Could Dodge have picked a worse time to introduce its new, heavy-duty Ram 2500 and 3500 full-size pickups?

Maybe, or maybe not. Pickup truck sales are off more than 30%. The economy is bumping along on the bottom of a cycle. And those who are buying are switching to smaller, lighter, and more environmentally friendly vehicles.

Their introduction is designed to preempt the 2010 launches by their competition. Ford and Chevrolet/GMC, will introduce their new 3/4-ton and one-ton trucks as 2011 models. Both will offer new engines to meet the 2010 EPA emission requirements. But more importantly, both will need diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) for their costly selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems to control nitrogen oxides (NOx).

But Dodge's 6.7-liter Cummins engines met those EPA requirements when they were introduced as 2007 models. Thus, Dodge is continuing with a proven powertrain from one of the world's most respected engine makers, rather than using its own limited resources on new engine development. And Cummins diesels in pickup trucks will continue to rely on NOx absorbers.

(Dodge's Cummins-powered 3500, 4500, and 5500 cab-chassis for fitting custom bodies will use SCR.) Dodge has made many tweaks and changes to improve the new truck. Driver exposure to noise was reduced. It also isolated road harshness with an innovative fluid-filled body mount under the C-pillar at the rear of the cab. While the Ram 1500 now has rear coil springs, Dodge chose to have the heavy-duty models stay with multi-stage rear leaf springs for better stability under load. The engineers also retuned the three-stage shocks on all four corners.

Unfortunately, engineers did not include stability and roll control features, including trailer sway control, as their competition has.

Behind the wheel

I drove several trucks loaded to capacity recently. The first was a Ram 3500 pulling a 30-foot, fifth-wheel trailer. The 8-foot bed allowed ample room for trailer swing. The truck was reasonably responsive (for the length of the combination) even on the rougher and tighter sections of the test track, despite its length of 260 inches on a 169.5-inch wheelbase.

Next, I pulled a Case IH tractor on a two-axle platform gooseneck trailer with another Ram 3500. The trailer and its load were just shy of 16,500 pounds. The Ram accelerated, braked, and handled well, and it held speed in cruise control up moderate grades. Coming back down, the exhaust brake helped maintain control and assisted bringing the rig to a smooth, straight stop.

My final test was a Ram 2500 Crew Cab with a 5-foot-diameter hay bale. From deteriorated roads with pot holes to sections designed to twist the frame, the truck stayed squeak- and rattle-free. It would have been hard to listen for problems had the cab not been so quiet.

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Ram Heavy Duty trucks are available in five trim levels: SL, SLT, TRX, Laramie and Power Wagon models. Each has its own distinct appearance using combinations of grill openings, billets, and mirror trim. The Power Wagon is well equipped for off-road use, although all models can be optioned for hard use.

Dodge puts the power to your choice of 6-speed transmissions, an automatic and a manual. The manual, standard with the diesel, has a deep-reduction 5.94:1 first gear, direct drive in fifth and a 0.74:1 overdrive sixth speed. The 6-speed automatic has two overdrive gears: 0.816 in fifth and 0.625 in top. The column-mounted shift stalk has a selection button that allows you to shift manually by limiting the highest gear you want the transmission to use.

Shift into tow/haul mode and you raise the rpm of the transmission's shift points. This helps the Cummins' exhaust brake maintain downhill speed. The brake also works in normal mode but it's more effective at higher rpm.

Also worth noting are the elimination of the extended cab, the new tow mirrors, and the integrated trailer brake controller. Rams are available in Regular Cab, Crew Cab, and the humongous Mega Cab. First introduced on the Ram 1500, the Mega Cab is for operations that need extra interior room for tools and cargo, or to secure them from weather or theft.

The side mirrors integrate convex glass at the outer edge of each large flat glass mirror. For towing, the mirrors pivot around the convex portion to provide a vertical view with the large convex section at the bottom.

Dodge finally joins its competitors with an adjustable electronic trailer brake controller that can be manually set or automatically proportioned.

Paul Abelson is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations and is on the Board of Truck Writers of North America. E-mail[email protected].