Imagine yourself in a Dodge TV commercial and the scruffy character pulls up next to you at a red light and yells his Hemi question. Ha! You'll blow him away because you've got something better: the latest Cummins Turbo Diesel, which is both bigger and more powerful than the current diesel, and whose exhaust gases probably smell nicer than the Hemi guy's breath.
And that ain't all you got.
This here's the latest Ram, the 3500 Heavy Duty Cab Chassis with a strong frame that's maybe stronger than they're saying. Talk on the Internet is that Dodge is preparing heavier duty models as its parent, DaimlerChrysler, is ratcheting up the competitive screws on other truck builders. We'll see if the rumored Ram 4500 and even a 5500 come to pass, or if the 3500 HD will also be the basis for Sterling Truck's upcoming Bullet Class 4 truck. The Dodge Boys aren't talkin'.
But for now, they've got a pretty nice Class 3 truck in this 3500 HD. Its rear frame is noticeably beefier than the 3500 "box off" model and other lesser-rated Ram pickups. The 3500 HD comes only with the cab (either two-door Regular or four-door Quad) and bare frame. If you want a pickup, choose the 3500 or 2500 with the box.
The rails behind the cab are of 50,000-psi steel that are "clean" and spaced 34 inches apart, the standard for medium- and heavy duty trucks in North America, for easy mounting of work bodies. Bolted crossmembers and high-capacity suspension components are also designed for heavy work. The truck's GVW rating of 12,500 pounds is 1,000 pounds more than formerly available from Dodge, at least since 1975, when it withdrew from the medium- and heavy-duty truck business.
Dodge limped along for years as a poor third in the light-truck game, but jolted the business in 1988 when it announced a new engine option, the six-cylinder 360-cubic-inch Cummins, for the '89 model year. This put new life into an aging pickup chassis, and the diesel became renowned for its hard-pulling torque, excellent fuel economy and long life. For '93, Dodge transformed the Ram into a modern, good-selling truck, and has updated since, while Cummins has steadily improved the 5.9-liter Turbo Diesel.
To meet federal emissions regulations taking effect in January, the ISB-based Turbo Diesel gets a larger bore and longer stroke for a displacement of 6.7 liters (409 cubic inches), plus many other combustion and electronic advances. And of course there's a new oxygen catalyst and diesel particulate filter. All this cost a lot to develop and is more expensive to build, but Dodge wants to make a splash in the market, so it's holding the diesel upcharge to the current $5,605.
The new Turbo Diesel emits absolutely no smoke or odor. Sniff the exhaust and you'll think it's burning propane or natural gas. Of course it's burning ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, and any owner must be sure to use only that or the particulate filter can foul up. It's an expensive thing to replace. Yanking off the filter and going to a big-diameter straight pipe to get a macho bellowing, as many enthusiasts have done to their Turbo Diesels, is forbidden. However, downstream is a muffler that could be removed without breaking any laws or adversely affecting exhaust quality. And it might put some bark into the sound.
As it is, the engine makes some nice exhaust and mechanical sounds, and performance borders on exciting. Even slightly derated to a commercially sensible 305 horsepower and 610 pounds-feet as it is in the 3500 HD (versus 350/650 in lighter-duty Rams), the Cummins 6.7 propels the truck briskly. Under load – about 4-3/4 yards of topsoil for my backyard, if you must know – the turbo whines faintly and the engine pulls strongly.
Under load, too, is when the engine's optional exhaust brake is most useful. It's actually the variable-geometry turbocharger that adjusts to restrict gas flow, and you switch it on with a dash-mounted push-button. Take your foot off the accelerator and it begins dragging on the driveline; downshifting to raise revs results in more retarding power, and it even raps like a Jake Brake. It's said to be 35 percent more powerful than a butterfly valve-type exhaust brake.
A new Aisin six-speed automatic up- and downshifted smoothly and often enough to usually keep revs between 1,500 and 2,000 rpm, even with moderate pressure on the pedal. The Cummins pulls nicely at those speeds because it's developing most of its torque down there. The tranny's shift quadrant reads P-N-D-3-2-1. There's no 5 or 4 position to pull it out of 6th and 5th to make best use the exhaust brake and compression on long downgrades, or to hold it in one of those gears while climbing.
But there's a push-button on the shift lever's end: Tap it once with your index finger and it engages Tow-Haul Mode, which sets the tranny to automatically downshift when the retarder is on; push it again and it switches to Overdrive Off, which locks out the top two gears. This works better than it might sound, and is probably less clumsy than trying to manipulate the lever among more positions. Tow-Haul didn't seem to affect upshifts during acceleration, nor did it need to; the Cummins is so gutsy that it almost didn't matter what gear the tranny was in.
Sixth-overdrive has a 0.63 to 1 ratio and 5th-overdrive's is 0.77 to 1. These keep revs low at highway speeds, even with the rear axle’s 4.10 gearing. The tachometer shows a redline of 3,500 rpm for the engine, but it should seldom get above 2,500 unless you mash the accelerator or hold the tranny in lower gears just for the fun of it.
The truck as a whole handled well, with easy and steady steering and flat cornering. With the Knapheide dump box empty, the ride was firm but not harsh. With a load aboard, the ride softened a bit, just as you'd expect. The Cummins rumbled enough that I never forgot it was there, yet the interior remained quiet and, with windows up, was insulated from most road noise.
The Ram's base ST trim includes a homely gray nose and a plain but pleasant interior. Large expanses of gray plastic covered most of the inside surfaces. The floor had plastic mats that wear mud well, and the bench seat had patterned vinyl covers and a large center fold-down arm rest. The Regular Cab is wide enough for three big people, and long enough to stow small tool boxes and other stuff behind the seat.
The floor was about 2 feet off the pavement, so climbing in was not a big chore, especially with a well-placed grab handle on the A-pillar, and jumping out was easy. Its windshield is steeply sloped to reduce air drag, but it collects moisture-borne dust quickly.
By the way, the standard transmission in the 3500 HD and most other Rams is a six-speed manual, and the standard engine is the 5.7-liter (348-cubic-inch) gasoline V-8, mated to the manual or a five-speed automatic. This engine makes 25 more horsepower but a little over half the torque of the commercial-spec diesel. Once you drive the Cummins you might not be satisfied with anything else, and of course it gets better economy and will last longer.
But if you run fewer than 25,000 or so miles a year, there are other considerations. Look at the diesel's $5,600 upcharge and diesel fuel's 30- to 50-cent-a-gallon higher price compared to 87-octane gasoline, and that gasser V-8, even if it burns 30 percent more fuel, begins making business sense. And like the guy says, it is a Hemi.