In the age of expensive pickup trucks, you can still get a cool one for under $30,000 — but in the case of the 2014 Ram 1500 Express, the content you'll have to sacrifice to get there may be too much.
Pickup trucks are expensive, far more now than they used to be, with the sticker prices of more well-optioned rigs easily topping $70,000. Even average, midlevel versions can go for nearly $50,000 when you start adding options.
The folks at Ram, however, think a good pickup doesn't have to be so expensive — and to prove it, they built the 2014 Ram 1500 Tradesman/Express. Take a Tradesman work truck, add a few appearance items, give it a Hemi V-8 engine and — voila: an attractive, two-door, sporty pickup that just happens to be the least-expensive V-8-powered truck in America. What do you get for the money you do spend? Not much, it turns out — not even some of the basics that people have come to expect in modern vehicles, though that hasn't stopped the Express trim from being massively popular with Ram customers. Compare the 2013 and 2014 Ram 1500s here.
The Ram light-duty truck got an update for the 2013 model year, making it one of the most attractive pickups on the market. The Express is the base version of the truck, so there isn't much flash. Instead, Ram has made a few cost-careful cosmetic choices to emphasize sportiness. The Express is limited to a few body styles: only regular or quad cab with the 6-foot-4-inch bed, or crew cab with the shorter 5-foot-7-inch bed. The least expensive version is the one I drove: a standard cab with the regular bed, in 4x2 configuration. Despite its being cheap, it looks complete — body-colored bumpers front and back, blacked-out trim, fog lamps and big 20-inch painted wheels don't make it look like a stripped-down model. There's very little chrome for a pickup, but it has a custom sport-truck look to it that's fantastic. Unfortunately, the Express is also built to a price, so things like a spray-in bedliner and a trailer hitch receiver are extra-cost options.
How It Drives
The best part about the Express is what comes under the hood — a 395-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It also pumps out 410 pounds-feet of torque, good enough to lay down some massive stripes if smoky burnouts are your thing. Around town, it means instant acceleration and maximum bass through the truck's exhaust. A recent back-to-back drive with the much more expensive Ford F-150 Tremor and its twin-turbo V-6 engine gave the crown of best-sounding truck to the Ram, hands-down, thanks to that traditional V-8 rumble.
The six-speed automatic shifts with authority but feels clunky and outdated — the optional eight-speed would've been smoother, more fuel efficient and would have made the 1500 Express quicker off the line, as well. My test truck came with a 3.92:1 rear axle and a limited-slip differential. The former made acceleration a bit quicker than it might have been, the latter helped put the Hemi's power down in slippery conditions. Not that the 1500 feels slow by any means; all that power in the smallest, lightest pickup in the Ram stable means the truck flies when you ask it to. It also helps the brakes haul the truck to a stop with considerable force.
Handling is typical for a truck, meaning it's not going to win any autocross events, but the thick steering wheel is grippy and confidence-inspiring. What stands out much more is how well the 1500 rides — choppier than your average family sedan, of course, but much more relaxed and controlled than most pickups over broken pavement. There's no bouncing around in here and no unusual chassis movements, just a steady, comfortable ride for three people. It's quiet, too, keeping the Ram's occupants very well insulated against wind and road noise.
Being a pickup, the 1500 Express tows and hauls easily, especially with the big, torquey V-8. The truck is rated to tow 9,250 pounds thanks to the 3.92 gear, which is more than enough to haul a boat, a pair of Jet Skis, a camper trailer, even an automobile. Fuel economy is fair for a two-wheel-drive, V-8 pickup, rated 14/20/16 mpg city/highway/combined. My week with the truck averaged a spot-on 16 mpg in an even mix of city and highway driving.
Haul yourself up into the cab (there are no side steps) and you'll plant yourself on a big bench seat — three across, with the center position featuring a fold-down seatback that becomes an armrest, cupholder and storage bin. The driver and passenger seats are plenty comfortable, but I wouldn't want to test that center seat: Along with a lack of legroom, one has to contend with a thick backrest that just doesn't look like it would be comfortable for anything more than the quickest jaunt down the street.
At an as-tested price of $28,380 including destination, this is an inexpensive truck — and it's easy to see where the cost came out. There's almost nothing in the interior besides the aforementioned bench seat, which can be optionally clad in cloth rather than vinyl.
Stepping inside this truck is like stepping back in time to how trucks used to be: crank windows, manual door locks, manual seats, fixed rear window glass, manual climate control, a column shifter, manual side mirrors and very little in the way of creature comforts. My truck did feature satellite radio as part of a popular equipment group, but the only things “automatic” on the truck are the headlights and the transmission. It will take only a few times having to stretch all the way across the cabin to unlock the passenger door for a friend, or wishing you could reach that door while driving to roll down the window on a hot day, to make you realize that for just $735 more, the Power and Remote Entry Group with power mirrors, locks, windows and a remote key fob would make living with the Express massively easier.
Despite the lack of equipment, the cab is very well-done. The latest Ram pickup interiors are the best in Chrysler history, by far. Even in this stripped-down, entry-level model, material and assembly quality is noticeably good. About the only thing to complain about is the drabness of it all in diesel gray, but with the money you've saved getting the Express over a more expensive truck, you can easily spring for some aftermarket leather seat coverings in matching body-colored red to spice things up.
Ergonomics & Electronics
There isn't much to talk about in the Express in terms of electronics. There's a standard trip computer in the gauge cluster, which itself is clear and easy to read, but there isn't even a CD player in there. There is, however, a media hub containing an aux jack, USB port and 12-volt auxiliary power outlet in the fold-down console. In my tester, satellite radio was present thanks to an option package, but there was no Chrysler Uconnect, the company's excellent multimedia system, at this price. Again, it feels like a throwback to a simpler time, but it does offer an interesting palette for customization.
It's a pickup, so cargo is ostensibly the name of the game, and there's a full-size 6-foot-4-inch bed behind the cabin that can accommodate anything you might need to haul. Payload is rated at 1,620 pounds, but without an optional spray-in bedliner, practically whatever you put in the cargo box is going to scratch up the paint. The RamBox fender storage system is optional. Storage inside the truck is limited to some space behind the seats, but with two larger cab sizes available (Quad Cab and Crew Cab), the option to have a more capacious cabin is there.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the Ram 1500 good in every test except the roof-crush strength, where it was rated marginal.
There's not much in the way of extra safety equipment in the 1500 Express, but the basics are here, like front- and side-impact airbags and stability control. The 2014 Ram 1500 has been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from which it got a mixture of four and five stars throughout the various tests. See the results of the crash tests here and a list of the 1500's safety equipment here.
Value in Its Class
The Ram 1500 Express justifies its existence right here, in the value category. As equipped, my truck cost $28,380 including a rather hefty $1,195 destination charge (a Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG luxury sedan has a destination charge of $925 and it was shipped here from Germany on a boat, not put on a train from a factory in suburban Detroit). Ram has adjusted prices over the course of this past year, however, with my example now costing $28,630 as-tested rather than the $28,380 seen on its window sticker when I had it.
That's a pretty good price for a V-8 truck with all the basics you need to get by, but as stated earlier, checking the box for the Power and Remote Entry package still brings you in under $30,000 and makes the Express a much more pleasant truck to live with on a daily basis. Adding the eight-speed automatic would also be a good decision, but strangely it also eliminates your ability to opt for a cloth seat instead of the standard vinyl. Choose your own options on one here.
The Ford F-150 has an STX trim level that does much of what the 1500 Express does: provide an entry-level, relatively inexpensive sporty truck for younger buyers with limited means. It's more expensive than the 1500 Express and does not include a standard V-8 engine, but it does have more standard equipment, like power windows and locks. Optioning one up to match some of the features of the 1500 Express (V-8 engine, 20-inch wheels, fog lights) does push it well above $32,000, however, giving the value advantage to the Ram.
Over at Chevrolet, there really is no equivalent entry-level sport truck — it's all about work at this low price. A regular-cab 4x2 with the 2WT package is roughly equivalent, but like the Ford it does not include a V-8 engine or 20-inch wheels. It does have a more advanced electronics suite, however, with Chevrolet MyLink and satellite radio standard, along with more power equipment than the Ram offers. Neither the Ford nor the Chevy can match the Ram's 5.7-liter V-8's power and torque, however. Compare all three here.
So yes, you can get a cool truck for under $30,000 these days. But pay a little extra for the convenience touches, and your cool truck will become much more enjoyable.