Test Drive: 2015 Ram 1500 Express

Column shifters are majestic, manly, and create more space for your truck-guy things on board.

Take one part simple Ram 1500 pickup, add one all-black appearance package with blacked-out everything, value-bundle a list of must-have options, and keep the price reasonable, and you’ve got the RAM 1500 Express: a truck aimed squarely at first-time buyers after a low entry price, sharp looks, and plenty of funds left for a trip to the Mopar catalogue.

This one’s all about value – and by packing the Express with the better part of 400 horsepower, generous towing and payload capacities, and extra touches like rear wheel-well liners, a bed complete with cargo light and locking tailgate, and full Bluetooth functionality, the Express forms a charming deal.

It’s got a three-person bench seat up front so the kids can ride right next to dad, and there’s room on the floor for the dog, since there’s no floor console, since there’s a column shifter. Column shifters are the smartest gearshift idea in a pickup, as column shifters are majestic, manly, and create more space for your truck-guy things on board.

Not that this Ram variant was sucking for space.

Sure – the tester got a single three-across bench seat and no second row, but storage bins mounted against the rear of the passenger compartment add more room and storage flexibility, and when it’s not a seat, the giant flip-down centre console provides even more. There’s a drawer on the dashboard, as well as two small cubbies flanking it, a big bin perfect for some water bottles on the passenger dash segment, and door panels with enough bins and cubbies and compartments to rival an Ikea closet organizer. Add in no fewer than four power and recharging outlets to feed scrumptious electricity into your gizmos, and you’ve got a sporty little truck that makes it easy to stay organized on the go.

And maybe, a sporty little truck that’s also a bit of a sleeper. With all the chrome badges left at the factory, including the telltale HEMI emblem, the shiny dual sports exhausts poking out from the rear bumper serve as the only chrome on the tester, and the only visual hint at what’s under the hood. All blacked-out and de-badged, the tester had a mysterious secret sleeper-agent thing going on. You might be a Ram guy and you might not, but you have to agree: few pickups are as handsome looking as this one, and especially in two-door regular cab guise with the blacked-out everything.

Tall gears and a numbed-down initial throttle take-up make it easy to drive the RAM 1500 Express gently and smoothly, using the big torque to glide up to highway speed and beyond with noise levels and revs kept nice and low. Driven thusly, cylinder-deactivation engages often and eagerly, with the fuel-saving “ECO” message popping up on the driver computer to let you know that half the HEMI is taking a snooze.

Or, hammer down to impress the ladies with a snort from your pipes and some excessive spinning of the rear semi-gloss twenties, and the 5.7L unit emits a tastefully-restrained bark while twisting the speedometer upwards with authority. Shifts from the six-speed automatic are nearly imperceptible at low revs and deliberate and solid at full throttle. It may not match the all-around driveline smoothness you’ll find elsewhere in this segment (the GM trucks are still king for powertrain refinement), but the RAM’s engine remains a proper gentleman’s V8: quiet and reserved usually, but potent and strong when called upon.

There’s an alluring quality to this machine overall. It’s got lots of what you need, little of what you don’t, and it’s not all gussied up with powered or automatic features that require you to lift your skirt before you get in.

The highway drive is mainly relaxed. Lightweight power steering and that tall-up driving position mean you can lounge about and relax on the open road, and wind and road noise levels are kept to a very dull roar. At night, low-beam performance is adequate, and the high-beams, both in terms of lighting spread and saturation, are above average.

In town and on rougher roads, truck guys will be keen on the way the RAM feels. It’s got that tough, rigid and jiggly ride that feels more robust and durable than Eugene Levy’s eyebrows. The 20-inch wheels can cause ride quality to deteriorate slightly though, so be sure to test-drive Ram 1500 Express on as rough a road as you can find, to determine where it fits in relation to your preferred blend of rock-solid durability and overall ride comfort.

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This is an easy machine to drive for numerous reasons. Key among them include a tight-for-a-pickup turning circle, the tall and commanding forward view, great big mirrors, and glass all around, which makes it feel like you’re driving in a great big glass box. Though rear shoulder-check visibility out the rear window is blocked slightly by the headrests and pillars, you can, virtually, see right to all four corners of the vehicle with ease. Usually, parking a big pickup truck makes your writer look like a total noob, but in this one, I was sniping parking spaces at local retailers like a boss all day long.

If you’re set on a two-wheel drive model for lower fuel economy, lower long-term maintenance costs and higher towing capacity, be sure to consider opting for the limited-slip rear end, which will add traction and confidence in the snow. Also, and maybe I’ve just had bad luck with tonneau covers in the past, but the tester’s included Mopar accessory cover is only slightly more difficult to operate than a salad, and can be opened and closed with one hand, in seconds, and with no cursing.

Complaints included a few nit-picky items that pickup fans will, largely, be accepting of. Entry and exit require a running jump or a pull up and on board from the assist handle, and the fuel mileage, even in the 4x2 tester, landed around 14.5 L/100 km which may prove heavy for some shoppers, though the figure should improve once break-in is complete. Further, though the cabin is generously sized and cleverly laid out storage-wise, parts of it are getting a bit old these days.

Oh, and careful with the massive doors. Have you seen how big the doors are on a two-door pickup? They’re massive, and if the wind catches them, they’ll rip your arm off before slamming into that sexy Audi you parked beside.

A few other test notes to share. My measured-by-hand mileage of 14.5 L/100 km is about the same as a Ford F-150 with the 2.7L EcoBoost engine, though that tester was a four-door, four-wheel drive, and driven in the dead of winter. Take that as you will.

The brakes, though lacking much feel, provide confident and quick stops, with admirable performance from the Electronic Stability Control system in keeping the rear following the front closely during simulated panic maneuvers.

Further, engineers did a nice job on the steering in two areas. First, at highway speeds, it stiffens up enough on centre to help the RAM lock onto position within its lane rather than wandering about. Second, the isolation on really lousy roads is fantastic. Where many pickup steering systems fight the driver and feel like they’re getting kicked around like the baddies in an old Segal flick, the RAM 1500’s steering stays straight and true, even at speed over the roughest surfaces, with virtually no tugging and pulling at the wheel.

Carrying some $3,500 worth of add-on accessories, a $225 exclusive paint colour and a $1,000 preferred equipment package, the tester came in around the mid-thirties. By keeping price and feature content on the modest side while simultaneously dialing up the styling, the RAM 1500 Express forms a fantastic basis for customization – especially with the blacked out appearance already starting things off.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 3 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Silverado
Ford F-150
GMC Sierra
Nissan Titan
Toyota Tundra

2015 RAM 1500 Express
2015 RAM 1500 Express
Base Price $28,595
Optional Equipment Brilliant Black Paint ($225), 25C Package ($1,000), Black RAM 1500 Express Group ($2,000), rubber mats ($100), Tonneau Cover ($450), 3.92 Axle ($125), Anti-Spin rear axle ($525), Rear Sliding Window ($200), CD Player ($250), Backup Camera with Auto-dim Rearview Mirror ($450), Receiver Hitch ($450), Trailer Brake Controller ($350), Spray-in Bedliner ($550)
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,695
Price as Tested $37,065
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 8.0
10 Exterior Styling
8 Performance
8 Interior
8 Comfort
6 Fuel Economy