Our love affair for utes has created a ready market for full-size pick-ups from the US. Little wonder the most affordable of them, the Ram 1500 Express, is a slam dunk.
It doesn’t take much to get a Toyota HiLux or Ford Ranger close to $80,000 once it’s loaded with extras. Which is why there is currently a three-month wait for one of these: the Ram 1500 Express.
It’s the $79,950 entry point into a US pick-up range that stretches beyond $150,000 if you get the heavy-duty model with the works.
Powered by a 5.7-litre Hemi V8 (291kW/556Nm) matched to an eight-speed auto, it delivers similar performance to a V8 Falcon or Commodore ute, and yet the tray is more than 50 per cent larger than the tubs on Australia’s most popular double-cabs.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise the Ram 1500 has found a ready market of buyers queuing to buy one. Demand is so strong, the Melbourne production line is about to move to a third shift – to operate 24 hours a day, five days a week – to fill back orders.
It’s little wonder the Ram 1500 has hit a sweet spot in the Australian market: it’s a performance ute wrapped in a pick-up body that drives like a luxury SUV. It also has acres of space inside the cabin, even though the Express comes with the slightly smaller four-door cab.
The $79,950 Ram 1500 Express comes with the 6ft 4in ute tub (1939mm bed length with the tailgate closed) and the shorter four-door cab.
The $99,950 Ram 1500 Laramie has a 5ft 7in ute tub (1712mm bed length with the tailgate closed) with the larger four-door cab.
The back seat space in the Laramie is like a passenger car, but the back seat space in the Express is by no means cramped: it’s equivalent to the HiLux and Ranger et al, but with the benefit of the massive ute tray.
The cargo area may be huge, but the payload is in fact slightly less than most double-cab utes, and capped at 845kg largely due to the coil rear suspension that helps deliver the plush ride.
It’s worth noting the Ram 1500 and its peers are used as family cars in the US, which is why it drives so well and why payload isn’t a top priority. That said, 845kg will cover the needs of most buyers.
If you need serious hauling capacity, the Ram has another advantage. In addition to being able to tow 3500kg on a 50mm tow ball, as with most of its peers, the Ram 1500 Express can also pull 4500kg when a 70mm tow ball is attached. A hitch rated to 4500kg comes with the vehicle, but the tongue and ball cost extra.
The Ram 1500 Express arrived in local showrooms at the start of 2019, three months after the flagship Laramie went on sale.
The Express was pitched as a back-to-basics model to keep the price down. It misses bells and whistles such as LED headlights, the chrome RAM grille and steel front bumper, power-adjustable leather seats and a large central touchscreen with a high-output audio system.
However, by ute standards the Express is by no means a poverty pack. It gets cloth seats, carpet flooring, a slightly smaller touchscreen for the audio unit, a digital speed display, dusk-sensing headlights, and one-touch auto-up power front windows.
The dash has the same leather-look treatment as the Laramie because it would have cost too much to design a unique dash for the Express model locally.
The only things I really missed were steering wheel audio controls (at least there’s an easy-to-use volume knob, unlike the Toyota HiLux and Mitsubishi Triton) and a cover for the driver’s vanity mirror (at least the sun visors slide lengthways to block side glare). And unlike, say, a HiLux there are no rear air vents.
The quality of the conversion to right-hand-drive is remarkable. It looks like it rolled off the US production line. Many local manufacturing suppliers have been contracted for the local conversion. The dashboard, for example, is made by the same company that used to make dashboards for the Toyota Camry.
The only tell-tale sign is the position of the foot brake, which is to the right of the accelerator pedal, against the firewall. It took me a couple of attempts to perfect the use of it. The first few times I tried to apply the foot brake, I accidentally floored the accelerator instead. You can imagine what the neighbours thought, revving the engine just before I got out of the car. Fortunately, releasing the foot brake is as easy as pulling a lever.
The performance of the Express and the Laramie is identical when the same diff ratios are fitted behind the standard eight-speed auto. The Express comes with a 3.92 'slingshot' diff that is better for brisk acceleration and heavy hauling but blunts fuel economy.
The Laramie comes standard with a 3.21 diff, which still delivers good performance but has more relaxed throttle response and delivers slightly better fuel economy. A 3.92 diff is a no-cost option on the Laramie.
According to the fuel rating label, the 3.21 diff delivers an average consumption rating of 9.9L/100km, while the 3.92 diff increases consumption to an average rating of 12.2L/100km.
On test we saw an average of 15–16L/100km in city and suburban driving and limboed to just 10.5L/100km on freeways, the latter equivalent to a Toyota HiLux 2.8 turbo diesel.
In freeway driving, or even when cruising at suburban speeds but not in stop-start traffic, the Hemi V8 automatically triggers its cylinder shutdown tech that turns it into a four-cylinder intermittently, such as when coasting or driving downhill.
To accommodate its thirst, the Express comes standard with a 121-litre long-range fuel tank (that fits under the extra-length ute bed), while the Laramie has a 98-litre tank.
After a mix of city and highway driving, we covered 750km in the Express before needing to refuel, but if your entire journey was on a freeway you could easily cover 1000km between refills because of the sheer size of the tank.
A 3.0-litre turbo diesel that promises even longer driving range is due to be added to the local Ram line-up later this year.
So far, though, most buyers aren’t complaining about fuel economy. After all, the consumption isn’t far off what V8 Falcon and V8 Commodore utes used to drink – and on the highway consumption is on par with the likes of the HiLux and Ranger.
On the road
Contrary to perception, the Ram Box is an entirely unique rear tray to the standard model; it also squares off the interior of the tub so there are no wheel arches to impede loads.
The price as tested is $89,450 plus on-road costs (versus $79,950 drive-away). The Ram price list shows the Ram Box is a $4500 option and the Black Pack (black wheels, badging and blacked-out headlight inserts) costs $4500. Metallic paint adds $950.
We deliberately drove it as 'normally' as possible. That is to say, as much as we wanted to, we didn’t floor the throttle on every launch, even though it was tempting just to hear the Hemi V8 up front and the old-school dual exhausts at the rear. It sounds awesome on full noise.
We also weren’t driving specifically to save fuel. We really wanted to get an accurate indication of real-world conditions. And we reckon our figure of 15–16 litres per 100km around town is a fair estimate of what you could expect when driven normally.
Frugal drivers in the right conditions could do better than our average. Drive it like you want to enjoy it and you’ll be in the 20s in no time.
That’s the cost of doing business when moving 2.6 tonnes as fast as this. On our precision timing equipment the Ram 1500 Express stopped the clocks in the 0–100km/h dash in 7.0 seconds neat – comfortably faster than the VW Amarok TDV6 580 (7.8 seconds) and anything else in the class to date.
For the record, a Ford Ranger Raptor – despite its bold appearance – does the 0–100km/h dash in 10.5 seconds. Of course, none of these are intended to be performance cars, but the Ram 1500 V8 is the closest yet among the full-size pick-ups.
The other impressive aspect is how truly comfortable it is to drive. The tyres and suspension are supple over ruts and bumps, the steering is well-weighted and precise, and the brakes have a surprisingly sharp bite and good performance. For the tech geeks, the brakes are 336mm front discs clamped by twin-piston floating calipers, while the rear discs are 352mm with single-piston floating calipers.
Out of curiosity, we brake-tested the Ram 1500 from 100km/h to zero and it pulled up in a smidgen less than 42m, making it compatible to the Toyota HiLux and others tested on the same stretch of pavement. No doubt braking performance was helped by the road-biased tyres (versus all-terrains on most rivals) and four-wheel discs (versus rear drums on most rivals).
Illumination from the halogen headlights is better than expected on low and high beams, but most top-end $60,000 utes these days have LEDs with brighter, whiter coverage. If you want the best headlight performance in a Ram, the Laramie with LEDs is the go.
The 13.9m turning circle (versus 11.8m to 12.9m for most utes) is so huge you need to re-evaluate some car parks. Height could be a close call for some: the Ram 1500 Express height is 1924mm versus 1848mm on a Ranger, 1815mm on a HiLux and 1834mm for a VW Amarok.
You'll also need to re-evaluate parking spaces thanks to the 5.8m length (versus 5.4m for the HiLux and Ranger type utes).
It comes with a rear camera and sensors to help negotiate tight spots, but despite the price tag it lacks advanced safety aids such as autonomous emergency braking, lane-keeping assistance and rear cross-traffic alert, which are now beginning to appear on double-cab utes.
However, it seems buyers in this class know what they’re getting into, and are more than happy to live with the compromises so they can reap the benefits. Should the worst happen, occupants are protected by a full suite of six airbags covering the front and rear – the latter can’t be said of the Volkswagen Amarok, for instance.
Unlike previous locally converted utes, the Ram has been crash-tested to validate the changes to right-hand-drive, which adds a peace of mind not available to these types of vehicles until now.
Warranty is three years/100,000km in a market now dominated by five-year coverage. Service intervals are 12 months/12,000km, whichever comes first.
To sum up
For those lucky enough to be able to afford one, they’ll wonder why it has taken this long to get a range of factory-grade, locally converted US pick-ups to Australia. Having spent a decent amount of time in the Ram 1500, I not only see the appeal, but I’d own one in a heartbeat.
The Ram 1500 blends key ingredients in vehicles that Aussies love: V8 performance, ute practicality, and SUV comfort. Which is why you’re going to see a lot more pick-ups like this on our roads.
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling