Almost since pickup trucks began outselling automobiles in the 1980s, the domestic Big Three auto makers - who still dominate light-truck sales with their full-size models - have been leapfrogging over each other with redesigned and refined products.
Pickup sales began falling off as fuel prices got seriously high, but work on the vehicles has continued.

Dodge began making noise more than a year ago about the refinements applied to its '09 Ram 1500s. The Rams got aggressive exterior styling that's also more aerodynamic; nicer interiors at all trim levels; advanced audio and visual entertainment options; more storage bins and cubicles (42 in some models, including a pair of large, covered compartments built into bed sides); and a variety of load securement racks.

Standard on all Ram 1500s is a modern coil-and-link rear suspension that's unique to the world of full-size pickups. Also new is a true four-door Crew Cab, with enough leg-room space for tall people and a fold-up seat that bares much of the rear floor for carrying cargo too valuable to throw into the bed. The Quad Cab, with its more abbreviated rear-seat area and shorter rear doors, is still in the lineup, along with a two-door Regular Cab. The Crew Cab and other advances will be applied to 2010-model 3/4- and 1-ton pickups, sources had previously said.

When Dodge marketers and product planners let reporters drive the Rams in the rolling countryside northeast of Santa Barbara, Calif., some of the trucks in the test fleet were positively posh - almost too fancy to subject to any dirty duties. So when our hosts turned us loose on a small fleet of waiting Rams, I grabbed a plain, black Regular Cab with the standard V-6 engine, a short wheelbase and short, 6-foot, 4-inch bed. Specifications state that this truck's gross vehicle weight rating is 6,025 pounds and its payload is 1,490 pounds (including passengers).
It had the base ST interior, the lowest of five packages, but it still looked good and felt fine. The seats had attractive two-tone gray cloth coverings that were comfortable to sit on and will probably wear well. Bolsters provided good lateral support for driver and passenger, and there's a center area for a third person who won't feel cramped because the cab is plenty wide. If there's no third person, you can fold down a big center armrest that has a compartment large enough to store a laptop computer or a bunch of upright files, separated by built-in dividers.

Controls for the radio and heater-air conditioner were big, well-marked knobs that could be understood at a glance and operated with little conscious thought, meaning the driver can keep his or her mind on the road. In the dash to the far right was a big, rectangular cubby hole that on fancier trim levels is given a hinged cover. Below that is a large, locking "glove box," and people who really keep gloves in there will find room for maybe a dozen pair. And there's more than a foot of fore-aft room in a full-width tray behind the seat, enough for fair-size tool boxes, paint pails or other stuff you don't want to throw in the wide and roomy bed.

The 3.7-liter (226-cubic-inch) 215-horse V-6 was surprisingly quick from the get-go and still healthy at freeway speeds. It ran through a smooth-shifting 42RLE 4-speed automatic. A 6-speed Getrag manual is standard, but few are sold, marketers said. A 5-speed automatic is used with the optional V-8s. While the V-6 could benefit as much or more from additional ratios, the multi-speed tranny is also more expensive, which would be at odds with the littler engine's main object: a price about a thousand dollars less than a V-8's. Put bluntly, if you're too cheap to buy a bigger motor, four speeds are all you get.

But anyone old enough to remember 2- and 3-speed automatics, like me, still appreciates a 4-speed. This one has an overdrive ratio of 0.69 to 1, which makes for leisurely engine revs on the highway. And this autotranny now has a neat spring-loaded thumb switch on the selector lever that allows the driver to downshift and hold lower gears for braking on long downgrades. Thumbing up caused an upshift to the next gear, and an LED indicator in the instrument panel showed which gear was engaged. There was also a Tow-Haul switch on the dash that delays upshifts and quickens downshifts.

With an empty bed the truck's ride was appropriately firm. But the coil-link rear suspension smoothed out undulations in patchy pavement and, more noticeably, eliminated lateral hop over bumps. Remember that the truck still uses a solid rear axle, so side-hop is theoretically possible; however, engineers have arranged the five links and tuned the coil springs and shock absorbers to almost eliminate hopping.

Our hosts did load a couple of pickups, one an '09 Ram 1500 Quad Cab and the other an '08 Chevy Silverado 1500 Crew Cab. A crew placed 40 25-pound sacks of horse feed - an even half ton - in each of the beds and offered them for comparison purposes. The Chevy and its brother, the GMC Sierra, were new in the '07 model year. A major advancement was a more controlled ride, and while it still uses leaf rear springs, the Chevy's excellent ride quality was still apparent, to the point where I had to concentrate to notice the improvement with the Dodge's new suspension.

There's less jounce with Dodge's coil-link rear suspension, especially over patched asphalt, but the loaded Chevy behaved almost as nicely. The difference between the two suspensions was more discernable when we drove two unloaded trucks; then the Dodge's coil-link setup had a slight advantage. But I doubt that a GM owner is going to throw up his hands and trade in his 1500 over this, and '09 GM pickups are getting hydraulic cab mounts that will further smooth the way.

Later I drove a couple of bright-red Rams. One of them was an SLT Regular Cab that was hitched to a horse trailer. With no Nellie aboard, the trailer weighed 2,900 pounds, which the Hemi-powered long-bed pickup easily yanked around. Tow rating for a Ram 1500 with the 390-horsepower Hemi is 5,100 to 9,100 pounds, depending on axle ratio and other equipment; with the 310-horsepower 4.7 V-8 it's 5,350 to 7,600 pounds; and for the 215-horsepower V-6 it's 2,950 to 3,800 pounds.

Another ride was a sporty R/T iteration of the Regular Cab, short-bed Ram. It had a very gutsy Hemi running through a 4.10 axle ratio that will let the truck dash from 0 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds, according to our enthusiastic hosts. It sure was quick. The engine didn't race at highway cruising speeds, either, because an 0.67 overdrive 5th gear let the Hemi loaf at about 2,000 rpm at 65 mph.

The SLT and R/T had plusher seats with power adjustments, fancy faced instruments ringed with chrome bezels, and other niceties. So … I'd buy the simpler truck with the plainer interior for my crews to use - Get to work, now, boys! - and buy a more upscale model for me, 'cause I'm the boss. The Dodge's big chromey nose would be my neck tie, see?

From the March 2009 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.