Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Ram Heavy Duty Trucks

BOULDER CITY, NV – It wasn’t that long ago that 500 lb-ft of torque seemed an enormous number for a non-commercial pickup truck to produce. But over the past ten years heavy-duty truck makers have waged an all-out numbers war, a back-and-forth battle of one-upmanship that’s constantly establishing new record highs for torque and tow ratings. A decade ago, the idea of 1,000 lb-ft of torque seemed ridiculous – and then it became just a matter of time. The only question was who would get there first.

This round unquestionably belongs to Ram, which has just produced the first heavy-duty passenger truck to shatter the 1,000 lb-ft barrier. With a class-leading 35,100 lb max rating, Ram has also posted a new benchmark for towing.

How were they able to squeeze such an absurd amount of power from an engine that’s actually 60 lb lighter than its predecessor? The optional new 6.7-litre turbo diesel, developed with long-time partner Cummins, is built on a stronger, compacted graphite iron block which is less prone to vibration. It’s packed with lighter, stronger pistons with low-friction rings, aluminum accessories (e.g. water pump, EGR, water inlet), new valves, springs, rocker arms, and forged connecting rods. Total output is 400 hp at 2,800 rpm, and 1,000 lb-ft of torque at 1,800 rpm. With this power plant, a regular cab, 4x2 Ram 3500 dually equipped with a Max Tow package is capable of pulling a 35,100 lb trailer, or 7,680 lb payload. The truck shed up to 143 lb, and its trademark big-rig grille had to be enlarged by 30 percent to make room for the enormous radiator and intercooler necessary to achieve such astonishing numbers.

Also offered is a slightly less powerful variant of the 6.7L inline-six, with 370 hp and 850 lb-ft of torque, and virtually identical but for the piston heads. The high output version features pistons with deeper bowls, changing the compression ratio from the standard 19.0:1 to 16.2:1, and allowing for a greater boost pressure of 33 psi via the new variable geometry turbocharger.

While the lower output diesel comes mated to an upgraded version of Chrysler’s in-house 68RFE six-speed automatic, the high output needed a beefier Aisin AS69RC to handle the extra torque. It features a new dual-core processor with double the capacity of the previous controller, for improved shifting speed and precision.

Four-wheel-drive Rams equipped with the high-output diesel come with an all-new, part-time BorgWarner transfer case, beefed up to handle the maximum load. Standard diesel, and the gasoline Hemi use a BorgWarner transfer case with either an electric or manual shift.

The standard engine in both the Ram 2500 and 3500 is the familiar 6.4L gasoline-powered Hemi V8, delivering 400 hp and 429 lb-ft of torque. Available for the first time in the heavy-duty Ram is the eight-speed automatic transmission, and that comes with the rotary shift knob, also making its appearance for the first time in the big trucks.

The truck rides on a new hydroformed high-strength steel frame with six cross-members, fully boxed rear rails, and active damping modules to reduce vibration. Front and rear axles are both stronger and lighter. A stiff suspension built for large payloads usually produces a harsh ride when unladen, but new two-mode Frequency Response Damping (FRD) shocks on all four corners automatically adjust for more supple ride and handling over rough surfaces. Rear suspension consists of a coil spring setup on the 2500, leaf springs on the 3500, and optional air suspension with three modes: Normal/Payload self-levels depending on load weight; Bed Mode lowers to facilitate trailer hookup; and Trailer Mode adjusts to remain level with the trailer.

While light-duty pickup trucks have become increasingly luxurious to compete with the ever-encroaching crossover, HD trucks have traditionally been regarded as little more than workhorses: strong and capable, but low on luxury and not very comfortable. That doesn’t cut it with today’s buyer used to premium features and the latest technology. Stealing a page from the Ram 1500’s playbook, the new heavy-duty trucks now offer an extensive list of upgrades including an optional 12-inch vertical touchscreen with an impressive list of apps and swipe capability, up to five USB ports, wireless phone charger, 17-speaker Harman Kardon sound system, genuine wood trim, and multiple leather options to choose from depending on trim level. Thanks to extensive use of sound-deadening, including acoustic windshield and side glass, hydraulic body mounts, and noise cancellation system, it’s Ram’s quietest heavy-duty cabin yet. There are six different trim levels, each with its own characteristic styling cues, and 12 exterior paint choices.

There’s a long list of safety technology including adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, and proximity sensors that can accommodate the wide-hipped dually. The 360-degree four-camera system uses the infotainment screen to display a selection of views, from cargo bed, trailer hookup, and backing up with trailer. An optional fifth camera can be mounted on the back, or the inside of a trailer. When combined with the air suspension’s bed-lowering ability, hooking up a bumper pull or gooseneck can easily be done by one person.

We drove a meandering route from Las Vegas to Eldorado Canyon, Nevada, in a 2500 Regular Cab Tradesman 4x4, a basic work truck with the regular diesel, manual transfer case, cloth and vinyl interior, and 5-inch standard display screen. It’s comfortable enough for a no-frills truck with very little engine clatter audible in the cabin. Off the highway, the roads grew progressively rougher the further we went into the desert. The cracked and buckled pavement produced a discernible harshness from the unladen rear springs, which lacked the cushioning of the optional air suspension.

Ram had several configurations of tow rigs for us to try, ranging from a 2500 Laramie and 10,150 lb flatbed loaded with bricks, 3500 Longhorn with 11,000 lb gooseneck horse trailer, topping out with a 3500 Regular Cab with a 35,100 lb heavy trailer loaded with heavy machinery.

The big trucks barely broke a sweat up the steep grade, and it was easy to forget we had a load behind us. It was only downhill that the bigger loads became more evident. Though the brakes and master cylinder had had a major upgrade, using the engine brake not only reduces wear and tear on them, it’s safer and more controlled too. Power-folding convex tow mirrors are a welcome touch.

Choosing from the opposite end of the spectrum, we drove the return route in a top-of-the line regular diesel Limited, a swanky beast with all the comfort features you’d expect in a premium sedan. Eight-way adjustable heated and chilled seats? Check. Stitched cowhide slathered on every touch surface? Check. Heated steering wheel, remote tailgate release, 12-inch fully customizable touchscreen? Check, check, and check. Desert sun glinting off the chrome’s mirror-like finish, we cruise down the Vegas strip like high rollers.

Ram 2500 and 3500 Heavy Duty trucks are arriving in Canadian dealerships now. Pricing starts at $50,495 for 2500 Regular Cab 4x2 Tradesman, up to $82,295 for 3500 Crew Cab Limited 4x4. The optional 6.7L diesel adds $9,450; the 6.7L high-output diesel with Aisin transmission is $11,950.