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2009 Dodge Ram: So, So Sad. Not the Truck, Mind You

Dodge_2009_Ram_front78.JPGAs I write this, much attention is focused on Chrysler, a company now entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings amidst an automobile industry that has collapsed. It’s quite a backdrop to consider as we evaluated the latest Dodge Ram pickup truck. Let’s get this out of the way first: the latest Dodge Ram is the best driving pickup I’ve ever driven, and its interior is the best I’ve ever seen from Chrysler.

Does it matter? Chrysler’s current situation is the result of many factors, a lot of them being Chrysler’s own doing (or shall we say, the doing of Daimler, Chrysler’s former owners?), but a lot of it is simple bad luck. Chrysler has long employed legions of smart people doing innovative things, but a combination of wrong decision-making and the economic collapse has brought the company to its knees. In some ways, the new Dodge Ram is a metaphor for the company and its current situation.
The latest Dodge Ram was conceived during a time when personal-use pickup sales were continuing to grow. Fuelled by cheap gas, many people flocked to these full-size pickups to use simply as cars. These trucks looked cool, and many loved the image associated with them. Although these trucks had gotten nicer and nicer with each generation in response to this phenomenon, most still suffered from a bouncy ride originating from crude but tough rear leaf springs that provided the necessary towing and hauling capabilities.
So, Dodge decided to fit this latest Ram with coil springs, which slightly reduced towing and hauling capabilities but greatly improved ride quality and handling. They weren’t kidding about that improved ride and handling; the new Ram drives like a really nice SUV rather than a pickup. It glides down the road with real confidence and poise, and its accurate steering helps make it feel very nimble for something of this size. In addition, it’s very quiet and refined inside, with materials, fit, and finish that I had long thought Chrysler was incapable of executing. This truck’s interior easily equals, if not betters, the standards set by the Toyota Tundra and the latest Ford F-150. It’s that good.
In other words, it truly answers the call of the personal-use truck buyer who is more concerned with comfort and refinement than outright capability. A few years ago, this might have been a sound strategy to set it apart from its Ford and GM competition. But unfortunately, gasoline prices that hit $4.00 per gallon just before the truck was launched as well as the economic collapse wiped out demand for personal-use pickups. Thus, the new Ram’s talking points went unheard by its target market. Those who are actually buying pickups right now tend to do so because their work or activities demand a capable truck, so outright capability is more important than comfort. As such, this truck, which represented a massive investment by Chrysler, has entered the marketplace with a thud. It’s almost an injustice for such a wonderful truck.
So, like the company that conceived it, the new Ram has a lot of smart thinking behind it, but a mis-read of its intended buyer’s market as well as a dollop of bad luck has left it in a really bad position. Assuming Chrysler survives, it will be interesting to see if the company continues to target a personal-use truck buyer. Our hunch is that they won’t.

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