What happens when a European company buys a majority share in an American truck brand? In 2009, Fiat took control of the majority of Chrysler’s assets, including Ram. Suddenly a bunch of capuccino-sipping, afternoon-napping, pastel scarf-wearing executives were in charge of one of the burliest and dirtiest American nameplates. It could have been disastrous, like assigning J.J. Watt a snooty butler.
At least at first, Fiat let Ram alone. The trucks, long a third-place lagger in the industry, were undergoing explosive innovations, evolving to compete with the Ford F-150. The Laramie Longhorn 4X4 crew cab, replete with more faux-cowboy leather accessories than Tim McGraw’s media room, set new standards for luxury trucking, sending Chevy and Toyota scrambling to get their own $50,000 haulers onto the market. In 2013, the Ram 1500 swept every known Truck Of The Year award. They were the state of the art.
But now, two years into Fiat’s reign, the Eurotruck has risen. This month, Ram unveiled a three-liter EcoDiesel engine for the 1500, the same engine that Chrysler now offers in the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The new Ram diesel engine comes from Vittorio, an Italian manufacturer, which Fiat half-owns. They got their Eurotruck cheap.
At the press launch last week, I couldn’t tell if Ram is actually excited about the diesel or if they’re just selling it because Fiat is making demands. They kept saying things like “we had to find that balance of what customers are asking for.” Ram now can boast the return of the American light-diesel pickup, last seen a decade ago and never a strong seller. But is it really what customers want?
My drive partner and I got into a Ram 1500 diesel, Laramie Longhorn edition, and drove the rough-and-tumble high country roads in the hills around Malibu. Little had changed from the previous edition. It was plenty luxurious and solid as a boulder. The eight-speed transmission was more or less seamless. But the powertrain, the only important thing that’s new in the truck, was a little disappointing. It seemed like an odd marriage. The diesel generates 240 hp and 420 lb.-ft. of torque, and the 1500 was more than a little reluctant to conquer steep hills. As my drive partner put it, “if you’re looking to flex your nuts, you’re going to get the Hemi anyway.”
He’s referring to the monstrous 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi, Ram’s big daddy with 395 hp. There also the standard 3.6-liter gasoline V-6 for the 1500, but all discussion starts and ends at the Hemi’s door. The Hemi already gets 22 mpg highway; the diesel numbers aren’t in yet, will run more than the 25 mpg available in the high fuel-efficiency version of the V-6, a Ram spokesman claimed. (The same engine in the Grand Cherokee gets 30 mpg highway).
“It’s going to be incredible,” he said. “Even small pickups can’t beat this.”
Well, that may be the case, but for the 30 miles they allowed us behind the wheel of a diesel, the Ram averaged 20.3 mpg. Admittedly, those were high roads with lots of switchbacks, well beyond what most drivers would encounter in an average 30-mile run. We had to press the pedal a lot. But we were hardly converts.
A Eurodiesel engine might make sense if you’re going to use this crew cab as a way to haul the kids to Sam’s Club, but if you want it to do anything else, stick with the engine that brung you to the Truck Of The Year dance. The diesel is going to cost $2,850 more, and while your biodiesel-curious hippie friends will appreciate that it can burn B20, mainstream buyers may have a harder time making fuel savings pencil out to the costs.
The same weekend, Ram introduced another Eurotrucking curiosity: Their new Promaster van. This is a purely commercial product, based on the Fiat Ducato, which can be seen carting silk and hams through the streets of Milan. It has a boxy body, but a front window that slopes down so sharply, it almost disappears, making it feel like you’re driving two inches from the ground. It’s a triangle attached to a square, a van that Lego would love, something proudly, distinctly, weirdly Euro. The Promaster also marks a huge improvement, design- performance- and fuel-economy-wise, over the boxy prison vans that dominate the commercial segment.
On drive day, Ram had us take a cherry-red Promaster from a working ranch, through the tony suburban streets of Westlake Village, to an office-park loading dock, where a guy slapped a half-dozen bags of alfalfa and molasses horse feed into the back. Then we drove the feed back to the ranch. So I guess I can cross that off my bucket list.
The Promaster and 1500 diesel make for an interesting comparison. On the one hand, you have a product — commercial vans — that Europeans make better than Americans, and have for decades. By bringing the Promaster to our shores, Fiat improves the quality of our commercial fleet overnight.
However, with the 1500, they’re trying to pair a solid diesel engine, which would work wonders in something like a Dodge Durango, with a vehicle that’s both an unstoppable force and an unmovable object. The Promaster is a genuine Eurotruck. But the 1500 already gets 25 m.p.g., and has a curb weight up to 6,000 pounds, every inch of it American. Kudos to Fiat for trying, but the Ram 1500 might be a little too much for this diesel.