Say what you want about the inequity of it all; but one good thing about high fuel prices is the way they keep the poseurs at bay. No one who merely wants to look like a dude is gonna plunk down $40 to $55 grand for a monster pickup in these difficult times unless there's real work to be done.
So while today's poseurs are currently preoccupied with Prius envy, embattled U.S. automakers are still punching out big work trucks for folks whose livelihoods and/or lifestyles are predicated upon hauling and towing. As 2006 dawns, GMC and Dodge are debuting some of the largest motorized wheelbarrows ever to make their way down the lane. The heck with $3-per-gallon fuel; the heck with 15-to-17 mpg. With GMC's new Sierra 1500 ExtendedCab and Dodge's new Ram 2500 MegaCab, pulling off The Big Haul just got a lot easier, fancier and more expensive.
As a half-ton or "1500 Class" pickup, you almost have to feel sorry for the GMC Sierra when stacked up against Dodge's three-quarter-ton ("2500 Class") Ram. Compared to the Dodge's nearly 21-foot overall length, Sierra's mere 18 feet are almost puny. So it needs to be made clear that this is no apple-to-apple comparison of exactly comparable trucks configured for exactly comparable tasks.
What can be compared, however, is the different approach taken by GMC and Dodge when designing big trucks. GMC exhibits quiet sophistication whereas Dodge indulges in brawny bluster. There are customers aplenty for both pickup truck persuasions; the key is making sure you're not on the wrong side of the fence.
For years, GMC has built sturdy trucks notable for their comfortable ride and functional interiors. The 2006 Sierra 1500 holds true. A 5.3-liter "Vortec" V8 delivers ample power: 295 horsepower and 335 foot-pounds of torque. Acceleration is smooth and swift; powertrain noise is nonexistent. The ExtendedCab Sierra will tow 8,700 pounds of trailer. Its payload rating is 1,350 pounds, so that means with a maximum of five occupants averaging, say, 160 pounds, you've got 800 pounds left over for the short-bed (i.e., five-foot, eight-inch) cargo box.
With optional "SLT" trim and various other niceties like XM Satellite Radio, 20-inch wheels and myriad pushbutton accessories, the Sierra climbs from a base price of $36,315 to an as-tested total of $40,100. The result is a very nice office-on-wheels for the contractor on the go-who is, moreover, very likely to be reinvesting profits into a bass boat besides.
What you don't get with the Sierra, however, is state-of-the-art throughout. Front disc and rear drum brakes, even with anti-lock, are decidedly old school-a potentially false economy, in fact, if it means trading in fade-free braking performance just to get a sunroof or Bose speaker system. Offering nothing but front air bags for the front row is also behind the curve; side bags aren't even optional.
But even with its two-and-a-half-ton curb weight, GMC's latest Sierra is remarkably nimble on its feet, maneuverable in traffic and parking lots, and positively plush on the highway. Creature comfort, it seems, is part of Sienna's highly evolved DNA source code, and there's nothing about the 2006 generation of this truck that will diminish that legacy.
If GMC's Sierra represents a triumph of patient evolution, Dodge's new Ram MegaCab is a mutant freak. It's monstrously huge; seats six; weighs almost 6,100 pounds; yet is capable of hauling 2,100 pounds (i.e. up to six passengers and payload) even while towing 13,700 pounds more. That's because the "Laramie" version I tested incorporated a six-cylinder, 5.9-liter turbo-diesel from Cummins. Output is mind-blowing: its 325 horsepower is dwarfed by its 610 foot-pounds. On a damp road, there's so much torque at that you can almost spin the rear wheels at idle.
"Mega" says everything about this truck. It's mega-long at 21-feet. It's mega-pricey at $42,375 base, $54,250 as tested. (The Cummins is a $5,555 option, by the way.) And it's mega-roomy inside the cabin. The front bench splits 40/20/40 for up to three occupants; the rear bench splits 60/40 for three folks more. There's so much space in back that there's room for the rear seatbacks to recline substantially. The MegaCab's rear mega-doors open almost 90 degrees, so there's mega-room to load that antique armoire into the rear with nary a scratch.
The MegaCab Ram is so large it needn't post EPA fuel economy numbers, but you can bet a combined city/highway average of 15 mpg would make a good day. Still, the powertrain is fantastic: the diesel pulls smoothly through a five-speed auto transmission, and it makes surprisingly little racket. Four-wheel ABS disc brakes are up to date, and optional side airbags for front and rear are well worth $490.
But I had to supply my own skipper's hat to drive-or better yet, to pilot the Ram 2500 Mega. You won't be long behind the wheel before you start anticipating buoys instead of stoplights, channel markers instead of lane stripes. A ladder frame as long as that underpinning the MegaCab is going to clatter over bumps no matter how stiff it is. DentuGrip-even for folks with their dentistry intact-should be a prerequisite for all backseat passengers when potholes are anticipated.
The MegaCab is an engineering marvel. Its cabin is the roomiest to be found in a truck; and if not overtly luxurious, it's a well-equipped romper room. And the diesel powertrain is marvelously efficient for all the work this truck can do. But if you have to ask, "What would I do with that much truck?" it's clear you really don't need one.
6-pass., 4-door; 4X4, 5.9-liter "Cummins" turbo-diesel 6-cyl., 5-sp. auto; 325 hp/610 ft.-lbs.; 15 mpg combined avg. (est.) w/ diesel; payload: 2,098 lbs.; tow: 13,700 lbs.; base price: $42,375; as-tested w/ 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, 17-in.wheels, optional side airbags, dual-zone auto HVAC, AM/FM/6CD, 40/20/40 front & 60/40 rear seats, GPS navigation: $54,250
5-pass., 4-door; 4WD, 5.3-liter OHV "Vortec" V8, 4-sp. auto; 295 hp/335 ft.-lbs.; 15 mpg/City, 19 mpg/Hwy., w/ regular; payload: 1,350 lbs.; tow: 8,700 lbs; base price: $36,315; as-tested, incl. ABS disc/drum brakes, 20-in. wheels, dual-zone auto HVAC, AM/FM/6CD/XM Satellite, sunroof: $40,100