Rugged and Refined

By Derek Price

After the Ram 1500 was redesigned to be far-and-away the most refined pickup for sale today, its big brother — the new Ram Heavy Duty — took a different approach.
It’s trying to be the most serious truck.
Yes, it’s redesigned to have a quieter, smoother, downright sumptuous highway ride, but that’s not the point. It is, at its core, a serious truck designed to do serious work.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Power Wagon, a truck built to go straight from the factory to the mountains and trails, complete with a 12,000-pound Warn winch up front.
The Power Wagon has long been known as the only heavy-duty truck that comes fully outfitted for tough off-roading, with the kind of kit that owners typically purchase and install from aftermarket vendors — if it’s available at all.
It has a unique suspension design that’s lifted for high ground clearance, locking differentials in the front and rear and a disconnecting sway bar. Best of all, you can control all of its electronic suspension bits by pressing buttons in the cabin, not having to climb out and tromp around in the muck.
How much does all this cost? The starting price for a Power Wagon is $53,350, roughly $20,000 more than the $33,645 base truck.

The Ram Power Wagon comes standard with a 12,000-pound Warn winch, just one of the ways it’s outfitted for serious off-roading.

For that price, you get a heavy-duty pickup that not only performs spectacularly off road, but also looks the part with interior and exterior design cues with its bold Power Wagon branding.
You also get the peace of mind from a full factory warranty and legitimate automotive engineering, not guesswork of unknown origin from a random suspension shop. That’s worth something.
If you want to save money, you can get a Power Wagon content package on the basic, stripped-down Tradesman trim level. It has all the Power Wagon’s off-road goodies without the luxury features and fancy badging, perfect for people who need a serious truck but don’t care for the bling. It shaves about $5,000 off the price.
Power comes from Ram’s heavy-duty, 6.4-liter gasoline V8 engine that makes 410 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque. While fuel economy in heavy trucks is not rated by the federal government, Ram says its efficiency is helped by the Multi-Displacement System (MDS) that doesn’t fire all the cylinders unless they’re needed.
Off the pavement, the Power Wagon feels undeniably capable but also oddly long and wide. Off-road enthusiasts would find the Jeep Wrangler much easier to handle in tight spots and easier to climb boulders with its short wheelbase.
The Power Wagon’s advantage is being able to deliver heavy-duty truck utility to the middle of nowhere. For farmers, ranchers and oilfield workers, a truck like this is more of a tool than a toy, helping bring equipment and supplies wherever they’re needed, whether there’s asphalt or not.

A gigantic, optional 12-inch touchscreen continues to set the Ram truck lineup apart from other brands. The Uconnect system is fast and well designed.

My week in the Power Wagon was spent almost entirely on the road, including some long highway stints that showed off just how livable it is in everyday driving. It was not only spacious, but reasonably quiet and smooth for a weekend trip to Arkansas.
That’s what amazes me most about the Ram Heavy Duty — and all heavy-duty trucks for sale these days, for that matter. They deliver more towing and payload capability than ever before, yet they don’t burst your eardrums and wreck your spine in the ways their noisy, bumpy ancestors did.
This new Ram 2500 delivers big-truck capability while coming remarkably close to small-truck refinement and comfort. It’s a brilliant combination.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2019 Ram 2500 Power Wagon Crew Cab 4×4 ($53,150). Options: Premium paint ($200), towing technology group ($1,095), safety group ($1,195), bed utility group ($695), Power Wagon Level 2 equipment group ($5,595), power sunroof ($1,095), black tubular side steps ($445), 12-inch Connect display ($1,995), RamBox cargo management system ($995). Price as tested (including $1,695 destination charge): $68,155
Wheelbase: 149.3 in.
Length: 238.8 in.
Width: 83.4 in.
Height: 80.9 in.
Engine: 6.4-liter heavy duty V8 (410 hp, 429 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: Not evaluated

Style: 9
Performance: 10
Price: 7
Handling: 5
Ride: 5
Comfort: 7
Quality: 8
Overall: 8

Why buy it? 
The Power Wagon delivers serious off-road capability without the risks and costs of aftermarket vendors. It’s ready to rumble through the wilderness as soon as it leaves the factory floor.

Posted in Ram

One Last Blast

By Derek Price

I’ve already had my heart broken once this year by driving the last iteration of the Volkswagen Beetle.
This week I’m behind the wheel of another lovable-but-doomed car, the FIAT 500.
This is the vehicle that carried the FIAT brand back into the United States on its cute little shoulders in 2010. At the time, it seemed like the perfect brand ambassador to re-introduce FIAT to American drivers, fresh off of winning the European Car of the Year award along with World Car Design of the Year at the New York Auto Show.
FIAT will continue selling cars here — its lineup is now pared back to the 500X crossover, the Miata-based 124 Spider and the chunkier 500L utility vehicle — but the classic 500 won’t be on the menu.
Its parent company, the Italian-American FIAT Chrysler Automobiles, says current inventory of the 500 will last into 2020. That’s a good thing for those of us who appreciate its quirky look and feel, but it sheds light on the obvious problem: this car isn’t selling fast enough.

The FIAT 500 is being discontinued after the 2019 model year. Inventory is expected to remain available in 2020 for the cute, fun-to-drive compact car.

As buyers continue their shift into bigger, taller, more truck-like vehicles, small cars like the 500 are the victims. It’s a shame, too, because I’ve never driven a crossover with half the charm of the adorable, fun-to-drive 500.
That’s especially true of the version I’m driving this week, the tuned-for-speed Abarth. Its ridiculously poppy exhaust sound, scorpion badges and go-kart suspension setup make me smile until my cheeks hurt.
I may have even strained some facial muscles when I mashed the gas pedal on a remote farm-to-market road in East Texas, ripping around tight turns and frightening cattle with the Abarth’s engine noises.
If you want to hear a good imitation of what the 500 Abarth sounds like, just light a string of Black Cat firecrackers and get an an opera singer to swallow them. The sound is equal parts silly, melodious and terrifying.
All 500s come standard with turbocharged, four-cylinder engines. The base models make 135 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque, enough to have some fun in the small, lightweight car, but not particularly exhilarating.
The Abarth version takes things up a notch, and not just in power. Its engine boosts the output to 160 horsepower and 183 pound-feet — a very noticeable, obvious difference from the throttle — but even more importantly gives better sounds and sensations at speed.

The 500’s cabin reflects its retro-themed body with solid-color dash trim, a circular gauge pod and shifter near the driver’s right knee.

While I have no problems with the way it drives, delivering a true Italian-car experience with the right noises and feelings, it has two glaring downsides that likely are contributing to its untimely demise.
One is the Achilles’ heel of many Italian brands: a below-average reputation for reliability. Your 500 may see the inside of a shop more often than some competitors, so pay close attention to warranty coverage.
The other is its cabin, which was acceptable by 2010 standards but feels cheap and small a decade later.
Despite its drawbacks, I can’t help but feel gloomy about the 500’s imminent disappearance. It’s as if there’s not just a car going away, but a whole idea.
When it comes to the pure joy of driving, small cars like this are so much more invigorating than big, dumb crossovers and SUVs. And if every small, enjoyable, soul-stirring car disappears in the name of practicality, the world’s roads will be a much sadder place.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2019 FIAT 500 Abarth Hatchback ($20,495). Options: Customer Preferred Package 2HX ($695), popular equipment package ($895), power sunroof ($795), GPS navigation ($595), black trimmed lights ($245), 17-inch hyper-black wheels ($1,395). Price as tested (including $1,495 destination charge): $26,610
Wheelbase: 90.6 in.
Length: 144.4 in.
Width: 64.1 in.
Height: 58.7 in.
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged four cylinder (160 hp, 170 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel economy: 28 city, 33 highway

Style: 8
Performance: 9
Price: 9
Handling: 9
Ride: 5
Comfort: 4
Quality: 6
Overall: 8

Why buy it? 
It’s your last chance to buy this iconic, affordable Italian car. It’s terrific fun to drive, especially in the loud, fast, firm-riding Abarth variety.

Posted in Fiat

Against the Zeitgeist

By Derek Price

A decade ago, I was surprised the Dodge Charger muscle car could still exist in a world where fuel-sipping hybrids and import-style sedans and hatchbacks were in fashion.
Today, it’s even more dumbfounding.
The big, brawny Charger is not only surviving, but thriving, as its sales numbers continue to climb at a time when conventional wisdom says it should be a dead duck.
What do buyers want, according to that conventional wisdom? Electric cars. Self-driving vehicles. Smartphone-connected gizmos. Trucks, SUVs and crossovers.
Basically, all the headlines suggest today’s buyers want anything other than a V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive, four-door sedan as we enter 2020.
While most sedan sales numbers have been dropping precipitously, the Charger’s have been growing steadily from around 70,000 a decade ago to over 80,000 in 2018. It started 2019 on a tear, too, growing an additional 9 percent.
And it couldn’t make me happier that the Charger is bucking conventional wisdom because it’s proof that classic American car culture — that 20th-century idea of driving being an exciting, invigorating experience, not just drudgery to be endured — is still alive and well.

A new Widebody package — standard on the Hellcat and a $6,000 option on the Scat Pack — gives the Charger wider tires and better handling along with its aggressive stance.

The Charger’s success is about more than the visceral, tire-melting thrills of its high-performance variations, too. Even the V6-powered base model checks a lot of logical, practical, family-friendly boxes and still delivers nearly 300 horsepower, all for under $30,000.
The cabin is impressively roomy and comfortable, something rare as full-size sedans have all but disappeared from American roads. It has a smooth, quiet highway ride that matches some luxury SUVs, and its four giant doors and massive trunk make it more practical than many crossovers. It even gets decent gas mileage, rated for 30 mpg on the highway.
But let’s face it. People drive Chargers for the muscle-car look and feel, something that stands out more with each year that buyers continue to embrace boring vehicles.
The version I drove is perhaps the best performance value on Planet Earth: the R/T Scat Pack, which makes an astounding 485 horsepower from its rumbling, 6.4-liter HEMI V8 engine and starts under $40,000. I can’t think of any other car that delivers that kind of power and excitement for anywhere close to that price.
Granted, as you check the option boxes to build your dream car, the value proposition looks less appealing. My tester had several eyebrow-raising lines on the price sheet, including the hefty $1,495 delivery fee, $995 for race-style stripes and $595 to paint the brake calipers red.

2020 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat with premium stitched dash and door uppers

New for 2020 is an aggressive Widebody package that comes standard on the 707-horsepower Hellcat ($69,645) and is a $6,000 option on the Scat Pack. It’s 3.5 inches wider than the standard car to make room for fatter, stickier tires that help with handling and drag-strip acceleration. It also gets an upgraded suspension with adaptive damping, noticeably stiffer front springs and a bigger rear sway bar. You can adjust the steering feel, too.
I didn’t test it myself, but Dodge claims the Scat Pack Widebody can zip from zero to 60 miles per hour in just 4.3 seconds. They say it can do a quarter-mile drag race in 12.4 seconds at 111 mph and complete a 2.1-mile road course 1.3 seconds faster, or eight car lengths every single lap.
All I know is it’s terrific fun on public roads. The sounds, sensations and spectacularly grippy feeling in corners make the Widebody fantastic to drive on winding country roads, something I don’t always enjoy in muscle cars.
Yes, it flies in the face of today’s electric-powered, self-driving zeitgeist, and I hope it will still be playing that antagonist’s role another decade down the road.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2020 Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack Plus ($39,995). Options: Widebody package ($6,000), 2DV Plus group ($1,995), technology group ($1,895), driver confidence group ($795), navigation and travel group ($995), Harman Kardon audio group ($1,595), carbon dual stripe ($995), three-season tires ($695), red brake calipers ($595). Price as tested (including $1,495 destination charge): $57,050
Wheelbase: 120 in.
Length: 200.8 in.
Width: 78.3 in.
Height: 57.8 in.
Engine: 6.4-liter HEMI V8 (485 hp, 475 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 15 city, 24 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 10
Price: 10
Handling: 9
Ride: 9
Comfort: 9
Quality: 6
Overall: 9

Why buy it? 
It keeps the thrill of driving alive. This American muscle car is surprisingly practical in its lower-priced versions and a spectacular performance bargain in Scat Pack and Hellcat form.

Posted in Dodge