Folk wisdom tells us that if you’re going to drive in the city, a small car is your best option. No one wants the hassle of navigating and parking a giant pickup truck on tight, crowded streets. Or do they?
For the better part of two years, I drove a beat-up 1980 Chevrolet 3/4-ton around New York City. It was great in that I was able to own my roadspace in a way that was impossible in a smaller car. Other motorists deferred to it with an aura of fear-tinged respect. I could cruise along at whatever speed I deemed prudent, my very presence a tacit dare to run across my path.
Naturally, street-parking the thing was a nightmare.
I sold the truck years ago in favor of something that was, if not more practical, more size appropriate. But when Ram gave me an opportunity to try out one of its 2019 Ram 1500 pickups—a fancy Laramie model—on the mean streets of Manhattan, I jumped at the chance.
As far as technology and pickup trucks go, a lot has changed in the last few years, to say nothing of the seismic shift that has occurred since 1980. Bumpy ride quality, poor handling and, to some extent, terrible fuel economy are all things of the past. Kitted out in the right trim, today’s trucks are straight-up luxurious, and include features like leather, panoramic sunroofs, heated and cooled seats, high-end infotainment systems and the latest in active safety technologies.
In the never-ending pickup truck arms race, Ram now lays claim to the newest and shiniest among half-ton offerings. For its all-new 2019 model, the brand has focused a lot of its attention on fine-tuning the improvements it has made since the last generation of Ram pickups was introduced nearly a decade ago.
The most noticeable change comes in the styling department. The big rig-style stepped front fenders that arrived in 1994 have been dialed back to a vestigial arrangement Ram is calling the “power dome” hood. It’s basically a big center bulge that leaves enough vertical sheetmetal for a chrome “1500” badge on each side of the hood.
The 2019 Ram 1500 was introduced in January at the Detroit auto show. Auto shows are terrible places to assess a vehicle’s aesthetic qualities. Dim lighting, smoke machines and loud music meant to play up the “event” surrounding the new model reveal only serve as distractions. It takes someplace more real—a grubby side street near Manhattan’s West Side Highway, as it turned out—to allow a proper critique to take place.
Ignoring the rat and the McDonald’s bag tumbleweed scampering by, I took stock of the new truck. To me, it looked more grown-up than its predecessor.
As with all modern pickup trucks, the new Ram’s grille is large and in charge. Monolithic front ends have been a staple of pickup design for several years now. But—perhaps following in the footsteps of Ford, which recently trimmed the gargantuan grille proportions of its best-selling F-150 pickup—Ram actually downsized its truck grille, too.
When I first saw the new 1500, I thought, finally, a truck whose front end doesn’t look like the gable end of a barn. New headlamps with LED daytime running lights blend into the grille for a sleek, high-tech look that brings the 1500 up to speed, and maybe even a little ahead of, other trucks in the segment, style-wise.
Ryan Nagode, chief designer of the new Ram 1500, said his team took a ground-up approach to the truck’s design. They played with its proportions a bit by making it longer and wider. The height stays the same, and the result is a truck that doesn’t look quite so tall, erasing a quality of ungainliness that has—along with massive grilles—plagued truck aesthetics in recent years.
Nogode said they also raised the bed rails 1.5 inches for better aerodynamics, as well as giving each trim—Tradesman, Big Horn, Rebel, Laramie, Limited and Laramie Longhorn—its own unique visual approach. Inside the Laramie Longhorn, for example, Ram used real barnwood accents, soft-touch leather and cattle brands to play up its ranch theme.
The interior of the Laramie I was driving felt more like a high-end luxury car—the silence was golden. The only indication I had that I was in a truck was my high seating position and the occasional growl of its 5.7-liter V8 when I needed to snake around a knot of calcified traffic.
In New York City, where highway lanes are only about 10 feet wide (they’re 12 feet in places where highway construction standards existed before the highways were built), the Ram felt big, and I often found myself wondering if the Uber cars bumbling along in the lanes beside me might graze the truck’s lovely slate gray metallic paint.
Where the new Ram really shines is in terms of its ride quality. For years now, pickup truck manufacturers have been on a quest to find the perfect marriage of comfort and utility. Ram may have found it. Driving along the pockmarked West Side Highway at speeds between 50 and 60 miles per hour, the 1500 soaked up the nastiest potholes without detracting too much from handling.
The standard engine in the 2019 Ram 1500 is the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Pentastar 3.6-liter V6. In this year’s crop of Ram trucks, it comes standard with a mild hybrid setup called eTorque, which adds a 48-volt battery pack behind the seat and replaces the standard alternator with a motor-generator connected to the engine’s crankshaft with a thick rubber belt. It’s supposed to provide a 90-foot-pound torque boost and improve fuel economy. The 5.7-liter “Hemi” V8 upgrade starts in eTorqueless guise, but the extra electric twist is available as an option.
eTorque is a cool idea, but Ram didn’t have any eTorque trucks available at its New York test drive, so I’ll have to reserve judgment on it until I can try it for myself.
Suffice to say that the EPA hasn’t gotten around to testing it either, so the only official fuel economy numbers available for the new Ram 1500 are for the two- and four-wheel-drive V8 models, which the agency estimates get an average of 17 mpg. Driving around the city as I was—and much of it in stereotypically aggressive NYC-pickup-truck-driving-bro fashion—the trip computer said I was getting just below 15 mpg from the V8 engine.
I asked Jim Morrison, chief of the Ram brand, why pickups aren’t available with more aggressive hybrid powertrains—plug-in gasoline-electrics and the like. Surely, I reasoned, pickup truck customers are interested in better fuel economy than a naturally aspirated V8 engine can deliver.
“Pickup truck customers are very conservative,” was his reply. You can lead a horse to water—and possibly even tow him and a few of his horsey friends there with a Ram 1500, which can pull up to 12,750 pounds with the right equipment—but you can’t make him drink.
As I drove past Midtown on my way to the Bronx, it was difficult to ignore the bloom of high-end construction facing the Hudson River. But that’s been the story all over New York City for a few years now. From behind the wheel of a luxury-trimmed Ram pickup, I got the impression that the new 1500 had been reimagined for contractors made wealthy by a surfeit of lucrative construction jobs.
Luxurious though it was, the Laramie I tested had a price to match: about $55,000 as equipped (in top trim, it can cost about $70,000). The median household income in New York State may be only about $62,000, but rest assured that even with income inequality on the rise, there are still plenty of people who can afford this truck in the well-heeled metro area. For those who can’t there’s always leasing.
As far as driving a big pickup truck in the city goes, I think there’s a reason you don’t see more of them. At least not nice ones. Driving my dilapidated Chevy was a worry-free experience, because if it got hit by another, more aggressive or less attentive motorist (it did), I simply didn’t care so much about a $1,200 beater. A $50,000 truck is another story. But maybe that’s why the guys who drive them around here often seem so angry.
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