Test Drive: 2009 Dodge Ram pickup pays attention to details

If you want the usefulness of a big pickup and don't need bragging rights for the biggest payload and towing ratings, look hard at the redesigned '09 Dodge Ram, on sale since September.

The macho Ram (about 65% are sold with pavement-wrinkling Hemi V-8s) is, philosophically, a minivan for the truck-hungry — and that's a compliment.

Ram tows and hauls enough for most users, but its marquee features are the high-power Hemi; a clever, storage-rich cargo bed called RamBox; and coil-spring rear suspension like on most cars, rather than stiffer-riding leaf springs used on cargo haulers since stagecoach days. Though coils are heresy to the crustiest truckers, the coils give a smoother ride, better handling and crisper steering, Dodge argues.

No argument here after hundreds of miles in a preproduction, high-end Laramie crew-cab four-wheel-drive and a production Big Horn crew cab 4x4. (Crew cabs are expected to be 50% of sales.)

Ram's attention to useful details worked. The testers were the best people-toting, daily-driving big crew cabs ever.

The optional Hemi added easygoing muscle that once was Detroit's signature.

Based on suburban and highway miles, Ram is:

•Comfy. Seats, front and back, were supportive, agreeable. The crew cab has extraordinary rear legroom that totes beefy buddies to the game or averts squish-induced kid squabbling. But you can't slide the rear seat or adjust its angle as in Toyota's Tundra, still the rear-seat champ among big crew cabs.

•Easy to drive. The massive hood and grille are intimidating if you're not used to big pickups, but the large truck was maneuverable. Comes about in less space than rivals. Not afraid of tight, quick corners, nor skittish on most bumps.

•Punchy. At least with the Hemi. Cotillion behavior in traffic; sudden jump when asked. And a good-humored grumble from the dual pipes.

•Handy. Upper and lower glove boxes. Under-floor bins. Under-seat nooks. Extra cup holders. Optional wireless Internet link. Remote "smart start" warms or cools according to the weather, rather than according to how you left the climate controls set when you shut it off last time.

Gripes:

•Numb brakes. Took a major leg shove to haul the big fella down. Nobody else has complained, Chrysler says, and much engineering went into making the brakes just right.

•Shifter. Manual-shift rocker switch in the column-mounted shift lever was too easy to bump inadvertently. "Revisions are being investigated," Chrysler says, noting it is meant for more control when towing, not for boy-racer bang-shifting.

•Doors. Usually had to close twice, or slam.

•Fuel economy. Duh. Heavy truck with Hemi. Pay to play. However, Dodge promises a gas-electric hybrid Ram next year. A similar system in the soon-to-be-discontinued Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen SUV hybrids is good for 20 mpg in town.

Financial reports make it reasonable to ask if there will be a Chrysler next year. Or a General Motors or a Ford Motor.

All could run out of cash next year without government help or an economic rebound.

Worst case: Dodge has designed a pickup for non-existent buyers. Best case: Ram's so innovative, smooth, bold-looking — and inviting because of the Hemi — that it'll create its own market.

ABOUT THE DODGE RAM

•What? New-design, full-size pickup, available with regular, extended or crew cab; short, medium or long cargo box; rear-wheel or four-wheel drive (4x4).

•When? On sale since September.

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