When I think about heading off-road and hitting the trails, I have to admit — my first thought usually involves an SUV of some kind, such as my 2015 Jeep Wrangler — something smaller, lighter, with a short wheelbase and plenty of ground clearance on chunky tires that can scale rocks and ford streams without undue effort. But what about a pickup truck? When most folks think about off-road pickup trucks, it's usually in relation to an off-road package that enables the truck to get through a rough job site, unless you're looking at the TRD Pro offerings from Toyota or Ford's light-duty F-150 Raptor.
But there's another unique offering that combines immense capability with some exclusive factory parts: the Ram Power Wagon. Based on the Ram 2500 crew cab, the Power Wagon is perhaps an unlikely candidate for an off-road vehicle, but Ram is so confident in its go-anywhere abilities that it recently invited me to Arizona to drive the 2016 Power Wagon up the back way to the Crown King Trail from Lake Pleasant Regional Park to the tiny mountain town of Crown King. And after 50 miles of trails, dirt, rock and moderate obstacles that would seriously challenge most "off-road" trucks, I came away mightily impressed at this monster's abilities.
The Power Wagon is big, one of the biggest trucks in the Ram lineup. It's a physically imposing beast when you walk up to it and attempt to haul yourself up into its high-riding cabin. The suspension has been lifted 2 inches higher than a normal 2500, and 33-inch tires have been added to give it a ground clearance of 14.3 inches. There are no rocker step rails, so hope you're tall or have a decent reach to haul yourself up into this rig.
Once in place the view is commanding, and the cabin is quite comfortable with big seats and a thick steering wheel. For 2017, you can get the Power Wagon option on several different 2500 trims, including the base Tradesman, which will forgo all of the cosmetic frippery and simply add the off-road mechanical goodies to your work truck. Or you can get fancy with a new grille, a retro-style sticker package and a new interior that mimics the popular Ram 1500 Rebel trim level, which brings tire-tread patterns and Power Wagon logos to the seats.
Those off-road mechanicals are formidable as well, with standard front and rear electronic-locking differentials, additional skid plates, Bilstein off-road shock absorbers, an electronic sway-bar disconnect and retuned software for the standard 410-horsepower, 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 engine that tailors its throttle response for low-speed off-road scenarios. Hill descent control also is offered, but with the Power Wagon's manual Borg Warner transfer case and a 2.64:1 four-wheel-drive low-range setting, it's not often needed.
A question often asked: Why no Cummins diesel in the Power Wagon? And the answer: The standard 12,000-pound Warn winch that resides in the bumper prevents it due to the Cummins' cooling system needs. Gasoline is what you get.
On the road, the Power Wagon feels massive but stable, like a freight train barreling down the highway. The ride height puts you almost at eye level with 18-wheelers, but the excellent visibility in all directions is helpful. But it's off-road where the Power Wagon truly shines, with surprising performance and tenacious grip that belies its beefy proportions. The shock tuning and five-link coil spring rear suspension provide for an astonishingly smooth and serene ride over washboard surfaces, rocky dry riverbeds and just about anything else you point it at. Disconnect the front sway bar for better articulation at speeds below 18 mph and it also helps loosen up the steering, creating less jarring impact feedback over rocky roads.
The Power Wagon has 30 inches of water-fording ability, but this was not a factor on our run up the Crown King Trail, with the deepest water we encountered running about 3 inches. Obstacles that might be rated a 3 to 5 for you Jeep Jamboree fans weren't uncommon, with steep inclines up rocky surfaces that required the use of front-and-rear lockers and 4-Low. The Power Wagon crawled up all of it with astonishing ease, never once betraying its bulk or 6,700-pound curb weight, or upsetting passenger comfort in the slightest. The only issue is that the hood of the massive truck can often obscure the path ahead when breaking over an obstacle or cresting a hill, leading to more than a couple leaps of faith as to where exactly the trail continues.
Ram likes to call the Power Wagon the most off-road-capable factory pickup you can buy, and while many people would point to the Ford Raptor as a valid challenger to that title, the Raptor, in many ways, is a very different animal. The Ford is capable of going cross-country at high speeds, trophy truck-style, while the Power Wagon is meant more as a lower-speed harsh-terrain workhorse that can be both entertaining in its go-anywhere abilities and useful for people who need that kind of access for work. It's the only pickup you can buy with factory-installed front and rear electronic-locking differentials. And for 2017, the cosmetic changes meant to bring a family resemblance to the smaller, more comfortable, but still formidable and fast-selling light-duty Rebel make it look even more distinctive. However, it doesn't come cheap: The Power Wagon I drove stickered at just north of $56,000, but that's not an unreasonable price for the combination of capability, comfort and utility the Power Wagon provides.
Cars.com photos by Aaron D. Bragman; manufacturer images