2014 RAM 1500 EcoDiesel

Torque is Cool

2014 RAM 1500 EcoDiesel. Photo © Chrysler

Mention the Ram diesel and most pickup-truck people will think you're talking about the heavy-duty Ram with the big Cummins, an engine that packs enough torque to pull a building off its foundation. But there's a new Ram diesel in town: It's called the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, and its mission is not to tow the biggest trailer on possible, but rather to get the best fuel economy possible. Does it succeed?

Let's drive it and find out.

First Glance

In the pickup-truck world, Ram and Cummins have become almost synonymous. Chrysler teamed up with the big-rig engine builder back in the late 1980s, a move that put Ram pickups (Dodge Ram, back then) squarely into the Chevy vs. Ford fight. To this day, people buy Ram heavy-duty pickups specifically for the Cummins diesel engine.

So I was curious as to why Ram chose not to go with a Cummins engine for the light-duty 1500 pickup -- especially when Nissan had just announced that the 2015 Titan will feature a 5-liter Cummins V8.

"We considered the Cummins engine, but it didn't deliver the experience we were looking for," a Ram staffer told me. People who buy the Cummins-powered Ram HD, he explained, want the whole big-rig experience, noise and all. But light-duty pickup customers aren't looking for that -- in fact, they aren't looking for a diesel at all.

They want the best possible fuel economy, and that's where the diesel delivers, but they also want the refinement of a gas-engine pickup.

Hence the choice of a 3-liter V6 from Italian enginemaker VM Motori. (It also helps that VM, like Chrysler, is a subsidiary of Fiat.) The VM A630 engine -- same as the one used in the Jeep Grand Cherokee -- is designed to be compact and efficient.

And Ram is quick to point out that its output -- 240 horsepower and 430 lb-ft of torque -- is more than that of the 5.9 liter Cummins 6BT that powered the first Dodge Ram diesel pickups.

In the Driver's Seat

Climb inside the Ram 1500 and you can see why refinement is important. This is arguably the nicest pickup interior on the market (though the new Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra come close). If you've spent any time in a Dodge Ram pickup built before 2010, you'll know what a remarkable statement that is; for decades, the Ram's cab was a halfway house for the cheap plastics and ratty switchgear that Chevy, Ford and Toyota wouldn't have dared to use in in their own pickups.

Today, the high-end Ram 1500 is trimmed out as nicely as a luxury car, and even the low-end industrial-grade trucks use hard-wearing, high-quality materials. Among the features I like best are the Uconnect touch-screen stereo, one of the more intuitive infotainment systems I've encountered, and the rotary-style shifter, which frees up extra space on the center console, most of which is devoted to storage.

Like other pickups, the Ram 1500 offers regular, extended and crew cabs; all of the pickups I sampled had the latter, and there was plenty of stretch-out space in the back seat.

Another nifty feature is the RamBox storage box, two of which are located in the wall of the bed. These lockable, weatherproof boxes are a great place for things you don't want rolling around in the bed, like groceries.

On the Road

From the first turn of the key, it was clear that the VM diesel met the targets for refinement and quietness that Ram was after. The sound is definitely diesel, but it doesn't shout its presence to the entire neighborhood the way the Cummins does; instead it burbles softly, not unlike a diesel car.

In terms of acceleration, this is the slowest engine in the Ram stable; the folks at Chrysler estimate a 0-60 time of 9 seconds, compared with 7.5 for the 3.6 liter gasoline V6 and under 6 for the 5.7 liter HEMI V8. But that's only off the line -- in terms of merging and passing power, the diesel performs as well as the gas V6 (which itself performs as well as V8s from a few years ago).

Hook up a trailer, and you'll see a big difference -- or perhaps I should say you won't see a big difference, because the diesel doesn't slow down nearly as much as the gasoline engines when faced with a tough job. Properly equipped, the diesel Ram 1500 can tow up to 9,200 lbs.

What about fuel economy? Ram didn't have official numbers at the time of my test drive, but they said that the diesel would exceed the V6's rating of 18 MPG city and 25 MPG highway by a substantial margin. I wouldn't be surprised if the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel's highway rating is close to 30 MPG. I saw 24 MPG in mixed driving, and that included a heavy-foot romp through the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road. One of the trucks I drove was equipped with Ram's optional ($1695) air suspension, which endows the truck with a smooth ride and car-like cornering ability. Steel-sprung Rams ride a bit more like traditional trucks, but still edge out Chevy and Ford for road manners.

Journey's End

Is it a slam dunk for the diesel? Well, there's one major hitch, and that's the price. Ram is charging a $4500 premium for the diesel engine over the gasoline V6. Assuming the diesel will average 4 MPG better -- an educated guess on my part -- and using current national-average fuel prices, you'd have to drive well over a quarter of a million miles before you'd recoup the cost of the diesel. Compared to the 5.7 liter HEMI V8 -- a reasonable comparison if you plan to tow and haul with your Ram -- the numbers look a bit better; with a 7 MPG improvement and a price premium that shrinks to $2,850, the engine pays for itself in less than 60,000 miles.

Still, I think there are reasons beyond the numbers to buy the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel. It's the best compromise for trucks that live a varied life, delivering the towing and pulling power of a V8 with fuel economy superior to a V6. That's a claim Ford also makes for its gasoline-powered turbocharged EcoBoost V6, but at the end of the day, the diesel still delivers better fuel economy. Chevy's all-new Silverado is just now hitting the market with a trio of gasoline engines designed just for trucks -- but as with the gas-powered Ram, you still have to pick between maximum mileage and maximum pulling power.

Besides... diesel pickups are cool. Even quiet and refined ones like the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel. -- Aaron Gold

Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.