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2020 RAM 1500 Test Drive Review
A full redesign in 2019 left a significant bit of tech on the table for the increasingly popular Ram 1500: the EcoDiesel 3.0-liter engine. Ram was once the only option for a half-ton diesel pickup, but emissions certification problems resulted in Ram pulling the diesel engine a few years ago. The engineers at Ram have been hard at work updating it ever since. Although the EcoDiesel wasn’t ready for 2019, it’s now available to any 2020 Ram 1500 trim, so it seems it was well worth the wait. With 80% new parts, the EcoDiesel's improvements to power, efficiency, and delivery all mean that Ram is fighting hard to change minds about America’s least-loved engine type.
Look and Feel
The Ram 1500 remains one of the most iconic trucks on the road, and it’s fast becoming one of the best selling as well. Buying one can be a little confusing, however, as the old, pre-redesign Ram 1500 is still being sold as the Ram 1500 “Classic,” but when you combine sales of both, the Ram 1500 actually outsold the Silverado last year. That’s impressive regardless of how you calculate those sales. Still, I’ll be concentrating on the redesigned, “all-new” Ram 1500 for this review.
As truck grilles continue to grow, the Ram 1500 can rest comfortably on a quarter-century's worth of large-grille laurels. Yeah, the Ram was doing the oversize grille thing back during the Clinton administration. It’s the rest of the industry that’s only now catching up.
Your journey with the Ram 1500 starts with the aptly named Tradesman trim, with a starting MSRP of $31,895. If you’re just looking for a tough truck that’ll get the job done, this is a good place to start. It includes some features you’d be forgiven for assuming were left back in the 20th century, including 18-inch steel wheels, vinyl upholstery and flooring, a bench seat, and a 6-speaker stereo. Of course, it’s not all spartan and austere, as that stereo still comes with dual USB inputs and an Aux jack. You’ll also get push-button ignition, auto headlights, cruise, air conditioning, a rear-view camera, and a 5-inch touchscreen running the Uconnect infotainment system. Heated side mirrors mean you’ll still be able to see when things get cold, and standard trailer-sway control for the Class III receiver mean things won’t get too hot, either—at least not from a “fishtailing down the highway” angle.
If you want to upgrade things a bit, the receiver can be upgraded to a Class IV, while a trailer brake control and an electronic locking rear differential will add some utility, along with an optional spray-in bedliner and towing mirrors.
The Big Horn trim (which Texas buyers know as the “Lone Star”—differentiated solely by the name and a unique badge) further ups the ante with foglights, carpet, and tinted windows, but the real value here is in its available options. Want to increase your 18-inch alloys to 20s? You got it. How about the air suspension that has so effectively distinguished the Ram 1500 in this class? That can be yours, too. In fact, dual-zone climate control, power-adjustable pedals, LEDs front and back, and the upgraded, 8.4-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay can all be yours, depending on how much beyond the starting $36,340 MSRP you want to go.
From here, it depends on where you want to take your truck. If off-road is more your flavor, the Rebel has a more aggressive profile and purpose, and it's newly available with the diesel engine this year. The Rebel's an immediately recognizable trim with a lifted, off-road suspension and off-road tires, skid plates, front tow hooks, and LED headlights and fogs. For the capability to match, it also gets a 3.92 rear axle with an electronic locking diff, hill-descent control, and a Class IV hitch. Inside you’ll find front bucket seats with power for the driver, a 115-volt, household-style power outlet, satellite radio, and an upgraded driver display, all for the starting MSRP of $44,240.
But if luxury is more your taste, the Laramie trim takes everything listed above except the Rebel’s off-road specific features and adds even more tech and flair with leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats with driver memory, a heated steering wheel, keyless entry, and parking sensors front and rear. You’ll also get upgraded to the 8.4-inch touchscreen and a 9-speaker stereo. And to make sure your interior experience is nothing but pleasant, the Laramie also gets dual-zone auto climate control and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
That starts at $40,040, but if you feel like spending a little bit more, the Laramie Longhorn adds fancy outside features and items like 20-inch wheels, chrome side steps, and auto high beams and wipers. Inside you’ll enjoy upgraded leather for your front bucket seats with heat and ventilation, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with wood inserts, reclining rear seats with heat and ventilation, and navigation. A spray-in bed liner comes standard, but can be removed, just as the Laramie Longhorn comes with the shorter, 5’7” bed, though you can upgrade to the 6’4” if you prefer. For all that, you’re looking at a base MSRP of $50,640.
From there, your only option for further luxury is the $53,415 Limited trim. The big upgrade here is the standard air suspension, though you shouldn’t discount little amenities like the premium leather, standard power-retractable side steps, and safety upgrades like blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. You can push the Limited's price up with little effort. Laramie trims and above can add popular features and packages, like adaptive cruise control with forward-collision warning and auto emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and a self-parking system with a 360-degree camera. Additionally, these trims are eligible for the 12-inch, tablet-style touchscreen upgrade.
My week with the Ram 1500 was spent in a Laramie Longhorn in the Crew Cab configuration with the EcoDiesel and 4-wheel drive (4WD). With a base price of $54,140, the sticker was inflated with some pretty serious options. $3,330 got me the EcoDiesel, while the Maximum Steel paint job and body-colored bumpers cost $200 and $195, respectively. The LVL1 Equipment Group was $3,895 and got me a 19-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, blind-spot monitoring, wireless charging, power running boards, ventilated rear seats and the 12-inch, tablet-style touchscreen. On top of that, an Advanced Safety Group added adaptive cruise with forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning and the parking assist features for $1,695. My personal favorite was the panoramic sunroof, which really brightened up the cabin and was a no-brainer at $1,495. Finally, the 3.92 axle, trailer brake control, and the multi-function tailgate added $95, $295, and $995, respectively, and with the $1,695 destination fee, the total came to an even $68,000.
With V8 and diesel engine options on the list, it would be easy to gloss over the 3.6-liter V6 that stands as the base engine for the Ram 1500. But this engine was reworked last year, and it’s now more powerful. Paired with a ZF 8-speed transmission, this setup is good for 305 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, although all trims can be fitted with the optional 5.7-liter V8, delivering 395 hp and 410 lb-ft. In an effort to curb complaints about sluggish response on takeoff, this new V6 is fitted with a mild-hybrid system dubbed “eTorque.” This replaces the alternator with a belt-driven motor/generator powered by a 48-volt, 12-cell lithium-ion battery pack. Sound boring? The system is capable of delivering up to an extra 90 lb-ft of torque given the need—mostly during towing and general takeoff. In addition to that, it manages to improve fuel economy and smooth out the start/stop system as well. Hard to argue with benefits like that, and it’s enough of an improvement that if you previously disregarded the Pentastar V6, it’s definitely time for another look. In fact, properly configured, this engine can return an impressive 20 mpg city, 26 highway, 23 combined.
If eight cylinders are more to your liking, the V8 comes in two flavors this year: traditional and fitted with the eTorque system, though Laramie Longhorn and Limited trims can get only the latter. With 395 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque, it’s a significant upgrade from the V6, especially considering it’ll still return up to 17/23/19, and with a maximum towing capacity of 12,750 pounds, it’ll get the job done.
Of course, 12,560 pounds of maximum towing capacity would likely get the same job done just as well. Actually, with a class-leading 480 lb-ft of torque that now arrives 400 rpm lower in the rev range, the smallest engine of the three might be the most capable. That’s right, the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 delivers more torque than anything in the class. And while 260 hp doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s still 20 more than the last time the diesel came ‘round these parts.
The ZF 8-speed was reworked as well to pair perfectly with the EcoDiesel, and it's part of that increased utility. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that the diesel lived up to all Ram's claims. While the improvements have certainly gone a long way toward increasing overall driveability, it still drives like a diesel. Even with all that torque, the engine will still sometimes fall flat on its face with turbo lag, usually when you’re trying to make a quick left turn across oncoming traffic. And while 480 lb-ft is impressive, when you want to merge on the highway, all you’ll notice is just how small a number 260 hp is. Overall, this is still a try it before you buy it situation, particularly when it comes to towing.
Official numbers haven’t been released by either Fiat Chrysler or the EPA, but over nearly 150 miles of mixed driving, I averaged 15.4 mpg.
Form and Function
With class-leading torque, 12,000+ pounds of towing capacity, and perhaps the most comfortable interior in its class, the RAM 1500 manages to deliver on all its promises. A huge interior means plenty of room even for big adults, front and back, and rear coil springs rather than more traditional leaf springs mean a more comfortable ride when the road gets rough.
Perhaps even more important is storage. With over 151 liters (or 5 cubic feet) of interior storage, the Ram 1500 absolutely smashes the class, nearly doubling its nearest competitor with a giant center console, hidden pockets, and even storage beneath the rear floor. The rear offers enough room that seats in the higher trims can even recline, and at 6’4”, I could sit behind my own driver’s seat, unmoved from my preferred position, and retain plenty of rear legroom.
My main concern is with the Ram 1500's maximum towing capacity. In order to achieve it, you’ll need to spec your truck very precisely. That means no crew cab, no 4WD, and nothing but the 3.92 axle. That’s going to limit quite a bit of the function you can get out of the Ram 1500, but life is all about compromise. One final complaint: I found most of the dials around the cabin were a little too loosely calibrated, so I often went past the radio station I was trying to choose and then had to go back again.
With the 12-inch, tablet-style touchscreen, the Ram 1500 absolutely shines with regard to technology. The Uconnect system is bright, beautiful, and easy to use. It pairs easily with smartphones—though I did have one instance where an improper connect procedure had the stereo playing both the satellite radio and Spotify at the same time. And don’t think you need the 12-inch screen in order to be impressed. The 8.4 is still quite the looker, and it will be more than adequate.
Most of the praise here should really be reserved for the engine tech. Both the diesel and the eTorque mild hybrid system deserve attention, and they’re improvements we can expect to see spreading throughout the industry.
More than that, there are some surprising inclusions. Every trim gets push-button start, for instance, which is important when you’re carrying things or wearing gloves, since digging through pockets to find your keys would be challenging. A wealth of USB and USB-C inputs front and back mean you’ll never—and I mean never—want for a charge port. Unless every passenger brings multiple devices, you’re going to be just fine.
With the return of the diesel soaking up all the headlines, another noteworthy news item has gone largely overlooked. While a 5-star overall safety rating from the government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is impressive, independent testing has garnered the Ram 1500 an unshared accolade: It’s the first true, full-size, body-on-frame pickup to be named a Top Safety Pick Plus by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). However, it’s important to note that this applies only if you get the Crew Cab model with all the active safety equipment and the optional LED lights.
But that brings up another noteworthy point. While most of the safety features are available across the board—only the parking sensors and the forward-collision and lane-departure mitigation are relegated to Laramie and above—none come standard, meaning you’re never paying for something you don’t want. That’s important in a potential work truck, and it's much appreciated.
It should also be noted that while many entrants in this category have monstrous hoods that make seeing over them a frustrating chore, the Ram 1500’s hood is designed so you don’t feel as restricted visually. That’s a small, but very important distinction.
Finally, braking feel was particularly noteworthy, displaying consistency regardless of the situation. However, because of the overall mass of the Ram 1500, stopping from 60 mph should take 130 feet or more. Disappointing as that is, it’s about average for the class.
This might be the biggest advantage of the Ram 1500. Sure, you can pump up the price close to 70 grand, but you can also grab a base Tradesman trim, outfit it accordingly, and it'll be every bit as capable for about half the price. That’s hard to argue with, especially considering the accessibility of the powertrains, the tech, and the safety equipment. I’d be more impressed if the advanced safety features were available throughout the lineup, but if I have to choose between that and never having to pay for something I don’t want, I think the Ram 1500 falls on the right side of the issue.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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