Ram 1500

The Ram 1500 is a diesel half-ton with top-notch towing capabilities.

A diesel half-ton finally hits the towing market. But how does it pull?

Automakers have toyed for years with the possibility of equipping half-ton pickup trucks with diesel power, but no one has had the guts to place that bet, until now.

Ram Trucks (ramtrucks.com) has turned this concept into reality.

For 2014, Ram will offer a V-6 diesel engine option in its 1500 series pickup — making it the only diesel-powered half-ton on the market right now — and it’s betting that trailer boaters, among other truck buyers, will love it.

That’s because the 240 hp 3.0-liter EcoDiesel promises both towing power and improved fuel efficiency over a gas engine. To find out if this powertrain delivers on its promise, we tested a diesel-equipped Ram 1500 with and without a trailer boat on its tail.

Ram couples the V-6 turbodiesel with the TorqueFlite 8 eight-speed automatic transmission to take advantage of the engine’s narrow power band (a characteristic common to all diesels). The wide range of gear choices lets you keep the EcoDiesel at peak 420 foot-pounds of torque, which is achieved at around 2,000 rpm, in virtually any towing situation.

While we like having eight speeds, an electronic dial shifter on the dash took some getting used to. We’d prefer a column or console lever for manually downshifting and selecting gears while towing. Plus, a dial shifter doesn’t mesh well with the brand’s mucho-macho marketing theme of “Guts. Glory. Ram.” Maybe it should make the dial knob look like a saddle horn.

For our test along the tortuous roads of California’s coastal mountain range, Ram provided us with a Sky Supreme 220 SP from Ski Supreme along with a tandem-axle trailer. The gross weight was 3,800 pounds, according to Ram. The EcoDiesel-equipped 1500 is rated to tow a maximum of 9,200 pounds.

Though it lacked the punch of a gas V-8 such as the 410 hp 5.7 Hemi, there was no doubting the diesel’s stump-pulling torque, even while towing up brutal 8 percent grades. By manually selecting among the octet of forward gears, TorqueFlite auto tranny kept the diesel happily revving in the 2,000 to 3,000 rpm range.

Our truck also possessed four-point automatic air suspension — another Ram Trucks exclusive. It leveled the load and steadied the pickup as we traversed washboard dirt roads, maneuvered through sharp cutbacks in the mountains and brushed past big blustery semi-trucks on the freeway while towing.

I had half-expected a somewhat squirrelly ride with a tendency for the rear suspension to wag while towing. Instead, what I found was one of the most stable half-ton trucks with which I have had the pleasure to trailer a boat.

We were even more pleased to see the fuel economy while towing — 13.3 mpg. And that was on some of the most arduous terrain over which you can tow a boat.

The EcoDiesel displayed a peppy side when not towing, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in eight seconds. While it bogs a bit when you stomp on it, midrange acceleration is impressive. Scores of dizzying hairpin turns along the mountain roads gave us a chance to test the cornering ability at speed. For a truck, the Ram 1500 displays surprising agility, and it accelerates well out of a sharp turn, as long as you keep rpm up. That means downshifting into the corners.

After running the diesel hard over mountain passes, freeways and farm roads, nontowing fuel economy proved to be a startlingly good 20.1 mpg. This diesel is also quiet, not a whole lot louder than a gas engine, though the distinctive rattle lets everyone know you’ve arrived.

When it comes to engineering a truck, Ram seems to set its own course. This brand was the first to equip its half-tons with rear-axle coil suspension, the first to offer four-corner automatic air suspension, and the first to offer an eight-speed automatic tranny. Now Ram is the only brand to offer a diesel in a half-ton. That’s a brave bet — one that I hope other truck builders quickly match.

Power Points
1. Matching TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic transmission keeps the EcoDiesel in its power band.
2. Optional four-corner air suspension helps level the load while towing.
3. Diesel-equipped Ram 1500 recorded 13.3 mpg towing, 20.1 mpg when not towing.
4. Zero-to-60 mph: eight seconds (not towing)

Ram 3.0-Liter V-6 EcoDiesel
Built by Fiat in Italy, the 3.0-liter V-6 EcoDiesel available in the 2014 Ram 1500 series features a compacted-graphite-iron block, aluminum heads, dual-overhead cam, common-rail fuel injection and, of course, a diesel-exhaust-fluid system, which is a Tier IV diesel emissions requirement. The turbocharged diesel generates 420 foot-pounds of torque and 240 hp. As a point of comparison, the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, a comparable gasoline option in the Ram 1500, generates 410 foot-pounds of torque and 395 hp. An EcoDiesel upgrade is $2,850 more than a similarly equipped 1500 with the Hemi gas engine, according to Ram. Pricing for the 2014 Ram 1500 starts at $24,200, plus a $1,095 destination charge.