Words by Dan Sanchez, Photos by Mike Levine
When you compare the latest off-road trucks, it’s clear that the second-generation Ram Power Wagon has been humbly launched in the shadows of the headlines touting Ford’s F-150 SVT Raptor. But once you get behind the wheel of the Ram lineup's best off-road vehicle, and experience the thrill of maneuvering a full-size crew cab truck, nimbly over terrain almost as easily as a Jeep, you begin to remember which features are really important to a large group of off-road truck enthusiasts.
To test its off-road prowess, we took a 2010 Power Wagon to Johnson Valley Off Highway Vehicle park, located in Mojave Desert north of the San Bernardino Mountains. On almost any weekend you can find a wide mix of off-road enthusiasts running everything from dirt bikes to purpose-built rock crawlers on Johnson Valley’s variable terrain. OEM and aftermarket manufacturers test their latest gear here and the rapidly growing “King of the Hammers” off-road race has made Johnson Valley its home, because of the unique mix of Baja-style trails, dry lakebeds and brutal rock islands here.
It was cool to see a handful of SCORE Baja Class-8, stock full-size race trucks in the park. It reminded us that that driving wide-open on flat dirt roads and catching air over deep ruts is lots of fun, but the Power Wagon isn’t made for that. It’s a serious four-wheeling vehicle that can handle almost any terrain yet still perform as a tough work truck. The eight-lug, three-quarter ton rig can tow up to 10,300-pounds and haul up to 1,940-pounds of payload.
Although our test truck’s presence didn’t catch the interest of the Class-8 racers, it did grab the attention of the park ranger. He immediately drove up to us in his first-generation Dodge Power Wagon just after we arrived. While we worried that we’d maybe broken some rules or failed to get our permits in order, it was a relief when he explained his anticipation to take possession of a 2010 model he had on order - his current truck had more than 70,000 miles on it, nearly all hard-earned while patrolling Johnson Valley's 190,000 acres.
The ranger used the opportunity to check our test truck up close, and told us that his experience and preference for the Power Wagon comes from its ability to reach park visitors in the wide variety of terrain found there. Wannabe desert racers with go-fast machines could outrun him on the trail but using his deep knowledge of the park, he'd catch them by being slow and steady when they paused for a break or at their campsite. His current Power Wagon is frequently called upon to tow out 4x4 vehicles that break, get stuck in the loose sand, or find themselves high-centered over terrain that they simply can’t handle. With a grin, he told us that in recent months he'd pulled two heavy-duty tow trucks out of the sand that had come to rescue other stuck rigs.
The Power Wagon’s capabilities became clear as we found several areas to test its agility over rocky terrain. First, we found it easy to air down the Power Wagon’s tire pressures using the tire pressure monitor gauge on the dash. This allowed us to precisely air down to the levels we needed for crawling over rocks and deep sand, and bring the tires back to the correct pressures when we were ready to head home on the highway.
As we traveled across miles of rolling hills, we found ourselves maneuvering through deep sand and low brush. Although there were times we couldn’t find the trail, the Power Wagon didn’t have any difficulty maintaining a sure foot wherever it stood. It easily trekked across open sand and deep washes, without a hint of a struggle or digging in. We eventually made our way across the valley to one of the area’s dry lakebeds where we were able to make some high-speed runs to see how the Power Wagon reacted to various steering input.
With a wide turning radius, the truck isn’t very agile at speed. But the steering does have the power to place a large tire wherever you need it to be, and force its way among loose river rock to get you in the correct position to maneuver over the next obstacle.
With the Power Wagon’s transfer case set to the four-wheel low mode, the rear locking differential can be engaged to provide added traction when climbing over large obstacles. In more than one instance, we got the truck’s rear differential in an extremely articulated situation, but never lost traction on each opposing wheel and were able to maintain forward momentum to get over each obstacle we faced.
When we approached a tall ledge with some boulders nearly the height of the front bumper, we switched the dash-mounted knob to lock both the front and rear differentials. We also needed additional traction and nine more inches of articulation as there were plenty more rocks and dips ahead if us. A press of the front electronic sway bar disconnect button unlocked the front anti-sway bar which allowed us to easily place the 33-inch tall, 285/70R17 BFGoodrich all-terrain tires and 17-inch wheels against huge front obstacles and slowly climb with ease.
With over eight inches of ground clearance, the Power Wagon proved it can go places where standard four-wheel drive trucks, and perhaps even the Ford SVT Raptor, simply can’t. Heavy-duty skid plates protect the transfer case, front differential and gas tank. Rock sliders protect the underside of the trucks’ rocker panels that can see lots of abuse if you’re willing to take the truck to its extremes. Nevertheless, if we would have gotten the 2010 Power Wagon stuck, the truck is equipped with a Warn 12,000 lbs. winch that could easily pull this 6,600 lbs. truck out of any situation.
Fortunately, we didn’t need the assistance of the winch. At one point, we encountered a very steep incline in which we were glad we had a winch with us. As we proceeded forward, we were shoved into the cloth bucket seats and could only see sky from our windshield. Thinking the truck might slip back and we’d have to pull out the winch cable, the Power Wagon inched forward giving us the confidence to maintain a light throttle while the truck slowly crawled its way up and out of the deep wash. While the 4:56 rear axle can be an impediment to fuel economy and highway driving, it worked optimally to send torque from the Power Wagon's 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi to claw our way out of heavy loose sand on the way out, and helped to maintain grip over the slick, hard-packed dirt that we encountered during our evaluation.
Bouncing up and down on a section of deep washboard ruts, which we took at 5-10 mph, nearly launched the Power Wagon off the ground. That situation is probably best left for a truck like the Raptor. Yet the pounding barely put a squeeze on the bump stops and didn’t toss our heads into cab roof. With this in mind, it would seem like an oxymoron to talk about a smooth and comfortable ride from a heavy-duty, front straight axle, 4x4 truck. But the ride was surprisingly comfortable in a variety of conditions. Dodge engineers managed to take the kidney-kicking brunt out of the Power Wagon with the combination of a rigid frame and all-new fluid filled hydromounts that look like squashed shock absorbers. By also including custom-valved Bilstein dampeners, the transition from hard dirt to rock is a smooth one. More important, the latest Power Wagon is much more subdued on the highway, absorbing any shakes and high frequency vibrations for a better ride than on previous models. It handles incredibly well on the street, allowing us to take corners with much more confidence than we would on a truck with a similar ride height.
The appearance of the 2010 Dodge Power Wagon also gets some improvements. While only some of us liked the power bulge hood with faux louvers, we all liked the design of the two-tone paint scheme. Big “Power Wagon” decals on the hood and tailgate give the truck a retro and bold look. But it also caught the attention of many Ford-loving F-150 owners on our way home who simply saw it as a reason to challenge the Power Wagon’s performance. The 383 horsepower and 400 lbs.-ft. of torque from the 5.7 liter Hemi V-8 gave us enough acceleration to put one lowered super crew in its place, when we took off from a stoplight and proceeded onto the freeway onramp.
Although fuel economy can’t be a concern when you opt for a truck like this one, we did manage to squeeze nearly 13 highway mpg out of the vehicle. As we mentioned earlier, the 4.56 rear axle is an asset off-road but a liability on the highway. The wall like front profile doesn't help either, though Ram engineers have done their best to smooth out its aerodynamics, which also contributes to a quieter ride inside the truck at speed. The Hemi's Variable Valve Timing technology also slightly helps with fuel economy as well as providing peak torque lower in the engine’s power band. The Hemi continues to be coupled to the legacy 5-speed automatic transmission.
The Power Wagon, as with all Crew Cab 2500 and 3500 Dodge trucks, has plenty of great storage areas around and under the seats for just about any type of gear you can take with you. While our test model came equipped with plenty of accessories -- including a sunroof and in-dash navigation system with hands-free phone capability -- bringing the price tag up to $50,530, the base price of the Power Wagon starts around $45,000. Nevertheless, when you compare it to a standard 4x4 Laramie Ram that is only a few hundred dollars less, you can appreciate the effort Dodge engineers made in creating a true off-roader’s vehicle.
While the Ford Raptor fans can enjoy the truck’s Baja fame and high-speed off-road agility, we agree that many off-road truck enthusiasts will prefer the Power Wagon’s ability to get them into remote areas with ease, and the ability to carry lots of gear and passengers in comfort. In addition, the knowledge that the Dodge Power Wagon is THE vehicle used to get other 4x4 vehicles and even tow trucks out of trouble, gives you a great feeling of security and confidence that no other full-size truck can deliver.
If you like this story, be sure to also check out our in-depth Ford F-150 SVT Raptor vs. Ram Power Wagon Comparison.