Putting a heavy duty pickup truck through its paces

Here’s the thing with writing about trucks – especially trucks from the extensive and exhausting lineup offered in FCA’s RAM family – there are literally, one million variations.

Between cab styles, powertrains, packages and trims, the RAM-fam has something to offer anyone who is serious about their work (and play) vehicles; with a list of selections and options that practically ensure that there will be no two exactly alike on the roads when the 2017 lineup becomes available later this fall.

I got to drive a cross section of them at FCA’s proving grounds in Chelsea, Michigan recently, on a variety of closed-course roads and terrains (including a really entertaining off-road course the company uses for testing all their 4×4 products, which would quickly weed out anything that isn’t up to the challenges of driving through water, or up a flight of wooden steps installed in the middle of the Michigan woods).

2016 Ram Heavy Duty 6.4-liter HEMI® V-8

Now, here’s the deal, while the RAM lineup is extensive, and virtually all models are boasting some changes large-and-small, most of the information is under embargo until September, which is actually a good thing (for me, anyway, as it will keep today’s tale mercifully brief); so we’ll narrow it down to just a couple: the Power Wagon and Off-Road Package of the 2500 series.

What worked to be a good thing for me is that I put off driving the trucks until the afternoon portion of my day at the Chelsea facility; and just about lunchtime a cloudburst hit the grounds hard.

(Incidentally, have you ever experienced a true ‘cloudburst’? I honestly never had, in fact I have never seen rain like that outside of maybe the Queen Charlotte Islands – one minute everything was fine, and the next it was like riot police had turned a firehose on we, the assembled media. It was pretty hilarious, actually; everyone scrambling for cover and event staff frantically trying to close the sunroofs and get the tops of the convertible vehicles up).

Anyway, the rainblast only lasted a few minutes, and left the courses in a suitably wet-and-slippery condition that helped the vehicles show off their terrain-handling abilities in some truly challenging circumstances.

I used a 2500 4×4 Heavy Duty with Off-road package on the backcountry course (FCA tells that what is new for the upcoming model year is that the package is available on the whole 2500 lineup, restricted only by cab style). The Offroad package basically adds cutting-edge Bilstein monotube shock absorbers and a limited-slip differential to the truck in addition to its under-body skid plates and tow hooks.

I had one of FCA’s professionals with me for an orientation lap around the course, who was really helpful in instructing me on the use of the vehicles terrain-selection modes and demonstrating the downhill-descent control on steep declines.

It was also an opportunity to appreciate the interior of the Mega Cab of the 2500. FCA boasts it is the largest cab in the segment, and it shows off excellent space throughout (I rode around in the back taking photos out the window for a while) along with excellent upholstery and attention to detail.

While it is a thoroughly capable truck in the rough, no question about it, but also does well on the highway and provides a ride that, while noticeably bouncier than the lower-slung Jeeps that were also on hand in Chelsea (particularly the smaller 2017 Cherokee) is all-round comfortable and suitably passenger-oriented.

The Power Wagon version of the 2500 brought a similar experience, as you might expect (neither truck struggled with any of the tests) with its very similar level of 4×4 equipment. Bilstein shocks were also present, lockable front and rear axles and the addition of a front-mounted winch rated to handle up to 12,000 lbs. The Crew cab version I used also brought a decent amount (although not ‘Mega’) of interior roominess.

In fact, many of the overall specs for both vehicles are likewise identical – the ones I drove employed the company’s 6.4 litre, V8 Hemi engine, outputting 410 horses and 429 lb.-ft. of torque and equipped with a fuel-saving cylinder deactivation function that purports to shut down four of the cylinders when the extra power isn’t required (i.e., when not carrying a load).

To my untrained eye, it almost appears that a buyer could select either RAM, just based on your preference in badging and decals, and expect it to serve extremely well as a work (or play) three-quarter ton hauler.

There are a lot more, of course, in FCA’s 2017 stable, but we will honor the embargoes imposed on information and photos of the rest of the RAM group (including a new cab and something called the 1500 ‘Night Special’ edition).

Pricing hasn’t been announced as of this writing, but I exhort you to keep your eyes on Driveway for updates in September, when these and the rest of the lineup hit dealers nationwide.

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