Road Test: 2003 Dodge Ram 1500

Discussion in 'OT Driven' started by TriShield, Aug 8, 2002.

  1. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Super Moderator

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    By Ed Hellwig

    Our impressions come after a week behind the wheel of a 2002 Ram 1500 Quad Cab SLT. For those not up on their Dodge truck nomenclature, we'll give you a quick translation. Quad Cab refers to this year's new four-door design that combines the length of an extended cab with the convenience of a crew cab. The 1500 designation denotes a half-ton model, the only redesigned model sold for 2002. The revised heavy-duty versions (2500 and 3500) arrive for 2003. The SLT specifies mid-grade trim, a step above the base ST, but still below the top-of-the-line SLT Plus.

    With an as-tested price of $29,830, our SLT was more like the top level SLT Plus, as it included more than $6,000 worth of options. The most significant among them were the top-of-the-line 5.9-liter Magnum V8 engine, leather seating, power everything and an Infinity audio system. Taken together, these additional features gave our test truck an upscale look and feel that no doubt contributed to the frequent remarks concerning the truck's easy-to-like character.

    As with most fullsize trucks, getting in requires a bit of a climb, but well-placed grab handles alleviate any strain. The optional eight-way power driver seat was quite comfortable, although there were a few complaints about the short bottom cushion. Adjustable pedals made even our shortest editors feel comfortable behind the wheel, but a lack of articulating headrests kept the Dodge from earning best-in-class status when it comes to seats.

    Our truck's front bench was split 40/20/40, with a foldable seatback and center console in the middle. As a seat, the middle section is only marginally comfortable, but its functionality when folded down and used as a big storage bin and armrest is hard to beat. As if that weren't enough, there's also an optional under-seat storage drawer that adds even more out-of-sight storage capacity.

    Room in the rear quarters has been improved significantly with the introduction of the Quad Cab design for 2002. Dodge engineers realized that with so many trucks being used for family vehicles, interior passenger room was every bit as important as cargo space in back. With this in mind, 3 inches were cut from the bed and added to the cabin, making the previously cramped rear bench more accommodating for adults. Further contributing to the Ram's usefulness is the addition of four fullsize access doors. Instead of awkward rearward-opening clamshell doors like in other fullsize extended cabs, the Ram has larger forward-opening doors that open a full 85 degrees.

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    An extended drive with four fullsize adults on board proved that the rear seats are indeed comfortable for long trips. The seatbacks are still a little too upright for fully relaxed comfort and legroom is limited, but considering that the Quad Cab is still about the same length as most other fullsize extended-cab trucks, the fact that the rear seats are spacious for adults at all is worth noting.

    The shortened bed makes little difference unless you just so happen to be carrying 6½-foot-long materials. We loaded it up with a large rolling tool chest and various automotive tools and never noticed the missing length. Numerous hefty tie-down cleats throughout the bed made cinching down our awkward load easier than expected.

    Practical features like this aren't limited to the exterior, either. The Ram's interior design is geared toward maximum functionality. There's nothing fancy about it, just straightforward controls and plenty of room to stretch out. The white-face gauges are easy to read in any light, and the three-dial climate controls are about as simple as it gets. There are two huge cupholders that deploy from the dash and are capable of holding the biggest of Big Gulps, and the large dash vents channel plenty of air for quick heating and cooling.

    Above and beyond these typical features, the Ram further impressed us with its overall material and build quality. It's not going to put any European sedans to shame, but the Ram does approach the class-leading Toyota Tundra in many respects. Dash panels were straight and solid to the touch; the leather on the steering wheel was soft and grippy; and even the turn signal stalk engaged with a soft but high-quality feel.

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    The Ram's high level of refinement extends to the undercarriage, as well. Like we said before, Dodge is fully aware that fullsize trucks are being used as much for daily commuting as they are for worksite hauling. This trend has made ride quality and road feel almost as important as the more traditional benchmarks like maximum towing and hauling ability. To deliver a perceptible increase in road feel, the Ram uses a hydroformed frame for greater stiffness and strength, along with an all-new rack-and-pinion steering system.

    It's no canyon-carver, but the Ram's steering and suspension did make for a driving experience that surprised nearly every editor who got behind the wheel. For such a big vehicle, the Ram feels nimble and easy to drive. The suspension is still a bit bouncy at times, but loaded with four adults and some cargo in the bed, the Ram's ride quality was as comfortable as any sport-utility's. Cabin noise is especially low, with little wind buffeting despite the large mirrors and less-than-aerodynamic shape. The standard four-wheel disc brakes had plenty of power, although considerable pedal effort was required to exact maximum stopping power.

    Up to this point, it might seem as though the Ram is about as good as it gets when it comes to fullsize trucks, but we can't give it our full endorsement just yet. As civilized as trucks have become, we still expect them to take care of business when there's work to be done, and this is where the Ram falls short.

    Although equipped with the optional 5.9-liter Magnum V8 engine, our SLT test truck felt underpowered in most situations. Just looking at the numbers doesn't tell the whole story, as the 5.9 compares favorably with the offerings from Ford and GM in that respect. In real-world driving, however, the Magnum V8 feels soft off the line and never catches up from there. Its 0-to-60 time of 9.3 seconds is better than that of the last Dodge fullsize pickup we tested, but that time still would have left the new Ram at the back of the pack, had it competed in our last Fullsize Pickup Truck Comparison Test. If this were the only truck you ever drove, you might not mind it too much, but try the Chevrolet Silverado's or GMC Sierra's 5.3-liter V8, and you would realize just how tame the Ram's 5.9 really feels behind the wheel.

    Calling out such a shortcoming seems all the more important when you consider that help is on the way shortly. This fall, Dodge will introduce an all-new 5.7-liter Hemi V8 in the redesigned three-quarter and one-ton Rams. This engine has considerably more horsepower (345) and torque (365 lb-ft), and should more than make up for the 5.9's lack of grunt. You may have to wait a year or so before it's offered in the 1500 Rams, but if everything else about the truck is to your liking, it might be well worth the wait.

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    In our minds, the Ram's lack of power is its only fatal flaw. We liked the clean, functional interior and its high-quality construction. The added room inside makes it a legitimate family vehicle, especially when you consider the four fullsize doors. The compliant ride quality and solid steering feel make it a comfortable daily driver; although, the poor mileage of the 5.9-liter V8 (we averaged just 12 miles per gallon) might make you think twice about that game plan.

    If stump-pulling power means nothing to you, then the Ram might be a perfectly acceptable truck, especially if you choose the standard 4.7-liter V8 that feels nearly as powerful yet returns somewhat better mileage. But if effortless towing and hauling ability is a requirement for your next truck purchase, we would advise you either to wait until next year for a more powerful Ram or look to one of the other "Big Three" for satisfaction.
     

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