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Story by Jack Baruth, Photograph by “Neon” Dave Everest

As the sun hit high noon, me and my gang here – er, my race crew and I – rolled into the little town of Johnstown, Ohio to stir up a little trouble. Well, we had some seam-welding to do on our new Plymouth Neon race car, but make no mistake, if trouble showed up, we’d be ready for it. This here town was gonna learn right quick not to mess with us, and they were gonna learn right from the jump, if you know what I mean. In order for the local slobs to understand the kind of dangerous criminals we were, however, it was critical that we immediately show blatant disrespect for the local law enforcement, pronto. As we began to descend the long hill down into Johnstown’s main stoplight, I happened to see a sign on the side of the road.

“NO ENGINE BRAKE” was what that there sign done said. Well, we’d show ’em something. We’d show ’em that we don’t hold with no law whatsoever, least of all some small town law. With the maximum possible amount of calculated disregard, I callously depressed a small button on the center console of our mighty Ram 3500. The pictogram was a little tough to understand – it showed what looked like an ear of corn trapped inside a set of concentric circles – but the effect of the button was plain the moment I let off the throttle on the way down into the central square.

“BRAAAAAAAAAAAP! BRAAAAAAAAP!” That’s right – the newest six-point-seven-liter variant of the legendary Cummins diesel engine has a flippin’ engine brake. We shouldn’t call it a “Jake Brake” – that’s a registered trademark of Jacob Vehicle Systems – but I guarantee you that everyone with whom we spoke during our test of this monster truck used the phrase. As we cheerfully engine-braked our way into the small town, I happened to see a local cop coming the other way. Oh crap. I was about to get seriously busted for engine braking. How was I going to explain it to Johnny Law? We weren’t even towing anything. The bed was empty. I had no reasonable excuse to do it. I was going to do thirty days in a roach-infested jail cell just for pressing a button with a graphic suspiciously resembling an ear of corn! Why, oh why, did I have to show off for my gang? We’re not even really a gang!

Simply pressing this button allows you to use the “Professional Showers” at most truck stops. Be warned, the showers are built for two.

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It turns out I had nothing to worry about. Even with the braaaaaappppping engine brake activated, the new Cummins diesel is remarkably quiet – so much so that several of the passengers who rode in the Ram with us thought it was a gas engine. Unless the accelerator is floored, Dodge’s new six-cylinder is almost too civilized. Once the pedal hits the metal, however, the Ram leaps forward with a speed-twisting lunge of torque, and we can see why it’s a popular choice on the race track, especially once racers add extras onto it from places like RaceME to really get the most out of it. The six-speed automatic snaps off shifts in rapid succession to keep all 350 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque on the boil. Close your eyes, and you might be in an Audi R10 – but if you keep ’em closed, you’re going to hit something, and given the Ram’s considerable size, that’s likely to be bad news for the other guy.

Attentive readers will note that we are Truckin’ in this review, not Towin’. That’s because our planned trip to Road America for the August 1st double race weekend was canceled due to, er, complete destruction of our race car. Instead, we used the Ram for a week as a trusty hauler of everything from assembled engines to dinner-party couples. As a result, our usual Ten Questions are somewhat altered below…

#1. What’s it cost, and why? Our tester was $52,775 from a base price of $45,600. Major cost options included the automatic transmission ($1,575), a nav system ($1,895), and the Bluetec Ultra-Clean Diesel System for $995. Choose this option, and you’ll join the ranks of enviro-nutjobs everywhere. Not really – but you will be driving the first diesel pickup to meet 2010 emissions standards. Which helps us all to breathe a bit easier. I can’t believe I just wrote the previous sentence. Let’s forget it, shall we?

#2. What did we haul, and how well did it do? Without any convenient pickup-bed-sized one-ton weights sitting around, and not having access to all those cool “construction zone” movie sets Toyota uses in their Tundra ads, we had to improvise. We max-loaded the truck by filling it with an engine, accessories, and a bunch of 200-pound-ish fellows from our race crew. Needless to say, the Ram didn’t seem to notice. At one point in the test week, your humble editor looked up and saw three rather sizable people sitting on the tailgate. “Get off!” I yelled, but it didn’t matter – the Ram tailgate doesn’t do so much as visibly deflect under almost seven hundred pounds of load.

The fabled “green top” Mopar SOHC motor, plucked from our wrecked racer and destined for a new, better home.

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#3. Does it have enough motor? Yes. On paper, the Cummins matches the eight-cylinder diesels from Ford and GM, but some independent reports have suggested that it’s a little down on power compared to the PowerStroke and Duramax. That being said, the Cummins has character and charm in a measure that is simply beyond the competition. This engine loves to rev despite it’s coffee-can-piston displacement, and when combined with the six-speed automatic, it’s never without the right amount of power for the situation. It’s also derived from an absolutely proven predecessor. Here at Speed:Sport:Life, we don’t profess to be diesel-engine experts – but this is the one we’d pick.

#4. It is “enough truck” for a club racer? It depends. The standard four-door cab is just a little tight for a four-person crew, particularly if there are helmets and clothes to store in the cab. Given the choice, we’d pick the “Mega Cab” and relax in the Phaeton-esque comfort of the extended interior; for most purposes, however, the “crew cab” is fine.

#5. What was the fuel economy? We saw a combined 15.9 mpg during our trip, with a heavy emphasis on in-town driving. During the freeway segments, the Cummins returned an easy seventeen miles per gallon.

#6. How’s passenger comfort? We’re compelled to admit that, when it comes to pickup truck interiors, the current Ram is a country mile behind Ford’s lineup. The 2009 Ram 1500 goes a long way to redress that balance, but for the next year or so, the heavy-duty models will be based on the “old” truck, which means a hard-plastic interior combined with decent seats and the occasional very long reach for a button or function which should be much closer to the driver.

#7. What options do I need? We’d spring for the Bluetec option – you’ll likely get your money back when it’s time to sell. The limited-slip differential allows the big diesel to paint an even pair of black stripes on the road at a moment’s notice, and the leather seats are worth the relatively minor premium. Also, ninety percent of the cowboys out there will want a set of running boards or step bars, because otherwise you’ll be restricted to dating players in the WNBA. The Ram HD trucks, particularly in 4×4 form, sit high.

Gosh, do you think it’s big enough?

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#8. What options should I avoid? The nav system. It’s no good, period. Save your money and buy a Garmin – or better yet, put a new Audi A4 in the truck bed and use its nav system. That way, you’ll have at least an even chance of finding the nearest McDonald’s.

#9. Where does this stand compared to the competition? We’d take the Ram over the Chevy Silverado on looks alone. Against the Ford, it’s tougher, because the current Super Duty is almost disturbingly competent. Let’s make this an analogy most of our readers will understand: the Ram is a Pontiac Solstice and the Ford’s the Mazda Miata. In your heart of heart, you know the Miata’s probably a better car, but you also know that you wouldn’t bother to turn around and look at it after you got out. The Ram, like the Solstice, is an imperfect vehicle which elicits a huge emotional response.

#10. What’s the overall picture? One of the little subjective ways in which we evaluate a vehicle at S:S:L is simply to listen the effect it has on our friends and families. More than any other vehicle we’ve tested in the past year or so, the Ram caused people of all kinds to say “I’d like to have one.” It’s a hit with a wide variety of drivers; “truck people” like the Cummins engine while “car people” are simply struck dead by the way it looks, particularly in the Electric Blue of our test vehicle. More than one member of our race crew was spotted on the shop computer building a “virtual” Ram on the Dodge site in the days following the truck’s departure.

It’s hard to argue against the big Dodge. It’s the most environmentally sound of the big diesels, it’s fast, it’s tough, and it looks cool. The interior’s a little short of the class standard, and the competition’s a generation ahead in many respects, but we aren’t shopping for a Camry here. For many truck shoppers, the combination of the iconic Cummins motor and the in-your-face styling will be all the reason they need to buy one. We’ll look forward to the day when this super-motivator is combined with the suave new-style 2009 RAM – but if you need a big diesel, and you can get the right price, there’s no reason to wait.

Oh, one last thing: the Jake-Brake button isn’t an ear of corn. It’s an exhaust plume, apparently. Who knew?

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Jack Baruth

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