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If your operation is in the market for new or replacement pickups, the new Ram Heavy Duty line is worth a look. The trucks are available in five trim levels: SL, SLT, TRX, Laramie, and Power Wagon. Each has its own distinct appearance using combinations of grill openings, billets, and mirror trim. Photo: Dodge/Chrysler Group LLC

With the economy bumping along on the bottom of a cycle and customers switching to smaller, more eco-friendly vehicles, pickup truck sales are down by more than 30%. Could Dodge have picked a worse time to introduce the full-size Ram 2500 and 3500 pickup trucks?

Maybe ... maybe not. It all depends: Do you want a cleaner-running, more fuel-efficient vehicle? It comes at a cost.

Dodge's 6.7-liter Cummins engines, introduced in 2007, combine exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) with diesel particulate filters (DPFs). Designed to meet 2007 emissions standards, they also meet 2010 EPA standards.

Ford and Chevrolet/GMC won't have 3/4-ton and 1-ton models until next year. But in addition to EGR and DPFs, those vehicles will also have selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems. The newer technology is heavier, raises the sticker price, and requires owners to add diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) to control nitrogen oxides (NOx).

By letting Cummins focus on diesel engine development, Dodge was able to concentrate on the chassis and cab, improving comfort, quiet, and capability.

One of many tweaks made to improve sound levels and isolate road harshness is an innovative, fluid-filled body mount under the C-pillar at the rear of the cab. While the Ram 1500 now has rear coil springs, Dodge chose to stay with multistage rear leaf springs on the 2500 and 3500 for better stability under load. The engineers also retuned the three-stage shocks on all four corners.

Unfortunately, they did not include stability and roll control features, including trailer sway control, which their competition already has in 2009 models.

Cummins boosted the engine to 350 hp at 3,000 rpm and 650 pound-feet of torque at a low, useable 1,500 rpm to help capability.

Dodge puts the power to your choice of six-speed transmissions, an automatic, and a manual. The manual, standard with the diesel, has a deep-reduction 5.94:1 first gear, direct drive in fifth, and a 0.74:1 overdrive sixth speed. The six-speed automatic has two overdrive gears: 0.816 in fifth and 0.625 in top. The automatic has a column-mounted shift stalk with a selection button to shift manually. It limits the highest gear you want the transmission to use.

Shift into tow/haul mode and you raise the rpm of the transmission's shift points. This helps the exhaust brake maintain downhill speed. The brake works in normal mode, too, but it's more effective at higher rpm.

At the press preview, I drove several trucks loaded to capacity. The first was a Ram 3500 pulling a 30-foot, fifth-wheel trailer. The 8-foot bed, not available on competitive trucks with crew cabs, allowed ample room for trailer swing without damaging the back of the cab. Overall length was 260 inches on a 169.5-inch wheelbase, but the truck was reasonably responsive (for the length of the combination) even on the rougher and tighter sections of the test track.

Next, I pulled a two-axle platform gooseneck trailer with another 3500. It was just shy of 16,500 pounds. The Ram accelerated, braked, and handled well, considering the mass it was pulling, and it held speed in cruise control while traveling up moderate grades. Coming back down, the exhaust brake helped maintain control and assisted bringing the rig to a smooth, straight stop.

My final test was in a 2500 Crew Cab loaded to capacity. I took that truck over some of the worst test sections on the track. From simulated deteriorated roads with potholes to sections designed to twist the frame, the Ram stayed squeak- and rattle-free. It was easy to listen in the quiet cab.

Also worth noting are the elimination of the extended cab, and the addition of new tow mirrors and the integrated trailer brake controller. Heavy-duty Rams come in Regular Cab, Crew Cab, and the humongous Mega Cab. First introduced on the Ram 1500, the Mega Cab is for operations that need extra interior room for tools and cargo, or to secure them from weather or theft.

The side mirrors integrate convex glass at the outer edge of each large flat glass mirror. For towing, the mirrors pivot around the convex portion to provide a vertical view with the large convex section at the bottom.

Dodge finally joins its competitors with an integrated adjustable electronic trailer brake controller. It works manually or is automatically proportioned.

Spend some time with the brochures to select options for your needs, then take a test drive. There are far too many features to list here.

— Paul Abelson is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association, a board member of Truck Writers of North America, and active in the Society of Automotive Engineers.