Here's a lesson that life truly isn't fair: A well-known car company realizes there is still a market for its biggest, baddest engine, a powerplant from the 1960s that was as big as a ... well, powerplant.

After long meetings, intensive discussions and more than a few giggles, it decides to reintroduce the engine in a current product.

But does it appear in something you can truly rip, snort, tear and tumble in? Sure.

Just feel free to bring along the extra load of lumber or your friend's couch.

Muscle-car fans feel free to weep. Truck lovers rejoice.

Whatever side of the fence you sit on, you only have to appreciate one thing about the new Dodge Ram: The Hemi is back.

The what? The Hemi V-8 engine was what made muscle cars flex and made the 1960s fun. Although Chrysler made it available from 1951 to 1958, the Hemi that turned everyone's crank was the optional engine on the '65 Dodge Coronets and Chargers, as well as Plymouth's Satellites. It was mighty, it sucked gas and by 1971, with emission laws changing and insurance rates climbing, it was gone.

Finally, mercifully, it's roaring again.

The interesting part: It's not meant to just light the tires on a Friday night; now it actually has some utility. And, combine that with the usefulness of an already worthy truck and you've really got something cooking in Chrysler's camp.

Like the XL Hemi engine from the '60s, the new one in the Ram is a V-8, but nothing like its predecessor. Its 5.7 liters of raw energy shows up as the standard engine for the 2500 and features a hemispherical combustion chamber (hence the name Hemi). It makes 345 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque - or about enough power to launch a missile - and more than GM's 6.0-liter V8. But with computer controls, fuel injection and an electronically controlled throttle, the Ram is borrowing a little from the past while taking on the future.

It burns less fuel, runs cleaner and will go for 100,000 miles on one set of spark plugs. Where was all this in the '60s?

The best part is that it makes an already capable truck that much better. And the Ram is more than respectable.

Available in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, the only thing you need to know about the Ram is that it is utility maximized and has options to the max.

There are 24 different ways to configure the Ram. There is a choice of engines that includes everything from the V-8 Hemi to a 305-horsepower, 8.0-liter V-10 to a turbocharged 5.9-liter six-cylinder diesel. There are two body styles - a two-door regular cab and the four-door Quad Cab.

Options. Options.

It's all part of the plan. Trucks are big with everyone - older folks, younger drivers and all parts in between. People don't use them to haul, they use them to haul fast. Buyers want that truck attitude, a little luxury and lots of personality. Here it arrives in spades .

Dodge redid its Ram 1500 full-size truck for 2002. For 2003, the heavies - the 2500 and 3500 - get their day in the showroom. Along with the new Ram styling, these trucks receive more powerful engines, increased towing capacities, improved handling characteristics and additional safety equipment. Our Hemi tester was a 2500-series rear-wheel-drive Quad Cab with an optional five-speed automatic transmission. It was outright smooth.

Think these brawny trucks are a handful to drive? With a quicker steering system than the competition, along with effortless pulling power and strong braking, we found them easy, almost a pleasure, to pilot.

From its muscular front fenders and enormous, Mack-truck grille, to its lightning-quick time from 0 to 60 mph (less than eight seconds), the Dodge stands near the front of the crowd if you're looking for performance and agility. Only the Ford SVT F-150 Lightning and Chevy Silverado SS are meaner. But this is a close second.

Now, the Ram is tough and bad, but it also has a sensitive side.

Inside, things are downright roomy. For the 2002 1500 Ram redesign, Dodged figured most buyers don't fill up their pickup's bed to full capacity so they took 3 inches from the standard bed length (previously 6 feet 6 inches) and added it to the passenger compartment. This allows the new Ram Quad Cab to have the expansive passenger room of a crew cab while keeping the truck's overall length nearly the same as last year's Quad Cab. To improve access to the rear compartment, the 2003 Quad Cab's conventional rear doors open up nearly 90 degrees.

With seating for five, the cabin is quiet and not as firm as you might have thought. Yes, the heavy-duty Ram is far from agile. Its ride is stiff and, without anything in the back, bumps in the road make the back end bounce a little too much. But with options like an 11-speaker, 240-watt sound system and more leather than a dude ranch, this is not your average truck.

On the heavy-duty side, because 2500 and 3500 series carry much heavier loads than their light-duty siblings, their frames are noticeably more robust this year. Hydroforming technology offers outstanding stiffness and Dodge says that improves ride and handling. As you would expect, two-wheel- and four-wheel-drive trucks will be offered. The 4WD system is manually or electronically controlled, depending on trim level.

Oh, and it can tow. A 2500-series truck can carry up to 3,400 pounds and haul a trailer that weighs nearly 14,000. The 1500 can do about half of that.

On safety, Dodge offers side curtain air bags optional on all Rams and power-adjustable pedals, which allow shorter folks to get a comfortable driving position without having to sit too close to the steering wheel. The trucks also feature ABS and the largest standard brakes in their class.

Add it all up and it's a winner. A heavy-duty upgrade for a truck that wants to be heavy-duty.

2003 Dodge Ram

Rating: 3

High gear: With powerful engine choices (including the revised Hemi), a huge payload and towing capacity and a comfortable interior, the Ram is stiff competition in an ultra-competitive market.

Low gear: Fuel economy is typical for a truck, if not downright scary in the Hemi, and a more-than-bouncy ride without any payload makes some driving adventures an adventure.

Vehicle type: Rear-wheel-drive, front engine, four-door, six-passenger truck.

Key standard equipment: Five-speed manual transmission; full-size spare tire; ventilated front disc/solid rear disc brakes; 4-wheel ABS; split-bench front seats; bench rear seat folding; power door locks, windows and mirrors; heated mirrors; cruise control; power steering; tilt-adjustable steering wheel; front 12-volt power outlet(s); air conditioning; electrochromatic inside rear-view mirror; AM/FM in-dash single CD player.

Competition: Chevy Silverado, Ford F-150

Engine (2500 SLT): 5.7-liter 345 horsepower V-8

Torque (2500): 375 foot-lbs. @ 4,200 rpm

Wheelbase: 140.5 inches

Length: 227.7 inches

MPG rating: 14 mpg city/17 mpg highway

Manufactured: USA

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; the drivetrain is seven years/70,000 miles; body corrosion is five years/100,000 miles; roadside assistance is three years/36,000 miles.

Base price: $27,755

Price as tested (including options, destination and delivery): $32,410