PONTIAC, MI – Dodge dealers can’t seem to agree on the ’09 Ram pickup’s strongest selling feature, but Chrysler LLC is pointing to first-time extended-cab availability as the truck’s prime attraction.

“We’re playing in a space where we’ve never played before,” says Frederic DePerez, senior manager-sales and product training for Chrysler Academy, the auto maker’s in-house dealer-education organization. “That’s market share for us.”

How so? Even though the fullsize pickup market is sagging under the weight of volatile gasoline prices, demand for “crew-cab” models as Chrysler calls them, remains strong, DePerez says.

Through first quarter, extended-cab models, as defined by Ward’s segmentation, accounted for about one-third of fullsize pickup production. Among Chevrolet Silverados, nearly 40% of the builds were extended cabs. Toyota Tundra take-rates approached 68%.

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Without an extended-cab offering, the current Ram maintained its long-standing third-place sales ranking among fullsize pickups through July, according to Ward’s.

“A lot of (Ram sales) are going to be conquest,” DePerez says.

The Silverado appears to be Dodge’s prime target. At a dealer-training event here, Chrysler reminds that the Chevy, redesigned for 2006, is the “oldest” truck in the segment.

And it doesn’t hurt that Ford Motor Co. has delayed the launch of its redesigned-for-’09 F-150 in a bid to whittle down ’08-model inventories.

“We’re shooting for ‘Truck of the Year,’” DePerez adds. “We want this truck to win every single award out there. (Ford) might be out of the running.”

Don’t count on it.

“You bet we will be out in time for (awards) consideration,” says Ford spokesman Said Deep.

Other Ram upgrades include a new version of Chrysler’s iconic Hemi V-8 engine, beefed up to the tune of 390-hp; a breakthrough coil-spring rear suspension; aggressive styling with deceptively slippery drag coefficient of 0.42; a stylishly appointed interior; and unique storage solutions capable of accommodating everything from beverages to golf bags without comprising passenger comfort or conventional cargo-carrying.

What will resonate best with consumers?

“Besides the motor being jumped up? The interior,” says Chad Waters, sales representative at Charlie’s Dodge in Toledo, OH.

Al Johns of Dick Scott Dodge in Plymouth, MI, disagrees. Johns cites the new sheet metal. “As well as Rambox in the back,” he adds.

Available on up-trim levels, Rambox is a lockable dry-storage system built into the side rails of the truck’s cargo bed. Never mind that it won’t be available at launch.

“I can deal with anything,” Johns says. “You have to.”

Rams equipped with Rambox will be built at Chrysler’s pickup plant in St. Louis, which begins production 20 days after the lead plant in Warren, MI.

DePerez admits dealers would prefer to see such a unique feature arrive with the first transport, but there’s been no significant backlash. “I haven’t heard anything,” he says.

DePerez is unfazed by the flight of personal-use buyers who, stung by high pump prices, have traded down for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“(They) won’t come back because of high gas prices, the economy,” he says. “But many people are true truckers. (Pickup ownership) is a lifestyle for them.”

Such core customers will have something special awaiting them in the Dodge showroom, DePerez claims.

Meanwhile, Johns discourages the notion that a more refined Ram will somehow alienate the buyer who needs a work truck.

“I did construction for 20 years,” he says. “(The new Ram is) going to pull everything I’d ever need. And I used to pull about eight grand around in tools and equipment.”

The new truck’s maximum payload is estimated at 1,850 lbs. (839 kg), while its tow rating is set at 9,100 lbs. (4,128 kg).

The work-truck buyer “wants payload, wants seating for four,” Johns says, adding the comfort afforded by interior and suspension upgrades is more than welcome.

“He’s in (the truck) all day,” Johns says. “Do you want to get beat up while you’re working all day?”

emayne@wardsauto.com