First Drive: 2017 Ram Power Wagon

“Tread lightly” is a common catchphrase amongst the off-roading crowd, but that certainly wasn’t something that seemed possible as I sat behind the wheel of the recently-revised 2017 Ram Power Wagon. Based on the brand’s 2500 series heavy-duty truck, the Power Wagon’s curb weight of 3,180 kg, combined with its 149.3-inch wheelbase, make it one of the most bruising options one could take out on any trail. Staring ahead from my lofty perch inside the pickup’s cabin, I almost felt bad for the sun-baked mixture of sand and rock stretched out before me in the desert near Logandale, Nevada. It would never know what hit it.

I almost felt bad for the sun-baked mixture of sand and rock stretched out before me in the desert near Logandale, Nevada. It would never know what hit it.

Everything about the Power Wagon is beefy, by design. Although featuring a new front fascia borrowed from the Ram Rebel (a more modest off-roader in the FCA portfolio), along with a somewhat spiffier interior, the pickup soldiers forward mechanically unchanged from the three-quarter ton playbook that guided last year’s model. This means an additional two inches of ground clearance versus the standard Ram 2500 (for a total of 14.3 inches), the ability to ford almost a meter of water, and solid axles front and rear that feature 4.10 gearing. There’s also a winch hidden behind the front bumper that is capable of dragging nearly 5,500 kg, and a front sway bar that can be disconnected from inside the cabin in order to improve wheel articulation over uneven terrain.

If this seems like overkill for the average trundle down a gravel road, that’s because it is. Spiritually, the spec sheet for the Power Wagon goes back to the Second World War, when the name was affixed to four-wheel drive weapons carriers built by Chrysler that soon found their way into civilian hands in the form of the first 4x4 pickups on the American market. The Power Wagon has lived on, in one form or another, for most of the past seven decades as an extension of the original go-anywhere, take-no-prisoners concept behind the military iteration.

All this to say that the 2017 Ram Power Wagon is a vehicle that speaks to a very specific customer. Despite the presence of a multi-link, coil-spring rear-suspension setup that is light years ahead of what most trucks have to offer (even in the light-duty segment), the sheer mass of the Power Wagon, combined with the hyper-aggressive tread on its 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires, give it an on-road character that is at times loutish, and unavoidably vague in the steering department. Then there’s the fuel efficiency factor: FCA isn’t legally required to publish the drinking habits of the 6.4L Hemi V8 under the hood of the heavy-duty truck, but if it were, you can bet it would avoid the 324-point font used to emblazon RAM across its tailgate.

There are several other off-road options that will get you to the same hidden spots and rarely seen vistas as the Power Wagon, but few can do it while simultaneously boasting an extreme amount of utility, and it is task-focused customers that Ram is targeting. The truck’s overbuilt chassis isn’t just good at crushing boulders, but also towing massive trailer weights (4,560 kg) and hauling (just over 700 kg capacity in the bed), numbers which are also a tribute to the 410 hp and 429 lb-ft of twist on tap from its eight-cylinder engine. Good luck doing that in a Jeep (or a Raptor, for that matter).

All of that down-low torque certainly comes in handy when handling more delicate trail work. While it might seem laughable to use words like “precision” when describing a vehicle with the footprint of an NFL defensive line, the fact of the matter is the Ram’s low-range four-wheel drive works wonders to parse obstacles better approached with wit and wisdom rather than brute force. When 4LO is engaged, the Power Wagon’s throttle response is blunted to feed engine output to the multiplier in a more granular fashion, which was amply demonstrated by way of several near-vertical desert rock climbs with both axles electronically locked. Similar care can be taken when heading back down again from whatever summit you’ve achieved by activating the truck’s crawl control, a feature that lets you disconcertingly remove your feet from both the brake and gas pedals and watch while the anti-lock system unfurls you back onto level ground at a slow and sensible pace.

The four-wheeling community is certainly a niche, and while the Ram Power Wagon might not connect with the casual truck buyer it certainly has its place in the mud-soaked, sand-choked ecosystem that determines the off-road pecking order. It also happens to be fairly convincingly priced in the bewildering pantheon of full-size pickups, with a starting sticker of under $60,000 for the four-door edition. The Power Wagon proved itself to be relatively unstoppable with its axles locked during our time together in Nevada, and while it might struggle with tighter trails it’s pretty much the only factory option out there if you’d prefer to tow your basecamp along behind you all day.

Pricing: 2017 Ram Power Wagon

Power Wagon: $58,945

Can you tread lightly while carrying an enormous stick? 2/6/2017 6:30:00 AM