Americans love their utes, and the bigger, the better. Aussies can get their hands on a variety of full-size US trucks through a number of local converters but, here, we’re tow-testing one that has undergone, arguably, the most thorough right-hand drive conversion of them all. The RAM Laramie 2500 is sold by American Special Vehicles (ASV), a joint-venture between Ateco Automotive and Walkinshaw Automotive Group (WAG). Ateco covers marketing and sales, while WAG gets the RAMs compliant with Australian ADRs at its Clayton, Vic, factory – of which the principal job is the right-hand drive conversion.
Unusual for a company charged with converting US trucks is ASV’s level of investment in getting the RAM conversion right. New components manufactured to suit the conversion include steering box, dashboard, ventilation ducting and several wiring looms. Where parts must be replaced for local use the FCA parts bin is scoured first, to allow simpler ordering procedures for replacement parts. The wiper arms, for example, are from the RHD Dodge Caravan.
ASV only imports the RAM 2500 and 3500 in top-spec Laramie trim. Standard on the Laramie are features such as leather seats (heated and ventilated in the front, with 10-way power adjustment for the driver and six-way adjustment for the front passenger), heated leather steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, tinted windows, 8.4in touchscreen infotainment display and a 7in dash cluster display. aat-nav, keyless entry and start, sunroof and a nine-speaker sound system tick off the remainder of the key features list.
Safety is covered off with tyre pressure monitoring, multi-stage front airbags, front and rear seat curtain airbags, electronic stability control, front and rear parking sensors and rearview camera (with a second camera mounted above the tray).
For towing, the RAM comes with an integrated electric brake controller, a transmission tow/haul mode and a selectable two-stage exhaust brake.
The RAM sits so tall that you’ll need the side steps and grab handles to climb aboard. There’s stacks of room in the cabin, and the RAM is a full six-seater, although the centre front occupant gets a lap belt only. If the centre front seat isn’t needed, its seat back folds down to present a lidded storage compartment and cup holders.
There’s no excuse for not finding somewhere to store your gear up front, either. There are large bins with cup holders in each door, and a storage tray at the base of the centre seat, plus a large glovebox. There’s also a USB port and a 240V powerpoint on the dash.
The seats are flat but have good under-thigh support and plenty of adjustment, and there’s ample room for six adults to sit comfortably. The steering wheel is only tilt adjustable, but it’s easy to get a good driving position without reach adjustment anyway.
The conversion to right-hand drive is very good, with two exceptions. The gear shift lever (on the right of the steering column) seems too long – it’s a shame that ASV couldn’t shorten it as part of the conversion process. It isn’t a deal breaker, but it would make gear selection easier and quicker if there wasn’t such a long throw with gear changes.
But the main problem is the foot-operated park brake. It is on the lower right side of the dash and when released is set high from the floor. So you need to lift your right leg up to be able to push the pedal down to secure the park brake. However, it’s much easier to release the park brake using the release lever on the lower right side of the dash.
What makes or breaks many infotainment systems is their ease of use. In the RAM, it’s a cinch – it’s easy to pair a phone, call up the sat-nav or use the entertainment system. In fact, aside from the problems mentioned above, the controls and instruments are easy to use.
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION
The big turbo six is a lazy-revving but smooth engine. Torque arrives early and is piled on quickly. In fact, there is so much torque that, on a wet road at low speed, it’s all too easy to break traction when squeezing the throttle with the engine spinning around its peak torque point. The traction control came in to stop the party but it wasn’t quick acting.
That such a heavy, bluff truck can perform as well as it does is incredible – you’ll surprise a few performance cars at the lights – and turbo lag just doesn’t exist. The transmission works well in picking the right ratio for the occasion but it also sometimes thumped when shifting up a gear when, for example, you’ve accelerated but then lifted off suddenly.
The RAM has a part-time shift-on-the-fly 4WD system. So you have 2WD, 4WD high locked and 4WD low locked. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to test the RAM offroad.
The RAM’s all-coil suspension should be the makings of a relatively smooth ride but that isn’t the case here. Perhaps it’s the large weight that the suspension has to cope with, perhaps the stiff-sidewall LT tyres (recommended pressures are 65psi front and 80psi rear), or simply that Americans don’t expect to have smooth-riding trucks. Whatever the reason, the RAM’s ride is quite abrupt – all of the (smaller) one-tonne utes have better ride quality than this. Steering is also devoid of feel and is vague on centre.
The brakes didn’t have a lot of pedal feel and when coming to a stop around town you’re soon reminded that bring 3.5t to a halt is not as easy as even something like a 2.5t LandCruiser.
This is a big ute but you do get used to its size. It is not ever going to be a vehicle you’ll enjoy driving around the inner-city, though, as it’s too long for most car spaces. It also has a wide turning circle (13.38m) and you soon learn to come in wide on sharp corners, as the 3797mm wheelbase causes significant cut-in.
Cruising down the highway unladen, the RAM achieved 10.2L/100km. When towing a 2900kg full-size tandem-axle caravan, fuel consumption rose to 20.5L/100km. Because the towing consumption included a lot of stop-start driving for photography, you might see the towing fuel figure drop to the high-teens on an easy highway cruise.
This is where the RAM makes every other tow vehicle we’ve tested seem like toys. It towed the 2900kg caravan behind it like it wasn’t even there. Stability was never a concern and while there was some front-end pitching, it was barely noticeable. Ride quality improved, too, with the 263kg ball load.
The headline act for the RAM 2500 is its 6989kg towing capacity, but you’ll need a pintle hook to make use of it. A 4500kg capacity is available using a 70mm towball (and trailer coupling to suit), but with a 50mm towball it’s down to a 3500kg maximum towing capacity.
Climbing our test hill, the RAM maintained 90km/h on about one-quarter throttle. Because it was doing it so easily we decided to slow down to 70km/h and floor the accelerator. Getting the 6400kg GCM back up to speed wasn’t instantaneous, but it was surprising how assertively the RAM began to build up speed again.
Using the tow/haul mode (which automatically selects a lower gear when the system senses a downhill, off throttle situation) and activating the exhaust brakes (which closes off the exhaust so that exhaust gases are compressed in the exhaust manifold and cylinders) resulted in brilliant engine braking. The RAM held our chosen speed without the need to touch the brakes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The RAM is a brilliant tow vehicle. It will not make the best city run-about when not on tour, though, and its truck-like ride might wear thin for some. Still, if you spend a lot of time on tour with a heavy van, this is a truck you should definitely consider.
Thanks to Jayco Sydney, Glossop St, St Marys, NSW, (02) 9623 1971 for the loan of the caravan for this test.