Motors

Tackling trails in the 2019 Ram 1500: Where it excels — and where it comes up short

Written By | Bradley Iger

Photo By | Kiki Archer

It’s no Raptor, but whether on springs or air suspension, the new 1500 is handy off-road.

With the introduction of the fifth-generation Ram 1500, FCA’s truck brand has sought to ensure there’s a model available that is tailored to the needs of just about every truck buyer out there. And when it comes to off-road capability, those who plan to spend a significant amount of time out in the dirt have two ostensible options when it comes to outfitting a 1500 for the job: Either check off the box for the 4×4 Off-road Package on the options sheet (available on all trim levels aside from Rebel) or simply opt for the Rebel model.

Now sporting a new, more rigid frame, which Ram says is the longest, lightest and most efficient in the half-ton truck segment, plus retuned front suspension geometry and a third-generation five-link setup at the rear, the design of the new 1500 focuses on bolstering strength while dropping some pounds — both of which should pay dividends off-road.

While we were out in Arizona for the launch of this all-new pickup earlier this month, we had a chance to put both a 4×4 Offroad Package-equipped Longhorn crew cab and a Rebel crew cab through their paces where the road ends. Although the two trucks shared a number of common components to provide that capability, there were some notable differences as well.

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Rebel with a cause

It might be tempting to dismiss the Rebel as nothing more than an appearance package designed to lure buyers away from Ford’s F-150 Raptor based on looks above all else, but the Rebel’s off-road credentials do, in fact, extend beyond the styling.

Now available in both quad-cab and crew-cab configurations as a result of the beefed-up frame, Rebel models are outfitted with a 1-inch suspension lift versus the standard truck, off-road-biased rear suspension geometry, redesigned Bilstein shocks that feature remote reservoirs at the rear for improved heat management, and 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac all-terrain tires, which put the power to the ground through an electronic-locking rear differential.

Underbody skid plates provide protection for the transfer case, steering system, oil pan and gas tank, and hefty tow hooks with wide bumper openings are fitted as standard to improve ease of use. Along with 4WD Low and 4WD High modes, the Rebel also features hill descent control to make the pickup easier to manage in steep, loosely packed downhill sections.

While our time with the rest of the new Ram 1500 lineup was in mixed use between highway cruising and soft-roading, the Rebel models were made available exclusively for use off-road on a trail near Fort McDowell, Arizona. This gave us a chance to focus on the Rebel’s suspension articulation, hill climbing prowess and desert running capability, all within the span of a looped course. Here the Rebel made a compelling case for itself, illustrating that for all but the most hardcore off-road truck buyers, this is all the capability you’ll ever need.

There were spots where the Rebel’s limitations became evident, though. We quickly discovered that heading through some of those low-speed, densely packed ruts with a bit too much gusto could quickly overwhelm the suspension. While some of that can be chalked up to this journalist’s leadfoot, it’s worth noting that the Rebel is not outfitted with the sort of multistage damping technology seen on Ford’s latest Raptor. That tech allows the compression and rebound characteristics of the shock change depending on the position of the suspension, in turn stiffening the suspension as it compresses to handle bigger “events” such as these.

Our second gripe came during the faster open sections through deep sand. While the Rebel handles this stuff without much drama, we wanted to be able to manually control the eight-speed transmission’s behavior to hold it in a lower gear and power through this part of the course. The gearbox had other ideas, however, and without paddle shifters, the only way to address this in any meaningful way is to preprogram the Gear Limit feature — which simply prevents the transmission from upshifting past a certain predetermined gear — before going into a particular section of a trail. That’s just not a particularly elegant solution.

Ultimately these are minor quibbles though, and the truth is that most folks who’re buying this pickup for its off-road capability probably won’t miss the lack of multistage dampers or paddle shifters. Those who do will likely find an easy solution in the aftermarket or from FCA’s own Mopar Performance division -– at least where the suspension is concerned.

Riding on air

Our coilover suspension-equipped Rebel isn’t the only way to get off-road capability in the new 1500. The Longhorn 4×4 we drove earlier in the day was outfitted with the optional active air suspension system, which Ram says enhances fuel efficiency (the truck can hunker down on the highway, helping with aerodynamics) while improving ride quality and offering load leveling and ride height adjustability. Interestingly, while the previous iteration of the Rebel came standard with air suspension, the more traditional coilover setup is now the default configuration; air suspension remains an option.

Out on the road, the differences between the three selectable suspension heights in terms of ride quality seemed negligible, though dropping it to its lowest setting helps the new Ram 1500 achieve a best-in-segment drag coefficient of .357. And although our off-road excursions in the Longhorn were more brief and decidedly less demanding than our trail sessions in the Rebel, we can report that the former felt buttoned down and well-composed with minimal body motion when trekking through densely packed and uneven dirt roads at high speeds.

We’d suspect that with its retractable running boards, air suspension and 32-inch Falken Wildcat all-terrain rubber, the Longhorn would be slightly less sure-footed in the rough stuff than the Rebel was, but not by much.

When tasked with dispatching inhospitable driving routes and handling lengthy stints on unpaved roads — likely the most demanding off-roading that the majority of factory-equipped 4x4s will ever see — both the Rebel and the Off-road Package-equipped Longhorn feel overqualified for the job. Of course, if you feel that you need more than that, we’re sure FCA would be happy to sell you a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

The air suspension’s more upscale vibe makes sense with the Longhorn, where the agreeable on-road ride quality and the ability to lower the truck for cargo loading will probably be thoroughly appreciated. And while this particular Longhorn 4×4’s Off-road Package didn’t have the traditional springs found on our Rebel tester, it was equipped with the same electronic-locking rear differential, skid plates, hill descent control, elevated ride height and revised suspension geometry, so there was still plenty of capability on tap.

BASE PRICE: $34,535 (price for V8-equipped Tradesman quad cab 4×2 available at launch; late availability for base V6)

POWERTRAIN: 5.7-liter V8; eight-speed automatic; rear-wheel drive (at launch; late availability for other powertrains)

OUTPUT: 396 hp @ 5,600 rpm; 410 lb-ft @ 3,950 rpm

CURB WEIGHT: TBA

FUEL ECONOMY: 15/22/17(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)

PROS: Rebel trim and available 4×4 Off-Road Package make the 1500 overqualified typical no-pavement duties

CONS: Not a desert-dominator like the F-150 Raptor, and too big to be a true trail king

 

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