Truck buyers are conditioned to expect progress slowly, dispensed drop by drop over decades. Pickups are still measured by their capabilities, and frankly we figured out the mechanics of hauling stuff a long time ago. Now and then, there's a minor revolution under the hood (like Ford's EcoBoost, which made V-6 engines safe for pickup lovers), but truck fundamentals are basically fixed: Every full-size truck still uses a rear-suspension setup that dates to horse-drawn buggies – a solid rear axle and leaf springs.
Every truck, that is, except the Ram 1500. With its optional air suspension, eight-speed automatic transmission, and overachieving engine, the Ram leaps about two decades into the future, slaying the pickup's longtime nemeses – handling and fuel economy – with shiny new technology. While it deploys a few overt signifiers of its tech derring-do (like the giant dashboard touchscreen), the real action is under the skin. The air suspension, for instance, not only imbues the Ram with a luxury-SUV ride, it also drops the ride height at highway speeds to help burnish its class-leading fuel economy: 25 mpg highway for a two-wheel-drive V-6. I was on my way to a junkyard to scavenge parts for my old Bronco when the Ram's dashboard displayed a message: "Aerodynamic ride height achieved." I believe I blurted, "Are you shittin' me?" I grew up driving a 1987 Ram, and the only time it achieved an aerodynamic ride height was when I loaded the bed full of lobster pots.
When I arrive at the off-road shop doing the work on my Bronco, everything grinds to a halt as the guys check out the Ram. It meets with universal approval. I pop the hood, and there's some initial skepticism over the size of the V-6, which looks lost in the Ram's cavernous front end. But this is the Pentastar V-6, a 24-valve double-overhead cam that puts out 305 horsepower. Moreover, this modern V-6 is bolted to a world-class transmission, the new ZF eight-speed automatic that's used in BMWs and Bentleys. More gears mean better acceleration and higher mileage, and the Ram is the only truck with more than six speeds.
I've got to haul the Bronco's transmission to a welder for some repair work. So I lower the suspension, and we heft the transmission into the bed. Keith Wilson, the shop owner, has probably driven hundreds – if not thousands – of pickups, so I'm keen to hear his impressions. At first, he squeezes the gas and remarks that it doesn't feel that quick. I advise him to keep his foot down. The transmission drops down a gear or two, the revs climb, and the Ram bolts forward fast enough that I warily eye a police car passing in the opposite direction. I'm not sure Wilson noticed, but we're shattering the speed limit. "That's more like it" he says.
Most trucks hit you with an initial surge of power that quickly tails off. The V-6 Ram, though, makes its horsepower at a stratospheric (for a truck) 6,400 rpm. The motor pulls smoothly all the way there, but demands a nontraditional driving style if you want to hustle.
On the way home, I reflect on the supposed hidebound traditionalism of pickup-truck buyers. I half expected the crew at the garage to look at the Ram's revolutionary suspension and grumble that it wouldn't be reliable and nobody would buy such a thing. Instead, the crew figured out how to modify the suspension to raise the body even higher. Skipping all the expected stages of grief, they moved straight into acceptance. It helps that the Ram's more revolutionary aspects are cloaked in the reassuring garb of the familiar. Chrysler innovated in the right places, but they also played it safe in areas that didn't need reinvention. When I flipped up the massive center console, I discovered that the tech-heavy new Ram was rocking a bench seat. Just like my '87. [$23,585; ramtrucks.com]