Will Chrysler return to the Class 8 market that it left 34 years ago? Fred Diaz, CEO of Chrysler LLC's Dodge Ram Truck, said his group will explore expansion into heavy trucks while it adds Euro-style cargo vans and a new American light pickup. They'll all be called Rams but not overtly Dodge Rams because the Ram name has gained near-stand-alone brand status within Chrysler.
If Chrysler decides to re-enter the Class 8 market here, Iveco's Australian Powerstar conventional might be the basis for a North American Ram tractor.
If Chrysler decides to re-enter the Class 8 market here, Iveco's Australian Powerstar conventional might be the basis for a North American Ram tractor.

The van and pickup plans divulged during a long, auto-centric webcast on Nov. 4 were not big surprises, because the end of Sprinter sales by Dodge demands new products and the current Dakota midsize pickup has not been popular. But a possible return to the Class 8 world raised eyebrows. Chrysler dropped its heavy truck line, whose flagship was the Big Horn conventional, during a deep recession in 1975.

Now Chrysler has nothing heavier than the Class 3-5 Dodge Ram 3500, 4500 and 5500. And its dealers have had nothing to do with heavy-duty trucks, which are a world away from Class 2 and 3 Ram Heavy Duty pickups and the medium-duty cab-chassis models.

"I can tell you now that we are giving serious consideration to entering the Class 8 market, which includes the 18-wheelers you see out there," Diaz said during his presentation. That's all he said and Chrysler's press people had nothing more to add. But because Fiat of Italy now runs Chrysler, it can tap its sources of heavy trucks just as it will do in autos and vans, and if true heavy-duty trucks are available, some dealers here will quickly learn to sell and service them.

Fiat owns Iveco, a strong commercial truck builder in Europe and other areas of the world. In the 1980s, Iveco tried selling a diesel-powered van here, but it was not overly reliable, especially in cold northern climes, and Iveco pulled out of the U.S. market. In Europe and other parts of the world, Iveco now sells mostly high cab-over-engine trucks and tractors, a style that has all but disappeared from North America since liberalized federal and state length limits allowed truckers to run conventional-cab tractors.

However, for Australia Iveco also makes a heavy conventional model called the Powerstar, which could find acceptance in North America. Powerstar comes in day- and sleeper-cab versions, with big-bore diesels rated at 450 to 560 horsepower, and with transmissions that include a 16-speed automated mechanical gearbox (more details are at http://www.iveco.com.au/powerstar.htm). Like most other diesels overseas, Iveco's Curser engines will use selective catalytic reduction to meet the latest Euro exhaust emissions limits, and would presumably do so to meet EPA limits in the U.S. and Canada.

Diaz and his possible Ram Class 8 products, whether based on the Powerstar or anything else, would get no welcomes from current truck builders here. They are now suffering through the worst sales slump since the early '80s and see little hope for a strong recovery until sometime next year. Then again, pent up demand for new commercial trucks could provide an outlet for a brand-new range of heavy trucks that might be introduced in a few years.

Iveco vans will enter the North American market starting in 2012, Diaz said, but he didn't specify which models. Daimler AG cut off the flow of Mercedes-made Sprinters when its connection with Chrysler dissolved with Chrysler's bankruptcy last summer. (Daimler is rounding up Freightliner and Mercedes-Benz dealers to continue selling the Sprinter.) Although some Dodge dealers still have leftover Sprinters on their lots, they'll probably go more than a year without vans until the Iveco-built models begin arriving.

Iveco's Daily series would be a direct replacement for the Sprinter. Daily comes in tall van, cab-chassis and bus versions with GVW ratings of 2.8 to 7 metric tonnes, or 6,300 to 15,750 pounds. Another possibility is the Ducato, a slightly smaller and lighter van. And if Diaz's Ram group decides to bring in Iveco's Doblo small van, it would compete with Ford's recently introduced Transit Connect.

In pickups, the Dakota body-on-frame midsize model is on its way out, to be replaced in 2011 by a new vehicle. Diaz didn't specify what it will be, but Net chatter speculates that it will be a unibody pickup like the Honda Ridgeline. Since its introduction in 1989, the Dakota pickup's unique size - midway between compact and full-size pickups - gained it an enthusiastic following. But that's faded since Dakota grew in size but not capacity in '04 and its styling got too edgy for many former followers. Stiff pricing for the Dakota makes the Ram 1500 pickup appear to be a better deal, and a car-like pickup might appeal more to non-truck people than pick-'em-up types.

The Ram name, which originated in 1981 and has gained stature as Dodge Ram pickups and chassis-cab models were refined and strengthened through the years, is now being emphasized. TV ads use a new slogan, "My name is Ram, my tank is full." In his talk, Diaz expanded on that theme in dramatic fashion and repeatedly called it the "Ram brand," but public relations people say that Ram trucks will continue to have Dodge vehicle identification numbers. Dodge dealers will still sell Rams, and more than 400 dealers qualify to sell Ram commercial trucks.