Once upon a time, pickup trucks were the evergreens of the auto industry, only refreshed every decade or so. With the surge of popularity in SUVs in the early 1990s, automakers realized that cash-cow pickups might appeal to mainstream consumers, too, so luxuries were added and added to the point where, seemingly overnight, these haulers became mainstream vehicle choices, not just rugged appliances.
In late 2008, just as gas prices spiked and lemmings - scratch that, consumers - traded in their Expeditions on Priuses, Ford and Dodge took the wraps off of their all-new full-size pickup trucks. Introduced a year earlier, both trucks would brought in some substantial bacon for the two struggling Detroit automakers, but not even the oracles of Motor City could predict the industry's current woes.
Still, it goes without saying that both automakers poured their heart and soul into these vehicles, which might serve as the poster children for congressmen who claim that Detroit's automakers don't make anything consumers want. They don't want big pickups? Really? The F-150 was still the best-selling vehicle in the United States last year - and the Ram wasn't far behind.
We decided to saddle up and take these two new players for a ride to see which one makes the most sense for the millions of everyday pickup drivers.
What are they?
New from the ground up, the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram are state-of-the-art for this segment.
We've chosen to compare high-end, luxury-oriented, four-wheel-drive variants of both trucks in their short bed, crew cab bodystyles. With sticker prices hovering in the high-$40,000s thanks to features like heated and cooled leather seats with power adjustability and memory, these loaded models aren't going to appeal to commercial users. But they'll make well-heeled ranchers and businessmen quake in their boots.
The F-150 Lariat is actually two steps down from the top dog in the Ford lineup, but we don't see much of substance that the range-topping Platinum offers besides style. We do like the gorgeous leather trim of the King Ranch model - second from the top - but one wasn't available for us to test, so we're in the Lariat.
The Ram Laramie - boy, those trim levls sure do sound alike - is the most feature-laden Ram you'll find on your dealer's lot, unless the King of Cars and his Blue Genie salesman decide to add some, uh, accouterments.
Ironically, our testers were both assembled in Missouri - the Ram in Fenton, a suburb of St. Louis, and the F-150 in Claycomo, just outside Kansas City. Cross-state rivals?
What are they up against?
Just four other full-size pickups compete against the Ram and F-150, but only the nearly identical Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra come in the similarly wide range of options and trim levels that years of experience in this market have taught Detroit to offer.
Nissan's Titan and Toyota's Tundra are newcomers to the full-size pickup market and, despite some merits, they show it. The Toyota is a laudable effort, but its interior and weak chassis let it down. The Titan is a rocket, but even Nissan has realized that Detroit can build a better pickup: The next-generation Titan will be designed and built by Dodge.
Let's start with the Dodge. Most notably, it features a coil-spring rear suspension aimed at quelling the poor ride quality and handling associated with pickups without adversely affecting hauling capacity. SUVs have essentially moved away from the simple, but dated leaf spring setup, but the Ram is the first modern pickup to ditch the leaves.
Our Ram tester was also equipped with the available RamBox storage system, a pair of lockable cargo boxes integrated into the bed side rails.
The F-150 is almost all-new for 2009, though it doesn't look that much different than its predecessor. Dig a little deeper and you'll find that Ford has toughened up the frame, added features and redesigned the interior, as well as substituted a four-speed automatic for a more miserly six-speed.
Ford is expected to offer a twin-turbo, direct-injected EcoBoost powertrain for 2010 - we'll be sure to test one when it becomes available.
How do they look?
When the Ram was redesigned for the 1993 model year, its big-rig styling set a design theme that Dodge continues to employ today. Aggressive and toned, as well as looking a little smaller than it really is, the Ram is like a lithe boxer ready to throw a punch. Dodge canted the grille slightly forward at the top for 2009, giving it a similar style to the successful Charger sedan. Out back, a pair of exhaust pipes poke through the rear bumper - a fantastic touch that we're confident we'll see the competitors emulate in the near future.
Our tester's two-tone paint isn't for everyone, but we thought it added a rugged element to the Ram that's sure to resonate with a number of buyers.
The Ram Box system works as advertised, allowing owners to put tools, drinks or clothing in a pair of water-tight storage boxes that barely intrude on the Ram's cargo area.
Parked next to the Ram, the F-150 looks like yesterday's news. It's conservative and upright, though that style will likely appeal to many buyers. It's a classy design that will wear well over time, even if it doesn't get the stares today. Our only complaints come from the rather fussy detailing out back - the jewel-like tail lamps and horizontal indents across the tailgate don't add anything to the style.
Speaking of stares, we received more than a handful of thumbs-up during our week long evaluation of the pickups - but only while behind the wheel of the Ram. The F-150 seemed to pass under the radar, perhaps a plus for many shoppers.
The Ram came with shiny 20-inch alloy wheels as standard. While they look good enough to make sales in the showroom, we wonder how many owners realize the cost of replacing four 20-inch tires.
The Ram easily takes victory in the style-and-swagger category.
And on the inside?
Here's where pickup trucks have made their greatest strides in the last 15 years. No longer must drivers make compromises in design, features and comfort when they decide they want something capable of hauling - even if the beds stay empty on many trucks.
The Ram represents a such a massive leap forward over its predecessor that it's almost impossible to realize the two interiors were designed by the same company. Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's new head of group design, was responsible for the Ram both inside and out in his old position. We commend him on the impressive effort. Not only does the Ram look good, it feels good, too. Materials are class-leading throughout, especially the impressive leather cover on the dash top.
The Ram also earns points in the features category. Sirius Satellite TV will keep back seat passengers happy - as long as they like cartoons - and a heated steering wheel will help sell Rams where it snows.
While the materials aren't up to the Ram's pace-setting trim - that sloppy leather covering the instrument binnacle, but not the rest of the hard dash top, isn't fooling anyone - the F-150's interior has its merits. The seats are covered in a soft leather, the navigation system is top-notch and the rear seats fold up to reveal an entirely flat storage space - useful for carrying cargo you don't want exposed to the elements, though the Dodge offers innovative under-floor storage instead.
It's an attention to detail that lets the F-150 down. Its seats feel like they were designed for the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the dash and door tops offer an unrealistic amount of fake graining, the gauges would look more fitting in a Focus and, finally, the key and entry fob are the same models Ford has offered on cars since the early-1990s. The Dodge has a Mercedes-Benz-esque squared-off all-in-one unit. Progress.
Hands-down, the Ram wins this category. We sure hope Gilles spreads this kind of design and quality across the rest of Chrysler's lineup - and soon, Ralph, because Congress is a-callin'.
But do they go?
With an extra 70 horsepower on tap and a 3.55 rear end, it should come as little surprise that the Ram blew the doors off of the F-150 in our performance runs. Aided by a quick-shifting five-speed automatic, the 5.7-liter V8 offers a race car-like soundtrack and impressive performance from any speed.
The same simply couldn't be said about the F-150's 320-horsepower, 5.4-liter V8 and optional 3.73 rear end. Those 320 horsies weren't helped by the slow-shifting six-speed transmission, either, giving the F-150 downright lethargic moves at highway speeds. The EcoBoost powertrain can't come soon enough for the F-150.
We averaged about 13 mpg in mixed driving in the Ram compared to 15 mpg in the F-150, though some of the difference was due to the stereophonic car nut symphony provided by the Ram's dual exhaust since the Ram is only rated 1 mpg lower in city driving by the EPA.
You might be thinking that it's all over for the F-150- but that's not the case. The F-150's stiffened chassis absolutely gives it the edge in terms of isolation from the road. Major bumps were taken in stride with nary a wiggle from the interior trim, giving the F-150 a tough but well-dampened feel. Its steering, while still slow by car standards, responded quicker to inputs than the Ram's.
The Dodge's ride was busier, thanks in part to the 20-inch wheels (the Ford rode on 18s), but it was infinitely better controlled over both rough and smooth pavement. Credit the comparatively sophisticated suspension for that one. Those coil springs out back also helped in the twisties, where the Ram's road grip was more confidence-inspiring.
The Ram also featured over-boosted, dull steering that managed to give the truck a ponderous feel that was absent in the F-150. For urban daily driving, we found the F-150 to be the leader despite its subpar ride quality.
We didn't have the opportunity to tow with either truck, but the F-150's incredible 11,200 lbs. capacity makes it the clear leader, at least in terms of bulk-toting ability. The Ram, by comparison, tops out at a positively weak 8,450 lbs.
Both trucks feature gobs of clearance for off roading, but their large size keep them away from narrow trails. The Dodge scores in terms of all-weather usability by offering an automatic four-wheel-drive setting, unlike the Ford's part-time system. We wish Ford would get with the program and offer such a setup.
The Dodge wins this one, but not by a landslide. The Ford's stiff structure and direct steering mean that it takes a narrow lead in terms of daily drivability. But don't discount the Ram's suspension - we'll be anxious to get our hands on a Ram with a more reasonable tire-and-wheel package.
Leftlane's bottom line
With sticker prices hovering in the mid- to upper- $40,000 range, these trucks aren't the kind that will be hauling feed from one side of the ranch to another for most buyers. They're the kind of trucks that will live pampered lives filled with valet parking, freeway gridlock, hauling Sea-Doos to the lake and weekend washes in the driveway courtesy of their loving owners.
Were it a perfect world, we'd combine the Ford's unmistakable solidity and towing prowess with the Dodge's powertrain and style - but it's not a perfect world. We know this because we eventually had to give up the keys to these two impressive trucks graciously loaned to us by the automakers.
When it came time to give those keys back, it became obvious to us that we'd miss the Ram the most. It excels at being the market's best luxury-laden full-size truck.
2009 Dodge Ram Laramie Crew 4x4 base price, $43,240. As tested, $48,965.
Deep Water Blue paint, $225; Leather bucket seats, $500; Package 26H, $795; Protection Group, $150; Sunroof, $850; 32-gallon fuel tank, $75; Back-up camera, $200; Trailer hitch, $335; Rear seat monitor with Sirius TV, $1,695; Destination, $900.
2009 Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCrew 4x4 base price, $38,460. As tested, $46,005.
Limited-slip 3.73 rear axle, $300; All-terrain tires, $275; Leather bucket seats, $895; Navigation, $2,430; Lariat Plus package, $795; Lariat Chrome package, $1,295; Max Trailer Tow package, $100; Power sliding rear window, $250; Sunroof, $995; Telescoping side mirrors, $235; Destination, $975.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.
2009 Dodge Ram Laramie Crew 4x4