By Kelsey Mays, Cars.com/PickupTrucks.com
At a Chrysler event in suburban Chicago on Tuesday, I asked Mike Cairns if a pickup truck is the hardest sort of vehicle to make aerodynamic. "When you sell a Jeep Wrangler, not necessarily," he smiled.
The chief engineer for Ram Truck, Cairns has been with Chrysler for 27 years. He just turned 50. Improving aerodynamics on a pickup is a tall order, but a host of changes — a lower air dam, active grille shutters — has done just that, lowering the 2013 Ram 1500's drag coefficient to 0.360, down from last year's 0.387.
Cairns took us through Chrysler's changes to its popular light-duty Ram 1500 pickup, which we detailed in full last spring. It hits dealerships next month. Chrysler plans to position the Ram 1500's new Pentastar V-6 against Ford's 3.7-liter F-150, which currently accounts for about 10 percent of sales. Chrysler expects the 3.6-liter drivetrain and eight-speed automatic to sell in healthier numbers, especially compared with today's Ram 1500, whose 3.7-liter V-6 and 4.7-liter V-8 combine for just 15 percent of sales.
Value-oriented work trucks start with a 4.7-liter V-8, but even the cheapest Ram will gain fuel-efficiency improvements from electric power steering and more-aerodynamic bumpers, Cairns said. Still, EPA ratings for the 4.7-liter Ram 1500 remain at 14/20 mpg city/highway with two-wheel drive. That's the same as last year's work truck.
Over time, Ram will drop the 4.7-liter V-8, and the eight-speed will become standard "a few years out," he said. For now, the eight-speed comes standard only with the Ram's Pentastar V-6. It's optional with the Hemi V-8.
"To be fair, we haven't really had a great V-6 until now," Cairns said, but he wouldn't give a specific V-6 sales target. He said the two-wheel-drive V-6 Ram 1500 hits 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. If that figure holds in real-world testing, it represents a quantum leap over the V-6 Ram we tested (10.58 seconds) during our 2010 Work Truck Shootout and would edge out the quickest-in-test 3.7-liter F-150 (7.85 seconds).
The Ram 1500's Hemi V-8 accounts for 85 percent of sales today — a figure that will drop as the Pentastar comes in — but Cairns said he plans to position it against Ford's EcoBoost 3.5-liter F-150. The EcoBoost accounts for "the low 40-percent range" of F-150 sales, Ford sales analyst Erich Merkle told us.
EPA mileage will determine just how tough the proposition will be for Chrysler. The EcoBoost F-150 boasts 365 horsepower, 420 pounds-feet of torque, more than 11,000 pounds' towing capacity and is EPA-rated at 16/22 mpg with two-wheel drive. The 5.7-liter Ram 1500 makes 395 hp and 407 pounds-feet of torque, but its 10,450-pound towing capacity falls short. EPA ratings with the optional eight-speed are still pending, but with its standard six-speed, the two-wheel-drive Ram 1500 rates 14/20 mpg.
Of course, we'll need to get the trucks together to log real-world acceleration, mileage and towing figures. As many know, specs tell only part of the story.
Cairns said he's waiting to see what GM's redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra will do. "We've been gaining market share," he said, "mostly out of the GM guys." But the automaker's Detroit rivals "have some very loyal customers [who] don't even look at our truck. … The hard part is getting a loyal GM or Ford buyer to come look at our trucks."