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New Cars Review: 2017 Ram Power Wagon is a powerful off-road performer

road test

An off-road truck that's happiest on the rocks

Although named after a ram, this truck looks more like a bull ready to charge.

FCA's venerable vehicle finally matches its physical ferocity with bold aesthetics, but rugged terrain remains the 2017 Ram Power Wagon's domain

Imagine a truck with the luxury of a high-end sedan on the inside, and the badass badges of a brawler on the outside. Give it all the hardware you need to crawl over the boulders of Moab, Utah. Make it sit so tall, you'll need a footstool to climb inside. And top it off with enough horsepower to pull a tree out by the roots.

If you can picture that, you're ready for an off-road truck-market niche occupied by just two vehicles: FCA's Ram Power Wagon and its competitor, the Ford Raptor.

The modern Ram Power Wagon has been around for a dozen years since being "reintroduced" as an off-road upgrade on Chrysler's mid-sized truck in 2005. (Its name honours a Second World War four-wheel-drive pickup built by Dodge.)

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For 2017, the Power Wagon received a major upgrade which puts it head-to-head with the Raptor. It features massive 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires mounted on 17-inch alloy rims, protective skid plates underneath, a 4.10 axle ratio, front and rear electronic axle lockers, off-road shocks, an electronic disconnecting sway bar and – in case you get stuck in spite of all the hardware – a winch with 12,000 pounds capacity to pull you out of almost any mud bog.

The Power Wagon is based on Ram's 2500 series of three-quarter-ton pickups. Although capable, previous models didn't really stand out visually, says Mike Szymkiewicz, Senior Manager, Product Planning at FCA Canada. The 2017 version, however, is in your face with black powder coated trim and bumpers front and back, aggressive colours (such as "Maximum Steel") and bold decal treatment. Although named after a mountain sheep, this bad boy looks more like a bull ready to charge.

Agile suspension and plenty of power makes the Power Wagon a great off-road truck.

FCA paid special attention to the Power Wagon's suspension, giving the vehicle heavy-duty Bilstein shock absorbers, a sway bar that can be electronically detached (to allow greater suspension flexibility), a three-way articulating front suspension, 36 centimetres of ground clearance and massive 66 centimetres of wheel travel.

Put into action, all this flexibility delivers a heady sense of infallibility to the driver.

Isn't there a mountain nearby we could climb?

The off-road hardware, however, adds so much weight it actually limits this truck's towing capacity to a claimed 10,030 pounds, less than some half-ton pickups. In fact, this monster tips the scales at a breathtaking 3,311 kilograms (7,300 pounds). To put that in perspective, the basic Ram 2500 crew cab weighs in at about 2,630 kilograms.

Not surprisingly, even the ultrahigh (65 psi) tire pressure and multidisplacement engine feature (which shuts down four cylinders at cruising speeds) could do little to boost fuel economy. Heavy-duty trucks are exempted from Transport Canada and U.S. EPA ratings, but expect something in the range of 15 litres/100 kilometres on the highway, less in the city and much, much less off road. You might want to keep this hauler in the garage on Earth Day.

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Even with an engine that shuts down four cylinders at cruising speed, the Power Wagon isn’t an environmentally friendly car.

But then, this truck is all about guilty pleasure.

On an off-road facility about an hour west of Edmonton, the Power Wagon showed off its prowess – pawing through fields of boulders, scrambling over piles of dirt and clawing through slimy spring-thaw clay.

Good as they were, though, its multipurpose tires were eventually defeated by the muck, leaving both testers buried to their skid plates in slime, while all four wheels continued to excavate toward oblivion. It was an opportune time to demonstrate the winch, which slowly pulled the Power Wagons out of trouble the first time, thanks to a sturdy nearby tree. Unfortunately, both rigs got stuck even worse when the trees were out of reach. Even infallibility has its limits.

On the highway, the Power Wagon has a stiff and slightly jarring ride. Drivers who think they can have their off-road cake and luxury, too, are in for a reality check. Forget the fancy leather interior and stick with the hose-worthy standard vinyl – the boonies are where this truck belongs.

The Coahuila, Mexico-built Power Wagon is definitely not for everyone. FCA says a lot of buyers will never take it off road but those customers are just one part of their market; the Power Wagon is also popular with police agencies, forestry workers and the oil patch – and weekenders, like us, who won't let a few boulders stand in the way. Which is fine, if you skip the suit and stick to rubber boots.

Tech Specs

  • Base price: $59,195
  • As tested: $72,650 (including destination charge)
  • Motor: 6.4-litre Hemi V-8, with 410 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of torque.
  • Transmission/Drive: 6-speed automatic, four-wheel drive, with manual shift-on-the-fly transfer case capable of delivering up to 100 per cent of power to one wheel, as needed.
  • Fuel economy: Unrated
  • Alternative: Ford Raptor

The Power Wagon tips the scales at a breathtaking 3,311 kilograms.

Ratings

  • Looks: Bold, in-your-face aggressiveness signals this vehicle is not for the faint of heart.
  • Interior: Typical modern FCA dash layout has easy-to-read gauges, familiar switch locations and plenty of roominess in the crew cab.
  • Performance: Gobs of power, an agile suspension and versatile drive options make this an outstanding off-road performer, capability of rushing in where wise trucks will never go. If your idea of a weekend getaway involves mud, rocks and banjos, you’ll like this truck.
  • Technology: Electronics make it a breeze to lock and unlock front and rear differentials. Options such as the back-up camera, park assist and navigation system are truly welcome enhancements.
  • Cargo: The short, 1.9-metre box is a compromise but will bring all the camping and fishing gear you need.

Verdict

8.0

This is a profoundly solid and powerful off-road vehicle, limited only by its heavy weight and thirsty fuel consumption. If you can afford one, however, you can probably also afford to fuel it.

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