Even with gas prices swelling above $4 a gallon, improving fuel economy hasn't been the motivation for most models unveiled at this year's New York Auto Show. Until this: the 2013 Ram pickup, a thorough reworking of the most important vehicle Chrysler sells with tech such as an eight-speed transmission to transform a two-ton pickup a gas sipper.
Talking about fuel economy in a full-size pickup might seem counterproductive, but no class of vehicle owner spends a larger share of their income on fuel costs. Boosting efficiency by two miles per gallon at today's gasoline prices can save a typical pickup truck owner $500 a year — a far greater payback than many hybrid car models can produce. Ford's move to sell its F-150 with a twin-turbo V6 showed truck buyers were willing to take a smaller, more efficient engine, as long as it could still get the job done.
Detroit's automakers have roared back from the collapse of 2008 by building better cars, but full-size pickups remain the heart of their business. Last year, Chrysler sold 244,763 Ram pickups — more than all Chrysler models combined. With Ford and Chevy models a few years old, the timing for a reworked Ram claiming the best fuel economy of any pickup couldn't be better.
While the Ram gets an improved interior, a few exterior tweaks and the kind of touch-screen entertainments that have become required equipment, engineers focused most of their energies on hunting for every tenth of a percent improvement in efficiency. The biggest change comes from swapping Chrysler's ancient V6 for the modern 3.6 liter Pentastar V6, good for 305 hp and 269 ft-lbs of torque and at least 20% better fuel economy. The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 also gets a few modifications to generate 395 hp and 407 ft-lbs, and both engines now offer start-stop systems.
It's beyond the engine where Chrysler engineers applied every fuel economy trick they could come up, starting with the first eight-speed transmission in a pickup. (Ram also turned the shifter into a dashboard-mounted rotary knob, freeing space on the floor.) Shutters in the grill close to lower drag at speed; electric power steering reduces engine strain; the air suspension drops the body a couple of inches at highway speeds. The transmission even sports a heating unit to warm its fluid quicker for maximum efficiency — a trick Bentley uses in the Continental GT.
While the Ram hasn't been certified by federal officials, the company claims fuel economy will jump at least 20% in the V6 model, which would take it to 19 mpg combined; a similar jump in the Hemi V8 version would take it to 18 mpg, where it would surpass any V8 pickup offered by the competition. Many pickup truck buyers stick with their brand for life, but Ram could at least get them thinking about a change every time they fill up.