Here's a fairy tale for you: Once upon a time, pickup trucks were simple, utilitarian devices designed to do one thing: Haul stuff.
Today, they're festooned with more luxury gee-gaws and add-ons than plenty of fancy-pants cars. The Ram 1500 you see here, with its unpainted bumpers, steel wheels, rubber floors and - gasp! - roll-up windows, might very well have rolled off the assembly line just after a $55,000 Laramie Longhorn Canyonero Edition, or whatever the latest hot-diggity truck is called.
So what's a work truck doing on Leftlane, you ask? We decided to get in touch with our trucky side to sample out Ram's relatively new, cleverly-packaged Tradesman. We got down and dirty and we liked it.
What is it?
Ram introduced its Tradesman trim level last year to little fanfare from anyone who didn't operate a fleet of pickups. But we perked up when we heard that the package included a 4.7-liter V8 engine (or an optional 5.7), stylized 17-inch wheels, a sprayed-in bedliner, a trailer hitch and Ram's clever RamBox for just a few bucks more than the decidedly work-oriented WT base model.
What's the point of the WT? Well, it doesn't make much sense right now unless you want a base 4x2 with a V6. A Ram 1500 WT optioned up with four-wheel-drive, a 5.7-liter HEMI V8 and the other goodies on our Tradesman would list for a lot more.
Of course, most of our truck's powertrain story will be outdated in a few months, since a new eight-speed automatic transmission and a new 3.6-liter base V6 arrive to supplant a lackluster 3.7 and a frankly not-too-bad six-speed autobox. A few other interior upgrades will accompany the powertrain, but otherwise the 2013 Ram Tradesman will be pretty much identical to what you see here.
Our tester was just about as loaded as a Tradesman gets, although it lacked the optional power package that brings with it electronics for the windows and door locks. But we enjoyed giving our arms a little workout with the winder winders. (Those two words are not pronounced the same way)
Ram also sells a slightly more consumer-oriented "high value"ť version of its 1500 as the Express. That package adds painted bumpers and 20-inch alloy wheels, but not too many other notable upgrades.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, Chrysler no longer wants us to call its pickup a Dodge Ram. Now, Ram stands on its own - even though there's a big Dodge badge on the top of the center stack inside. Go figure.
What's it up against?
If you want a single cab, short bed work-oriented truck with four-wheel-drive and a V8, the Ram 1500 Tradesman squares off against less creatively-named rivals from Ford - the F-150 XL - and Chevrolet - the Silverado WT.
How does it look?
Still bearing hints of its groundbreaking 1994 "big rig"ť redesign, the Ram has become something of an icon in its segment.
Most recently redesigned for 2009, Ram hasn't changed much. Its tall grille and broad shoulders slant slightly forward, much as the comparatively lilliputian shark-nosed BMWs of the 1980s did. From there, the truck is much more conventional looking with the almost retro-styled single cab and short bed configuration of our tester. With extended and crew cab trucks essentially the norm these days, a single cab like our tester is something of a throwback on its own.
At the rear, the Tradesman skips the cool integrated dual exhaust setup seen in more consumer-oriented versions, but it does keep the small spoiler effect at the top of its tailgate. And that tailgate is easy to open with a single handle that reveals a very nicely finished spray-in bedliner. Plus, Ram's normally expensive but always welcome bed rail-topping RamBoxes are part of the Tradesman package.
Tradesman Rams also come with their own stylized steel 17-inch wheels wrapped in Goodyear Wrangler rubber, but we wish our 4x4 tester sat up a little taller. Off road, its front bumper was prone to rubbing, and we thought its stance overall was just a little too citified.
White wouldn't be our choice - our Tradesman was begging for stickers advertising a pool cleaning company or a city maintenance crew - but Ram is wise in offering a wide range of paint shades for its workhorse.
And on the inside?
We usually reserve this space to talk about creature comforts and materials quality, but this is, ostensibly, meant to be a work truck. Our tester was optioned up with a $750 package that included a comfortable cloth-covered bench seat (plus cruise control and SiriusXM satellite radio), but otherwise it was about as basic as you'll find in a new car.
Hose-out rubber covers the floor, while the door panels are covered only in rock hard grey plastic with no switches. We didn't mind rolling up the windows on our own, but the winders themselves are located too far back and too low on the panel, requiring an awkward wrist bend.
Tradesman shares its stylish dashboard with other Rams, which means that controls are conveniently located and the look is a step above work trucks of yore. The audio system pumped out surprisingly good sound thanks in part to the compact acoustics of the small cabin. The trip computer that came with our tester's $300 Trailer Brake Control Group offered an unexpectedly high level of content.
Behind the front bench seat, which includes a flop-down center armrest that could hold a laptop computer, there's a little storage room for items like umbrellas and, well, shotguns. This is a pickup, after all.
But does it go?
Yep, this thing's got a HEMI in it. Part of the Tradesman's appeal is its low cost of entry to the 390-horsepower, 407 lb-ft. of torque powerhouse of a V8. Displacing 5.7-liters, this HEMI V8 is the same unit that quite effectively powers some of our favorite muscle machines - the Dodge Charger and Challenger.
Saddled with the extra tonnage of a body-on-frame pickup (a tick under 5,000 lbs. unladen), the HEMI nonetheless provides ample grunt and a borderline NASCAR sound track. The six-speed column-shifted automatic delivers prompt gear changes and it offers easy - perhaps too easy - manual gear selection via a small toggle switch on the lever.
At idle, the V8 is silky smooth, but it roars to life once opened up. It's just the kind of growl that truck lovers want to hear - and we couldn't get enough of it. Unfortunately, our heavy right feet led us to average about 14.5 mpg, which is a bit lower than the 15 mpg combined (13/19 city/highway) the EPA estimates.
1500-series Rams - that is, those that aren't heavy-duty 2500 and 3500 models - ride on a fully coil sprung suspension that's something of an outlier in the world of truck suspensions with rear leafs. The result is a vastly more refined ride quality than other pickups, even accounting for our tester's 120.6-inch wheelbase, which is a full 20 inches shorter than a typical crew cab bought by most consumers. Even over the roughest terrain, our Ram absorbed bumps comfortably with minimal side-to-side head pitching. And though it's hardly a sports car, the Ram's steering is pleasingly direct and well-weighted.
We ventured off road in our Ram, along dirt trails and mucky double-track roads rutted with bumps. Aside from a low front bumper - likely designed to improve high-speed airflow - the Ram trundled along with no issue. Its Goodyear Wrangler tires provided good grip over wet grass and through a small creek crossing, while the part-time four-wheel-drive system was quick to engage at the twist of a knob. A $325 limited slip rear axle seamlessly sent power from one side of the axle to the other.
We didn't have the opportunity to hook up a trailer to this particular Ram, but we think that's for the best. Those with towing on their mind should opt for the stability of a longer wheelbase model with the 8-foot bed in place of the 6.4-foot as tested, which nets an 8,900 lbs. maximum towing capacity.
Why you would buy it:
You're looking for a hard worker that doesn't ride like a typical fleet truck.
Why you wouldn't:
Your vision of a pickup truck includes heated and air conditioned power-adjusted captain's chairs wrapped in only the finest semi-aniline leather.
Leftlane's bottom line
We're spoiled by luxuries, but we thoroughly enjoyed the old school truck nature of our Ram Tradesman tester.
Lurking behind its rough-and-tough exterior and interior are a number of vast refinements that make the Ram one of the best pickups ever built for most users. If you really need the extra cargo hauling capacity of rear leaf springs, you might as well buy a heavy duty truck since the Ram can lug just about everything most buyers might ever consider.
And for most of us, it's a perfectly comfortable hauler brimming with back-to-basics truck personality.
2012 Ram 1500 Tradesman 4x4 base price, $25,350. As tested, $29,980.
Protection Group, $150; Trailer Brake Controller, $300; Popular Equipment Group, $750; 3.92 Rear Axle, $50; Limited Slip Differential, $325; Rear Sliding Window, $140; Bluetooth, $360; On/Off Road Tires, $250; HEMI, $1,310; Destination, $995.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.