The Good: Huge interior space, comfort
The Bad: Price, gas mileage
The Bottom Line: Among big pickup trucks, this is the luxury liner
The other evening I went out to the driveway, revved up the Dodge RAM 2500 pickup truck I've been test-driving, hopped into the back seat, and popped a Bourne Identity DVD into the entertainment system (a $1,200 option). This truck has a roomier rear seat than any other vehicle I've ever been in except a London taxi, so I could slouch down and really stretch my legs. The cordless earphones shut out everything but the movie. It didn't feel all that different from relaxing in my living room, except the video screen in the truck is a lot smaller than a TV.
Having a cab with the size and creature comforts of a small living room constitutes the main selling point of the new 2006 Mega Cab versions of Dodge RAM trucks. The four-door passenger compartment measures an enormous 111 inches in length (a foot longer than the one on the Ford F250, the model I'd considered first) and has 143 cubic feet of space inside. Unlike a London cab, the car doesn't have room enough for rear jump seats, but even with the front seats back as far as they could go, I had a good six inches of unused space in front of my knees when I sat in the back seat.
With the rear seats folded down, there's 72.2 cubic feet of cargo space in this truck's cab -- three times as much as the trunks of many luxury sedans offer. And that doesn't even include the open cargo space in the 75-inch-long truck bed out back.
All that space may make the RAM 2500 the truck of choice for weekenders with families who need a pickup truck for hauling a boat or trailer. Full-size pickup trucks traditionally come in three sizes: half-ton (meaning the vehicle has the springs, chassis, and bed needed to handle a 1,000-pound load), three-quarter ton (1,500 pounds), and one-ton (2,000 pounds), which in the Dodge lineup corresponds to the RAM 1500, 2500, and 3500.
But these days many buyers concern themselves less with how much heavy junk the truck's bed can hold than about how much weight the truck can safely tow while also keeping the family comfortable and amused during long drives. The Mega Cab RAM 2500 excels at those tasks.
So far, at least, DaimlerChrysler (DCX) says the concept is looking like a hit, despite high fuel prices. The company says its sales of Mega Cab pickups totaled 2,216 in January, 10% of total RAM sales for the month, and 3,613 in February, or 12% of total RAM sales. The company is projecting Mega Cab sales will jump to 4,980 in March.
The appeal of the Mega Cab is clear. For starters, the 2500 has a maximum towing capacity of 13,750 pounds -- enough to tow a four-horse trailer or a 34-foot Airstream. The 1500 (which can tow a maximum of 9,100 pounds) will suffice for many buyers, but if you're hauling the big stuff behind you, you'll want the 2500.
This power and convenience comes at a price, of course. With the Mega Cab, the RAM 2500 starts at $35,065 with two-wheel drive -- and $38,180 with four-wheel drive (subtract $2,000 if you buy now, because Dodge is offering a cash rebate until Mar. 31).
STEEP HILLS? NO SWEAT.
If you live in the snowbelt, you'll want the 4x4. Like most pickup trucks, the 2500 doesn't do well in snow without it because there's not enough weight over the rear wheels unless you're carrying a load. If you like off-road driving, you can choose a Power Wagon version of the truck with special suspension tuning, 33-inch tires, and a 12,000-pound winch in case you get stuck.
The 2500 also has an engine to match the RAM's macho looks. It comes standard with the same huge engine the RAM 1500 has -- a 5.7-liter, 345-horsepower Hemi V-8 that generates 375 pound-feet of torque. But for an extra $5,555, the 2500 can include an optional 5.9-liter Cummins diesel engine that generates 610 pound-feet of torque. What that level of torque means in plain language is that if you happen to get stuck in traffic going up a steep hill towing anything lighter than the Empire State building, you're not going to have much trouble taking off again from a dead stop.
The RAM also offers numerous creature comforts not typically associated with big pickups. For instance, the Laramie upgrade package, which costs an extra $5,000 or so, includes sumptuous-looking wood trim, leather seats, a power driver's seat and windows, six-CD sound system, and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.
An adjustable steering wheel is standard, and it offers optional power-adjustable foot pedals ($120) -- so you don't have to be a plus-size guy to drive the thing. Major options available à la carte include a power sunroof ($850), navigation system plus six-CD changer ($1,595), head airbags ($490), hands-free communication ($325), Sirius (SIRI) satellite radio ($195), and a very cool power-sliding rear window ($295).
The truck also offers many handy design touches. For instance, the rear doors are quite big (934.5 inches wide), and the rear seats recline (a first for a pickup truck). The interior door handles are bulky, functional levers that drivers will find easy to use. And there's at least a foot of space behind the rear seats with hooks on which you can hang grocery sacks.
The downside of the 2500 is pretty obvious. The first, clearly, is cost. My Mega Cab Laramie 4x4 test vehicle with the nav system, sunroof, and other add-ons listed for $54,250 -- an enormous sum for a pickup truck. You can get a comparable heavy-duty Ford (F) F250 or Chevy (GM) Silverado for several grand less, though you won't get as big a cab.
NOT WITHOUT JOSTLING.
Like any big truck, the RAM 2500 doesn't exactly operate on the cheap. In one 114-mile stretch of highway and local driving, I got 14.2 miles per gallon with the diesel engine. For now, at least, diesel costs more than gasoline, too: I was paying $2.75 per gallon, a quarter-per-gallon more than regular gasoline and almost as much as premium. Some stations were charging a nickel more for diesel than for premium.
Comfortable as it feels, the RAM 2500 still drives like a big truck. It bounces as you're going down the highway, and the diesel engine chugs at low speed. It's a chore getting in and out, because you're sitting so high off the ground. And at nearly 21 feet long, it barely fits in a typical parking space.
I normally drive a compact Ford Ranger pickup, and I found out the hard way you have to take the utmost care going around corners in such a big vehicle. I took my test truck through a McDonald's drive-through one night, cut the corner too sharply, and scraped some paint off the left rear quarter panel (sorry, DaimlerChrysler).
Then again, any big heavy-duty truck will take some getting used to. And the Mega Cab 2500 does the most important thing many buyers will expect of it: hauling people and big loads comfortably -- and better than most.