Detroit’s Big Three automakers control 93 percent of the pickup truck market in the U.S. When one comes out with a redesigned model it determines the brand’s prospects in what is the most profitable, high volume segment of the industry.
This year two companies are offering up new models. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles just started sending its completely recrafted Ram 1500 to dealers. A new version of General Motor’s Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups will go on sale later this year. The next Ford-150 is still two years off.
After driving the 2019 Ram 1500 over paved and dirt roads in Arizona earlier this month, Trucks.com found the new truck is a large improvement in comfort, capability and technology over the model it replaces.
There’s standard electronic power steering, smart safety features like adaptive cruise control and increased use of lightweight materials that shaved up to 225 pounds off the model it replaces. A dazzling 12-inch touchscreen launches the SiriusXM 360L entertainment system.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is betting that those features and others will capture enough new customers to elevate the Ram 1500 in the ongoing U.S. pickup sales war.
Namely, FCA hopes to challenge the General Motors line of Chevrolet Silverado 1500-3500 trucks, currently the second top-selling vehicle in the U.S. Its strategy is to make the 2019 Ram 1500 a jack of all trades.
“As the truck segment continues to grow and people are coming in from car segments as well, we wanted to be sure we had it all,” said Jim Morrison, who heads the Ram truck brand.
Ram added an extra three inches behind the front seats on crew cab configurations to provide enormous room for rear passengers. It placed a sway bar behind the front axle to keep the truck from exhibiting body roll in turns. The available air suspension provides a smooth ride that while undeniably truck-like, is still comfortable over long rides.
The new truck is more functional. Its maximum payload capacity is 2,300 pounds, 20 percent higher than the previous model. The maximum trailer tow is 12,700 pounds, a 22 percent increase.
The first Ram 1500 models to reach dealer lots will come equipped with a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 engine with 395 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque.
A 3.6-liter V6 with FCA’s fuel-efficient eTorque mild hybrid system will be available later this year. The eTorque system, which debuted on the 2018 Jeep Wrangler, will also be optional on the 5.7-liter V8. A diesel option will come in 2019.
The standard V8 packs a lot of grunt under the hood. Up to 90 percent of maximum torque is available at just 1,800 rpm. Step on the accelerator pedal and the sensation is one of strength rather than speed.
The eight-speed Torqueflite 8HP75 automatic transmission, built by German supplier ZF Friedrichshafen and tuned by FCA, is not quick. The 10-speed transmission standard on the Ford F-150 and available on the Chevrolet Tahoe provides smoother shifts. Especially through the first few gears, it is easy to imagine how the Ram’s upcoming eTorque electrification system can fill in gaps to provide consistent pull.
The V8 engine and transmission combination is adept at towing, however. A trailer and skiing boat weighing a combined 5,800 pounds, well below the truck’s maximum tow rating, presented little challenge.
A switch inside the Ram activates Tow Mode, which changes the transmission’s shift points to ensure maximum capability. With Tow Mode on or off, the Ram 1500 Laramie crew cab in 2WD had no trouble getting up to highway speed, staying stable in corners or braking down to a stop.
The truck provides excellent comfort. Even the Ram 1500 Bighorn with cloth bench seats offers a pleasant experience with a clear touchscreen and intuitive controls. Quad cab configurations have rear seating space for adults while crew cabs come with enormous legroom.
But the Ram 1500 shines in its higher trims.
The 12-inch screen with FCA’s latest Uconnect 4C system and SiriusXM 360L is available on the Laramie and Laramie Longhorn, and standard on the top-shelf Limited. The display is vibrant, and its vertical layout can be used for a single function — such as navigation, audio or comfort controls — or split into a configurable stack of two.
The screen is responsive to the touch and is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The SiriusXM 360L interface makes it easy to create personal profiles with custom preferences, use voice-activated search to find current or past radio segments and much more. It is exclusively available on the new Ram 1500.
There is also an available center console storage area that provides a massive 39 liters of space. It has a multi-dimensional tray that can be moved forward and aft to hide items or allow access to the main hold from different angles. There are two Ram Bin in-floor storage spaces available in the rear of crew cab models deep enough for a 17-inch laptop. Throughout the cabin there are up to five USB ports and 12 cupholders.
While the 2019 Ram 1500 starts at $31,695 and the volume Bighorn trim is priced from $35,695, the fully equipped models with impressive technology command a premium. The Laramie Longhorn and Limited trims are both over $50,000, signaling a commitment to the growing high-end of the pickup truck market.
This comes as the cost of pickup trucks in general is rising.
The average transaction price of a full-size light-duty pickup truck was $40,071 in 2017, up from $32,444 in 2012, according to J.D. Power. Pickup trucks are more valuable to automakers because they have higher profit margins than smaller cars. Each pickup brings in about $10,000 to $13,000 of profit compared with $1,500 to $2,000 for a car, according to Jeff Windau, an auto industry analyst at investment house Edward D. Jones & Co.
Demand for full-size trucks rose by 5.6 percent in 2017 as overall industry sales took a slight 1.8-percent dip.
By switching where the truck is built, FCA will now have the capability to capture a bigger slice of the pie. It moved production of the 2019 Ram 1500 to its retooled plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., to expand production by 60,000 trucks annually.
Ram, the No. 3 truck by sales volume in the U.S., clearly has its sights on second-place Chevrolet Silverado. Ford’s F-Series leads the truck market.
Ram is confident that its new truck delivers what loyal customers need at a price point only slightly higher than the outgoing model, Morrison said.
“The best way to ensure long-term success in any segment is among your loyal owner base,” said Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive for J.D. Power.
The company was awarded with the highest loyalty in the 2016 model year by IHS Markit for a non-luxury, full-size half-ton pickup truck for the Ram 1500.
It’s also important to have a strong launch, Sargent said. The new Ram is being delivered to dealerships now, months before the new Chevrolet Silverado 1500 goes on sale in the fall.