First Drive: 2019 Ram 1500 Sport

The Canadian auto market is just a sliver compared to how many vehicles Americans buy, but there are times when we can still throw our weight around. The monochromatic 2019 Ram 1500 Sport wasn’t part of the schedule at Michigan’s Sterling Heights plant, where the all-new 2019 truck is being built, until the folks at FCA Canada raised the roof.

Pretty much everything a truck should be.

It turns out that while the Sport didn’t turn too many cranks south of the border, it accounts for one out of every four Ram 1500s sold in Canada. So now it’s back on the list as a Canadian exclusive in the new truck’s lineup. The trim level includes body-colour grille, door handles and mirrors; black badges and exhaust tips; all-black interior; and cloth-and-vinyl bucket seats.

Compared with the 2018 Sport version, it now adds standard LED headlights and fog lamps, heated seats and steering wheel, power-adjustable pedals, damped tailgate, rear-view camera, push-button start, hill start assist, and active grille shutters and air dam.

Much of the “new” about the new Ram is in its construction and technology. The truck is 102 kilograms lighter than before, thanks primarily to a frame that’s 98 percent high-strength steel, and a body that’s 54 percent of the stuff. The previous truck’s hood was aluminum; on the new one the tailgate is also, along with some suspension and mounting components. The aerodynamics are better, much of that due to that active air dam, which lowers at specific speeds to improve airflow (to protect it from damage, it retracts if it touches anything).

Lighter weight means more capability, and its 18,200 lb gross combined vehicle weight (GCVW) is up by 2,225 lb. Maximum towing is 12,750 lb, a 20 percent increase; while payload tops out at 2,300 ls, an increase of 22 percent. Six-lug axles are now standard equipment, and the brakes have larger rotors and pistons.

The coil-spring rear suspension remains, as does the optional four-corner air suspension, now simplified into a single module and valve in the back of the truck – the previous two-piece setup put the module under the front seat. The height adjusts automatically as needed but can be raised or lowered by the driver into normal, aero, exit/entry, or two off-road heights.

The powertrains “sort of” remain the same, and the first off the factory floor is the familiar 5.7L Hemi V8, making 395 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque, mated exclusively to an eight-speed automatic. The other two engine choices are the 3.6L V6 (305 hp, 269 lb-ft of torque), now with eTorque, which arrives later this summer; and the 5.7L Hemi with eTorque, release date yet to be announced. The 3.0L EcoDiesel will also return next year.

“So what exactly is eTorque?” you ask. I can give you the what and where: it’s a mild hybrid system that uses a belt-driven motor-generator on the engine, a 48-volt battery pack, and a regenerative braking system. The why doesn’t seem to be entirely clear, given that I got a few answers depending on which Chrysler rep I asked.

The system provides auto stop-start capability (shutting off the engine at idle) that’s reportedly much smoother than one that uses a conventional starter. The system adds “launch torque” to the engine – 90 lb-ft to the V6, and 130 to the V8 – but it’s “supplemental not additive” power, and you don’t get a combined 540 lb-ft of out of the eTorque-equipped Hemi. Instead, I was told it fills in gaps in the torque curve and gear shifts, and got conflicting answers on whether the electric torque goes directly to the wheels.

Since its fuel economy numbers haven’t yet been released, there’s no word on whether there’s a major benefit at the pumps. It’s going to come down to a “wait and see” when I finally get to drive that variation and discover exactly how it works.

Because the V6 isn’t out yet, pricing is strictly for the non-electrified 5.7L, and for Quad or Crew Cab, since regular cabs aren’t yet in the pipeline and there’s no word on when they’re coming. The least-expensive Ram Tradesman starts at $42,095. In Quad Cab, the Sport begins at $52,595 in 4x2, and $56,595 in 4x4. Short-box Crew Cabs start at $54,295 (4x2) and $58,295 (4x4), while long-box models are $54,695 (4x2) and $58,695 (4x4). Of course, those are starting prices and the truck I drove, goosed with such goodies as dual-pane sunroof, ventilated seats, power running boards, 22-inch wheels, advanced safety nannies, and spray-in bedliner, came to an eye-watering $74,195.

The 5.7L has always been a great engine, strong and pretty much bulletproof, and this one is more of the same. Its multi-cylinder displacement system(MDS), which shuts off half the cylinders when less power is required, has now been tweaked to operate in four-cylinder mode as much as possible. That can produce some nasty noise and vibration, which has been offset with active noise cancellation through the speakers, along with “active-tuned” mass modules, which are mounted inside the frame and contain little magnets that spin as required to counter any vibration.

The Ram is still big, including an additional 102 mm to the Crew Cab’s length for extra legroom, along with an extra 38-millimetre box height that simultaneously improves aerodynamics and makes it even tougher to reach over for anything inside.

But the weird thing is this: despite it actually being bigger, this new Ram feels smaller. And that’s odd for me to say, because all full-size trucks are stupid-big these days and Ram always felt among the bulkiest, but from the driver’s seat, it now feels as if it shrank a bit. I don’t know if it’s because of the interior design or the hood profile, or if I’m feeling that 100-plus kilo shrinkage, or if it’s the quick-and-decent steering response, or maybe a combination of them all, but it’s impressive.

It’s pretty much everything a truck should be: it’s quiet, with just enough of a V8 growl; the ride is well-planted and controlled; the shifts are smooth; and the interior is comfortable. Hooking up a trailer is far more work than actually pulling it, and as with virtually all trucks today, the Ram handles loads without breaking a sweat and without any float at the front wheels. Toggles on the steering wheel let you lock out high gears when you let the transmission do everything itself, and you can also use them for manual shift mode to sequentially shift it yourself.

Taking a cue from competitors, the company has added a damped tailgate, flat rear floor, and the available blind-spot monitoring system “sees” alongside any attached trailer. Unfortunately, Ram hasn’t provided any access to the bed, which is especially important now that trucks are so big-n-tall. Chevy has brilliantly simple steps in the bumper corners, while Ford tucks a step into its tailgate. When Ram’s gate is down, you have only a tiny corner of plastic-covered bumper, and I don’t dare put my toe on it lest I slip and smash my knee on the way down. An optional power liftgate opens from the key fob, although you must close it manually.

The handsome interior includes a massive centre console with sliding inserts, and you can open it up enough to hold a laptop or small backpack. There are storage bins under the floor and the rear seats, and dual glove boxes. The steering wheel now telescopes as well as tilts, and there are two 115-volt outlets in the cabin, along with a third in the Rambox storage unit if you’ve ordered it. Depending on the Ram model and trim, you can get heated and ventilated rear seats, surround-view camera, adaptive cruise control, and a 12-inch infotainment screen that you can use full-size or divide the view into two smaller screens.

The new truck’s predecessor is still coming off the line at another plant and will be sold alongside it for a while as the “Classic” 1500, in SL and SLT trim as a less-expensive option. It’s unchanged, and its engines won’t have the eTorque option.

Ram has done a good job on this truck: it rides and handles well, it doesn’t feel as big and bulky as it is, and the interior is comfortable. I’m eager to see what eTorque is all about, but with the carried-over V8 inside it, this Ram feels just right. And the only-in-Canada trim is a pretty cool brag-tag as well.

Pricing: 2019 Ram 1500 Sport

Quad Cab 4x2: $52,595
Quad Cab 4x4: $56,595

Crew Cab Short Box 4x2: $54,295
Crew Cab Short Box 4x4: $58,295

Crew Cab Long Box 4x2: $54,695
Crew Cab Long Box 4x4: $58,695

Right at home in Canada. 6/28/2018 6:30:00 AM