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Like many of her classmates at an exclusive Pennsylvania prep school, Darah Yurick’s first vehicle was a 1998 Dodge Ram pickup truck.

“A lot of my friends had Rams,” said Yurick, now a 23-year-old Asheville restaurant supervisor and mother of 7-month-old Chandler. “We liked it because of the front end. It was pretty AND mean.”

We caught up with Yurick at a local horse show here, where she was anxious to pour over every detail of the redesigned 2002 Dodge Ram 1500 full-size pickup. The 2002 Dodge Ram goes on sale in mid-September. It will range in price from $17,670 for the Ram Regular Cab 4×2 to $24,060 for what Dodge describes as a “typically equipped” Ram Quad Cab 4×2.

The test vehicle we showed her was a Dodge Ram 4×4 Quad Cab SLT with four full-size doors and a sticker price of $28,995, including a $715 destination charge. Our flame-red vehicle had a $26,065 base price, plus options like a $245 bedliner.

Yurick’s chief concern: Did Dodge change the identity of the popular full-size pickup with the big-rig looks and massive horse-collar grille? The radical-looking Ram debuted in model year 1994 and finally made Dodge trucks – once a marginal player in the market – competitive with Ford and Chevrolet.

“I was worried they were going to change the front end, but they didn’t,” Yurick said, after studying the new Ram. “I would say the new one looks like it’s grinning a bit more at you. It’s a larger grin, but it’s still a ‘Here I come’ look.”

Take it from long-time fans like Yurick, the new Ram has not lost its edgy, rebellious spirit. In fact, it looks like an exaggerated, yet still fresh, version of its old self.

“We decided the best way to proceed was not to alienate our customer body,” said Dennis Myles, Dodge truck senior design manager.

As if to underline its commitment to remaining the most radical domestic pickup, Dodge recently partnered with the rock band Aerosmith, led by long-haired, feather-boa-wearing, Viper-driving front man Steven Tyler. Aerosmith will appear in the new Dodge “Truckville” ad campaign. It seems like a perfect fit. When consumers think of the plainer Chevrolet trucks, let them think of Bob Seger, Detroit’s blue-collar, no-frills rocker. But high-energy, on-the-edge, in-your-face Aerosmith seems to shout Ram.

The Aerosmith connection amused Yurick, but after approving the looks of the new truck, she dove into the cabin, which filched three inches from the bed of the old Quad Cab and now is a bit roomier. Like the competition, creature comforts are paramount in this big truck and a major theme in the redesign.

A big difference is the rear doors on the Quad Cab, which are no longer the rear-hinged clamshell style you had to squeeze into like a tight pair of jeans. Instead, they are hinged at the front and swing open sedan-style to make for easier access.

The Ram’s instrument panel looks more finished and sophisticated, with bright white gauge s and a four-spoke steering wheel. Air conditioning is now standard and dual climate control is available.

One of the first things Yurick did when she bought her old Ram was to rig up homemade cardboard dividers in the center console. She was pleased to see removable plastic dividers in the new Ram’s center console, along with a removable coin holder and power outlet. That outlet keeps the instrument panel free from dangling cords from cell phones and other equipment.

Other pluses: More air vents, rear windows that roll all the way down, an optional rotary dial to engage the four-wheel drive for people who don’t want to pull on a lever, optional $490 side curtain air bags and optional $120 adjustable pedals. She was less impressed with the Ram’s standard 17-inch tires and wheels. Twenty-inch tires are an option.

“If they had put on 32-inch tires – now that would be nice,” Yurick said. We agreed with her; the 17-inch tires look lost in the Ram’s massive wheel wells >

Other buyers may be disappointed to hear that a CD/cassette player is a $510 option and four-wheel antilock brakes – rear-wheel ABS is standard – add another $495 to the bottom line.

But contractors and other workers will like the additional hidden storage compartments under the rear seat. They also should appreciate an optional steel floor on SLT and SLT Plus Quad Cab models located under the back seat that folds out to form a flat load surface.

Perhaps because 80 percent of Ram buyers are males who characterize themselves as non-conformist outdoorsmen who love NASCAR racing, there is still no driver’s-side vanity mirror on Ram. But luxury-minded Ram buyers can get heated front seats in the SLT Plus model for the first time.

Consumers can chose from three different wheelbases and three equipment levels on the 2002 Ram – ST, SLT and SLT Plus. Ram also gets two new engines. The all-new 3.7-liter Magnum V-6 makes 215 horsepower, 40 more than the 3.9-liter engine it replaces. The 4.7-liter Magnum V-8 delivers 235 horsepower, compared to 230 from the 5.2-liter V-8 engine on the 2001 Ram. Also returning for the new model year is the 245-horsepower 5.9-liter V-8.

The Ram’s optional four-speed automatic transmission, which is available on the 3.7- and 4.7-liter engines, features an alternate second gear that kicks in for towing and climbing. A five-speed manual transmission is standard.

Fuel economy is virtually the same as the old Ram, at 14 miles per gallon in city driving and 19 miles per gallon on the highway.

Expect a more refined driving experience with the new Ram, thanks to a new frame and new rack-and-pinion steering on all models that replaces the old recirculating-ball type. In addition, four-wheel-drive Rams now have independent front suspensions. The 2002 model we drove one morning in July appears to have less wind and road noise than its predecessor, especially at highway speeds.

Because she got a good lease deal, Yurick has been driving a 2000 Toyota Tacoma compact pickup. But she says she’s talked her father, who owns a lawn sprinkler installation company, into swaping his fleet of Ford F150s for Dodge Rams.

Her argument: “Pretty much everything on the old Dodge that needed to be tweaked is done.”

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