Payne: Rugged Ram 1500 diesel hugely economical

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to say that Juan Pablo Montoya is Colombian, not Brazilian.

I think I've been cast as Lemuel Gulliver in the adaptation of a Jonathan Swift novel. Last week I was a giant testing the tiny Alfa Romeo 4C Spider in Lilliput. This week I've been driving around in a Brobdingnagian Ram 1500 diesel.

This thing is huge. I may be 6-foot-5-inches but, when I climb into the driver's seat, I look like a six-year-old scrambling onto a bunk bed. Meanwhile, my 5-foot-5-inch wife is looking in the passenger-side door for a step ladder. Which is about the only option the luxurious, $52,620 Laramie model doesn't come equipped with.

For an auto racer like me, the jump from Lilliput to Brobdingnag is actually not as disorienting as it was for Lemuel. It's a normal occurrence on weekends where 8,000-pound, diesel-powered, heavy-duties tow 1,500-pound race machines to the track.

So what better way to test the Ram than to drive it to Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

For years my team has towed my pint-sized, 1966 Porsche 906 to the races with a 2003 Ram 3500 Heavy Duty. Talk about huge. Our 3500's 5.9-liter, Cummins diesel inline-6 puts out 305 horsepower and 555 pound-feet of torque (the '16 model ups the torque to a staggering 900 pound-feet) compared to the 1500's 240-horse, 420-pound feet, turbocharged, 3.0-liter "ecodiesel." Crank the ol' Cummins up and the ground shakes, trees topple, car alarms go off in three counties. This is a work truck, a purpose-built diesel meant for pulling stumps — and cars.

It's also a baseline for how refined modern turbo-diesels have become even as they deliver plenty of utility.

As I crossed the American heartland to America's racetrack in an All-American pickup, all is not as it appears. Brazilian Juan Pablo Montoya just won the Indy 500 in an Italian-built Dallara — and the Ram 1500 is assembled in Mexico and owned by Italy's Fiat. Which also happens to be where its diesel engine is made.

After decades of development Europeans know diesels. Gliding south on Route 23 out of Michigan, I wouldn't guess the engine beneath me was a diesel but for the 4,800 RPM redline and "DIESEL" etched in the fuel gauge. The turbo-6 is whisper quiet. Jump on the throttle and there's no rumble. No shudder. No belch of black smoke from the double-barreled exhaust. Diesel, thy name is Serenity.

And Efficiency. Forget your truck stop-phobia (please, Lord, let the toilets be sanitary). Your fear of running out of gas. The diesel Ram will go 570 miles on a tank. Five-hundred-and-seventy miles. That's from Detroit to St. Louis. You could stash a Prius in the bed and then go another 530.

The $7,795 premium for the Cummins engine in the heavy duty is easily justified by the engine's off-the-charts, 30,000-pound towing ability — not to mention fuel saved over long trailer hauls. But does the $2,830 diesel premium over the standard Ram's 5.7-liter, gas-powered V-8 make sense?

After all, the ripped Hemi can clean and jerk 8,610 pounds compared to the diesel's 7,660 tow capacity. The oil-burner's case rests on fuel economy. Ram claims 22 mpg (I got 23.6 mpg in AWD mode, 25.8 in 2WD) versus the Hemi's 17. That 30 percent better fuel efficiency looks good on paper, but, with gas and diesel prices essentially the same (I paid $2.70 in Indiana vs. $2.77 for regular gas), you'll have to drive 15,000 miles-a-year for 5 years to earn it back. Plan on owning your truck longer that long?

You might, given the 1500's livability.

The Crew Cab's quiet interior is bigger than most Manhattan apartments and just as posh. The ram's-head sculpture on the console is a piece of art. The dash-mounted rotary shifter opens up even more room. I bought dinner at Chick-fil-A outside Toledo (ahem, more Chicks in Michigan, please?) and arranged it in the sprawling console like a high school cafeteria tray: The box of chicken nuggets in the deep compartment at my right elbow, my fries in the space behind it. My X-large soda occupied Cupholder A — right next to the bottled water in Cupholder B.

And I still had another compartment left over if I had had dessert (chocolate pudding was always my favorite in school). Try that in any other vehicle. No wonder pickups aren't just for construction workers.

A neighbor's teenage daughter drives a Ram. In a large family she provides essential shuttle service. I came across her one day at the local tennis club snacking in the cafeteria — er, cab — while waiting for her kid brother to finish his lesson. A repaired bicycle was in the bed. Little brother jumped into the back seat slinging his huge tennis bag before him. His back seat, hers front seat. Good for sibling relations.

Premium trucks have gone from 1 percent of the pickup market in 2009 to 16 percent today for good reason: They are rolling offices. In the searing summer heat of Indy's infield, I spent an afternoon between races getting work done. I lounged comfortably in cooled, ventilated leather seats. I kept my laptop juiced in a 12-volt outlet. I browsed the Internet via the UConnect Wi-Fi app. If I had had a port-a-john in the pickup bed, I would never have had to leave the truck.

In Lilliput I skimmed the earth in the Alfa. I felt every pore in the road. Saw every blade of grass. In giant pickup land you're above it all. It's like riding in a skyscraper. I looked across the landscape and saw people in other skyscrapers: GMC Sierras, Ford F-150 pickups, Chevy Silverados.

A signature feature of Ram is its smooth ride thanks to sedan-like coil springs in the rear suspension. But for the third-story view, I forgot it was a pickup a few miles into my journey. Big pickups — looking at you Toyota Tundra — can become annoying on long trips for their harsh ride on rear leaf-springs. Combined with an empty bed, the flutter rides right up your spine. Not Ram.

In the Big Three pickup wars, every brand needs a calling card. Chevy's got the best bed access with corner step-up. Aluminum Ford wows with gizmos like mirror spotlights and bed cleats. Ram's got the silky ride.

America's roads have gone supersized with the calories to match. Jumbo candy bars at every service station. X-Large drinks at every drive-thru. How clever to have a supersized diesel pickup that uses fewer calories. A Brobdingnagian with a Lilliput appetite.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com.

2015 Ram 1500 diesel

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear or four-wheel-drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $25,165 base ($52,620 Larami Crew Cab Diesel 4x4 as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter V-6; 5.7-liter hemi V-8; 3.0-liter, turbocharged, 3.0-liter diesel V-6

Power: 305 horsepower, 269 pound-feet of torque (3.6L V-6); 395 horsepower, 410 pound-feet of torque (Hemi V-8); 240 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque (diesel)

Transmission: Six or eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 8.8 seconds (Motor Trend); Maximum payload: 1,340 lbs.; Maximum towing: 7,660 lbs. (as tested)

Weight: 5,611 pounds (diesel as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 mpg combined (3.6L V-6); EPA 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway/17 mpg combined (Hemi V-8); EPA 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway/22 mpg combined (diesel)

Report card

Highs: Roomy; the range of a stealth bomber

Lows: Diesel premium; won't fit in "compact car" space

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Only light-duty diesel truck: 3.0L V-6

Best-in-class 4WD mpg: 22

Endless range: 572 miles

Fuel savings: $540-a-year (vs. Hemi V-8)