Diesel pickups are nothing new. All of the domestics offer turbodiesel engines in their heavy-duty trucks, where the diesel’s load-lugging ability is put to best use — in fact, it was the Cummins six-cylinder diesel engine that put Ram (formerly Dodge) pickups on the map.
|1. A new 3.0L V6 turbodiesel engine makes 240 hp and 430 lb-ft of torque.
2. Max towing is rated at 9,200 lbs.
3. Official MPG numbers aren’t available but Ram says the 1500 EcoDiesel will best the V6 model’s best-in-class 18/25 MPG rating. We saw 24 MPG combined.
4. Ram EcoDiesel models start at $29,795 including a $1,085 destination fee.
With fuel economy becoming a primary purchase consideration, the diesel engine offers a ready answer for half-ton trucks, and Ram is the first to take the plunge.
A EUROPEAN DIESEL
Surprisingly, Ram isn’t using a Cummins powerplant; its new 3.0-liter “EcoDiesel” V6 is made by VM Motori. Fiat, owner of Ram’s parent company Chrysler, also owns half of VM, and that no doubt factored into this decision. (Ironically, General Motors owns the other half.)
But Ram says that light-duty diesel customers are very different from HD Cummins buyers, who want the whole big-rig experience, noise and all. Light-duty buyers are looking for fuel efficiency, preferably with the refinement they would find in a gas-engine pickup. Ram says they considered the Cummins 5.0-liter V8 that Nissan plans to use in the 2015 Titan, but it didn’t deliver the experience or the economy they wanted.
Being fans of the Cummins engine ourselves, we were skeptical at first, but after driving the diesel-powered 1500, we see Ram’s point. We hate to use that old cliché “you’ll hardly know you’re driving a diesel,” but in this case it very nearly applies.
The VM doesn’t shout its presence to the entire neighborhood the way the Cummins does; it’s quiet, refined and unobtrusive, much like a diesel-powered Mercedes car — a diesel for people who wouldn’t go out of their way to buy a diesel.
MORE TORQUE THAN A V8
The VM A630 engine features a compacted-graphite block and a structural oil pan to save space and weight, and a variable-geometry turbocharger to reduce turbo lag. Output is 240 horsepower and 430 lb-ft of torque. That latter figure is 20 lb-ft more than the 5.7-liter Hemi gasoline V8 — and in a pickup truck, it’s the torque that gets the work done. Ram’s new 8-speed electronically controlled automatic is the sole transmission choice, with both rear- and four-wheel-drive available.
Like most modern diesels, the VM engine requires diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) for the emissions system. Unlike other diesels, Ram has put a DEF fluid gauge right on the dashboard. (EPA regulations require that if the DEF tank runs dry, the engine must be disabled.) This struck us as helpful, but also a bit alarmist; the tank holds enough fluid for 10,000 miles of driving, matching the engine’s oil change interval.
Ram estimates a 0-60 time of nine seconds for the diesel, versus 7.5 for the 3.6-liter gas V6 and under six for the 5.7-liter V8. As with most diesels, though, the numbers don’t tell the whole story: The 1500 diesel accelerates smartly away from lights, with merging and passing power comparable to the gas V6, which itself is comparable to V8s from just a few years ago.
TOWING AND FUEL ECONOMY
One thing that sets diesels apart from gas engines is the way they seem to shrug off heavy loads. We towed a 3,800 lb. boat with the diesel Ram, and it didn’t bog down under the weight the way the gas-powered RAM 1500 does. Properly configured, the 1500 diesel can tow up to 9,200 lbs.
What about economy? Ram did not have final EPA numbers at the time of our test drive, but they said the EcoDiesel will exceed the gas V6’s best-in-class rating of 18 MPG city and 25 MPG highway. We’d guess the final figures will be around 20 in town and 28 on the highway, and we saw 24 MPG in mixed city and country driving.
IS IT WORTH IT?
Whether the diesel will save money in the long run is another question. Ram is charging a $4,500 price premium for the diesel engine over the gasoline V6. If our guesstimates about fuel economy are correct, with the diesel delivering 4 MPG better than the gas V6, it would take over two decades for the diesel to pay for itself. The comparison against the 5.7 liter HEMI V8 is a bit more favorable: The diesel is priced $2,850 higher and with a projected improvement of 7 MPG, the payoff would come in just under 5 years. (Our figures are based on national average fuel prices of $3.62/gallon for gasoline and $3.97 for diesel.)
For the record, Ram says the EcoDiesel model costs $2,850 more than a Hemi-equipped truck with the optional 8-speed, which works out to $29,795 including a $1,085 destination fee.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE TRUCK?
Diesel engine aside, our test reminded us what a lovely pickup the Ram 1500 is.
In our review of the 2013 Ram 1500 Outdoorsman, we praised the truck for its handsome styling and its robust and functional interior. For this test, we sampled both a mid-line SLT and a top-of-the-range Laramie. Again, we were impressed by the sensible ergonomics and the handsome design — the Laramie in particular is trimmed out like a luxury car, with rich leather on the seats and handsome wood trim on the dash.
The SLT model is a bit more Spartan, but we were impressed by the quality of the materials, a huge improvement over Dodge Ram trucks of a few years ago. Helpful features abound, like the space-saving rotary shifter and easy-to-use Uconnect touch-screen stereo.
One of the Ram 1500’s exclusive features is its four-corner air suspension, a $1,695 option. So equipped, the Ram 1500’s ride and handling are about as close to a car as any pickup truck can get. Even without the air springs, the Ram 1500 is a joy to drive. It’s exceptionally quiet and refined, with ride and handling comparable to, if not better than, Chevy and Ford pickups.
No question, the light-duty diesel pickup is an idea that’s time has come — the benefits in fuel economy and towing ability make it an excellent choice, and the Ram 1500’s execution is as good as we could ask. But if your sole concern is the bottom line, the gasoline V6 makes better financial sense.