Put Up or Shut Up: Ram’s new Heavy Duty shows what happens when you stop chasing big rig truck numbers
The easiest job in the automotive industry has to be marketing pickup trucks. We’re all familiar with the ads: An oversized dually slams through a concrete wall, a voice actor in his best movie trailer baritone introduces the “all-new, more capable” Brodozer 4500 as the camera pans back showing the truck towing the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet.
This approach to advertising has trapped pickup engineers into a vicious cycle of chasing max tow and payload numbers—frankly, to the point that the added performance and capability is of little use to the average buyer. After all, once your combined truck and trailer weighs more than 26,001 pounds (11,794 kg), legally you should be carrying a commercial driver’s license.
So what happens if you take the mad men out of the driver’s seat and let the engineers and designers focus on performance, capability, and versatility, the things that real truck buyers both want and need? You get MotorTrend’s 2020 Truck of the Year, the Ram Heavy Duty.
Advancement in Design
It’s not easy making the large and in charge form of a heavy-duty pickup attractive—let alone beautiful—but the Ram Heavy Duty handily delivers in ways no other three-quarter (2500) or one-ton (3500) pickup does. The cynic in you might be quick to dismiss the new Ram HD’s sheetmetal as an 11/10ths-sized Ram 1500, but that’d be underselling all the hard work involved in designing the new Ram.
Riding on a new high-strength steel platform and available in regular, crew, and “mega” cabs with either a 6-foot-4 or 8-foot bed and single or dual rear wheels, the new Ram HD looks clean, purposeful, and modern while featuring a host of functional improvements.
The grille, for instance, is 30 percent larger than before to feed the largest radiator and intercooler ever fit to a heavy-duty Ram, and the aluminum hood helps shed weight. The resulting design is not only the most aerodynamic in its class, with a claimed 0.40 coefficient of drag, but also arguably the prettiest. Even the massive Ram 3500HD dually has a graceful elegance that no other full-size rig can match.
Just like with the light-duty 1500, Ram HD buyers are spoiled for choice. Each of its six trim levels features a distinctive grille, wheel options, and trim befitting the character of the truck, covering the bases from functional and work-ready in Tradesman models to the adventure-friendly 2500 Power Wagon and downright luxurious 3500 Limited.
Things are even better inside. Ram invested heavily in making the Heavy Duty’s cabin—the mobile office for many of its owners—a nicer place to be. All models get two to four color scheme options, acoustic glass, active noise cancelling, and a variety of standard infotainment options, ranging from a 5.0-inch screen to an optional 8.4-incher and finally a massive 12.0-inch Uconnect system. The latter two include apps and other tools to help ease the pain of towing and hauling.
Despite the new goodies, the Ram cabin remains just as functional as before. Up to five USB and USB-C outlets, wireless charging, an optional auxiliary switch bank, and a new center console join carryover features such as seating for up to six passengers, Ram Bins underneath the rear floor to stash hitch receivers and other odds and ends, and fold-out panels that turn the back of the cabin into a two-tiered load floor.
Particular attention was paid to the Ram Limited models, which play in the rapidly growing luxury truck market. The beautifully finished and exquisitely detailed cabin of the Ram 3500HD Limited—with thick baseball-glove-soft leather, rich contrasting wood trim, and finely textured metal bits—could teach some premium brands a few things. “This is how luxury should feel,” MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said. “No other truck on the market can beat it.”
More so than any other pickup, three-quarter and one-ton trucks are jack-of-all-trades machines. Whereas smaller trucks are more likely to haul air than cargo, heavy-duty trucks tend to tow at least weekly. Furthermore, more heavy-duty truck owners fill their truck beds or go off-road regularly than those owning lighter-duty trucks. Hitting the diverse needs of these truck buyers isn’t easy, but Ram delivers.
As most truck buyers know, the key to a dependable truck is found under hood, where the Ram HD has three compelling engine options. A carryover 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 making a healthy 410 hp and 429 lb-ft of torque is standard on both the 2500 and 3500. Although output hasn’t changed versus the previous generation, the big Hemi is fitted with Ram’s latest cylinder deactivation technology and frame shakers to allow the big gas-burning V-8 to run in fuel-saving V-4 mode longer than previously possible. Backing up the legacy Hemi is a beefed-up version of the Ram 1500’s quick-shifting eight-speed automatic, putting the old six-speed automatic out to pasture.
If the Hemi doesn’t satisfy you, the duo of revamped Cummins turbodiesels sure will. Sporting new blocks, pistons, heads, and camshafts designed to make the 6.7-liter I-6 smoother, lighter, and more efficient, the standard version of the new engine makes a healthy 370 hp and 850 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired with an updated house-built six-speed automatic.
If that’s not enough for you, Ram also offers a high-output version of that new Cummins I-6 on the 3500. Making 400 horsepower and 1,000 lb-ft of torque, this new engine is the first in a mainstream heavy-duty truck to crack the four-digit torque mark—something Ram’s marketing team no doubt loves. As Detroit editor Alisa Priddle put it, “Who needs coffee in the morning when you have 1,000 lb-ft of torque?”
Working hand in hand with the high-output Cummins is an Aisin-sourced six-speed automatic, which, when equipped with the Max Tow package, a regular cab, rear drive, and dual-rear-wheel 3500HD, helps the HD tow up to 35,100 pounds (15,921 kg). Maximum payload is an impressive 7,680 pounds (3,483 kg), found on Hemi-equipped versions of the same 3500 model.
A host of other mechanical improvements round out our Truck of the Year package. The Heavy Duty’s two available four-wheel-drive transfer cases—one for the Hemi and standard-output Cummins, the other for the high-output diesel—were both beefed up, as were the truck’s front and rear live axles and brakes. The unique 2500 Power Wagon off-roader sees its fair share of upgrades, too.
Ram also spent a lot of time refining the Heavy Duty’s suspensions. One of the biggest pain points in heavy-duty trucks—including the previous Ram HD—is truly terrible ride quality when unloaded. Ram employed a multifaceted approach to fix this issue.
All the new HDs get what Ram calls Frequency Response Damping shocks, which work with the rear five-link coil springs on the 2500 and traditional leaf springs on the 3500 to give both trucks better ride quality and handling when empty or loaded. Optional rear helper air springs, which improve ride quality, offer further refinement to the Ram HD lineup, ensure the truck stays level while loaded, and also make it easier to pick up and drop trailers.
Performance of Intended Function
Of all the changes made to the sheetmetal and in the cab, under the hood and at the wheels, each and every improvement was in the singular pursuit of building the best possible pickup truck. Our Ram HD testers ran the gantlet during our Truck of the Year testing. Towing, hauling, off-roading, driving unladen—it didn’t matter, the Rams continually excelled. That’s especially remarkable considering the wildly different use cases for our two Ram testers.
The more traditional of the two trucks was no doubt our H.O. Cummins-powered 3500 Limited dually. Despite what its Kentucky Derby–friendly cabin would lead you to believe, this is a truck meant for work—whether that’s hauling 10 tons of lead ballast across the Mojave Desert or $1.5 million USD worth of thoroughbreds to Churchill Downs is simply up to your imagination.
With a 20,000-pound (9,072-kg) gooseneck trailer hitched up—made easier by high-res cameras in the cargo area and the air suspension’s Alt Trailer Height function—the 3500 dually is a stable towing platform. “It has huge power, and it’s backed up by a fantastic transmission that’s both smooth and clever about giving you the right gear at every moment,” features editor Scott Evans said.
The 3500 also performed well in our Davis Dam frustration tests, where it towed 17,730 pounds (8,042 kg) of trailer, skid-steer, and excavator up the fearsome grade. Despite some surging fore and aft under hard acceleration up the hill, the truck inspired confidence. Its engine never felt labored, its steering was well weighted, and its automatic exhaust brake helped keep downhill speeds in check without torching its brakes. “At a little over half its max rating, this was an easy ask of the Ram,” road test editor Chris Walton said.
Despite high subjective scores from judges when towing, the Ram 3500 brought up the rear in instrumented tow tests at both the proving ground and Davis Dam, falling to one of its direct competitors, the GMC Sierra 3500HD Denali, which has four extra forward gears, 45 more horsepower, and 180 fewer pounds (82 kg) to tote around. At minimum, we’d love to see a heavier-duty version of Ram’s eight-speed on the diesel HD.
The Denali won the numbers game, but it simply can’t hang with the Ram HD Limited in how it drives. “It has deep reserves of torque and gives off an indomitable, Bentley-like feeling,” senior features editor Jonny Lieberman said. Added Evans: “It rides substantially better than the GMC does; it’s both better damped and more buttoned down to the road.”
The Ram 2500 Power Wagon is another animal entirely. Built completely around the idea of hauling a three-quarter-ton load across some of the most remote regions of the world, it’s nevertheless remarkable how versatile the Power Wagon is.
Its Hemi does much of the heavy lifting, but the new eight-speed auto deserves equal credit for breathing new life into the engine. With a better gear ratio spread, the Power Wagon is faster both off the line and while on the move, with shifts happening far more quickly and decisively than before. The changes Ram engineers made to the HD’s platform really pay off on the Power Wagon, as well; it now has better body control and steering that’s both more accurate and more engaging than before.
The Power Wagon gets even better when you put it to work. Unsurprisingly, the Ram is unstoppable off-road. Even keeping in mind that it was partially developed at FCA’s proving ground, it’s astonishing the things it’s capable of. Armed with a full suite of mechanical aids—locking front and rear differentials (the latter of which can now be locked in two high), an electronic anti-roll-bar disconnect to improve ride quality and articulation, and, for when all else fails, an upgraded 12,000-pound (5,443-kg) Warn winch—there was no mogul, no hill climb, no staircase that could stop the Power Wagon.
All good things come with compromise, and the Power Wagon is no exception. Thanks to its soft off-road-oriented suspension, it sports the lowest payload and tow capacity of the Ram 2500 lineup, at 1,660 pounds (753 kg) and 10,330 pounds (4,686 kg), respectively. After breezing along with a 7,500-pound (3,402-kg) trailer—roughly three-quarters of its max tow capacity—we attached a 10,500-pound (4,763-kg) trailer. People go over weight all the time, so why not see what happens?
Answer? Not much. Thanks to the gobs of power produced by its 6.4-liter V-8 and its well-geared transmission, the legally overstressed Power Wagon proved that chasing max tow numbers is a fool’s errand, as it handily out-dragged the Silverado 2500 with the same trailer. “That’s max tow?” Evans asked. “No doubt at all it’s suspension-limited. It feels like it could take thousands of pounds more and still accelerate better than GM’s gas 2500s.”
Efficiency is no doubt a low priority for heavy-duty truck buyers, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. The Ram HD’s improved aerodynamics—aided by active grille shutters—and the new eight-speed transmission on gas models should net an 8 to 10 percent fuel economy improvement, according to Ram. The EPA doesn’t rate heavy-duty trucks, but we ran the new Power Wagon through our Real MPG tests and achieved 10.2/15.3/12.0 mpg (23.1/15.4/19.6 L/100 km) city/highway/combined. That’s reasonably close to the previous-generation Power Wagon, which scored 11.6/15.3/13.0 mpg (20.3/15.4/18.1 L/100 km) in our testing. Our dually tester, equipped with both the H.O. Cummins and four-wheel drive, scored 13.2/18.0/15.0 (17.8/13.1/15.7 L/100 km) in Real MPG tests.
The NHTSA hasn’t crash-tested the new Ram Heavy Duty yet, but the upgraded platform and the active safety technologies made available across the range make us confident that the Ram will perform well in this regard.
Automatic emergency braking, which is compatible with the trailer brake controller, is available from the base Tradesman up through the Limited, as is lane keep and steering assist, blind-spot monitoring capable of accounting for a trailer, radar cruise control, and a tire pressure monitoring system capable of monitoring up to six truck tires and 12 trailer tires. Parking sensors, adaptive headlights, 360-degree cameras, and cargo cameras are also available.
Rams have traditionally been big value plays when compared to its Ford and GM rivals. The HD is no exception. Prices for the 2500 Tradesman start at just $35,090 USD, undercutting both the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 2500HDs and costing customers just $345 USD more than a Ford F-250. At the other end of the pricing spectrum, the Ram 3500 Limited starts at $64,045 USD, coming in less than both the GMC Sierra 3500HD Denali and Ford F-350 Limited while offering one of the most luxurious cabins we’ve ever seen on a pickup truck (if not the most luxurious), plus a standard equipment and options list that its competitors can’t yet match.
Put ’Em on the Trailer
Truck marketers might have an easy job, but we Truck of the Year judges have a difficult one. Cue the world’s smallest violin, but truth is, when modern-day pickup trucks are as capable as they are, balancing their various pros and cons to come to a decisive winner isn’t easy. Thankfully we have our criteria to guide us. Simply put, no truck this year succeeds against our criteria to the same degree as the Ram Heavy Duty lineup.
Sure, some trucks can objectively tow or haul more and do so quicker, but even so, no pickup on the market better balances the diverse needs of its customers better than this one. It’s more comfortable empty and when loaded. It’s more luxurious but also more affordable. It’s great to drive both on-road and off. It’s safe, efficient, and tremendously capable. And because of that, it’s our 2020 Truck of the Year.
|2019 Ram 2500HD Power Wagon 6.4L Hemi (CrewCab)||2019 Ram 3500HD Limited (CrewCab 4×4 DRW)|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, 4WD||Front-engine, 4WD|
|ENGINE TYPE||90-deg V-8, iron block/alum heads||Turbodiesel, I-6, iron block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||OHV, 2 valves/cyl||OHV, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||391.6 cu in/6,417 cc||408.2 cu in/6,690 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||410 hp @ 5,600 rpm||400 hp @ 2,800 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||429 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm||1000 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm|
|REDLINE||Not indicated||3,250 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||18.0 lb/hp||22.0 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||6-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Live axle, coil springs, adj anti-roll bar; live axle, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Live axle, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, leaf springs, air springs|
|BRAKES, F; R||14.2-in vented disc; 14.1-in vented, disc, ABS||14.2-in vented disc; 14.1-in vented, disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 17-in cast aluminum||6.0 x 17-in cast aluminum (x4); 6.0 x 17-in, steel (x2)|
|TIRES||LT285/70R17 121/118Q M+S Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac||LT235/80R17 120/117R M+S Nexen Rodian HTX RM5|
|WHEELBASE||149.3 in||169.0 in|
|TRACK, F/R||68.7/68.1 in||69.6/75.9 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||238.8 x 83.4 x 80.9 in||260.8 x 96.5 x 79.3 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||48.2 ft||53.7 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||7,370 lb||8,814 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||57/43%||59/41%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||40.9/39.8 in||40.9/39.8 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||40.9/40.2 in||40.9/40.2 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||65.9/65.6 in||65.9/65.6 in|
|PICKUP BOX L x W x H||76.3 x 66.4 x 20.1 in||98.3 x 66.4 x 20.1 in|
|PICKUP BOX VOLUME||57.5 cu ft||74.7 cu ft|
|WIDTH BET WHEELHOUSES||51.0 in||51.0 in|
|PAYLOAD CAPACITY||1,195 lb||5,186 lb|
|TOWING CAPACITY||10,350 lb||23,000 lb (34,130 lb gooseneck)|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.3 sec||2.9 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.0||4.8|
|QUARTER MILE||15.6 sec @ 88.0 mph||16.7 sec @ 83.8 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||140 ft||145 ft|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,800 rpm||1,700 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$67,655||$88,130|
|AIRBAGS||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000||5 yrs/100,000|
|FUEL CAPACITY||31.0 gal||32.0 gal|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||10.2/15.3/12.0 mpg||13.2/18.0/15.0 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||Exempt from testing||Exempt from testing|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||Exempt from testing||Exempt from testing|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||Exempt from testing||Exempt from testing|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Diesel|