Texas®

A number of years ago my friend, comedian Henry Cho, pointed out there is a tradition in the South, and especially in Texas, if you don’t have something nice to say about someone you just say: “Bless your heart.” It’s a classic, polite-but-biting, passive-aggressive put down.

Your neighbor chops his toe off with his lawnmower: “Bless his heart.” You’ve seen a baby that looks like it may have escaped from either the zoo or a Ringling Brothers Circus, “Bless his heart.” The woman at the office who can’t figure out how to open a link in an email, “Bless her heart.” Dodge rolls out the so-called “new” Avenger? Bless their hearts.

Dodge is in transition. Again. The current Avenger is a mid-life update of the mid-sized four-door sedan that Dodge sells tons of. Unfortunately, such sales figures are thanks mostly to budget-minded rental car companies and not real-life consumers. It was introduced in 2008 as the replacement of the Cloud cars (Stratus and Sebring), just as Dodge was beginning to descend down a very dark road into bankruptcy.

Honestly, Dodge does do a number of things right. They make fantastic full-sized trucks, great full-sized cars, such as the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. They also make some fun muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger and, well, let’s face it, they own the minivan.

What Chrysler has never done well is build a good small car. It’s the weak hand in a stacked deck. Look back in the same market space and you’ll see a tremendous trend of sad, tepid little cars like the Plymouth Breeze, or the Dodge Reliant K Car. Even before those, however, the Dart and Plymouth Volaré we’re taking up space in lots. Not even Ricardo Montalban could charm his way out of that dud.

Even their smaller cars have a history of being problematic. The first car that I bought myself, with my own money was a Plymouth Horizon, so I have a great deal of hands-on experience dealing with this story. The current smallest Dodge is the Caliber, which replaced the Neon. I’ve referred to this car as one of the worst cars in the market today, as it’s awkward, underpowered and just plain ugly.

I was driving the Avenger around when I had to do a little soul searching on this. I had to wonder if the issue with the car was me, actually. I’ve spent 25+ years reviewing cars and honestly, most of what I end up reviewing are sports, luxury and some pretty high-end rolling stock. So, there I was, sitting in the driver’s seat of the Avenger thinking: “I have more comfortable lawn furniture!” when I then wondered to myself, “Am I a car snob?”

Is the fact that the car is cheap casting such a bad taste in my mouth? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve driven a lot of other “cheap” cars that are thrifty in a way that seems to have a far more cohesive package.

I also have a fundamental belief that your standard-of-care on an economy model must be higher because the money being invested into the purchase is considerably more of the consumers total worth. If you are buying a $19,000 car, you’re doing so because you really need it. Odds are, you’re buying a car to transport a young family and possibly to get to multiple jobs to keep a roof over your head. Your monthly car note will be the second biggest expense behind your home and every penny has to count.

Further up the food chain of options, where people go out and buy Jaguars, or Land Rovers, the percentage of income-to-vehicle is not nearly as dire. That end of the market has its value, but odds are the customer has never had to take a jar into the “CoinMaster” to make the car payment.

So it’s not really a snobbery thing, after all, I too understand the reality of creating a meal out of offerings from the “Dollar Store,” and pinching a penny ’til Lincoln yells “uncle!” I realized the other day that my wardrobe has come almost exclusively out of Marshall’s and Ross, and the reason I learned auto-mechanics was because of that Plymouth Horizon. For me, it was either: Learn how to fix it myself or start earning more money to pay someone else to do it.

So in a way, I kind of owe part of my career to Chrysler for building such a horrific car back in the 1980’s. And if the Avenger was available then, it would have been one of the best cars in the market, where even into the 1990’s, the bar was higher and this would have been considered a run-away success. As the standard has increased along with the level of competition, I can’t help but say if I were looking for something in this price bracket the Avenger simply would not be the one for me.

Kia, Hyundai and even Ford have far better driving cars in this space, which are head and shoulders above the Avenger.

I spent some time with my friend Tony, who recently purchased an Avenger. In discussing why he made this choice, I understood that it was more of an appliance purchase than it was one of a car enthusiast. His principal automotive need is to get to work, and he looked at the Kia and Hyundai, but the Avenger simply had a bigger back seat for his growing, soccer-playing daughters. The Avenger does have a much bigger back seat than the competition, and as he put it, “I got the biggest car I could get at the price.” He loves his Avenger because it does what he bought it for, but also points out that if the family is going on a trip, they’ll be loading into his wife’s Pacifica.

It’s extraordinarily expensive to bring a new car into the market. From concept to curbside, it takes years and untold millions of dollars. The Avenger’s midlife update is a step in the right direction, at least. It’s better than the Avenger it replaces and in reality, it’s the end of the whimpering line of cars from Detroit.

Chrysler has never really figured out how to build a good small car their new owners, Fiat, specializes in. Not only do they have the experience, designers and desire to excel in this market, they also have that indefinable Italian passion that exudes confidence and flair.

I look forward to what comes out of the new Chrysler as they invest in the replacement for this rental-ready Avenger, as well as its sister car, the Chrysler 200. Sorry, Chrysler: Even with Eminem providing the Detroit-centric theme music for the rebirth of the company, I can’t help but think of another Southernism I once heard an old rancher say: “You can’t polish a turd. Bless your heart.”

As part of the best-selling vehicle lineup in North America for almost 30 years, the Ford F-Series is without a doubt one of the best choices for a pickup truck in the full-sized market. Now, the question is which one to choose, as they start with the 1/2 ton F-150 and proceed in increments of 100, from F-250 to F-650, for those who simply need a dump truck that only looks like a pickup truck.

I’ve always been one to appreciate a truck for being a truck, rather than a personal car with a big, open trunk. With that being said though, the pickup in Texas is a car, truck, personal expression, external display of one’s DNA, office and even a workbench.

Ford sent over a 6 cylinder F-150 a couple of weeks ago, and it was a very comfortable, competent, and solid performer. I was surprised the considerably smaller power capability didn’t result in any significant fuel economy increase. Obviously, this is something that’s becoming more important as gas prices continue to creep north of $3.50 per gallon. And for a vehicle over 1/2 ton, my personal choice is to go diesel every time.

Even with the recent spike in diesel prices I can always justify the enhanced price of entry (in Ford’s case it is a $7,000 premium) to achieve the long term reliability, durability and fuel-usage economy that comes along with the far more powerful, big diesel engine. It’s amazing how the technology on the power stroke direct injection system has evolved over the years. Most may remember the staccato beat of incoming artillery and black clouds of unspent crud coming out of the tail pipe in the old school diesels. But with the newer, cleaner and quieter systems, you will be hard pressed to actually be aware that you’re driving a diesel from inside the well insulated cabin.

This quiet, but still fantastically powerful, truck with its solid frame and all of the expected cargo and towing capabilities – which put the stamped “SUPER DUTY” across the front grill – makes quite the visual statement, as well. As someone who spends a great deal of time on motorcycles, the front facade of this truck is almost frightening, what with its large swath of chrome glistening in the sun. Simply put: It’s one of the sharpest looking, heavy-duty vehicles ever to bear a big blue oval that I’ve ever seen.

Anyone in the HD pickup market knows it is a very tough room, loyalties in this subset of the market run into warring clans with family dynasties of Ford owners who can’t imagine anyone driving another type of truck. I have to tell you, I learned how to drive on my uncles F100 as the first enclosed vehicle, after lawn mowers, motorcycles and farm tractors when I was 10 or 11 years old. I don’t really know if anyone else in the family was aware that I was out driving around the property in Uncle Charlie’s truck, but I have my own personal bias when I hop into the big Ford: It feels as much like home as the smell of my mother’s Brown Sugar cookies.

The Super Duty 4×4 crew cab 3/4 ton truck has an entry price-point of $44,500, and with the addition of the V8 Turbo Diesel, power everything, cloth interior, shiny wheels and satellite radio, the price as-tested for the “big truck” comes in just north of $60,400.00. But, if you also look at the fact that most who do buy this kind of vehicle almost live in them, as they have morphed into mobile offices that is really not that heavy major of a switch from the real thing.

Both Nissan and Toyota have ventured into the full sized market over the last few years, but have purposely not wandered north into the Heavy Duty Diesel market. If they ever do, they are in for a hell of a fight as the Dodge, GM and Ford competition is very intense, already.

From the high step into the Super Duty, to its large turning radius, there is nothing wimpy about its look or impression on the road. In town or on the highway, the 6.7l v8 single turbo’s dual impellers rocket you unencumbered from a stop and overtakes almost everything on paved or unpaved roads. I didn’t have any opportunity to test out the towing abilities, but it can handle nearly anything from small trailers to mobile homes with not so much as a blush.

Really, everything about this truck is spot-on spec, from its handsome exterior to effortless interior, but were I to be in this market, I would have a very difficult time making the decision on what to take home. Personal opinion: The Ram has a better interior, and the Chevy has a quieter drive train, but the Ford has one of the best combinations for the consumer. It’s a really tough choice, regardless.

One thing that may push you into the land of Ford is this new power plant is designed to run up to 300.000 miles before a major service. Judging from talking to owners all over the state in my travels, I have to report that they claim the 6.7 is the best diesel Ford has ever put in a pickup. This is a big deal, as problems with the prior big D had resulted in a bit of a black eye for Ford.

In many ways this truck reminds me a little of the Cattle Barron’s Ball – an annual society must-do every year, here in Dallas where folks get all dressed up in tuxedo’s and cowboy boots – it’s flashy chrome still comes with a whole bunch of real truck.

 

 

Someplace out there I’m sure exists an unwritten rule among my fellow auto journalist brethren that we are not allowed to use a quote from any movie starring Vin Diesel. But I have to. I just have to use Vin Diesel’s line from the end of ‘Fast and the Furious’ when describing Dodge Ram’s 2500 HD 4×4 Turbo Diesel,“That’s how I would do mine.”

I feel dirty.

The pickup truck market, especially in Texas, is very robust. I think the numbers on light duty truck sales (1/2 ton and below) is one of those that automotive executives just simply drool over. As of late, the light duty market is getting very crowded with the traditional offerings from GM, Ford and Dodge being joined by excellent offerings from Toyota (Tundra) and Nissan (Titan). There is a place, though, where those off-shore interlopers do not fear to tread, the medium duty and heavy duty truck market.

This is exclusively the land of Ford’s F-250, GMC/Chevy 2500 and the Dodge 2500 – all 3/4 ton full sized, tough trucks which all compete for the most loyal customer in the business. There are families who almost disown their young for buying a Chevy when the family all drives Fords.

Fundamentally speaking all three options do the same thing in slightly different ways. Bigger frames are the foundation for better towing capacity and larger cargo abilities (3/4 ton). That heavier frame is also required to carry the heavier and exceptionally torque intensive diesel engine.

In the Dodge Ram 2500 HD turbo diesel, the stump pulling power comes from a sturdy 6.7 liter Cummins power plant. When it comes to trucks the horsepower rating is not really the number to look at, more important is the torque, and boy howdy does this baby have torque. The BIG thumper puts out 650 foot pounds of torque at 1500 rpm.

Those numbers are really the reason people go for the heavy duty market, it kind of separates the men from the boys and if you do spend the extra entry fee to go HD, generally you are doing this based on NEED. The HD trucks attract people who use them as tools not as affectations of a “big hat no cattle” fashion trend.

With the Cummins, the Ram also brings to the table some pretty incredible pulling power. Towing capacities come in at a maximum of 13500 pounds. Think about that for a moment and there is not too much out there you would want to pull someplace that exceeds its abilities.

Folks with big boats, trailers, horses or anything else you can tug down the road can be hooked up and hauled. The HD also comes with upgraded suspension and braking and an integrated engine braking system to keep heavy loads under control.

Where the Ram really makes its mark is in having one of the best cabin interiors in the business. It has the ability to handle a job site outside, but inside the multiple power points and comfortable cloth interior can become an office on wheels with even an option, dealer installed, that can turn your truck into a mobile WiFi Hotspot. With so many wireless devices – from laptops to smart phones – being needed on the job site, this truck literally can be an indispensable tool of communications, hauling, and cargo.

For many years there really was no innovation in the diesel power plants available in the HD pickup, mostly because of the old “If it aint broke why fix it” mentality but market and governmental emissions standard changes have spurred a huge  leap in technology. The power plants from all three manufacturers are quiet, efficient, and powerful pushing away the smoky rattle traps you might think of when thinking diesel.

If I was in the market for a pickup I would definitely put the Ram with the Cummins on the list and it would be a very short list. It is surprisingly fast and comfortable on the highway. When passing or just running down the road it feels like an indestructible tank and has the ability to wander far from the paved road and still make it back. The best part of the diesel (aside from the power) is the fact it lasts longer and gets considerably better fuel economy than similar gas motors. The diesel has more power, better fuel economy, and now can exceed the new really tough tailpipe emissions standards due to kick in next year.

The base price of a 2500 HD 4X4 is on the high side of $37k and adding the Turbo Diesel and the Hot Spot technology, Navigation/Satellite Radio and towing packages pushes the price just north of $50,000.00, which sounds like a lot but there are some tax incentives out there for purchasing commercial use vehicles and some for alternate fuel and other things. Not to mention that the fuel savings with the more efficient, longer lasting power plant make the HD purchase one that is more of a long term investment than a personal whim.

As far as whims go, I didn’t want to return this truck to Dodge, it really does fit all my needs and exceeds many wants. It is pretty much ideal in almost every way…wait… Chevy just dropped off the Silverado 2500 HD Duramax 4×4…

Stay tuned for Part 2