Big, strong and, well, big
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, A serious truck for serious work or play.

In recent decades, the leading Japanese automotive companies have fielded successful models in just about every conceivable United States market niche. After beginning with just a handful of small cars and trucks in the 1960s, Honda, Toyota and Nissan now offer a wide range of best-sellers. Affordable family cars? Check. High-performance sports cars? Check. Luxury sedans? Check. Full-size pickup trucks? Check.

There is one niche that is still dominated by the Big Three American companies, however - heavy-duty trucks. Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford all offer pickups that are far larger and more powerful than the biggest Japanese trucks. Designed and built for serious hauling, they can be equipped with mighty diesel engines and dual rear wheels - features that are not even offered on the biggest Japanese competitors.

Our test 2010 Ram 3500 is among the best of these workhorses. With a standard 6.7-liter Cummins Turbo Diesel engine and extra-strong six-speed automatic transmission, it can haul up to 17,000 pounds, making it ideal for both construction work and recreational trailer or boat hauling.

Our test model came with several options that increased its already massive profile. They included dual rear wheel wrapped in huge flared fenders, optional four-wheel-drive that raised its ride height, and the extended Mega Cab four door cabin. With its huge upright grill, the Ram 3500 looks like a slightly smaller Freightliner semi-truck. Viewed from the rear, it looked as wide as a battleship. When people saw us coming, they almost fled in fear, screaming, 'Godzilla! Godzilla!'

Drivers don't need to fear the Ram 3500, however. Due to the wonders of advanced engineering and re-tuned suspension settings, the one-ton truck drives like a three-quarter ton, at least most of the time. Without a full load, acceleration is impressive, thanks to the turbo diesel's 650 foot-pounds of torque. The power steering is light and precise, making it relatively easy to maneuver, even in downtown traffic. Stopping distances are longer than a typical car, of course, but an airbrake is available to make steep hills more manageable.

Our test model was also equipped with every conceivable option under the sun, further disguising the fact that the Ram 3500 is, in fact, a very large truck. Driving down the road, we were pampered by heated leather seats, a heated leather steering wheel, a power sunroof, SIRIUS Satellite Radio and one of the most powerful air conditioners on the planet. Backseat passengers could chill out even further with built-in TV.

The illusion of normality was disrupted by rough pavement, however, where the Ram 3500 bounced around more than smaller trucks. Several hundred pounds of sand in the bed probably would have helped even out the ride in such conditions. Driven empty on smooth roads, the jiggling was hardly even noticeable - a remarkable achievement for any heavy-duty truck.

Despite its creature comforts and relatively refined road manners, extra care has to be taken when driving the Ram 3500. Because of its length and flared rear fenders, wide turns are required, especially when telephone poles and other obstacles are placed near intersection corners. Care also needs to be taken when backing up because the dual wheel rears easily roll over small things, like curbs and Smart cars. The optional rear-view camera in our test model was a big help with parallel parking. Narrow streets also need to be approached with caution since the dually rear end make the back of the truck so wide.

Our fully-loaded test Ram 3500 was priced at just under $58,000, a remarkable bargain, given its capabilities and luxury appointments. That's less than some cars we've tested - cars it could easily tow without the slightest effort.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Ram 3500

• Manufacturer: Dodge

• Class: Heavy-duty pickup truck.

• Layout: Front engine, rear and four-wheel-drive (as tested).

• Style: Two-door; four-door Crew; four-door Mega Cab (as tested).

• Engines: 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 (383 hp, 400 ft-lbs); 6.7-liter Cummins Turbo Diesel (350 hp, 650 ft-lbs - as tested).

• Transmissions: 6-speed manual transmission; 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode (as tested).

• Maximum tow rating: 17,000 pounds.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: Not required.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $32,000 ($57,640 as tested).

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