In Kansas, it seems like everyone with a few acres of land has an old farm truck to help get things done. Usually, they look trashed — but for some reason, the old Dodge diesels seem to stay running forever. It’s not uncommon to see a Ram with its body falling apart and 400,000 miles on the odometer, even though it’s still running perfectly. Spotting a nice one is pretty rare these days, so when my dealer buddy purchased a remarkably well-preserved 2002 Ram 2500 turbo-diesel with a manual transmission, I had to borrow it to see what makes these trucks nearly invincible.
Nowadays, buying a truck — especially a "heavy duty" diesel — is a very expensive proposition. The primary role of trucks has totally shifted from being no-frills work vehicles to luxury status symbols. New trucks still retain most of the utility of the old trucks, if not more — but it’s rarely utilized. I’m guilty of this, as I own a 2017 Sierra Denali with the Ultimate package — a truck with 22-inch chrome accented wheels, air-conditioned seats and nearly all the luxury features you’d expect in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Despite the terrible gas mileage, I use it more like a regular vehicle, and I’ve only used its truck capability a handful of times in the past year.
Nobody would have ever walked into a showroom in 2002, looked at this Ram, and envisioned using it for anything but work. It has vinyl floors, manual windows and 16-in steel wheels — and its short list of luxury features include cruise control, air-conditioning and a radio/cassette player, even though nobody was still using tapes by 2002. The truck has a true long bed — eight feet of it — which is unlike today’s trucks, where the crew cabs encroach well into the cargo area for extra passenger comfort. Unfortunately, the great condition of the Ram I drove is the exception, as most tend to rust easily, and the cheap plastic interior falls apart — but there’s very little to fault with the drivetrain.
It’s easy make an argument for the 5.9-liter Cummins being the best engine of the area, as the competition from Ford and Chevy couldn’t match the power — and suffered from a minefield of issues. Dodge was brilliant to source engines for their light duty trucks from Cummins, a company that’s dominated the heavy industry diesel engine segment forever — and Cummins gave the Ram a very tough motor. I also suspect the great power helps with the durability, as well, since an engine with 505 lb-ft of torque doesn’t have to work as hard to handle its 10,000-pound rated maximum towing capacity.
The 5-speed manual transmission makes driving this Ram a lot of fun, as it’s very easy to stay in the boost — and I imagine it would be ideal for towing. Of course, automatic transmissions in newer trucks have more gears to choose from, with shifts easily controllable — but it would be nice to still have the option of a true manual. Kudos to Dodge, as they’re the only company that still offers three pedals with their new heavy-duty trucks.
Manual transmission option aside, the latest 6.7 Cummins equipped in the Dodge is way more complicated, and it’s known for blowing head gaskets — among other issues. Stricter emissions standards and evolving technology have made newer diesel engines more troublesome across all makes, and, in my opinion, the gasoline engine is now the simpler choice. Still, gasoline engines will never have the monstrous torque of the diesels — so an old diesel truck is still a viable purchase option.
I guess that’s why you see so many of these old Ram Diesels still limping along, as you really cannot buy a new truck like this anymore. So the real reason these trucks will continue to live forever is because there’s no way to replace them.
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