Full-size pickups used to change little but now are updated fairly often, both to increase fuel-economy ratings and to stay at least even with rivals' features.
It's a big market, 1.5 million to 2 million sales in even ho-hum years, and dominated by the Detroit Three. Toyota's a smaller player and Nissan won't be back on the radar until it replaces the aging Titan.
To keep up, Chrysler Group updated its 2013 Ram, the marquee mechanical modification being an eight-speed automatic transmission. It's standard on V-6 models, and boosts highway mpg as high as 25 mpg. Chrysler loves to point out that the rating is better than the Ford F-150 EcoBoost V-6's 22 mpg and also tops the F-150 base V-6's 23 mpg.
Of course, the EcoBoost turbo cranks out a lot more power than the Ram's 3.6-liter V-6, but for advertising, Ram's "25" could be compelling.
Having eight speeds, not the typical six, means it's easier to get the right combination of power and mileage from the engine in various conditions. It also adds smoothness.
Climbing through the Appalachian Mountains, as in this test drive, can challenge automatics to find and hold the proper gear. But the V-6/eight-speed test truck easily did so, without indecisive, jerky hunting among ratios.
But the eight-speed doesn't make the V-6 romp like a Hemi V-8. It took just a few miles in a prototype Hemi/eight-speed to feel cheated by the V-6's relative lack of power. The 5.7-liter Hemi's very appealing and more so when mated with a slick, new gearbox.
But not everybody wants a big Hemi. Maybe.
The eight-speed will become standard on some Hemis in January, optional on others. Chrysler hasn't set all the details yet. Fuel economy of the Hemi with eight-speed isn't yet confirmed, but Chrysler insists it also will outdo Ford's EcoBoost V-6.
Among other pleasing changes:
Styling. The grille is more upright, eliminating most of the former forward thrust, and drops slightly lower into the bumper. Doesn't sound like much but looks quite a bit different, and nicer, to Test Drive.
Ram was tired of leaving money on the table for running boards. Why let the aftermarket get the business? So it's making its own and as a surprise benefit, it found in development that they can improve aerodynamics and gas mileage.
Running boards haven't really looked right on any truck since the 1950s, but if you gotta have 'em, Ram's are among the best looking and most useful.
Features. People steal tailgates. Ram's locks when you hit the remote door-lock button. No need to lock it separately with the key. Nifty.
The truck's Uconnect voice control infotainment system has a big 8.4-inch color touchscreen even if you don't get navigation, which you can add later if you want it. Navi in the test truck had some problems; Ram says it was a very early production unit and should be OK by now.
But a complaint that Ram says hasn't come up before: The skinny blue line denoting the navi route is too hard to distinguish from all the other skinny lines showing roads. Much better is the Garmin-style screen Chrysler puts in some other models, such as the Dart compact. It has a fat purple line showing the way.
An optional 7-inch screen directly facing the driver has quadrants showing driver-selected info. It remembers your choices so you needn't reset each time you start the truck.
Transmission control is via a rotary knob on the dashboard. That opens space on the console by removing the lever. It rotates crisply, avoiding the vague feel of most column shifters. And Ram rightly points out that it would work nicely switching between drive and reverse to rock the truck to get unstuck in mud or snow. But it never managed to feel intuitive, ergonomically correct. Lots of reaching in the wrong place to find it, even after a fair amount of time behind the wheel.
Dynamics. Ram has coil springs in back, not the leaf springs other pickups use. Over several years, it has firmed the springs on some models to reduce any tendency for the rump to sag under heavy loads - which Ram denies ever was a problem, but ... . Air suspension now combines with the coils for an adjustable system that beefs up to meet demands and help provide an agreeable ride.
It also lets the truck settle slightly lower at highway speed, which improves aerodynamics and fuel mileage, and drop a bit when parked to make it easier getting in and out.
Steering now is an electric-power setup, and it's well-tuned. Not all are.
Ram's is quite good at staying on-center on flat, level roads, so you don't get tired from making tedious small wheel corrections just to stay pointed straight ahead. And it has about the right boost and road feel.
None of that will ring true to a sports-car fan, but for a big-pickup universe, Ram's responsive and agile.
Worthy updates that make Ram a better truck, no question. But will it still seem fresh once GM launches new Chevrolet and GMC trucks next year and Ford follows shortly after with a new F-150?
Nuts and bolts:
What? Refresh of full-size pickup to boost mileage, improve looks, upgrade interior. Rear- or four-wheel drive; regular, extended or crew cab; 5 ft.,7 in., 6 ft. 4 in. or 8 ft. bed.
When? Most 2013 models on sale since October.
Where? Regular cab models made at Saltillo, Mexico; extended and crew cabs at Warren, Mich.
How much? Base regular cab (rear-drive, 4.7-liter V-8, six-speed automatic) is $23,585, including $995 shipping. Most popular model (Big Horn trim, crew-cab, Hemi V-8, four-wheel drive) starts at $39,580.
Testers: SLT crew cab V-6, eight-speed automatic, well-equipped, $45,780, and Laramie Longhorn crew cab, Hemi V-8, four-wheel drive, eight-speed, loaded , $54,565.
What makes it go? Base engine is 4.7-liter V-8 rated 310 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 330 pounds-feet at 3,950 rpm; six-speed automatic.
Optional: 3.6-liter V-6 rated 305 hp at 6,400, 269 lbs.-ft. at 4,175; eight-speed automatic., and 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 rated 395 hp at 5,600, 407 lbs.-ft at 3,950; six-speed automatic, (eight-speed due in January).
How big? About the same as any full-size pickup, such as the Ford F-150, and, like any big pickup, size varies greatly depending the cab/cargo-bed combination.
How thirsty? 4.7-liter V-8 base engine rated 14 mpg city, 20 highway, 16 in city/highway mix (rear-wheel drive) or 14/19/15 (four-wheel drive).
3.6-liter V-6 rated 17/25/20 (rear-drive) or 16/23/19 (four-wheel drive).
5.7-liter Hemi V-8: 14/20/16 (rear-drive) or 13/19/15 (four-wheel drive).
V-6 tester showed 22.2 mpg (4.5 gallons per 100 miles) in mostly highway driving. Prototype Hemi, eight-speed tester yielded 17.8 mpg (5.62 gal./100 mi.).
Base V-8, V-6 burn regular. Midgrade recommended for Hemi. Tank is 26 or 32 gallons.
Overall: Looks better, drives better, but is it enough to combat GM's new-design pickups due next year, and Ford's the year after?
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)