I'm standing in the middle of an abandoned, snow-covered airport tarmac in rural Canada, about an hour northwest of Montreal, wondering how I drew the short straw for events this week. While I'm watching journalists drift a new 2015 Dodge Charger around a skid pad that looks like an arctic tundra, my Cars.com colleagues are enjoying a Honda launch event in Miami's South Beach and a Porsche event in Southern California.
But as I shiver at the 2015 Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Winter Drive media event at the ICAR track, a privately run facility built on the grounds of the unused Mirabel airport in Quebec, I have to think that I'm having the most fun out of anyone this week. Sure, the temperature gauge on the Jeep Wrangler I drove here from Montreal registered 3 degrees. But before me, arranged in a semicircle on more than a foot of hard-packed snow, is every Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram vehicle to feature some form of all-wheel drive. Among them are the 2015 Ram 1500 4x4 Laramie Limited EcoDiesel, the Ram Power Wagon and the thing everyone wants to try — a Ram 2500 Heavy Duty with a snow plow on the front end.
FCA invited journalists to this frozen winterscape to learn just how many of its vehicles feature all-wheel or four-wheel-drive systems, and the answer is: more than you might expect. Twenty-two FCA vehicles feature some form of all-wheel drive, nearly half of its total lineup, but amid the Chrysler 200 sedans and Jeep Renegade SUVs sit the pickup trucks I've come here to drive. FCA set this up as a two-part event: The morning will be an on-road course, a snow-covered slalom that leads into a skid pad that then follows into a groomed yet totally snow-packed road course. The afternoon will involve a low-speed off-road course meant for the trucks and Jeeps to demonstrate how their systems work on extreme terrain in low-grip (i.e., ice and snow) situations.
I make a beeline for the new 2015 Ram Laramie Limited EcoDiesel, FCA's new top-of-the-line luxury pickup. It's already running (it's horrifically cold on this windswept artificial plain), so inside the amazingly luxurious saddle leather interior is toasty warm. Both the heated seats and steering wheel are blazing hot, to the point where I had to switch off the wheel as it was too hot. I switch the truck into 4-High, push the locking-differential button (as we're on snow, not pavement) and head off to the slalom.
All passenger vehicles in Quebec are required by law to sport snow tires from mid-November through mid-March, and these trucks are no exception. Traction is astonishingly good, even with the stability and traction control switched off, as the 1500 makes quick and easy work of the slalom. It understeers predictably on the skid pad, but with some practiced throttle input and steering adjustments, it's possible to set up a fun four-wheel drift around the circle for a few laps. I head to the actual road racing course with stability control back on, and the Ram proves to be amazingly surefooted even at higher speeds. It builds a serious level of confidence in the driver, and combined with the traction of the snow tires, it's a lot of fun.
Powering Through the Snow
The afternoon brings us to the off-road course, where amidst the Jeep Renegades and Wranglers sit two vehicles I'm itching to try: the Ram Power Wagon and Ram 2500 snow plow. First, I hop into the Power Wagon, one of the most capable off-road rigs ever to come out of a factory. Based on the 2500 Heavy Duty, it has an amazing level of off-road technology including front and rear locking differentials, electric front sway bar disconnect and Ram's "Articulink" front suspension. Suffice it to say that low-grip situations are no challenge for the Power Wagon, as demonstrated by Ram spokesperson Nick Cappa, who towed the 2500 plow truck with the Power Wagon on a sheer sheet of ice, with all of its systems engaged (see the video).
The Power Wagon also climbs over anything with such ease as to almost not even notice. Lock the front and rear diffs, head for the nearest 18 percent grade, and you're up and over with ease. The downslope is a cinch too, thanks to the Power Wagon's low gear and electronic hill descent control function. Aim where you want to go, keep your foot off the brake, and the truck slowly walks you to the bottom. This is something of an old-school, traditional 4x4 — not like Ford's Baja race-truck-inspired Raptor. It's meant for slower, thoughtful off-roading instead of blasting through the dry washes at 75 mph, and it's very good at what it does.
But the truck everyone is eyeing is now ready for me to take the wheel, a Ram 2500 with an articulated plow. I've never driven a plow truck before, but after some basic instruction on how to operate the thing it becomes a simple affair. There are some tips that I'm made aware of: maintain speeds below 15 mph to start, get some momentum before dropping the blade in heavy snow, be cognizant of where the edges are, etc. The plow itself is controlled via a hand-held pistol-grip controller in the truck's cab, featuring thumb controls for raising and lowering, tilting up and down, and angling left and right. It has a strap on it that allows you to hold it in your right hand, and still keep both hands on the steering wheel (another tip on how to plow properly).
A few passes in the deep snow of the tarmac proves just how much torque and four-wheel grip can do to move tons of frozen water, placing it just where you want it. The 1,500 pounds of steel plow and hydraulics hanging off the front end of the truck are noticeable, but are balanced with a 1,000-pound block of steel in the bed to prevent tipping when you come to a stop.
Overall, the sensation one gets when diving into a long stretch of deep snow is one of unstoppable power — like the truck could push anything out of its way without even breathing hard in the process. It's a lot of fun for about 20 minutes — but I'm not sure I'd want to do it day in and day out, starting at 3 a.m. and going for 24 hours straight like many plow operators sometimes do. Unlike the fun I have (like driving these rigs today), that's definitely not an easy job.
Cars.com photos by Aaron Bragman