Dodge’s all-new Ram is macho to the max, but then there’s an accessory hook on the instrument panel that is a perfect place for a purse or grocery sack. Welcome to trucking in 2002, when trucks look as rugged as an old boot but have the creature comforts of a family sedan.

Dodge popularized the big-rig look with its 1994 Ram truck, but that face pales in comparison to this one. The famous horse-collar grille is now big enough to make a Kenworth 18-wheeler proud. It comes in three variations depending on the model.

With the redesign in 1994, sales soared from 70,000 units a year to over 200,000. In 1995, sales nearly doubled again, to almost 400,000. Since then, sales have averaged 350,000 a year, making it one of Dodge’s top-selling products. Redesigning such a popular vehicle is not done lightly.

Trucks are transitioning into passenger cars with beds since the majority are personal-use vehicles, yet they have to be able to do real truck stuff when the time comes. That can be a tricky balance. The Quad Cab is 3 inches longer and the standard bed has been shortened 3 inches. It is 6 feet 3 inches. An 8-foot bed is optional and requires a 160.5-inch wheelbase. The Quad Cab’s nearly full-size rear doors are hinged in front and open independently. There are three models, the SLT, SLT Plus and Sport; and three engines, a 3.9-liter V-6, 4.7-liter V-8 and 5.9-liter V-8. Four-wheel drive is available as well.

Heavy-duty 2500 and 3500 models, with the 8.0-liter V-10 and Cummins turbo-diesel, will continue with the old body style for 2002 and then be all new in 2003.

I drove a two-wheel-drive, 1500 Quad Cab SLT Plus equipped with the 5.9-liter, 245-horsepower engine. I was most impressed with how comfortable and civilized it was, big-rig look notwithstanding. The instrument panel has the look and texture of a passenger car, the gauges have white faces like a Dodge Intrepid’s and the leather seats have suede inserts that add a touch of richness.

The Quad Cab is truly a six-passenger vehicle. I crammed five other guys inside for a short ride, and while the middle passengers in the front and back seats were not ready to commit to a cross-country journey, they found their spots tolerable for a 20-minute trip. The 60/40 rear seat folds up flat against the back of the cab for carrying cargo, and a steel platform can be extended out into the footwells to create a flat load floor.

Out on the road, wind noise is on par with a regular car because the windshield is steeply sloped and the doors are cut up into the roof for less whistling. The sound quality of the upgraded AM/FM/CD Infinity stereo with six speakers was excellent.

The ride was supple without being soft, even when I was the only occupant. The hydroformed frame is stiffer, a torsion-bar suspension is used up front and rear leaf springs are 3 inches longer for less wheel hop. Wheel travel has been increased to 8.5 inches, which also facilitates a smoother ride. Ground cle arance is now 9.5 inches. Steering is precise and accurate due to a new rack and pinion system. Brakes are four-wheel disc, with rear-wheel anti-lock standard and four-wheel anti-lock optional. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard and 20-inch wheels optional.

My gripes were these: The 140.5-inch wheelbase is difficult to maneuver accurately in parking lots because of the turning radius, and the edges of the front fenders are impossible to see and difficult to judge in tight quarters. I always looked for empty parking spaces with plenty of room to swing wide.

The test truck’s 5.9-liter Magnum V-8, a $595 option, boasted 245 horsepower, which was adequate for toting around its 4,990-pound curb weight. With this engine, the Quad Cab’s maximum tow rating is 8,150 pounds, while the regular cab can tow 8,660 pounds, an increase of more than 700 pounds from last year. Fuel consumption, at 12 miles per gallon city and 17 highway.

The new Dodge Ram is strong enough for truck wo k, yet it has the fit, finish and comfort of a car. That’s a combination that buyers crave, and this truck should be an even better seller than the one before.

The base price of the 1500 Quad Cab SLT Plus is $22,150. Options included Infinity stereo, fog lamps, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, keyless entry, tow package, automatic transmission, limited-slip differential, 5.9-liter engine and sliding rear window.

The sticker price was $31,440.

Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: The redesigned Ram looks even more macho than before, yet it drives with surprising civility. The cabin is plush, quiet and comfortable. The Quad Cab has room for six people, and the back seat folds up for cargo storage.

Counterpoint: The 5.9-liter V-8 is thirsty, and the Quad Cab’s 140.5-inch wheelbase makes it a handful in parking lots. Some folks may find the big grille objectionable, but real truck lovers will like it.

Engine: 5.9-liter, 245-hp V-8
Transmission: automatic Two-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 140.5 inches
Curb weight: 4,990 lbs.
Base price: $22,150
As driven: $31,440
Mpg rating: 12 city, 17 hwy.
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