Orlando Sentinel's view

Typically, manufacturers plan at least three years in advance when it comes to making product and marketing decisions. So way back when Dodge decided that October 2005 would be a good time to introduce its line of Mega Cab pickups, who knew that gasoline and diesel fuel would top $3 a gallon?

Really, though, customers interested in heavy-duty pickup trucks generally need heavy-duty pickup trucks. It isn’t as though they could haul horses or hay in a Toyota Prius. Although prospective customers for the Dodge Ram Mega Cab will grouse about fuel prices and fuel consumption, they’ll buy the products they need.

Because of the Mega Cab’s heavy-duty nature, the EPA doesn’t rate it, but we would anticipate overall mileage in the 14-mpg range with its gasoline-powered V-8. For the lighter-duty Quad Cab truck with the same engine, the EPA claims 14 mpg city, 18 highway. You won’t get that in a Mega Cab. In fact, good luck getting that in the Quad Cab.

Dodge has long built double or crew-cab pickups — Quad Cab is their pet name for four-door pickups — but the company sensed a market wanting more room inside the truck, even at the expense of some room in the bed. For the Mega Cab, the company took its heavy-duty truck platform and its 160.5-inch wheelbase and replaced the 8-foot bed with one that measures 6 feet, 3 inches, freeing up an extra 20 inches for the cab. Although there are 1500, 2500 and 3500 Mega Cab models, all are built on the heavy-duty platform.

This makes for a lot of “biggest” and “first” claims for the Mega Cab, such as the largest, longest cab (143.2 cubic feet, 111.1 inches long); the largest interior cargo volume (72.2 cubic feet); the largest cargo volume behind rear seat (7.7 cubic feet); largest second-row legroom (44.2 inches); largest rear-door opening (34.5 inches wide, 35.5 inches tall); the largest rear-door open angle (85 degrees, making access to the rear seat, for passengers or cargo, a breeze); and the first reclining rear seats in a truck, with a 22- to 37-degree seat-back angle.

Aside from room, there’s optional luxury too. You can get a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, a power sunroof, a power rear window, and — new for 2006 — a genuine full-screen color navigation system, replacing a little black-and-white system that was incorporated into the radio faceplate.

All the news isn’t inside, either. Dodge engineers are especially proud of the independent front suspension and steering system for rear-drive trucks, and justifiably so: It’s as precise and compliant as any big truck I’ve driven. With the four-wheel-drive models, they return to a conventional live-axle front, and it works well, too. Even the stiffest-sprung Mega Cab has a surprisingly compliant ride.

As you might expect, your engine choice is powerful and more powerful: a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, with 345 horsepower, and 375 pound-feet of torque or a 5.9-liter six-cylinder Cummins Turbo Diesel, with 325 horsepower and a stump-pulling 610 pound-feet of torque. The Hemi is standard on the 1500 and 2500, the diesel is optional on the 2500, standard on the 3500. A five-speed automatic comes with the Hemi, while the diesel gets a four-speed automatic or a six-speed manual.

I’ve driven several Mega Cabs, but most of my miles were in a top-of-the-line Laramie with rear-drive, a Hemi V-8 and an automatic transmission. Base price is $39,260, and as tested, it listed for $41,825. The front suspension and steering are as good as we’ve experienced in any big truck. The Hemi is a nice match for the automatic transmission, and power was always more than adequate when needed.

On the road, the central revelation is how this truck, big as it is, drives smaller. Its four-wheel disc brakes are very effective, and handling is better than you would think.

Inside, this is — front or rear — an exceptionally comfortable pickup. Three adults fit easily in the rear, and up front, the leather-covered seats are adequately supportive.

Starting price is comparatively high, but remember that all Mega Cabs, even the 1500 model, are heavy-duty, and all come with a lot of features. There are no stripped-down Mega Cab models. Keep in mind, too, that you can still get a regular full-sized Quad Cab pickup, and those start at $25,770, including shipping.

The Mega Cab 1500 starts at $32,760, and for four-wheel drive, $35,980. It’s offered in an uplevel SLT model, and an even more uplevel Laramie. A Mega Cab 2500 SLT starts at $35,065, and if you want the diesel, add on a whopping $5,555. Load up a 3500 Laramie model with the diesel, and you can top $50,000 very quickly, especially with a rear-seat DVD system ($1,200), and the stereo with the navigation system ($1,595).

Dodge is perennially in third place behind Ford and Chevrolet when it comes to full-sized trucks, and it needs to think outside the box. With the Mega Cab, Dodge just made the box much, much roomier.

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Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith’s TV reports air Thursdays on Central Florida News 13.

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