Story and Photos By Keith Burton
The popularity of pickup trucks for hauling big trailers and boats is without question. Few vehicles can beat the towing performance of a heavy-duty pickup truck. But even among this pedigree of vehicles there are dogs and then there are the big dogs.
Take the latest Dodge 3500 Ram 4x4 Quad Cab dualie for example. Hereís arguably the most pickup truck a regular guy without a commercial driverís license in his wallet can buy. This ďbig-dogĒ pickup has more in common with those huge tractor-trailer rigs on the nationís highways than almost any other vehicle you can drive.
Hauling large boats and trailers, those over 24-feet in length requires a vehicle with big power and big stability. It isnít enough that the truck can just pull the load, but can it do it safely and with the handling and braking needed for a secure towing run to the water or campground? And while large SUVís and perhaps some full-size pickups may get by, you really should consider the largest of the pickup trucks to do the job. And that means one with four wheels out back.
This also means a diesel is your best choice of powerplant. No engine type other than a diesel can provide the torque needed to get a big boat moving down the road or up a steep boat launch.
Now before you say, ďI hate those smelly, noisy diesels,Ē just know this. Todayís diesels from Dodge, Ford and General Motors, are far from the noisy, smoke belching machines of just a few years ago. These new engines are outfitted with truly amazing technology and are a far cry from the diesels that crinkled your nose of yore.
New diesel pickups are also not slow or hard to start. These are powerful vehicles outfitted with features and electronics and are as friendly to live with as their gasoline counterparts.
A good example is found under the hood of the Dodge Ram 3500 that is the subject of this review.
Introduced in 2004 is the Cummins 600 diesel packing 600 ft. pounds of torque and 325 horsepower. Yes, you read that right. Six-hundred foot-pounds of stump- pulling torque. And as you know, it is torque that is THE factor in how much power an engine has for towing. It is also far quieter than previous versions of the Cummins diesel in Dodge Ram pickups.
This 5.9-liter inline 6 engine also boasts 50-state emission certification making it among the cleanest of diesels produced in the U.S. In fact, during our runs up and down the hills and highways near Ontario, California, we saw nary a belch of smoke. And remarkably, very little of that diesel smell was noticed.
BIG-TIME TOWING POWER
The Dodge Ram Heavy Duty Cummins Turbo 600 boasts an enormous towing capability of 15,500 lbs., a payload of 5,020 lbs. and a Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) and Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 23,000 lbs. and 12,200 lbs. respectively when properly equipped
Additionally, the new Cummins 600 generates its peak torque of 600 lb.-ft. at a low 1,600 rpm. The new Cummins 600 also delivers a 10 horsepower advantage over Chevroletís Duramax though the Chevy has a 5 ft.lbs. torque advantage.
Clearly the other manufacturers are no slouches in the diesel department. Their trucks offer advantages in consumer areas as well. But the current big dog in diesel power is the Dodge.
We sought out Chaparral Boats for help in our towing tests, which through an affiliate dealer, Sun Country Marine in California, provided us an elegant 27-foot Signature 260 cruiser to give our truck a challenge.
Weighing in at just over 8,100 pounds boat and trailer, the rig was well within our Ramís towing performance envelope. This was also the largest boat we could tow without getting a special wide-load permit. Most states will allow trailers of 8.5-feet wide without a special permit and our boat and trailer just met the requirement.
We also felt that this size boat would also be what most people would more likely use as special permits and wider loads should be best left to professional drivers. Even so, our rig, which included the Ram 3500 Quad Cab and Chaparral boat was over 50-feet long. Thatís plenty to maneuver around town and on the highway.
In addition to the big diesel engine, our truck was equipped with a manual 6-speed transmission. An automatic can be ordered, but there was not an automatic available from Dodge for our tests. Still, when you talk towing big loads, a manual has a lot to offer.
ON THE ROAD
The 6-speed shifter provides an extra low gear for getting loads moving. But we found that usually 2nd gear would work just fine, even when towing. This engine is so strong that starting in 3rd gear was possible.
The downside to the Dodgeís manual is that in town you will do a lot of shifting. Thatís because the engine redlines at a low 3,500 rpm, which is reached very quickly. And moving the truckís big shifter isnít that much fun, unless you do it slowly.
Thatís because this shifter has very little in common with how a carís manual transmission shifts. The Dodge 6-speed has long throws and is very reluctant to engage a gear if moved swiftly. Instead, you shift with a deliberate, even slow motion. Oddly, when you do this, the truck moves ahead quite well. But if you try to force the shifts quickly, you will either miss the gear, or thrash it soundly.
Our big Dodge, painted in bright red with brilliant chrome wheels, turned heads everywhere we went. We would get thumbs up from truckers, kids, and even firemen who passed by. On the road with the Chaparral cruiser in tow, we found a lot to like about the Ram 3500. For despite its large size, it was very easy to drive in heavy traffic and on the Interstate.
The truck barely seems to notice the 8,000-plus pounds tagging along out back. Lane changes could be done without any drama or swaying, and accelerating onto onramps was not at all difficult. Now, that doesnít mean fast, but you have plenty of power on tap for merging and keeping up with brisk traffic.
The suspension, as you might expect, is very stiff and every little bump is felt. But large bumps and dips are well handled by the Dodge. We also noted very little pitching while towing.
Some of our pleasure in this vehicle has to do with the outstanding visibility out of the cab. Sight lines are good all around, which adds to the confidence factor when towing. Also, Dodge has smartly styled its outside mirrors so that they can be rotated up and out vertically to add to your rear visibility.
And did we say this truck is big? You also sit way up in the sky; the roof is 6.5 feet from the ground. The 4x4 suspension also perches this truck higher than most any other stock pickup truck. All this height provides great visibility forward to see whatís ahead.
Braking performance is also very strong with great feedback and a natural feel. We noted no fading at anytime loaded or unloaded, even when driving on a long downhill run. Our boat trailer was equipped with mechanical/hydraulic disk brakes that added to the braking performance while towing.
But what we really saw in this truck is stability. The rear of the truck with its dualie wheels felt as if it was bolted to the road. Curves and lane changes on the Interstate while towing were very impressive and confidence inspiring, which helps reduce driver stress when towing.
Steering is direct and offers good feedback whether the pickup is loaded or unloaded. Steering is a bit quick off center, but you will feel right at ease very quickly. Dodge has done an excellent job at making this very large truck one that is easy to feel confident in driving.
The clutch pedal also deserves praise. It has a linear and smooth engagement that is easy to moderate for getting underway. The engineís high torque and power make driving a manual-shifter mostly a no-brainer, once you get used to it.
NOT FOR NOVICE DRIVERS
But this is not a truck for the novice driver. It has a very, VERY big footprint on the road, and you need to be aware of its size. The wide rear fenders make narrow fast food drive-throughs off limits. Also, the way the engine and transmission work together, is unlike that of a regular car or pickup with a gasoline engine.
In this pickup, think BIG RIG, and you will get the picture. You will also have to hunt around for parking places. Our long-box 4x4 Ram 3500 has nearly a 51-foot turning radius, so making sharp turns is something you have to plan ahead for.
Inside, the Ram 3500 is as attractive as its more lightweight brethren. It is nicely, even elegantly styled with finely textured plastics and available with comfy leather seating. A black-on-white gauge cluster gives the dash a sporty look.
If there is one downside, we wish Dodge had built a bit more room into the back seat. Both Ford and Chevy offer more space in their four door versions.
After spending nearly a week with the Dodge Ram 3500 4x4 we came away impressed with this heavy-duty truck. While definitely not for everyone, this truck can do the work and makes an outstanding heavy hauler.
2004 1/2 Dodge Ram 3500 SLT 4x4 Quad Cab Cummins 600 Diesel
Vehicle type: Four-door, Five-passenger pickup
Length: 249.7 in.
Height: 78.4 in.
Width: 96 in.
Wheelbase: 160.5 in.
Weight: 8,100 lbs.
Fuel capacity: 35 gals.
Track F/R 69.7 in./75.8 in. with dual rear wheels
Towing capacity: 15,500 lbs. when properly equipped w/4:10 rear axle
EPA mileage estimates (city/highway): No EPA figures available/Observed Hwy: 19 mpg (unloaded)
Base price (MSRP) $33,490 As Tested: $44,150 est.
OHV 5.9 Liter Inline 6 Turbocharged and Intercooled
Horsepower: 325 hp @ 2,900 rpm
Torque: 600 @ 1,600