First Drive: 2014 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel [Review]

The first modern light-duty diesel pickup has arrived, sporting a designer Italian motor.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: all men are created equal, baseball is the national pastime, and pickup people love torque.

Hoping to better tap the sales potential inherent in that third verity, Ram is stepping up to the plate and doing what no other automaker has for decades - installing a diesel motor under the hood of its North American-market light-duty pickup.

Is the result a home run, or more of a potential double-play ball? We headed to the canyon roads north of Los Angeles, an admittedly odd stomping ground for pickups, to find out.

Oil burning, light duty-style

Along with their sterling reputation for efficiency, reliability and value retention, diesel mills are also often noted for possessing nearly enough low-end twist to pull Yankee Stadium out of the Bronx.

The Ram 1500's new-for-2014 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 doesn't disappoint in that area, serving up 420 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm in addition to 240 horsepower at 3,600 rpm. In comparison, the Hemi V8 produces 410 lb-ft at 3,950 rpm and 395 ponies at 5,600 rpm.

Maximum towing capacity is 9,200 lbs. - maybe not quite enough to move a ballpark, but likely sufficient to suit the needs of the vast majority of light-duty buyers.

Sourced from Italian diesel manufacturer (and soon-to-be 100 percent Fiat subsidiary) VM Motori, the 3.0-liter is paired with ZF's familiar eight-speed automatic and marketed as the EcoDiesel, a move we're sure has nothing to do with Ford's wildly successful EcoBoost-branded gas engines. It's the same unit utilized in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, a relative lightweight for a diesel that checks in at just 50 lbs. heavier than the Hemi.

More significant than the weight gain is the price increase - look for the EcoDiesel to command $2,850 more than a comparably-equipped 1500 Hemi. Factoring in the EcoDiesel's mileage and resale advantages, Ram says that owners should expect to break even on the option within three to four years.

Official fuel economy ratings have yet to be announced, though figures slightly lower than the several hundred lbs.-lighter Grand Cherokee diesel's 21 city/30 highway mpg are a reasonable guess. The eight-speed-equipped Hemi is good for 15/22 mpg, while the 1500 lineup's current fuel miser, the Pentastar V6, returns up to 17/25 mpg.

Available only with a 3.55:1 axle ratio, the EcoDiesel will be offered on all bed/body configurations and trim levels except the regular cab, short-bed model and the HFE.

Moment of truth

Settle down into the driver's seat and close the door, and the diesel clatter that's instantly recognizable from outside mellows to something that closely resembles a gasoline-V6 soundtrack. Indeed, in terms of both motor music and the cabin's appearance, there's little to give away the 1500 EcoDiesel's identity inside save for a small diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) gauge in the instrument cluster that lets you know how much emissions-scrubbing urea is left in the pickup's eight-gallon tank.

Ram reckons that the urea reserves will last 10,000 miles, which is conveniently also the oil change interval.

Lay into the skinny pedal, and the big truck steps off smartly, the variable-geometry turbocharger effectively banishing all but the slightest hint of lag. While it doesn't come close to matching the top-end power of the tuneful Hemi, the diesel's around-town grunt is ample and ably maximized by the slick eight-speed box. A cool customer in nearly all normal driving situations, it only showed signs of confusion during especially spirited charges up Mulholland Highway, when we would have appreciated a wielder means of effecting gearchanges than the small buttons mounted on the right side of the steering wheel.

Of course, only lunatics like us will drive the 1500 EcoDiesel like a sports car. Playing the more suitable role of tow vehicle, it feels as relaxed as a slugger working with a 3-0 count. We had the opportunity to hook up 3,000 lbs. worth of boat and trailer, and can report that, while acceleration was predictably blunted, the truck otherwise seemed barely fazed, moving with a sense of steely inevitability.

Leftlane's bottom line

Already gifted with capable handling and handsome interiors, the Ram 1500 lineup is now even more unique and appealing with the addition of the EcoDiesel option.

It isn't the motor for everyone - the cheaper, punchier and more characterful Hemi is still a stellar choice - but its combination of low-end torque and efficiency will undoubtedly win over many hearts and wallets. We expect Ram will have little problem achieving its goal of a 15 percent take rate for the EcoDiesel.

2014 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel base price TBA.

Photos by Nat Shirley.

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