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2019 Ram 2500/3500 First Drive: Going for the Beef

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Cars.com photos by Mark Williams

The big news for the heavily refreshed / is the of torque from the all-new 6.7-liter Cummins inline-six-cylinder diesel engine. Although diesel options tend to dominate the heavy-duty class (Ford Super Duty trucks with Power Stroke turbo-diesels make up the majority of Ford's HD purchases; ditto for the Duramax in the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra HDs), the fact that the 2019 Ram HDs now have a new eight-speed transmission (complete with an exclusive rotary dial on the dash) paired with the standard 6.4-liter gas V-8 is interesting for a few reasons. First, more gears will likely mean better fuel economy. Second, lower 1st gear ratios means more pulling power when needed. Third, for the off-roading Ram 2500 Power Wagon, a lower 1st gear means a crawl ratio of approximately 51:1 (taking 1st gear times axle ratio times low range). Finally, the new knob gear selector creates quite a bit of open space around the center console.

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Also for 2019, the manual transmission has been discontinued as an option. The Ram HDs were the only full-size pickups to offer a manual transmission. Some will miss it, but these new HD pickups will be judged on how much improvement they deliver in the real world. Ram gave a small group of journalists an early opportunity to drive the snot out of several different configurations — a few of which had sizable trailers attached. 

Driving the Big Dually

The first truck we drove was a Ram 3500 Longhorn 4×4 dually with the high-output Cummins and newly upgraded Aisin six-speed with 3.73:1 gears. The new grille has a strong and taller look with auto-turning headlights for better night visibility. This beast had a Big Tex gooseneck double-axle dump bed attached with eight 1,000-pound bags of gravel loaded in the cargo area, making for a total trailer weight of 16,500 pounds. The combination itself was pretty well balanced, with about 2,500 pounds resting on the bed's integrated ball. Fortunately, Ram engineers also updated the bed-mounted trailer chain cleats to accommodate the largest hooks that trailer manufacturers use on their biggest and heaviest trailers. Because there is no industry standard here, we've had issues with smallish bed loops and large chain hooks.

With a quick touch of the Tow/Haul switch at the bottom of the center console and tapping the exhaust brake control twice to activate Auto mode (it still offers three settings: off, on and Auto), we found the first few shifts firm and solid with better holding power on our steeper downhill runs. Of course, heading uphill with heavy throttle had us loving the sound of the new Cummins, which has a toned-down note but still offers a distinct sound — factory ratings for this new engine are 400 horsepower at 2,800 rpm and 1,000 pounds-feet of torque at 1,800 rpm.

Our drive route took us over some less-well-known Southern California coastal mountains then down into orchard and farmland just north of Los Angeles. The two-lane roads were narrow but also heavily traveled by semitrucks that use the route to haul quarry rock, so road construction (and width), for the most part, was not a problem. However, recent storm activity had brought culvert water and debris to the winding two-lane, so we did have to drop a tire or two into the dirt and rocks on some of the tighter switchbacks.

Our most used new feature for these circumstances was the Ram HDs' new split towing mirror that allows individual adjustment of the upper (standard) and lower (wide-angle) mirrors via separate switches inside. Added to the optional 360-degree camera view that allows a split screen and multiple rear-angle views with zooming options, there is almost nothing you can't watch around your trailer (Mopar even offers an extra camera hookup you can put at the back of your trailer or inside to keep an eye on your precious cargo).

Powertrain Performance

The upgraded six-speed transmission that pairs with the Cummins is a noticeable standout feature of the 2019 Ram HDs; it has much smoother takeoffs and shifts between 1st and 2nd gear, as well as 2nd and 3rd, even under hard throttle starts and pulls. It's an interesting choice to stick with a six-speed transmission when other manufacturers have eight- and 10-speed options, but Ram says its customers really the like the Cummins with the six-speed. During our drive time we experienced one situation when downshifting from 65 mph on the freeway, just coming off throttle into an off-ramp corner, where the transmission seemed to have some trouble with a relatively harsh 3rd-to-2nd shift (Tow/Haul on and exhaust brake set to Auto). We're not sure if the shifting weight of the gravel bags inside the trailer created some odd inputs or if the engine and transmission integration still needs one more fine-tune before signoff, but we'll circle back with Ram engineers on that and report back later.

We also drove work-truck-oriented regular-cab Ram Tradesman and Big Horn models. Our Bright White no-frills Tradesman carried 25 8-foot logs stacked in the 8-foot bed for a total of 2,500 pounds of payload. Equipped with the Hemi V-8, which offers 410 hp at 5,600 rpm and 429 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, the engine felt strong, even at the 4,000-foot elevation. The most impressive feature in this muscular combination was the new eight-speed transmission. The lower 1st-gear ratio (4.71:1) allows for a big pull off the line, something we weren't expecting with this much load in the bed. We were told there are 41 new algorithms in the transmission computer to allow for many more possible adjustment parameters, empty or loaded. Our only quibble here is it would have been nice if HD owners could select their own drive modes (if they want to), depending on the weather, road surface or load requirements. Another new feature we liked is the transmission's thumb-activated tap-up, tap-down manual control allows the driver to activate and then see on the instrument panel exactly when the transmission is shifting and what gear it is in at any moment. Ford has had that feature for a while, and GM won't have it on its 2020 models — we hope GM gets the hint.

We also had the chance to drive a mainstream 2019 Ram 3500 Big Horn 4×4 with the gas engine, but hauling only 1,250 pounds of sandbags and bags of fresh horse-stall ground cover. Although the 3500 certainly feels heavier, it still was amazingly nimble and quick to respond to sharp steering and throttle inputs — not something you normally associate with a loaded HD pickup.

Seating in all the new test vehicles is quite respectable, especially in the Limited, but oddly enough our favorite was the one-ton Big Horn's denimlike cloth seats that provide plenty of lower back and side bolster support; they also seem quite durable. Our only complaint is that Ram did not upgrade HD cabins as it did with the redesigned 2019 Ram 1500, a strategy employed by Ford and GM. Essentially, all Ram HD cabs carry over from the previous generation, meaning they are the same size and shape with the same-sized storage bins and layout — so no massive moonroof in the upper trim level. Also, all Ram HD trim levels have only a tilt steering wheel with pedal and seat adjustments for fine-tuning the driver position; a telescoping adjustment isn't offered.

Although we didn't get a chance to try one on this drive, 2500s with the optional Cummins turbo-diesel will get the down-rated 370 hp and 850 pounds-feet of torque. One-ton models offer a choice between the two Cummins ratings, with the higher-output engine offering a 3.73:1 axle for single and dual rear wheels or the 4.10:1 axle for duallys only.

Power Wagon Upgrades

The last vehicle we drove was the revised Ram 2500 Power Wagon, which gets the same powertrain and frame upgrades as the rest of the HD lineup but also receives a few more exterior styling changes. Although many of the upgrades are less visible (like the stronger frame, less vibration in the cab and noise-canceling materials), the big changes come with a new transmission that delivers a much lower 1st gear, which will give this big off-roader even greater crawling abilities on steep, rocky trails. A low-range crawl ratio of 51:1 puts the Power Wagon's crawling abilities on par with the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. That borders on farm tractor capability, but now it's all controlled by a much smarter transmission computer with more gear options. The Power Wagon continues to offer a push-button front sway-bar disconnect and front and rear locking differentials for crazy ninja-like mountain climbing, but now it has a rotary dial gear selector. Add in the optional Uconnect 12-inch touchscreen and the interior is quite impressive.

While many things contribute to the new Power Wagon's smoother, more powerful, more responsive and quieter ride, it's difficult not to give the new transmission much of the credit: The shifts are much smoother, almost seamless, even when downshifting. Further, even when running through a desert off-road park at a healthy speed in low range, there were none of the harsh noises or shock shifts we've come to expect from all HD 4x4s when running in 4-Low. There's no question, the Power Wagon was the favorite 2019 Ram HD of the day, given the ridges and hill climbs we conquered. Maybe that means we'll have to put it up against a few of its competitors as soon as we have a chance. And maybe that's what we need to do with a few other Ram HD versions as well. More to come for sure.

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