Payne: New Ram 1500 powers truck offensive

Henry Payne

Phoenix -- Behind the chromed bow of the new Ram 1500 is a growing truck-based armada as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles goes to battle against fellow Detroit truck titans, Ford and GM.


The Ram 1500 4x4 Big Horn will be the pickup’s volume seller in a range that runs from the $32,000 Tradesman to the $70,000 Limited.

Test-driven by the automotive press here in early March, the Ram hits dealerships later this month with a strong buzz as one of the most formidable trucks ever made — a smooth-riding, luxurious benchmark for a class that includes the Ford F-series, Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra.



But the Ram, which wowed the Detroit Auto Show in January, is more than just another new pickup. Developed apart from Dodge for the first time with its own design language and architecture, the 1500 is the linchpin of Fiat Chrysler’s strategy that pairs its two powerhouse, high-volume brands — Ram and Jeep — to go head-to-head against Ford and GM in the full-size pickup, mid-size pickup and large-SUV segments.

With an upcoming Wrangler-based Jeep midsize pickup (rumored to be called the Scrambler), Fiat Chrysler for the first time will have a full lineup of trucks.

“Jeep fans have been waiting a long time for a pickup,” says Patrick Rall, staff editor of Allpar.com, a website that tracks Fiat Chrysler news. He said it could also satisfy demand from customers who used to own a Ram Dakota, a midsize pickup that Ram discontinued in 2010.

Ram executives declined to discuss product plans.

But industry insiders say the profitable triad of large SUVs and mid-size and full-size pickups is key to all three automakers as they enter an uncertain future of heavy capital investment in autonomous and government-mandated electric vehicles.

“FCA has a lot of ground to cover on EVs and autonomous vehicles,” says analyst Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting. “EVs are a 10- to 15-year process and they are going to have to spend a lot of money on other products as well.”

Fiat Chrysler — which wed Italy’s Fiat and Auburn Hills-based Chrysler in 2009 — is playing catch-up to GM and Ford. Both of those carmakers are sinking capital into autonomous and EV projects from their cash-cow truck operations. The Ram pickup’s fresh high-strength steel platform will be the foundation for Jeep’s Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer large SUVs. Those SUVs will compete head-to-head against the Ford Expedition and Chevy Suburban/GMC Yukon siblings.

The biggest potential lies with the Ram 1500 flagship and its heavy-duty variants.

“Ram is similar to (Ford and GM) in that it is filling two assembly plants with high-volume trucks that generate substantial gross profit margins,” says Phillippi. “Now the Ram platform will spawn the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer to go against the Suburban and Yukon.”

With development costs already sunk in body-on-frame pickup chassis, truck-based SUVs are money machines. On top of its 800,000-and-change annual Chevy-GMC pickup sales, for example, GM moves another 100,000-plus Suburbans and Yukons.

“They are selling pure profit,” says Philippi, who estimates GM’s big sport-utilities are generating $25,000-$35,000 per vehicle.

Together with the Jeep brand — which has tripled sales to over 800,000 since 1992 — Ram’s sales growth has been relentless. Since the Great Recession, it has grown its truck market-share by 6 points to more than 21 percent on a vehicle developed a decade ago.

After developing the ’09 1500 pickup, the Dodge and Ram brands separated so the latter could singularly focus on the commercial truck market and its Detroit rivals. The 2019 Ram is the brand’s first one-truck show — and media buzz in Phoenix was four-star worthy.

Gone is the Dodge inspired “cross-hair” grille, replaced by a horizontal grille with “RAM” stamped in the middle.

The pickup’s remake, said exterior designer John Opfer, “allowed us to establish our own design vocabulary. Stern visage, with brow, headlamps and a steely-eyed glint.”

That vocabulary joins the three key ingredients — tech, capability and luxury — to make the 1500 a no-compromise truck, says Ram boss Jim Morrison.

With technical advances like cabin noise-cancellation, smartphone-app connectivity and a 225-pound diet, the Ram matches its Ford and GM rivals. As does its robust 12,700-pound towing capacity, just shy of the F-150’s best-in-class 13,200 pounds.

But it’s luxury where the Ram separates itself, and it shows why pickups are the jewels in Motown automakers’ crowns. Where foreign manufacturers have become highly competitive in U.S market segments including mainstream and luxury crossovers, sedans, sports cars — even mid-size pickups — over the last four decades, none have figured out how to compete in big trucks and SUVs.

The Detroit Three have an inside line on American pickup tastes.

The 1500 offers features seen elsewhere only in luxury vehicles: a class-first 12-inch, split-touchscreen display like Tesla and Volvo; a 48-volt battery mild-hybrid system; exclusive-to-segment coil-over springs and adaptive dampers like premium SUVs; stitched, leather-wrapped interior; and reclining rear heated-cooled seats with class-best 45-inches of legroom that dwarfs even the largest Mercedes S-class land yacht.

“I’m calling it one of the best interiors in all of the segments,” says Ram’s Morrison. “I’d challenge you to compare to anything out there. Real-leather dash and doors, real wood, real metals.”

Such options allow Ram to charge anywhere from $32,000 for a base, two-wheel drive Ram Tradesman to $70,000 for a luxurious, 4X4 Ram Limited — a cost-bandwidth rivaling BMW’s $35,000-base, 3-series sedan which can reach as high as $80,000 for its M3 performance rocket.

“Only luxury cars and full-size pickup trucks can do that,” says auto consultant Phillippi. “Truck customers want all of the personal transport amenities the same as luxury buyers. If mom has a luxury BMW, then dad wants a luxury Ram Limited.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.