By Aaron Bragman
Behold the unicorn! And take a good long look, as this just may be the only time you're going to see one of these: the 2013 Ram 1500 HFE. This is a special animal, rare indeed, built for bragging rights and marketing purposes: The "High Fuel Efficiency" model was designed to allow the brand to point to some impressive fuel economy numbers (for a pickup truck) and try out some new technologies that might find their way into other models down the road. As a personal-use pickup truck, it's quite good; it's not a lack of sophistication that will prevent it from success, nor any kind of outrageous hybrid-style price tag. No, it's the option combination you'd need for an HFE model that is likely to keep production low, at least for now.
HFE = High Fuel Efficiency
Start with a new 2013 Ram 1500 Regular Cab 4x2, the smallest full-size Ram pickup in the stable, with a cloth-covered bench that seats three. This is the redesigned 1500, with a new interior, styling and powertrain options. The only engine and transmission combo available for the HFE is Chrysler's excellent Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, bumping out 305 horsepower and 269 pounds-feet of torque and mated to the TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic transmission. Power heads only to the rear wheels; four-wheel drive is not available on the HFE, nor is any other cab configuration or box length. The purpose of this truck is to grab fuel-economy bragging rights, so size and weight are being kept to an absolute minimum.
Poke around and underneath the 1500 HFE and you'll notice some interesting details. The Pentastar V-6 engine sits surprisingly high and aft, leaving a great deal of space in the engine compartment, something we're not used to seeing in these days of crammed-in componentry. This is almost a mid-engine pickup, with a good deal of the engine actually located behind the front axle line. The cooling system is interesting as well. Unlike most new vehicles, the HFE seems to get most of its cooling air through the grille instead of from underneath it. A set of massive power-actuated shutters sit behind that big chromed nose, opening and closing as needed to maximize aerodynamic efficiency and fuel economy. The lower part of the HFE's bumper fascia is actually sealed, with no fog lights or cooling openings.
Driving performance is more than adequate, with more than 300 horses hauling around not very much pickup. The HFE just misses out being the lightest Ram pickup you can buy by about 50 pounds, tipping the scales at 4,572 pounds. It has one of the smallest payload ratings at 1,430 pounds and one of the lowest maximum tow ratings, just 4,750 pounds. While still very capable, this is not meant to be a heavy-duty work truck or a towing rig. But around town and on the highway, the HFE is more than sufficiently powered without cargo and sports a couple of unique fuel-sipping features.
Stop-Start: A Full-Size Conventional Pickup First
First is the active fuel management system. You'll know it's working by the Eco light illuminating in the center cluster and by a very faint change to the engine note, but that's all. Eco mode employs tricks like fuel cutoff on deceleration to eke out the best fuel economy, but it falls short of actual cylinder deactivation; that feature comes instead on Ram's Hemi V-8 engines.
The more interesting feature is also an industry first for a non-hybrid full-size pickup, and it's impossible to miss: a stop-start system that kills the engine when you stop the truck. GM's two-mode hybrid system for full-size trucks and SUVs also features a stop-start system, but it is combined with an electric drive motor that powers the vehicle from a stop. When the Ram HFE comes to a stop, it feels and sounds as if the engine has stalled. We're used to this in a hybrid sedan, but in a full-size pickup it's a bit eerie. Lift your foot off the brake when the light turns green, and the heavy-duty starter quickly cranks the engine twice and off you go. Unlike other stop-start systems I've tried in passenger cars, which seem to halt the engine in midcycle wherever it happens to be and resume its operation when it's time to go, the Ram stop-start actually sounds like it's shutting off and cranking the engine every time. It sounds like there should be a delay between your brake-lift action and forward motion as the engine catches, but there isn't — just swap pedals and go.
In fact, the stop-start system works quite well once the engine warms up and certain conditions are met, such as the steering wheel not being cranked over to one extreme or the other. The system can be defeated; just switch it off using the steering-wheel controls through a command menu in the instrument cluster gauges. I never did shut it off, though, enjoying as I was the reaction of other drivers who looked at me funny as my big pickup pulled up next to them at a stoplight and promptly appeared to switch off. Having the system reminds you just how often you typically sit idle in traffic.
No Luxo-Truck, but Still Nice
On the street, the HFE drives much as any Ram. Acceleration with the V-6 is smooth, and the ride is typical short-wheelbase empty pickup choppy. The electric power steering is pleasantly quick and direct, and an unusually quick turn-in makes the truck feel more maneuverable than its competitors. The TorqueFlite eight-speed, made by ZF and shared with much of the rest of Chrysler's lineup, is well-matched to the engine. Upshifts are quick, and the truck never hunts for the right gear to keep things moving. The gear selector is novel — a rotary affair not unlike those found in Jaguar luxury sedans. Stopping distances are also quite good, with the four-wheel disc brakes coming on strong with excellent pedal feel.
The cabin is no penalty box either. Despite not having some amenities that many shoppers see in pickups these days, such as a leather interior, touch-screen multimedia and remote power everything, the latest update of the Ram has made even base-model interiors like this one quite nice. Seats are big, firm and comfortable; the steering wheel is grippy and thick; gauges are easily legible day or night; and there are plenty of cupholders, power ports, USB hubs and storage cubbies. Wheel-to-wheel side steps are an option that weren't present on my test truck, and they are indeed a necessity or else you'll find out just how wide a stance you have when trying to climb into the cab.
By the Numbers: Is It Worth It?
At the end of the day, this truck is about one thing: maximum mileage. It is EPA-rated at 18/25/21 mpg city/highway/combined. Ram says that this is the most fuel-efficient pickup on the market today, besting the 2013 Ford F-150's 3.7-liter V-6 and its optional twin-turbo EcoBoost 3.5-liter V-6. My week of driving the Ram HFE consisted of a variety of conditions, but I generally drove as a normal operator (not as a crazy lead-foot automotive journalist). I didn't baby it in the name of maximum fuel economy; I kept up with traffic and tried to simply drive it smoothly. The 250 miles I put on it consisted of mostly around-town use and limited 70-mph highway travel. The result: I regularly saw the meter hit 30 mpg on the highway, and my overall average for the week came in at 21.4 mpg (confirmed through my own fuel versus miles calculations).
I did not tow with the truck, nor did I haul anything in the bed. I used the truck in the way the HFE model is most likely to be used — as a personal transport truck that is only sometimes used for cargo or light hauling duty. And in that role it does quite well, providing respectable fuel economy and considerable utility for light duties that don't require off-road prowess or serious towing.
Compared to the current crop of competitor pickups, the HFE is the most fuel efficient. The next closest is the out-of-production 2013 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid, which is EPA-rated at 20/23/21. That bests the Ram HFE's city fuel economy and matches its overall mileage, but falls short of the highway mileage. Of course, it does so with a more powerful V-8 engine, a low-speed electric drive system and a higher tow rating but comes with a price tag fully $12,000 more than the Ram HFE's. Ford does not offer a special "fuel-economy champ" model of the F-150, but instead touts the entire line's fuel economy. The F-150 offers a base 3.7-liter V-6, but at 17/23/19 mpg it is beaten by the Ram; the difference is that the base Ford V-6 can be had in a variety of body styles and bed lengths, and also with optional four-wheel drive. Stepping up to Ford's EcoBoost 3.5-liter V-6 doesn't help — it gets 16/22/18 mpg, well below the Ram HFE, but offers the benefit of V-8-like power and torque with a commensurate rise in towing ability (and price).
Unlike GM's old hybrid pickups, the Ram HFE will not break the bank. We're used to seeing ever-increasing prices for pickups as more Laramie, Laramie Longhorn, King Ranch, High Country, Denali, etc. models pop up in the mix, but not so with the HFE. Price as tested was just $29,505, including a $995 destination fee, but it did not include any options. Major options include the RamBox cargo management system for $1,295, a spray-in bedliner for $475, chrome wheel-to-wheel side steps for $500 and a manual sliding rear window for $140. Even loaded up, the Ram HFE doesn't top $35,000.
Of course, the question becomes who exactly is the target audience for this truck? It certainly won't be heavy-duty truck users, as it has neither the space nor the equipment to satisfy them. Fleet buyers with lots of stop-and-go duties, such as municipalities or security firms, seem the likeliest targets as buyers who would get the most out of the HFE's urban stop-start system fuel economy benefits. What they'll be getting is a solid, decently equipped rig with genuinely good fuel economy, all for a reasonable price.