What I'm Driving At: Two New Dodge Rams

Without fail, a mysterious transformation overtakes me each time I saddle up a pickup truck and take it for a ride. The script plays the same at every rehearsal: I'm stunned by the pickup's size, ungainliness, and general manifestation of a militantly unsporting nature. And then, before I can put salt on its tail and capture the moment, I find myself sprawled luxuriantly in the driver's seat, as likely as not with my left arm on the windowsill and right arm draped over the wheel. I'm constantly resisting the urge to spit. I start wearing my favorite boots again -- belt-leather ropers. My G's disappear while I'm talkin'. And for some ungodly reason, I'm suddenly in love with posted speed limits that let me lumber along at a stately, nautical pace.A good pickup isn't a possession; it's a possessor. It takes over your personality and simplifies your life. It's the anti-hero of our oversaturated automotive era. Conspicuous are its stark simplicity and its underlying, unmistakable work ethic.Of course, given my trade as an auto-writer, I eventually have to return the truck to its manufacturer; a little muscle car or sporty roadster takes its place, and the ropers find their way back to the bottom of the shoe pile. I'm out of thrall until the next truck comes along.At least that what I'd expected would happen when not one but two '98-model Dodge Ram pickups shadowed my driveway for back-to-back test-drives. Now they're gone, and I'm still pining for them -- although just one will do. One simple, yet grand, factor accounts for this unaccustomed persistence of affection: Dodge finally mustered the gumption to make a truck with four doors.Chrysler's new Quad Cab design is what I call a "weedeater notion" -- one of those forehead-slapping bright ideas that everybody wishes they'd had but didn't. This glib estimation in no way diminishes Chrysler's engineering accomplishment. The Quad Cab requires special finagling of the truck's structure to compensate for the significant loss of rigidity that results from converting solid bodywork into two swinging doors. Even though GM deserves credit for introducing its three-door Chevy and GMC trucks in '96, its contemplation of a fourth door has required a back-to-the-drawing-board reevaluation. And Ford, quick to copy GM with a three-door truck, is now hot on the heels of Dodge with its own four-door cabs scheduled to appear progressively during '98.So what's the big deal about an extra door in a world replete with sedans? For one thing, it nominates the Dodge Quad Cab as a leading contender for best-all-'round vehicle honors. There's seating for six (albeit in cramped and serried comfort for the backbenchers). There is, of course, the full-size truck bed that accomplishes all manner of drayage for contents both nasty and nice. With the pair of rear doors, kids can scamper into and out of the cab from either side. More convenient yet, parents (or at least adults) can toss in a briefcase, stow a toolbox, or load sacks of groceries from the driver's side -- in other words, no more wrestling the seatback or circumnavigating to the passenger side to use the other door.Added to the obvious benefits of Chrysler's new quadratic design equation (which will certainly apply to Ford and GM models once they appear) are features exclusive to the Dodge Ram. The three-seater front bench seat, for example, features a flip-down center console that successfully impersonates a desk. Indeed, under the lid is a "desk organizer" specifically sized to accept a laptop computer, a cellular phone, and your own personalized assortment of paper fasteners and Post-It Notes. Another home-office touch is the humongo cup-holding, um, edifice; it tilts forward out of the dash like a drive-in tray at Sonic. Special paddles adjust to clamp even the widest-diameter cups in tumble-proof security, while special clearance overhead ensures max headroom for the tallest 96-ouncer a fast-food promoter could possibly devise.In the engine room, Dodge likewise throws subtlety to the wind. The half-ton Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab I drove was equipped with an optional 5.9-liter V8 making 250 horsepower and 335 ft.-lbs. of torque. That's more than enough oomph in a two-wheel-drive layout to light up tires at will -- or, more respectably, to tote 1,610 lbs. of payload or to tow 7,700 lbs. of trailer.The three-quarter-ton Ram 2500 Quad Cab 4x4, on the other hand, was another manner of beast. True, the Ram trucks' distinctive four-wheel-drive layout gives this truck a spindly, stork-like stance. It's perched high over solid beam axles on tall, 16-by-6.5 tires that look positively narrow in this context. Clearly, this is four-wheelin' utility-style, where ground clearance is a function of tire size, and the transfer case shifts manually to split torque via direct couple for 4WD-High or 4WD-Low.In other words, if you're looking for fancy viscous coupling and independent suspension, you're in the wrong place. But if you're looking for the Utility-King of the Jungle, this Ram's 8-liter V10 powerplant dispenses 300 horsepower's worth of royal decree. Even more dramatically, this cast-iron version of the Dodge Viper supercar motor makes 450 ft.-lbs. of torque, so you can haul 2,921 lbs. (or pull 13,100 lbs.) of your favorite things.My own least favorite things about these trucks are piddling by comparison. The horn takes a bench-presser's strength to sound -- a potentially dangerous circumstance. When I buckled up without looking at the seatbelt latch, the metal tab tended to slide into the gap between the release button and the case of the latch, rather than into the locking slot itself. And my kids occasionally had trouble opening the rear doors by themselves due to a lack of leverage on the interior door handle.If you have to ask, the 4x2 1500 V8 Quad Cab I tested stickers at $28,885; the 4x4 2500 V10 Quad Cab costs $32,500. Obviously, price remains (perhaps forever) a serious obstacle to best-all-'round vehicle status. Because they generally work for a living, however, pickups at least make some pretense of earning their keep. It's a patently unfair comparison, but I'll make it anyway: A thoroughbred touring sedan may offer more grace and drawing-room manners, but for heavy work and hard play, the new rough-and-tumble Dodge Quads are opening up a whole new range of possibilities -- and priorities -- in the design of practical, versatile transportation.

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