Many truck enthusiasts lament the fact that Ram doesn't offer an off-road pickup truck in the vein of the Ford Raptor — a high-speed, Baja-style race truck that comes straight from the factory ready to blast down dry washes and over desert scrub. Sure, Ram recently revealed the Rebel TRX concept at the , but it's still a concept.
However, Ram does offer plenty of real-world off-road truck options for people who are OK with going a bit slower cross-country, like the Ram 1500 Rebel. For the first time, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is giving its annual Mopar treatment to a pickup truck in the form of the Mopar '16 Ram Rebel. The bright red truck pictured here is one of just 500 Mopar '16 Rebel units Ram will produce. We took this one to the Silver Lake State Park in Mears, Mich., to see how it handles on the soft terrain along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Full disclosure: This isn't the first time I've had some off-road seat time in a Ram Rebel. Earlier this year, I participated in a Ram press drive from Scottsdale, Ariz., up to Flagstaff "the back way" using the Crown King Trail instead of highways in an eight-hour backcountry slog through some of the most picturesque scenery in the West. That trip saw the Rebel matched up with the 2016 Ram Power Wagon, FCA's ultimate off-road pickup, but the Rebel went up every obstacle that the Power Wagon did with almost as much ease. I wanted to see how well such a big, heavy pickup could handle something that's best done with a smaller, lighter vehicle — dune running. Silver Lake State Park is perfect for it.
Michigan's Sand Dunes
The western coast of Michigan is probably one of the best-kept vacation secrets in the country — hundreds of miles of soft sand beaches line deep, clear, salt- and shark-free Lake Michigan water from Indiana all the way up to the Mackinac Bridge. The coast is dotted with small towns, fishing villages, fantastic wineries and sand dunes like something out of the Sahara Desert. One of those sand dune areas is Silver Lake State Park, which is open to off-road vehicles ranging from motorcycles and side-by-side all-terrain vehicles to full-size SUVs, Jeeps and pickups. Imagine going to play in a giant sandbox that covers three square miles with full-size, real-life Tonka trucks, and you see the appeal of Silver Lake.
Every year I make a post-Labor Day pilgrimage to the park with some Jeep-owning friends for a weekend of dune riding, picnicking and enjoying Michigan's left coast. This year, in addition to my own JK Wrangler, I brought this bad boy along. The Rebel has rapidly become one of Ram's most popular trim levels, and for good reason: You get a 4×2 or 4×4 pickup with air suspension, a unique interior, blacked-out trim, remote keyless entry with locking tailgate, two-tone paint and more. A 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 is standard, and you can option up the Rebel with packages like the Protection Group with its underbody skid plates; a Luxury Group with LED lighting, power mirrors and exterior courtesy lamps; or add a moonroof, a spray-in bedliner, remote start or an Alpine premium audio system — the options list is a long one.
But specify the Mopar '16 Custom Shop Package for $2,800, and you'll upgrade your standard Rebel to something more unique. It adds a Mopar '16 steering wheel, off-road wheel flares, power steering skid plate, graphics and badges, and a front bumper with a black lower portion. My test truck had a bunch of other equipment as well, including a hood decal, a larger fuel tank, black side steps, an anti-spin rear differential, parking assist sensors and cameras, remote start and more for a grand total of $57,125. That's a pricey pickup, but as everyone who laid eyes on my Mopar '16 Rebel attested, "Damn, that thing looks really good."
How Did It Handle?
We were all curious to see how well the Rebel would handle terrain suited more for high-speed dune buggies, lifted Jeeps with serious off-road tires, dirt bikes and side-by-sides. Heading out to the park with a 10-foot warning flag and all the appropriate state park permits affixed, I rolled into the staging area and used my rapid deflator kit to drop the pressure in the Rebel's 33-inch Toyo Open Country all-terrain tires to 18 pounds per square inch, the recommended pressure the Ram engineers told me would work best for the Rebel in soft sand. This is considerably below the normal pressure, recommended to be 55 psi front and 45 psi rear, which strikes me as unusually high for an off-road pickup. But dropping the tire pressure to such low values is critical for sand driving — you want to maximize the contact patch with the sand for maximum grip, and you need flexible sidewalls to handle the soft material. The only worry is potentially losing the bead seal on the tire if you take a corner too fast, but 18 psi is still relatively safe, and as I came to find out, you won't be going too fast out on the hilly dunes.
Silver Lake is an enormous dune park, with some dunes topping more than 100 feet (like the infamous Test Hill), and other areas of the park offering a more undulating, rolling landscape through ditches, culverts and foothills. It feels odd driving on completely loose sand. At lower speeds, the Rebel handles itself without a problem through the slippery stuff. Lock the drivetrain in 4-High, set the air suspension to the highest off-road setting and level terrain poses no problem whatsoever. The Rebel just cruises over the dips and hills, but repeated "whoop-de-do's" will set the truck bouncing if you take them too fast, and that can lead to bottoming out the front suspension with a rather forceful bang, prompting you to back off on your speed to avoid damaging anything valuable (like your spine). As we've said before, the Rebel isn't a Ford Raptor factory Baja truck; it's an off-road light-duty pickup with some heavier-duty parts and skid-plate protection meant for slower rock crawling rather than quick dashes over undulating terrain.
The Rebel never lacks for power with the raucous 5.7-liter Hemi engine, but dialing in the right settings can be tricky. Switching to 4-Low for some of the hairier hill climbs helps with traction, but the Rebel's considerable weight means it's really not happy in such soft terrain. Maintaining momentum is critical when dealing with super soft, deep sand, so keeping your foot on the accelerator for a good running start will power you through most sandy obstacles. A bigger issue with the Rebel is its long nose. Cresting a steep hill at a good clip requires a little bit of "aim and pray" because you can't see what's beyond the hood when you're barreling over a hilltop at a steep angle. This was an issue with the Rebel when off-roading in Arizona as well — it's a big truck and caution is required.
But it's also a highly capable truck. After a day of tooling around on the dunes, charging up the hills, splashing through the streams and generally having a great time, the Rebel proved itself capable on every surface. I do wish the electronically locking differentials from the Power Wagon were available in the light-duty Rebel, as it would have added another layer of traction to help with the hill climbs. In retrospect, I think dropping the tires another 4 to 5 psi, to where I normally have my Wrangler's BF Goodrich Mud Terrains on sand, might have yielded an even better slower-speed performance. But the combination of power, ground clearance and a smooth riding air suspension nicely countered the rather unwieldy size and weight of the Rebel through my simulated Sahara.
This might just be the most fun Mopar edition vehicle FCA has ever released.
Cars.com photos by Aaron Bragman