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2014 Ram heavy-duty pickup: In 2009 Chrysler split the Ram pickup from Dodge, creating a standalone brand. (Chrysler)
2014 Ram heavy-duty pickup: In 2009 Chrysler split the Ram pickup from Dodge, creating a standalone brand. (Chrysler)

Brand Strategy

Ram pickups are flying off the lot Add to ...

Trucks are a different business from cars, says Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, and that means the Ram brand “has this appeal of toughness that Dodge should not have.” Thus, Chrysler split off the pickup from the Dodge brand in 2009, creating a standalone Ram brand.

In the beginning, the Ram brand was really just the Ram pickup. But for 2014, Chrysler is far more serious about making something of the brand. Now we’re seeing a growing fleet of other rigs heading to dealers – to fill out the Ram lineup.

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I am not so sure about this strategy. But then, not even my most brilliant brainstorm can trigger a multimillion-dollar decision at Chrysler or any other auto company. (Shocking, I know.) When Marchionne pulls the trigger on an idea, however, millions are spent and a legion of employees put their shoulders to the job of making it happen. So far, Marchionne has made some savvy choices since he led Fiat’s move to take Chrysler off the hands of a nervous U.S. government in the 2009 bankruptcy days. Chrysler is growing, making money and is in no way a ward of the taxpayer.

In Canada, Chrysler – Ram included – has had 46 straight months of sales gains. Chrysler Canada is a solid No. 2 in sales among all auto makers, trailing only Ford, and with a decent lead on General Motors. The Ram pickup is Canada’s second-best-selling nameplate, period – behind Ford’s F-Series. So we can all assume that Chrysler in general and Chrysler Canada in particular have run up the victory flag. Vacation time for everyone, correct?

Not quite. Yes, Ram pickups moved off dealer lots at a record pace in September. The Ram is a fine pickup, but Ram sales are also being driven by thousands in sweeteners tucked into the Ram boxes – lockable storage areas that, because of a drain plug, are also popular with tail-gating partiers looking for a place to keep beverages cold. Priced right and with styling and features that set it apart from rival rigs, the Ram is a success story.

Again, give credit where it’s due. The turnaround artists painting Chrysler’s future had the good sense to invest plenty of development money in the Ram, giving the pickup a tidy update for the 2013 model year. On top of that, with Ram its own brand, Chrysler has pumped money into developing an emerging fleet of commercial vehicles based on its existing minivans and Fiat-sourced vehicles adapted for North Americans and built in Mexico.

Smart, timely investment has been rewarded. In a recent comparison test, Consumer Reports suggested the Ram 1500 pickup may be a better daily driver than the reinvented 2014 Chevrolet Silverado 1500. The Chevy earned an “Excellent” road-test score and is now CR’s top-rated truck, but GM’s new rig bested the Ram by just three points – and both outscored Ford’s F-150.

“The reality is that you can’t go wrong with either one [Ram or Silverado]; both are capable trucks that get decent gas mileage and are as quiet inside as a good luxury car,” said Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports. But CR’s testers found the Ram is a nicer place to spend time. The rear-coil-spring suspension gives the Ram a better ride and, inside, the Ram’s seats are better, too.

Agreed. I just spent a day sampling from a buffet of Rams – from light-duty ones with a new V-6 diesel engine, to heavy-duty rigs powered by a beefy Cummins turbodiesel and capable of towing a trailer loaded with 30,000 pounds of Italian tractors. Also in the mix was Chrysler’s familiar 5.7-litre Hemi V-8, now mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. An excellent pairing. The shifts are seamless and the power seems effortless. If you need to go off-road, the driver-selectable, full-time, four-wheel drive does its job nicely. And you can get a Ram decked out for towing any manner of trailer.

But the hero of the Ram pickup story for 2014 is the 3.0-litre six-cylinder EcoDiesel ($36,395 to start). The power numbers are praiseworthy (240 horsepower, 420 lb-ft. of torque), but it’s the fuel economy that will seal the deal for what should be many pickup buyers. The light-duty diesel Ram has best-in-class fuel economy, according to Chrysler officials, and the tow rating extends to 4,173 kilograms or 9,200 pounds.

Still, not everyone will pay the diesel premium. The 2014 Ram pickup lineup starts at $10,000 less ($26,995) and for that you get a 3.6-litre V-6 (305 hp/269 lb-ft torque); as in all the light-duty Ram pickups, the transmission is a modern eight-speed automatic. Naturally, the gas V-8 is the 5.7-litre Hemi with what Chrysler calls FuelSaver Technology that shuts down half the cylinders when they’re not needed. Output: 395 hp and 410 lb-ft.

And, of course, there is the design story. The Ram pickup still has those drop-down front fenders that stand out from the crowd – very distinctive. Company officials hope to reel in Ford and Chevy buyers, but the reality is that pickup buyers are loyal and they do not switch brands easily. However, the updates and the diesel will surely attract interest and plenty of chatter, making pickups the subject of much conversation and perhaps even brand-changing among more than a handful of Ford and GM pickup loyalists. We’ll see.

If nothing else, Chrysler will surely hold its ground with existing Ram pickup owners. The standalone Ram brand looks ready to grow.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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