By Mark Williams for PickupTrucks.com
Why don’t all pickup beds come with control levers? Not only would they turn your truck into a more versatile tool, they would be cool and fun, too. In our mind, the only thing better than having an empty heavy-duty full-size bed ready to work is an empty bed you can control with hydraulic levers, a remote-controlled winch, and all the chain tie-downs you could want.
That’s why we jumped at the chance to drive a special-order Ram HD 5500 SLT Chassis Cab upfitted with a 19-foot controllable flatbed loading deck from Jerr-Dan. The 204.5-inch-wheelbase two-door chassis cab was built for a commercial recovery company to haul passenger cars and smaller trucks. In our hands, it became the coolest truck we’ve driven recently.
Our Ram 5500 tester falls into Class 5 territory, with extra carrying capability over the Class 4 Ram 4500 CC. Rigs in the fourth and fifth brackets have gross vehicle weight ratings of 14,001 pounds to 16,000 pounds and 16,001 pounds to 19,500 pounds, respectively, and they usually don’t come with factory-mounted cargo boxes. Instead, they are sold as an incomplete vehicle and upfitters bolt on custom aftermarket packages such as dump truck boxes, service bodies, rollback wreckers and stake beds.
All chassis cabs regardless of make have frame rails spaced exactly 34 inches apart. That’s a narrower gap than what you'll find on a typical pickup; the Ram 1500’s frame rails are spaced 38 inches apart. The distance from the back of the cab to the rear axle is uniform so that aftermarket packages can be easily bolted behind the cab and ported from one truck to the next without the need for custom fit or engineering.
For our road test, we needed something to carry on our back to get a good idea of how that might affect the ride and handling of something this big and capable. Our “payload” turned out to be a 2011 Jeep Patriot crossover weighing about 3,460 pounds — well within the Jerr-Dan’s factory-listed capacity spec of 5,775 pounds. The upfitted Ram 5500 is about 31 feet long, including the 19-foot aluminum rollback flatbed and rear tow bar.
The SLT 5500 regular cab’s MSRP with optional equipment totaled $47,955. Adding $30,000 for the rollback, hydraulic plumbing, storage, rear tow bar and all the straps and anchors brings the total package pricing a few ticks below $80,000.
From behind the wheel, the 5500 regular cab’s interior looks and feels identical to a standard Ram SLT one-ton dually. All the center gauges are familiar, and they provide the full array of temperatures and fluid levels necessary to keep a close eye on the rig, including coolant temperature, transmission temp, diesel exhaust fluid levels and fuel economy.
For those who may not be aware, chassis cab configurations must meet federally mandated emissions standards that are similar to conventional HD pickups. These trucks use DEF selective catalytic reduction technology (aka urea) and the resulting DEF tank and injection systems. When our truck was dropped off, the DEF level was below 10 percent, so we bought a $14 box of fluid at a Pilot truck stop and brought levels up to 50 percent. The DEF filler was conveniently located behind the cab on the driver’s side.
It’s worth noting that a medium-duty Ram CC (4500/5500) like our tester offers a near-identical version of the 6.7-liter Cummins ISB engine found in Ram pickups, but the power ratings are different from the “lighter-duty” 2500 and 3500 HDs partly because most customers in this segment are quite sensitive to cost of ownership and vehicle longevity in severe-duty applications. (EPA emissions standards for medium-duty chassis cabs and how power output is measured also play a role.) As a result, the medium-duty Ram HD Cummins engine is tuned to offer a peak horsepower rating of 305 at 2,900 rpm and 610 pounds-feet of torque at 1,600 rpm. That’s well within the comfort zone of the engine’s capability, and yet it still offers plenty of low-end grunt for HD work.
The Ram Rollback was a comfortable cruiser when empty, weighing in at 12,860 pounds. That’s about two tons more than a one-ton dually pickup, but not a bad driving weight considering how much hydraulic and recovery equipment was bolted to its back. Combine that with the Ram Rollback’s 19,500-pound GVWR, and you have plenty of flexibility to carry just about any automobile on the road.
When empty, the rig didn’t have any problems blending into 70 mph freeway traffic, but it definitely felt more comfortable and stable at 65 mph. Over our 200-mile drive loop, we averaged just above 17 mpg (admittedly without many elevation changes).
As you might expect, when the 5500 is loaded with a 3,500-pound Jeep Patriot, roll stability changes significantly because the center of gravity is lifted several feet. Common sense and safe driving had us driving closer to 60 mph in most cases during the same highway drive loop, and that led to a respectable 12.8 mpg. Not bad for a total weight of around 16,320 pounds.
Considering its overall length — and we’ve driven some Class A motorhomes smaller than 31 feet — the rollback Ram was always well-composed, and it handled surprisingly well. Its tight turning radius was impressive, allowing us to negotiate traffic and obstacles that made onlookers shake their heads. (We assume they were impressed.)
We appreciated two other features. First, we could fill 74 gallons of diesel into two tanks (52 and 22 gallons), giving us tremendous range. Second, the Cummins’ on-demand exhaust brake provided excellent engine braking power (wonderfully noticeable on longer downhill grades).
Ram tells us it has third-party verification that the brand has class-leading 4500/5500 exhaust brake performance against Ford Super Duty F-450/F-550 here, and that wouldn’t surprise us at all. We’d guess that would translate directly into brake pad wear, overall brake fade and in emergency panic-stop situations, not to mention cost savings over extended duty cycles.
Working the rollback was quite easy — and fun — and it took us about five minutes to figure out. All the levers have visual directions to let you know what does what. The only requirement is to have the engine running, the transmission in Park, e-brake engaged, and the power take-off button on.
PTO charges the hydraulic system that powers the rollback and tow bar, while the winch is controlled either electronically with its own remote control or from a lever on either side of the truck. The remote allowed us to be inside the Patriot while letting out the winch cable to lower the vehicle down the ramp. (We should make one special note here: Whenever possible, use chains to tie down your vehicle. Ratcheting heavy-duty straps can work well unless there is any type of object they might rub against, creating friction, during transit. It doesn’t take much heat to burn through straps and compromise the security of your load.)
You can order the 2012 Ram 4500 and 5500 models with the all-new Max Tow package that the three-quarter-ton and one-ton vehicles have. Max Tow is available on Ram Chassis Cab trucks equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission and 4.88 rear-axle. Depending on the configuration, the package can raise towing capability to 22,300 pounds with a 30,000-pound GCWR. Also, in California, medium-duty Rams will get a separate “Certified Clean Idle” sticker indicating compliance with California Air Resources Board rules on commercial vehicle idling. Anything idling longer than five minutes (and not in use) will need to shut itself off or meet strict emissions standards. (For more, click here http://news.pickuptrucks.com/2011/06/california-clean-idle-sticker-certifies-you-can-do-exactly-that.html).
We get to drive a lot of cool stuff in this job, and there have been some wild things parked in my driveway. But when they came to pick up the Ram Rollback, this one hurt just a little more than usual. Everyone should have a chance to play with one of these. Maybe we’ll have to get it back again for a Dodge vs. Ford, 5500 vs. F-550 rollback head-to-head? We’ll let you know if we can make it happen.