Related: Automotive Production
No guts, no glory.
That is, clearly, the approach that the people at the then-Chrysler Corporation embraced when they launched the 1994 Dodge Ram truck (internally known as the "BR"), the truck with what current senior manager in the Dodge Truck Studio, Dennis Myles, describes at the "big-rig look." Prior to the '94 Ram, Frank Klegon, present vice president, Truck Platform at the Chrysler Group, says that they were a "bit player" in the light truck category, accounting for about 5 to 6% of the market, with the cross-town rivals battling for the big pieces of the market. The truck platform prior to the '94 model—the "D-truck"—was 22 years old. Tired. Myles calls it "stodgy." "We could have done a me-too product," Klegon says. "We could have done a copy of a Ford or a Chevy. But what difference would that have made in the market?" Myles amplifies that statement: "Design leadership was our only option."
So they rolled the dice. Created the truck that is now probably one of the most identifiable on the road today (Who isn't familiar with the horse-collar grille of the Ram? Quick: what does an F150 or a Silverado look like?). And the first year out of the box, the BR sold over 200,000 units; a good year with the D-truck was in the 70,000 vicinity. Bolstering the initial offering, they subsequently added the Club Cab and heavy-duty versions of the BR. Sales went to nearly 400,000 units. Sure, things settled out to about 350,000 units, but the Ram managed to hang on to about 20% of the market.
What do they do for an encore? Well, Myles says that given that the big-rig look has played so well, they are continuing with it for the all-new '02 pickup. "After delighting them for eight years, we didn't want to alienate our customers," Myles observes. "The revolutionary part is in functional improvements." That is, while it may take an aficionado to notice it, there is, for example, a sharper slope to the windshield (a 5°º change), which is not only a design touch, but which helps with air and water management. The doors overlap the A-pillar so that there is no cut line, which helps with aerodynamics and provides a smoother transition from the front to the side. On the Quad Cab version, not only are the rear doors full-size, but they also open 85°º. The windows roll all the way down. Myles points out that while tailgates are often a flat stamping, in the case of the Ram they added a character line that matches that on the sides of the vehicle.
The design feature that might cause the biggest intake of breath among the truck-buying brethren is that the bed is reduced by 3 in., to 6 ft., 3 in. However, this space wasn't simply cut out for purposes of thrifting, but it was utilized in the cabin; the Ram regular cab is consequently claimed to have the largest interior of any regular full-size pickup. (The Ram 1500, which will be followed by the 2500 (3/4-ton) and 3500 (one-ton) models in model year '03, is available as a regular cab and Quad Cab; it comes in three trim levels: SLT, SLT+, and Sport.)
"The heart of all trucks is the frame." So says Scott Kunsleman, senior manager, Truck Vehicle Development. So while the exterior might be said to be exhibiting an incremental change, beneath the skin there is an all-new chassis, with features including rack-and-pinion steering and torsion bar independent front suspension for the four-wheel-drive version. One of the key structural features of the Ram is the extensive use of hydroformed frame rails (claimed to be the greatest amount for any pickup out there). Not only do the hydroformed rails contribute to a significantly stiffer structure—400% greater torisonal stiffness; 150% greater lateral stiffness than the previous generation—but hydroformed components also help contribute to the safety of the vehicle: the front portion of the rails is formed so as to crumple in a predictive fashion, thereby managing the crash energy. Each longitudinal rail consists of three pieces; there is what is essentially a spacer between the front and rear elements because, Kunsleman explains, if they were to use a single long rail, as is the case with another maker's truck, there would be limitations with regard to making length modifications to the vehicle (i.e., all Dodge will need to do is to change the length of the middle element). They are using two sources for the hydroformed rails: Tower Automotive to support the U.S. operations (St. Louis North Assembly and Warren Truck Assembly) and Metalsa for the production of the new trucks in Mexico (Saltillo).
Under the hood, there is some new cast iron: a 4.7-liter Magnum V8 (replacing a 5.2-liter version) that provides more horsepower (up to 235 hp) and better fuel efficiency; it features a cast iron block and aluminum heads. There is a new V6, a 3.7-liter with a cast iron block and aluminum heads that provides 215 hp; it replaces a 3.9-liter engine. (There's also some old cast iron: a carryover 245-hp, 5.9-liter V8).
"Quality is absolutely key for us," remarks Dieter Zetsche, president and CEO of the Chrysler Group. He refers to the Ram as one of the "three main pillars" of Chrysler, with the other two being the minivan and the Grand Cherokee. Several things were done to assure quality. For one thing, the Chrysler Development System (CDS) approach was used for the Ram; it is a methodology wherein there are eleven predefined "quality gates" through which a vehicle-in-becoming passes, starting at planning and working all the way through to launch. As previously noted, there are three plants building the Ram; the plants were brought into production, with the first being at St. Louis North in July.
Frank Klegon notes several ways that consistency is being achieved. For one thing, he points out that because of the phenomenal volume increase that was experienced with the BR model, the assembly plants (in addition to the three mentioned, there is a fourth, Lago Alberto Assembly, which will continue to build BR until next year, when it is scheduled to be shut down; its production of the heavy-duty version of the Ram is to be shifted to St. Louis) all kept adding and adding capacity. Consequently, there was no uniformity from plant to plant. Each facility had a build that was unique onto itself. In the case of the new Ram it was determined that the process would be the same at each plant (although there is less automation at Saltillo, the build procedure is the same).
Throughout the development program, there was an emphasis on assuring that the people who would actually build the trucks were involved in the prototype builds. Whereas it was the norm to get a vehicle into a plant for pre-production builds 11 weeks ahead of production launch, they worked on the planning, scheduling, and equipment additions and modifications so that the early builds occurred 25 weeks ahead. By staggering the plant launches, it is intended that any issues that occurred in St. Louis were addressed at Saltillo and Warren before those plants began their builds.
So while the '02 Ram may not be as visibly startling as the '94, this is undoubtedly a better product from the inside out.