First Drive review: 2019 Ram 1500 a luxurious reimagining of a classic American workhorse
Wayne Grayson | March 28, 2018

Photo: Wayne Grayson

The Ram Big Rig look is dead. Long live the new Ram.


To call the 2019 Ram 1500 “important” to the Ram Truck brand would be a vast understatement. For the first time in 25 years, this is a completely new Ram pickup both inside and out, and it arrives at a time where trucks and SUVs have never been more popular.

For much of the history of not just Ram Truck brand, but the Ram pickup itself, the term “truck buyer” meant something completely different than it does now. The days where the jolts of a stiff-riding pickup could be brushed aside by the benefits of a big engine, loads of torque and ample bed space are long gone. The people have fallen in love with SUVs. And many SUVs now ride like sedans. So why should their pickups, which are increasingly more expensive than their SUVs, be any different?

That being said, no one’s suggesting that the big engines, cargo space and durability pickup trucks aspire to be known for be sacrificed for this car-like feel. And this creates quite the puzzle for automakers as they attempt to continue cashing in on the current truck craze.

With the 2019 1500, Ram thinks it has cracked the code. Gone is the iconic “Big Rig” exterior styling that since 1994 has been synonymous with the brand, and in its place is a new, more modern design with long lines and fewer rounded corners. Head of the Ram Truck brand Jim Morrison said the design of the 2019 pickups is heavily influenced by customer feedback. And the brand is very comfortable using the terms “luxury” and “pickup” hand in hand.

Photo: Wayne Grayson

“It’s a no compromise truck,” said Morrison. “…When we talked to our customers and asked them what they want as far as a luxury pickup truck they first said ‘I want a ride that feels like a car.’ So we continued to press the engineering gang. We think we had the best riding truck already with our coil suspensions and our air suspensions, but they’ve done a great job of taking that to the next level.

“I can tell you that this truck is absolutely incredible in the way it rides and handles.”

Apart from the ride and look of the truck, the 2019 1500 pickups now boast the largest crew cab in America, Morrison said.

“(Customers said) they want more size… We’ve done it by adding 4 inches to the cab,” Morrison said, adding that the new trucks offer a very spacious 45 inches of legroom and enough space to fit 3 car seats in the back seat.

“Even if you’re 6’5″, you can fit back there,” he said. “If you’re three big dudes going to the jobsite, you fit.”

Beyond just being bigger, the interior has also benefited from a bunch of new technology (including an optional and monstrous 12-inch touch display) and some nifty improvements that provide sizable upgrades in functionality and cargo storage.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This 2019 lineup also features new engine options, a redesigned chassis, redesigned front and rear suspension, and a new axle. Ram flew myself and several other journalists out to the Arizona desert to spend a day driving these new trucks. Here’s what I learned about the truck maker’s redesigned flagship pickup.

 

Inside the big exterior redesign

Photo: Wayne Grayson

When I was 9 years old, Dodge single-handedly turned my distaste for modern car design on its head. My dad and uncle passed down a love for classic cars that made me look at every vehicle made in the short time I had been alive with great disappointment. The only cars that excited my imagination were cars made in the 1950s and 60s, specifically any Chevrolet made in that time frame.

But there was a sweet spot in the mid 90s where Daimler Chrysler’s design team was running on all cylinders (no pun intended).

The Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler were the first modern cars I daydreamed about, hung posters for and made models of. Heck, I even thought the Neon was pretty cool looking. But those all paled in comparison to how I felt about the 1994 Dodge Ram.

The first time I saw the Ram was during an episode of Walker Texas Ranger. Maybe some of my affection for the truck was based on the fact that shots of it speeding down dusty Texas highways were interspersed between watching Chuck Norris double roundhouse bad guys into oblivion, but I wasn’t alone in appreciating the now-famous “Big Rig” design with its low-slung fenders and iconic grille.

‘Cause the eyes of a ranger are upon you…’

The Big Rig look established a clear brand identity for Ram long before it was spun off from Dodge and became Ram Truck. And it enjoyed a long run. For 25 years, generation after generation of Ram pickup mostly looked the same. And the design had such lasting power that this long shelf life never really seemed like a bad thing.

But for the last few years, Ram tinkered with the front end of certain trim levels to gauge its customers’ feelings about a potential sweeping design shift. In 2015 the truck maker launched its off-road enthusiast trim, Ram Rebel, with a new front end look anchored by a new grille with the RAM wordmark in bold letters in place of the familiar Ram’s head logo. That was followed shortly thereafter by a new chrome-heavy front-end design on the Laramie Limited.

John Opfer of Ram’s exterior design team says these design changes were so favorably received by customers that “from a design standpoint we knew we wanted to apply it across all our trucks.”

And so, with the 15th generation, they did just that. During a presentation given before our test drive of the trucks, Opfer said the task of designing a new look for Ram pickups was not taken lightly and before designers started forging the look of the company’s future, they immersed themselves in the 100 years of truck making experience the Ram brand has behind it.

“When we have that kind of history behind us, we wanted to make sure we reflect that in the DNA of the design of our (new) trucks,” Opfer said, adding that the Big Rig design launched in 1994 is “an important part of our heritage.”

“That Big Rig look really allowed Ram Truck to set ourselves apart in our customers’ minds as well as against our competitors,” he said. “…We wanted to build upon that heritage in a modern, expressive way.”

Opfer called the new design “a modern interpretation” of the company’s heritage and said the biggest easily perceivable change is the new front end design. He pointed out the trucks’ new “split power dome” design on the hood that “cascades down to the drop fender that you’d expect from a Ram truck.”

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Opfer says the new front end gives every 2019 1500 a “stern visage” thanks to the “brow” that runs the width of the front end, separating the new forward-leaning grille from the hood and gives the headlamps, now positioned higher to be even with the top of the grille, a “steely-eyed glint,” as Opfer put it. He pointed out another interesting design feature just below the headlamps where the fenders curve in from the wheel well to meet the bottom edge of the grille. He said this feature was designed to bring to mind the cheek guards of a “warrior’s helmet.”

Speaking of those fenders, Opfer said their D-shaped arches over the wheels is a nod to the now-classic 1994 Ram.

Aside from the front end, Opfer said much of the exterior design team’s efforts went into getting the proportions of the 2019 model right since it’s a larger truck. “We’ve given all that length back to the customer by adding 4 inches to the cab,” he said. Aiding in getting the proportional look of the truck right is a clean line that runs down the entire profile of the truck, from the bed all the way to the front end. To achieve that line, the bed on the 2019 models was lifted 35 millimeters. The change wasn’t just aesthetic, it increased cargo space as well, Opfer said.

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Another new exterior design detail can be found on the tailgate of the truck. Opfer said the dovetail design at the top of the gate matches the brow on the front end and increases the aerodynamics of the truck. Opfer said the design also provides a shadow effect and accentuates the shield design in the middle of the gate where the Ram head logo resides.

The result of it all is what I find to be the most interesting truck design on the market. I think Opfer and team have struck the perfect balance between at-a-glance recognition and “Whoa, that’s new.” The new front end retains a healthy amount of what made the old Big Rig design so distinctive while moving the visual identity of the brand forward in a bold and, more importantly, attractive way, that speaks to Ram’s ambitions to provide customers not only with a great pickup, but a luxury vehicle.

 

Powertrain

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Though only the standard 5.7-liter Hemi V8 will be available at launch, the 2019 Ram 1500 lineup will eventually be available with three powertrain options: the aforementioned Hemi, the Hemi with Ram’s new eTorque mild hybrid system, and a 3.7-liter V6 with eTorque. All three will be paired with an eight-speed TorqueFlite transmission.

So what is this “mild hybrid” powertrain? Basically, Ram tacks on a belt-drive motor generator to the engine which is connected to a briefcase-sized 48-volt battery located behind the backseat. And rather than acting as the truck’s sole source of power between certain speeds or distance ranges like other hybrid systems, eTorque’s main purpose is to complement the engine in order to smooth drivetrain transitions.

As Mike Gapski of Ram’s powertrain team put it, while eToruqe also charges the truck’s 12V electrical system, its two primary functions are making the auto engine start/stop function more efficient and cancelling out drivetrain “disturbances.”

Gapski says eTorque delivers 130 lb.-ft. of torque (90 lb.-ft. on the V6) and 60 horsepower on V8 models in the blink of an eye in order to restart the engine and deliver a surge of power to the truck in less than half a second. Apart from a quick shot of espresso to a sleeping engine, eTorque also provides brief periods of torque while the engine is running in order to smooth out disruptions in power delivery and transmission shifts.

The eTorque motor generator. Photo: Wayne Grayson

Unfortunately, I can’t yet tell you how this translates to real-world driving as Ram did not make an eTorque-equipped truck available to journalists at the recent test drive. Instead, each truck we got a chance to drive was equipped with the Hemi, which delivers 395 horsepower and 410 lb.-ft. of torque. (Ram made this engine available because they feel it will be the most popular among the powertrain options.) In addition to the auto start/stop functionality, Ram has also expanded the use of its cylinder deactivation feature on the Hemi V8. This feature detects driving conditions when the full power of the engine isn’t necessary and switches the Hemi into a fuel-saving four-cylinder mode.

Since there’s not nearly as much exciting change happening with the Hemi as the rest of the truck, there isn’t much to report back on how the engine performed during the drive. With quick acceleration to freeway speeds and buttery smooth shifting from that 8-speed gearbox, the Hemi provides more than ample power for any highway driving you’ll be doing, and you get all of that big beautiful V8 rumble and sound.

Speaking of rumble, though Ram says these lighter 1500 pickups now switch between eight- and four-cylinder modes more often, you’ll hardly ever notice (unless you’re monitoring the engine status from the center console display). That’s because of a nifty new feature called active tune mass modules. Ram has bolted one of these small canisters on the driver- and passenger-sides of the frame in order to cancel out vibrations caused by the Hemi four-cylinder mode.

Ram’s Active Tune Mass Modules cancel out vibrations caused by the Hemi V8’s four-cylinder mode. Photo: Wayne Grayson

“If we did nothing (the vibration caused by the four-cylinder mode) would be transferred through the seat cross member into the vehicle and you could sense it in the floor panel and the seat,” Raymond said. “With the expanded range of the (four-cylinder) operation we said let’s keep comfort in mind and throw some technology at this. It picks up that signal and then it inputs the opposite signal to cancel the vibration coming through the structure.”

Though the Hemi isn’t much different than the V8 in the previous generation of trucks, the new 1500 models have seen big jumps in payload and towing. Payload capacity is up 22 percent to 2,300 pounds while towing capability jumped 20 percent to 12,750 pounds. So how did Ram come by these big capability boosts without a more powerful engine? The truck maker says the answer lies in the lighter, redesigned chassis.

 

All-new chassis and suspension

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Aside from the front end, the chassis is where the majority of big changes have come on the 2019 1500 pickups. Ram says it’s the “longest, lightest and most efficient frame in the half-ton segment,” reducing the trucks’ weight by 120 pounds, greatly aiding in an overall weight reduction on these trucks of 225 pounds.

The new frame features a splayed rail design for better impact absorption along with taller, fully boxed side rails. The frame is made of 98 percent high-strength steel and is available in three new, longer lengths: 144.5 inches on the Crew Cab short bed; 153.5 inches on the Crew Cab long beds; and 140.5 inches on the Quad Cab long bed. Thanks to lightweighting and the use of aluminum crossmembers and other aluminum components, the frame alone saved 100 pounds on these new trucks.

With the increased payload and towing capabilities, Ram redesigned the rear axle with structural optimizations that save 10 pounds in weight, along with both the front and rear suspension.

The new front suspension features lightweight composite upper control arms, aluminum lower control arms and has been retuned for improved responsiveness and handling. “Probably the biggest thing we did is we took this sway bar and we moved it from front knuckle to back knuckle,” Ram Chief Engineer Mike Raymond said. “We basically said alright it’s more efficient back there, it allowed us to go tubular, but one of the things we wanted to do was improve roll stiffness.” The result, Raymond says is less roll in cornering maneuvers. “What you have out there is a more coordinated dance between steering input and roll,” he added.

A five-link rear coil suspension is standard on the 2019 1500 and Ram says the design “provides better articulation over obstacles than a leaf spring system” while ensuring a comfortable ride from unloaded up to the trucks’ 2,300-pound payload capacity. Raymond says the suspension is designed to progress through the rings of the suspension based on how much the truck loaded down.

“What we have is basically a two step spring… (with) a tapered diameter. It starts out at the smaller diameter and it grows as you work your way down the coil. The benefit of it is that when you’re lightly loaded, it keeps the soft ring. When you load the truck up to GVW, you get into those stiffer rings,” he explained. “So it’s no compromise from a ride standpoint. You could throw a constant rate spring at it and guess what, when you’re lightly loaded it’s stiff as hell back there.”

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Another element of the suspension offering variable response to changing driving conditions are the Frequency Response Damping shocks on all four corners of these new trucks. Ram says FRD shocks automatically adjust for the type of vertical wheel input. During cornering and heavy braking, the bypass valve on the shocks is closed for more aggressive damping. During normal driving where vertical shock inputs occur more frequently, the valve opens to soften damping. As a result, Ram says FRD shocks provide “sports-car-like suspension for handling and a supple suspension on rough terrain.”

For an additional $1,795, you can equip a 2019 1500 with FRD shocks with air suspension on all four corners. Beyond providing a cushioned ride, the air suspension can detect the load on the suspension from a trailer or payload and then increase the gas pressure in the suspension until the truck reaches normal ride height. It can also be manually set to one of five height settings (four on Rebel) through the key fob or the truck’s console for easy passenger entry or bed loading.

So how did all these improvements translate to actual use? Really well. Based on what we’ve heard from Ram since the unveiling of these new trucks, their primary focus has been to deliver a truck with the ride of a luxury car. During my day of driving and riding in both a 2019 BigHorn and a Laramie LongHorn, Ram has done exactly that.

Photo: Wayne Grayson

The trucks we were allowed to take out were outfitted with a Hemi V8 and air suspension. We spent much of the day on desert highways, but also spent some time on portions of dirt roads and traversing some mild off-road terrain. Through it all, the trucks delivered a consistent, and plush ride not too different than what you’d expect from a crossover. In many ways it’s a ride more enjoyable than a crossover due to the comfort of the new interior, which I’ll go into greater detail about below.

What made the biggest impression on me was just how quiet the cabin was. Ram says this is the quietest truck its ever produced with sound levels down to 66 db thanks to a new interior active noise cancellation system that works in unison with the vibration-taming cans on the frame.

Four-wheel drive is a $3,500 option on these trucks while the off-road package is an extra $795. The off-road package is a pretty appealing deal, adding skid plates, 1 inch of extra ground clearance and an electronically-locking rear differential. This ELocker turns any of the new 1500 pickups into a truck capable of any number of mild to medium off-road adventures.

 

12-inch touchscreen, tons of storage highlight a remarkable interior

The optional dual pane sunroof lets in a huge amount of light. Photo: Wayne Grayson

Of the interior found in the 2019 Ram 1500 pickups, Morrison said it’s “one of the best interiors in all of the segments,” and he includes luxury cars in his assessment. “I’ll challenge you to compare it to anything that’s out there.”

He has a point though. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more comfortable, luxurious interior than the one found inside the 2019 Laramie LongHorn. The seats, brand new in the front and back, have the feel of leather recliners and the amount of legroom and storage space made possible by the 4 inches added onto the new cab is remarkable. The interior also boasts the first dual pane overhead sunroof in a Ram. It looks amazing.

“The best part of this new truck is that we have a true flat floor in the back,” said Jon Gaudreau, the design manager for Ram interiors. You might be tempted to call Gaudreau’s claim that the floor of this truck is its best interior feature an exaggeration, but when you open the back doors and fold up the back seats and see the ocean of storage space now available, you’d probably change your tune.

Flat means flat. Photo: Wayne Grayson

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Photo: Wayne Grayson

In either side of that flat floor in the just inside the rear doors are storage boxes that are now 5 inches longer than in previous trucks. Gaudreau says you can fit a 4-inch drop hitch in these boxes and you can stow drink cans sideways. Even the folding rear seats have a storage area beneath them that allows you to store objects that run the entire width of the cab.

The abundance of storage extends to the front of the cab as well with a redesigned center console. Of everything inside the cab, this console is the thing I fiddled with the most because it is so damn impressive. For starters, the console boasts a huge 39 liters of storage space–nearly double that of the console found in Chevrolet and Ford trucks, Ram says. But the coolest thing about this console is how many moving parts there are in order to let you customize the storage space.

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Directly underneath the armrest is a felt-covered space for valuables and a USB port for charging your phone. Flip that up and you’ll find a cup-holder that slides along the length of the console. Slide it all the way toward the front of the truck and you create a massive pocket in the console that can accommodate a 15-inch laptop and hanging file folders. (A nice touch: beneath that felt covered layer of the console is a plastic slate with a protractor, conversion tables and a ruler. You’ll probably never use it, but it’s there and is a nice detail and hat tip to those using the trucks for actual work.)

In addition to the charge-only USB port under the armrest, the console includes four USB ports in the front of the cab (2 USB and 2 USB-C) along with four more in the back. Just beneath the ports in the front is a nifty phone holder that can accommodate up to three smartphones and supports wireless charging.

The smartphone holder can hold three phones securely thanks to a nice clamp at the bottom, and will wirelessly charge your devices. Photo: Wayne Grayson

But the most eye-catching feature of the new Ram 1500 pickups is the optional and massive 12-inch Uconnect touchscreen display that sits in the center of the dashboard. Ram is the only automaker currently offering something like this outside of the 17-inch touchscreen console found in Tesla’s Models S and X and the 15-inch display found in the Model 3.

The new display is the home to the fourth generation of Uconnect and includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity along with a 360-degree surround view camera system and SiriusXM with 360L, which was described as a kind of DVR for satellite radio.

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Photo: Wayne Grayson

The display also features split-screen functionality, allowing you to display one application at the top of the screen, like the birds-eye camera or Apple CarPlay, while maintaining access to seat or climate controls in the bottom of the screen. Though HVAC controls can be accessed through the display itself, Ram has flanked it with physical buttons for climate control. A set of switches along the bottom of the display have a nice clicky action to them and allow for adjusting the air suspension ride height and other functions.

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Photo: Wayne Grayson

Pricing

Here’s how the starting prices on the 2019 Ram 1500 lineup breaks down:

  • Tradesman: $31,695
  • Big Horn: $35,695
  • Rebel: $43,985
  • Laramie: $40,690
  • Longhorn: $51,380
  • Limited: $53,890

Key packages and options:

  • Rambox available on any trim: +$995
  • V8 Hemi with eTorque: +$1,995
  • Air suspension: +$1,795
  • Sport appearance package, available on BigHorn (+$995) and Laramie (+$1,995)
  • Black appearance package, available on BigHorn (+$1,495) and Laramie (+$2,995)
  • Off-road package, available on any trim: +$795
  • 12-inch Uconnect touchscreen comes standard on limited and LongHorn Level 1, extra $995 on Laramie

Photo: Wayne Grayson

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