“Heading up north,” is a loaded phrase among Michiganders, typically implying some combination of vacation and relaxation. So it might not be fair to say that my fiancee and I were “heading up north” when her car broke down exactly halfway between Ann Arbor and Traverse City. There was no vacation involved; this was a permanent move for our household that just happened to coincide with everyone else’s trip to Lake Michigan. Nor was there any relaxation in the forecast—not with a broken car filled to its ceiling on the side of the road. Thankfully, we had one thing in common with the leisure-travel crowd blowing by us on the freeway shoulder: we had a Ram 1500.
Light duty pickups represent the bloodiest, most competitive market segment here in the States, and nothing but an automaker’s absolute best will suffice. The fifth-generation Ram had to share the stage with the new Chevrolet Silverado when it was unveiled at the 2018 North American International Auto Show, but an aggressive sales plan, combined with the decision to continue making and selling the previous fourth-gen truck as the Ram Classic, helped catapult FCA’s cash cow into second place on the truck sales chart behind the untouchable F-150. While Toyota and Nissan also make light-duty pickups, make no mistake—this is and always has been a three-horse race.
Our mid-trim Laramie tester wore Flame Red Clear Coat paint vibrant enough to light the evening roads. The options list is too large to spell out in its entirety, but here are some highlights. The Advanced Safety Group adds niceties like adaptive cruise and surround-view camera. A Night Edition package (new for 2020) provides a host of blacked-out exterior bits to contrast the screaming Red paint. The Off-Road group adds a medieval knight’s worth of underbody armor. Laramie Level 2 Equipment Group includes a 19-speaker Harman Kardon sound system and heated second-row seats. Dual-pane panoramic sunroof. 33-gallon fuel tank, UConnect 12-inch touchscreen, RamBox cargo management system, and much, much more. All told, our $48,435-base-price truck rang in at an eye-watering $69,410. That’s a Honda Civic’s-worth of options, but who’s counting?
It’s a stretch to describe the styling of any of today’s light-duties as “subdued”—these trucks thrive on descriptors like “bold” and “aggressive,” but the Ram’s exterior design—especially when parked next to a Silverado or GMC Sierra—somehow manages to speak softly. The frame that undergirds the truck is 98-percent high-strength steel, but tips the scales at 100 pounds lighter than the outgoing frame. Unlike Ford’s aluminum-intensive structure on the F-150, the Ram’s body is largely comprised of steel, a more traditional material for pickup construction.
While the exterior form-factor of a pickup truck hasn’t changed much since World War I, the inside couldn’t be more different, and the new Ram is the finest example of that progression. There’s a cattle-trailer’s worth of stitched leather inside, plus a raft of handsome plastic and metal inlays in the dash and console to match. Storage abounds, from the center console you could fit a two-year-old in to the Ram bins hidden under the floor in the second row, perfect for bungee cords or other nefarious contraband.
The Ram’s party piece is the massive, 12-inch touchscreen placed vertically in the center console. FCA’s UConnect system manages everything from the radio to Apple CarPlay, navigation, the heated and cooled thrones up front, and the bank vault’s worth of cameras providing a 360-degree view of what’s around the truck. Those cameras are extremely helpful when you’re trying to safely pilot a close-to-twenty-feet-long mechanized version of Clifford the Big Red Dog through parking lots tighter than the aisles at your local grocery store.
While helpful when the cameras are on, the 12-inch screen proved to be more of a distraction most of the time. Is it innovative? Yes—it’s an incredible piece of tech, the perfect shiny object to fascinate automotive journalists and the folks from Wired at the same time, who wonder why more vehicles can’t be “like a Tesla.” In reality, the 8.4-inch display is perfectly fine for the interior. Save yourself $1395 dollars to spend on the optional four-corner air suspension.
The duality of the Ram is immediately and consistently impressive; it’s equally as comfortable cosplaying “luxury vehicle” as “U-Haul van.” The 45.7 inches of rear legroom are best-in class, although this truck loses out to both the current F-150 and the Silverado on front legroom. There’s still more than enough stretch-out space for 23-ish hours of driving that took place during our move. Add to that the Ram’s willingness to swallow still more “stuff” after the aforementioned roadside breakdown, and I came away convinced that many stressful situations in life are at least eased by a pickup truck, if not solved outright.
The 395-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 in our tester had Ram’s trick eTorque mild-hybrid system on it—a belt-driven generator hooked up to a 48-volt battery pack that offers a temporary 130 lb-ft bump in torque, as well as start/stop functionality. That’s a considerable spike, even in a motor packing 410 lb-ft to begin with. All that twist and shove routes through a ZF eight-speed automatic to the rear wheels. Like the large majority of pickups sold these days, our tester had the optional 4×4 driveline. $95 seemed a reasonable price for 3.92 rear axle ratio, which increases towing capability.
Around-town driving was a snap, if occasionally an exercise of one’s spatial awareness. The powertrain is peppy and responsive. The regenerative braking can be a bit fussy as you vary pressure on the brake, going from light regenerative pressure to a serious clamp on the discs without much warning. We’d prefer a nicer interchange from battery to brake, but under anything other than the lightest of inputs, there’s really nothing about which to complain.
The commanding driving position is immediately comfortable; clicking off hundreds of miles in a single go is a breeze. On the highway, two fingers and an elbow on the window sill are enough to keep the vehicle tracking straight. The optional 33-gallon tank means you could get well north of 450 miles from a single fill-up. Thankfully, the Ram’s coil-spring rear suspension meant that no highway bumps were gonna shake things loose while straining for the next rest stop. Relative to the leaf-spring rear suspensions in the Silverado and the F-150, the Ram is simply a cut above when it comes to ride comfort. The $1805 four-corner air suspension—optional on every trim but the Limited where it’s included as standard—is just rubbing it in.
We borrowed a 14 x 8-foot enclosed trailer from a family member to help transport the vast array of boxes, dressers, and car parts (sorry about that, dear.) At around 6000-pounds fully loaded, we barely reached half of this particular trucks 11,190-pound towing capacity. It showed—the truck had no trouble maintaining respectable highway speeds, even 90 minutes from our Northern Michigan destination as highway began to rise and fall amidst the wooded north-central Michigan landscape. The only real penalty—predictably—was fuel economy, which lingered right around 9 mpg. Even as crosswinds picked up an hour north of Flint, the Ram never wavered—it simply kept performing the task that I’d asked it to without grumble, and in total comfort.
Unless you live in a 31st-floor studio apartment in the heart of an overpopulated urban metropolis, it is increasingly hard not to recommend a pickup truck. Where once choosing a pickup meant sacrifice, now it only means added capability.
But that have-it-all is going to cost you. Unless you’re also in the market for a cost-no-object Porsche 911, the range of prices that you can pay for a new light-duty will be a bit shocking. The lowest tier Ram 1500, the Tradesman, starts at $33,840 for the 4×2 drivetrain with a Pentastar V-6, including a $1695 destination fee. At the top end, a Ram 1500 Limited starts at $55,410 (including $1695 destination fee) for the crew cab 4×2 with the 5-foot, 7-inch box—a configuration nobody actually buys. Optioning a light-duty pickup to over $70,000 is entirely possible—how that doesn’t blow more people’s minds, I’m not sure. Here more than perhaps any other class of vehicle, the devil is in the details, and finding that sweet spot means a judicious pen when presented with the options sheet.
Using our tester as an example, I’d skip the Night Edition package (with extreme prejudice), skip the Advanced Safety Group, skip the e-torque engine in favor of the normal 5.7-liter Hemi, lose the power running boards, and (yeah—I’ll say it) skip the 12-inch UConnect navigation screen. Suddenly, the Laramie Crew Cab 4×4 goes from an eye-watering $69,410 as-tested to a somewhat more palatable $61,630. A roughly sixty-thousand-dollar truck is a lot different than a roughly seventy-thousand-dollar truck. Realistically, a respectably-optioned Ram Big Horn is more my speed; a hasty trip through Ram’s massive online configurator produced a plenty luxurious truck for my needs commanding $54,115—and that’s before any of the omnipresent discounts that are considered.
At the end of the move, I’d covered north of 2200 miles, using the truck as everything from a holiday rig on Memorial Day Weekend to a pack mule loaded with as much crap as possible and towing a trailer with twice that. The Ram didn’t care how I used it—it simply went about executing the task with a level of style, safety, comfort, and ability that had me laughing at the drivers of Jeeps, Mercedes-Benz S-Classes, and Honda Civic owners at the same time. The truck was a place of zen during the chaos of the move, and a tool for getting “it” done better—whatever “it” happened to be in the moment. Was it a vacation? No—but thanks to the Ram, it was more relaxing than I’d expected.
2020 Ram 1500 Laramie Crew Cab 4×4: $69,410 as tested (destination included).
Pros: The luxury of an S-Class meets the utility of a U-Haul. Styling speaks softly, capability carries a big stick. Configurable to just about anyone’s preference. It is increasingly hard not to recommend a light-duty pickup to more than half of America’s driving population.
Cons: If we did that, we’re gonna need bigger roads. Some interior technology proved more distracting than helpful. The potential to decimate one’s wallet in the options list is uncomfortably high. Mild-hybrid tech doesn’t respond well to light inputs.
Summary: In America’s bloodiest, most competitive market segment, the Ram 1500 crew cab offers meaningful differentiation from the other big-three trucks, and nabs second-place on the sales chart for good reason.