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2013 Dodge Ram (Chrysler)
2013 Dodge Ram (Chrysler)

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In the pickup wars, bragging points matter Add to ...

Let’s see here. We have Tradesman, Outdoorsman, Big Horn, Longhorn and, of course, Sport. This is not the cast of Hunger Games 2 or the starting lineup for the Toronto Raptors, but the names of five of the 12 Ram pickup models Chrysler Canada will sell for 2013.

Pickups, of course, roll around in a macho world filled with muscular claims, though in bringing a reinvented Ram to market this fall, Chrysler is also using an appeal to what we’ll call the softer side of Ram buyers, buyers who are mostly depicted in commercial imagery sporting bulging biceps, sweaty brows, Popeye forearms smeared with grease, and torn T-shirts.

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The appeal is to best-in-class fuel economy of the 305-horsepower 3.6-litre V-6 mated to the eight-speed automatic transmission (a $1,200 option over the base 4.7-litre V-8). Ram types say their V-6 (7.8 litres/100 km on the highway) bests even Ford’s V-6 for fuel efficiency.

Of course, this being a mine-is-bigger-and-better-than-yours corner of the car business, Ramsters, who proudly wear their “Guts and Glory” tagline, also have another claim: longevity. The Ram, they say, is Canada’s longest-lasting line of pickups.

Longest-lasting? This clever invention from a marketing department overflowing with testosterone is based on research and it will resonate with loyal Ram owners, virtually all of whom, naturally, are men. Using figures supplied by R.L. Polk, Chrysler says 77 per cent of Ram pickups sold since 1987 are still on the road in Canada today. That compares with 73 per cent for Chevrolet (Silverado), 72 per cent for GMC (Sierra) and 63 per cent for Ford (F-Series). Rams: they last and last.

This sort of bragging point matters. It matters because pickup trucks are not just big business, they’re massive. In Canada last year alone, 260,000 full-size pickups were bought. Pickups accounted for 16 per cent of all the new vehicles sold in Canada during 2011, making full-sizers the No. 2 segment in the country. And 28.7 per cent of the big rigs sold were Rams. Ford led and continues to lead in pickups, with a 36.8 per cent share, followed by General Motors’ Silverado/Sierra twins (30.2 per cent). Nissan’s Titan and Toyota’s Tundra split 4.3 per cent of the overall market, notes Chrysler, though not with any obvious glee.

So the Detroit Three auto makers continue to own the full-size pickup segment. Various estimates suggest that Chrysler, Ford and GM earn as much as $10,000 in pre-tax profit on every pickup sold. That compares with perhaps a few hundred dollars in profit, on average, for passenger cars. Now you know why Ford is thrilled that F-Series sales are up 13.3 per cent on the year, while Ram sales have jumped 13.6 per cent year-over-year. (For the record, DesRosiers Automotive Reports says Silverado sales are down 6.8 per cent, while Sierra sales are up a modest 0.3 per cent.)

And now you also know why Chrysler’s engineers and designers worked feverishly to give the Ram a major makeover inside and out. Earlier this year at the New York Auto Show, Ram brand chief Fred Diaz told The Detroit News that he and his team “decided to go crazy.” Instead of giving the Ram a modest refresh, Diaz noted, “We virtually redesigned the truck from the ground up.”

That means a new exterior, a new interior, a new frame and suspension and new powertrains. With an eye to present and future full-size competition, Chrysler took careful note of the success Ford has been having with the fuel-efficient powertrain choices introduced for 2011 – including the EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6. Ford’s V-6-powered F-Series trucks have been out-selling its V-8s, by the way. Fuel economy now resonates with pickup buyers.

Diaz in New York noted that Ford’s twin turbos are interesting and no one disputes the $1,250 EcoBoost option is powerful (365 hp/420 lb-ft of torque). But “turbos are very expensive to replace,” he added, perhaps implying a potential reliability issue (Ford offers a five-year/100,000-kilometre powertrain warranty).

The biggest, baddest gas engine in the new Ram is the 5.7-litre Hemi V-8. It bests the EcoBoost six on horsepower with 395, but falls short on torque (407 lb-ft). Indeed, while Ford offers a 5.0-litre V-8 (360 hp/380 lb-ft) – and the Ram is also offered with a 4.7-litre V-8 (310 hp/330 lb-ft) – Ford’s biggest gasoline gun in this fight is the optional ($1,900) 6.2-litre V-8 rated at a whopping 411 hp and 434 lb-ft of torque. So Ford’s most powerful gas motor still bests the reinvented Ram’s top offering.

The takeaway here is that it’s unlikely that Chrysler’s Ram will steal away many F-Series buyers. Truck buyers, as Diaz told Automotive News, “are very, very loyal and do not switch brands easily.” But Chrysler could pick up the odd buyer from a rival auto company, perhaps even a few former GM loyalists who can’t or won’t wait for the redesigned Silverado and Sierra to arrive in the spring of 2013.

The re-engineered Ram 1500 for its part goes into production next month and the first vehicles will chug into dealerships in late September and October. There, buyers will see first-hand the improved aerodynamics, including an “active” grille that shutters to reduce air turbulence and improves airflow. The Ram also has a fuel-saving stop-start system and electric power steering, as well as a lighter aluminum hood and a lighter yet stronger frame.

The Ram reinventers had to sweat plenty of details to squeeze out fuel economy gains: this Ram even has an air suspension that improves aerodynamics by lowering the vehicle at highway speeds (a $1,500 option). And the coup de grace has to be the sidestep rails. They’re longer between the front and rear wheels not for aesthetics, but to improve airflow and cut fuel usage.

What they didn’t do is make dramatic changes to the basic Ram look with its drop-down fenders. Sure, the Ram has four new grille designs, a bolder bumper, new foglights, new headlights, badging, wheels and LED taillamps, but unless you are really sharp or really willing to dig into the nitty-gritty of this design, I defy you to pick out the 2012 from the 2013 in a crowded parking lot. So what? Frankly, Ram owners are sold on this look.

It’s in the cabin where bigger and richer changes can be found. The Ram’s interior has new seat fabrics, the door inserts look more expensive, the instrument cluster is sharper and bolder, the steering wheel controls are easier to use and the centre console is more useful for storage and has better cup-holders.

This Ram’s centre stack, where you’ll find the radio controls and the like, is particularly interesting. The redesign includes a shiny shift knob for putting this truck in gear, much like the silver knob in the latest Jaguar luxury cars. The stack layout also does a nice job of arranging and making accessible controls for such pickup essentials as trailer brake controls, the transfer case and the air suspension.

Pricing? The base Ram starts at $26,995, so the starter model has not gone up in price at all. The fight here in the full-size pickup market just won’t let sellers drive up prices in any significant way.

jcato@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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