placed. Unlike some regular-cab trucks, Dodge gives you a little room behind the seats for storage, and it came in handy.
The test truck was absolutely loaded with equipment, which explains how a $24,250 base price for an already very well-equipped truck skyrocketed to a sobering $35,195. Options included a bedliner, adjustable pedals, a trailer-towing package, antilock disc brakes, side air bags, an alarm, a rear sliding window, an engine-block heater, leather upholstery, a $1,125 premium sound system and lots of other equipment that was nice but, for the most part, dispensable. This is a great-looking truck, but for $35,195, it's pricey.
One option I'd keep: the Hemi, which added $995. That's a bargain.
Base price: $24,250.
Price as tested: $35,195.
EPA rating: 15 mpg city, 19 mpg highway.
Details: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive regular-cab pickup truck with a 5.7-liter, 345-horsepower V-8 engine and five-speed automatic transmission.