Off-road packages have become the must-have image booster for today’s truck manufacturers. As consumers clamor for coolness and utility, chassis engineers have been busy re-engineering suspensions and maxing out ground clearances.
It started with the Ford Raptor. Since its debut in 2010, Ford’s off-road ready F-150 has become so ubiquitous around Los Angeles, even carpool lanes resemble the pits at a Monster Jam. And a gaggle of alternatives has hit the market such as the Toyota TRD Pro and the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2.
Though the mainstream popularity of off-road packages has increased, the concept is nothing new. One of the first to arrive was the original Ram Power Wagon. The nameplate, which dates back to 1946, was re-launched over a decade ago and it remains the best all-around 4X4 pickup available.
Yes, even better than the speedy new Raptor.
Based on the brand’s Heavy Duty 2500 series pickup, the Ram Power Wagon is the only truck available with front and rear solid axles with electric locking differentials as well as an electronically disconnecting front stabilizer bar that provides a huge improvement in articulation.
Bilstein monotube gas pressure shock absorbers are also used at all four corners. Slightly taller coil springs in the front and rear combined with larger 33-inch tall tires lifts the Power Wagon about two inches higher than other Ram Heavy Duty 2500-series trucks. With no side steps, I had to use the grab handles on the pillars to pull myself aboard.
Ram’s chassis engineers worked overtime on this one. The Power Wagon’s rear suspension also gets a third shock mounted to the top of the differential that helps control axle warp. And the front suspension has an additional joint at the upper axle mount called Ram Articulink that increases the front axle’s articulation by 15 to 20 percent over a regular 4WD 2500.
Drive it into a corner and there’s little evidence that this truck has a suspension meant for crawling. It feels well planted with little roll. Ram used softer spring rates in the Power Wagon, and I could feel the difference. It rides smoothly around town, especially compared to any leaf-spring, three quarter-ton pickup, including the Ford F250 Super Duty.
But this is still a big, heavy pickup so there’s a little bucking from the rear suspension on certain freeway sections. I expected tire noise would not be a problem on the highway, but there was a faint hum from the knobby Goodyear Wranglers.
Under the hood is a 410 horsepower 6.4-liter V8 engine that pumps out 429 pound-feet of torque. The engine is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission and a transfer case with a 2.64:1 low range. The Cummins diesel, which is available in other Ram 2500s, might hinder the Power Wagon’s off-road capability, so it isn’t offered.
The Hemi is more than enough to make the Power Wagon a beast off the line, and the V8 engine’s thrust gives it a lighter feel. The 6-speed transmission could use a “Sport” mode that would keep the truck in its power band around town, but there is a toggle switch on the column shifter for manual gear selection.
To save fuel, the engine is equipped with Chrysler’s Multi-Displacement System, or MDS, cylinder deactivation system. Under the right conditions the MDS system and the transmission work together by shifting into taller gears and cutting half the cylinders. At 80 mph, the V8 is loafing along at just 2000 rpm.
Still, this is a 7,000-pound truck so fuel economy will rarely crack 15 mpg, and there is no EPA rating available. I averaged 12.6 mpg during a week of mixed driving and light off-roading.
Exterior updates for 2017 include a blacked-out grille, bumpers and headlights shared with the Ram Rebel model. And the new Power Wagon graphics on the bedsides and hood mimic the design used on the 1979 Macho Power Wagon. Simon and Simon fans rejoice. I’m not sure this truck could look better.
Inside there’s an incredible amount of room. Three can sit up front quite comfortably, although the middle passenger must sit canted to avoid the old-school transfer case lever and the cup holders, which – counting all provided for front seat occupants – total seven.
Seat comfort is extreme. The front seats and steering wheel are heated, and the $5,000 Leather & Luxury Group also adds a larger 8.4-inch touch screen, navigation and front and rear parking sensors, which proved invaluable in the tight confines of Santa Monica. Parking this behemoth can be challenging and its massive 47.7-foot turning radius doesn’t help. The truck’s long, soft brake pedal also takes some getting used to.
The optional RamBox cargo management system is another must-have. It provides covered and lockable storage areas on either side of the pickup bed. I can’t imagine a truck without them after just one week.
These and other optional extras like a spray-in bedliner and a tonneau cover grew the suggested price for the truck I tested to $62,610. Base price is $51,695. Disappointingly, active tech-based safety systems such as lane departure warning, blind spot monitor, pre-collision avoidance or a radar-based cruise control system are not available.
In the dirt, the Power Wagon really earns its money. On fire roads, it soaks up washboards and large dips. Disconnect the front stabilizer bar to free up the suspension and there’s almost no head toss as you drive through deep ravines and over large bumps. The suspension articulation is impressive.
Engaged in Low Range, the truck traverses difficult trails without locking a differential. And there’s plenty of ground clearance. With 9.5 inches of underneath, the front axle and 8.25 inches under the rear the Power Wagon easily swallows rocks and ruts that would leave most trucks hung up. And its approach (33.6 degrees), departure (26.2 degrees), and breakover angles (23.5 degrees) are class-leading.
The limiting factor here isn’t the truck’s ability; it’s a fear of body damage. Skid plates protect the fuel tank and transfer case, but with a wheelbase of well over 12 feet, those long rocker panels are begging to be banged up.
When articulation runs out, locking the rear differential will push the truck through. Locking the front axle was only necessary once. Thankfully I didn’t need to use the standard 12,000-pound Warn winch – with 90 feet of cable – mounted behind the front bumper. I did make use of the Ram’s brake-based hill descent control system to manage a few steep declines.
What makes Power Wagon better than the Raptor? Unlike the Ford, the Power Wagon can tackle work and play in equal measures. Both trucks are awesome off-road and as comfortable as commuters. But the Power Wagon is also rated to haul 1,510 pounds and tow over 10,000.
The Ram Power Wagon is not just some plaything – it’s a work truck ready to get mud on its tires and unafraid to get dirt under its fingernails. And in a sea of off-road packages, it’s as capable and as authentic as they get.