DULUTH, Minn. — Fiat Chrysler wins the latest round of the Truck Wars as an all-new diesel engine lifts the towing capacity of its 2020 Ram 1500 pickup well beyond the diesel Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500.

The whisper-quiet 3.0L diesel also generates more torque — the force most important for towing — than those key competitors. The third-generation 3.0L Ecodiesel V-6 goes on sale in the fourth quarter of 2019.

The engine will be available in all 2020 Ram 1500 models, from the $36,890 Tradesman to the luxurious $60K-plus Laramie Longhorn. Detailed pricing and fuel economy figures will be available closer to when the new diesel goes on sale.

I spent a day driving the new diesel Ram through northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, including some off-roading and modest towing.

More power from an all-new V-6

The 2020 Ram 1500 diesel can tow 12,560 pounds. That compares to 10,400 for the F-150 diesel and 9,300 for the Silverado 1500 and GMC 1500. Diesels have been popular in automakers’ bigger medium-duty pickups, like the Ram 2500 and 3500, for decades, but they’re relatively new in 1500s, which are also called half-ton pickups, even though they all haul more than that. The term “half-ton” dates back to when pickups were less capable than they are today and could only carry about 1,000 pounds in their cab and bed.

The 2020 Ram 1500 diesel can haul up to 2,300 pounds in its cab and bed, in addition to its towing capacity.

Buyers liked the first Ram 1500 diesel, so Ford followed suit with its own 3.0L V-6. Chevy and GMC joined the party this year, as Ram is introducing the third generation of its engine. Truck drivers love diesels because they’re more fuel efficient than a gasoline engine with the same towing capacity.

Ram jumped on the diesel bandwagon early and hard in 2013. Fiat is one of Europe’s leaders in the technology. It pioneered the technologies that made diesel engines hugely popular in Europe. Fiat Chrysler largely escaped the scandal that crippled German automakers’ diesel sales.

A full 80% of the Ram diesel’s parts are new, including its block, valvetrain and head — most of what you see when you open the hood. Unlike the Ram’s gasoline engines, the diesel doesn’t have Fiat Chrysler’s 48-volt eTorque mild hybrid system.

The new block contributes to quiet operation. Diesels used to be plagued by rattles and smoky exhaust, but you might walk by an idling Ram and not realize there was anything unusual about the engine. The quiet operation owes to a host of engineering changes, including making the block — which is essentially the engine’s body — out of a very stiff material called compacted graphite iron. Despite all that, I suspect the Chevrolet Silverado’s new 3.0L inline six-cylinder diesel would be smoother and quieter than the Ram in a side-by-side test.

The engine is the same size, but almost entirely different from the 3.0L V-6 diesel Ram sells in its older Classic model. That engine will disappear whenever Ram stops selling the old version of its pickup.

A very comfortable ride

The Ram I tested was loaded with comfort and convenience features, including an air suspension that delivered one of the most comfortable rides I’ve ever had in a pickup. The suspension adjusted for off-roading and highway driving, too.

The engine is smooth and quiet. The big pickup accelerated smoothly, thanks in part to diesel-oriented changes to the eight-speed transmission’s shift points.

The Ram’s been a hit since the current generation debuted as a 2019 model, and nothing about the 2020 is likely to change that. The interior features distressed wood, Western-style filigree metal and perforated leather seats.

The Ram made easy work of a short but demanding off-road course. Its low-range gear allows for easy driving at higher speeds than most pickups in serious off-road mode thanks to the diesel’s strong torque output.

Ram provided a 5,150-pound trailer. That’s not enough to truly test a vehicle that can tow more than twice that, but the Ram pulled fine up and down mild hills and up to 65 mph. Acceleration was OK, and the pickup’s brakes and steering were good enough that it was easy to forget I had a trailer with a pair of ATVs behind me.

The diesel Ram Laramie 4x4 crew cab I tested stickered at $68,000. That includes Ram’s useful optional multifunction tailgate. It can open down, like all pickup tailgates, or from the sides, with a 60/40 split.

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

Tribune Wire

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