Image: Ford F-150
Ford
In the ‘mano a mano’ clash between the new F-150 and Ram, the F-150 (shown left) has prevailed, winning North American Truck of the Year honors as well as Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year award.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/23/2009 10:14:57 AM ET 2009-02-23T15:14:57
REVIEW

In recent years, competition among pickup truck makers has led to a macho competition to prove which company has the biggest, most impressive, er, badge.

In addition to the grotesquely swollen brand badges on the grille and tailgate, truck makers are also striving to earn the most hyperbolic performance claims for cargo and towing capacity. In television commercials they reach for ever more ridiculous stunts, “proving” their truck’s superiority over its panty-waisted competitors.

This month I’ve decided to take a closer look at two of the latest entrants in this muscle fest: the Ford F-150 and the 2009 Dodge Ram. Ford and Dodge debuted these still-more-burly machines this year in a scrap for a share of this shrinking market.

In the “mano a mano” clash between the new F-150 and Ram, the F-150 has prevailed, winning North American Truck of the Year honors as well as Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year award. This is because, of the two trucks, the F-150 is indisputably the “truckiest.”

The question, however, is this: “How much truck do you need?” This is an important consideration because the Ram is brawnier than the toughest trucks of just a few years ago, and drivers who really need more capability need to be shopping in the heavy-duty pickup aisle, not in the half-ton department.

Today’s full-size, half-ton, light-duty pickup trucks pack capability that shames not only the half-ton trucks of the recent past but also the older, heavy-duty, three-quarter-ton models, trucks that have been more typically bought by commercial customers and drivers who tow large trailers.

Today’s trucks’ capabilities, all of today’s trucks’ capabilities, dwarf those of pickups that consumers found satisfactory for decades. As a result, the latest models are bigger and heavier than ever before. They are also more opulently outfitted and are much safer, thanks to fitment of a raft of technologies that should help slash the pickup’s traditionally high real-world crash fatality rate that is a consequence of their customer demographic.

The fact is that both the F-150 and the Ram are supremely capable trucks and that a shopper’s choice between them should hinge on things such as amenities, price, or their experience with the dealership and not on specifications that likely far exceed the requirements for any work the truck will be asked to do.

Of the two models I tested — the Ford F-150 King Ranch 4 x 4 crew cab and the 2009 Dodge Laramie 4 x 4 crew cab — the Ram is the more daringly innovative of the two trucks, with a slew of nifty gadgets and features aimed at delivering unexpected benefits to truck buyers. Like the company’s popular minivans, the Ram now has storage bins under the rear-seat floor of crew cab models, providing hidden, secure storage space, which is typically in short supply in pickup trucks.

The company also created lockable storage space outside the cab with the available RamBox storage bins that are built into the sides of the cargo bed. Each RamBox will hold five cases of, um, beverages and ice to keep them cool (yes, there is a drain plug). That means the Ram will hold 240 drinks, which should make it THE tailgate party vehicle.

Image: Dodge truck bed
Dodge
RamBox storage bins are built into the cargo bed.
The RamBox does narrow the bed area slightly. It is still wide enough to hold 4 x 6 building materials, so it should be fine for construction chores. Destruction chores proved to be another matter though, as the narrow bed didn’t hold much of the brush and branches from overgrown shrubs I took to the dump to be mulched.

Fingers cold from all that outdoor work? The Ram has an optional heated steering wheel. Kids raising Cain in the back seat while towing the boat to the lake? “Zombiefy” them with the XM Sirius BackSeat TV, which shows the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network on the overhead video screen, so they don’t have to watch that Ratatouille DVD again. Now if they would add, say, ESPN, the BackSeat TV system would also boost the Ram’s tailgating capability.

But Dodge’s trickest truck parts are underneath. The Ram is the first full-sized pickup since the Chevrolet/GMC pickup of 1967-1972 to use car-style coil springs in the rear suspension for a smoother ride. It still has the bouncy ride of a truck, just a little less so than before. Engineers accomplished this without giving up any payload or towing capacity compared to the previous Ram, but the Dodge’s 1,850 lb. maximum payload and 9,100-lb. towing capacity do fall short of its leaf-sprung competitors.

The F-150 can be configured to carry as much as 3,030 lbs. and to tow 11,300 lbs., but the company said it expects only 2 percent of F-150s to be built with those specs. Anyone who really needs to carry or tow that much weight should be looking at heavy-duty pickups.

Ford’s F-150 has a few gadgets of its own, but they tend to focus more on helping the top-selling truck be more truck-like, rather than more car-like. To start, there are no coil springs here. Ford went the other direction, with bigger, longer leaf springs, for maximum payload capacity. Their added length also makes them a little more, well, springy, so the ride is also improved. But it’s still truck-like and not quite as smooth as the Ram.

Like the Dodge, the Ford has an opulently appointed interior, especially on the high-dollar King Ranch and Platinum models. But all the F-150s are afflicted with a hard, shiny, plastic panel that sits incongruously atop the dash like a hat stuck on my daughter’s Mr. Potato Head toy. In every trim level I’ve seen the dash panel looks just plain cheap, and it is in inescapable view, so the driver will be forced to look at it every day (maybe Ford was thinking of the days when the dashboard would be strewn with work gloves and cartons of Marlboros and didn’t think anyone would notice).

The F-150 has electronic gadgets too, just like the Ram. But the Ford has an available built-in trailer brake controller, which is a gadget that makes the F-150 a better truck, rather than just making it more comfortable or entertaining. Other trucks require add-on aftermarket trailer brake controllers, but because this one is build into the F-150, it knows exactly how much the driver brakes and if the truck is engaging its anti-lock brakes, and it knows how to keep the trailer behind the truck where it belongs, thanks to this information. As a $230 option, all pickups should offer this technology for their customers who tow trailers.

Both trucks have trailer sway control programming in their electronic stability control systems, so the computer can selectively use the truck’s brakes to ensure that the wind blast from a tractor-trailer doesn’t start your towing rig swaying back and forth.

Image: Dodge truck interior
Dodge
The Dodge Ram has an opulently appointed interior.
Both trucks have powerful V-8 engines, but only the Dodge has a Hemi. Yeah, there is plenty of hype involved with the Hemi, but this is a new, even better version of the 5.7-liter V-8, and it cranks out a stout 390 horsepower, compared to the 320 horsepower for the F-150’s 5.4-liter V-8.

The Ford enjoys the benefit of one more gear than the Dodge, with a six-speed transmission rather than a five-speed, which may contribute to the F-150’s EPA fuel economy of 14 mpg city and 18 mpg highway, compared to the Ram’s 13 mpg and 18 mpg. In my tests pulling a trailer up hills, the Ford demonstrated an advantage in some instances because of its additional gear ratios, but at other times the Hemi’s extra oomph shone through and powered the Dodge to a faster climbing speed.

That test was as close as I could get to television commercial-grade stunts, so I can’t vouch for which truck better jumps through a ring of fire. Either of them is more than capable of doing the kind of work that is appropriate for a half-ton pickup, and they’ll do it as safely and comfortably as today’s technology permits. The difference between them is that the Ram could be considered slightly better suited to be a play truck, while the Ford’s work truck credentials are unbeatable.

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