Chrysler Group executives and engineers, gathered at the auto maker's Chelsea, MI, proving grounds to provide a peek at the all-new '03 Dodge Ram heavy-duty pickup line that debuts this fall, mention almost with reverence how robust the market has remained for three-quarter-ton and 1-ton pickups.

These granddaddy versions not long ago were the serious-work variants of the light-duty models everyday customers buy in droves. But heavy-duty pickups no longer are the province of commercial operations. Rich Ray, DaimlerChrysler general product manager-truck operations, says personal registrations for heavy-duty pickups have skyrocketed at the same time the segment, itself, has ballooned by 34% since 1996.

In fact, the wants and needs of this expanding base of personal-use customers is what drove “the design and philosophy” of the '03 Ram heavy-duty lineup, Ray says.

How else to explain chopping 3 ins. (7.6 cm) from the cargo bed and allocating it directly to the passenger cabin, a move that mimics DC's strategy with its light-duty Ram? Or including the option of side-curtain airbags — a first, claims DC, for any heavy-duty pickup — and dual-zone climate control?

Bottom line: DC's marketing arm has embraced the fact that an increasing number of regular folks don't think it's over the top to buy a ground-pounding pachyderm of a pickup for runs to the grocery store.

The 3-engine lineup boasts two entirely new offerings, both combining brawn with good breeding. Most intriguing for industry buffs is the 5.7L Hemi Magnum V-8, the long-rumored engine that revives the storied “Hemi” hemispherical-combustion-chamber V-8s of Chrysler's past (see p.36). There's also a new and brawnier Cummins Inc.-made turbodiesel I-6 that leads the class in torque.

The extra 3 ins. (7.5 cm) of stretched-out cab space applies to both body styles: regular cab and 4-door Crew Cab. Three primary trim levels are available: ST, SLT and Laramie.

An optional Sport package can be added to juice up either the SLT or Laramie trim.

Although the newly chopped bed goes from 6.5 ft. (2 m) to 6.25 ft. (1.9 m), DC engineers say that's okay because buyers consider 6 ft. (1.8 m) to be the minimum usable bed length.

And both body styles still can be ordered with the work-truck de rigueur of an 8-ft. (2.4-m) bed.