DETROIT — The grille is unmistakably Dodge. The hope is loyal Ram fullsize pickup buyers will remain equally true.

The '02 DaimlerChrysler Corp. Dodge light-duty Ram — headed for production in July and to U.S. dealerships in the fall — headlined this month at the Chicago Auto Show (see p.84).

The new and restyled beast boasts a pair of new-to-Ram engines, an even higher hood, and a larger cab in a concentrated bid to beat out domestics and imports alike in this heated segment.

Reflecting both market conditions and DC's internal chaos, the company now says it can assemble the full range of light- and heavy-duty Dodge Ram pickups in three plants — a far cry from scenarios a year ago that had as many as five plants dedicated to the fullsize truck.

Apart from the appearance, what DCC hopes is the standout feature is the 3.7 ins. (9.4 cm) added to the cab. Most of the consumers surveyed by DCC said that, on a short wheelbase pickup, they would give up bed space for cab space.

The result: for the '02 Ram, the 6.5-ft. (2-m) box becomes a 6.25-ft. (1.9-m) box, while the long wheelbase model keeps its 8-ft. (2.4-m) box. All feature new, recessed, marine-style tiedown cleats, and a factory installed tonneau cover will be available.

For the standard cab, it means room for a removable storage bin behind the seats. In the extended cab, it means more legroom in a rear compartment that comfortably accommodates a child seat and is equipped with tethers. In fact, the overall dimensions of the cab are so spacious that the federal regulation-mandated cutoff switch for the front-passenger air bag no longer is needed.

The current 4-door models' rearward-opening rear doors — always tricky in a tight space, have been replaced by front-hinged rear doors that open a generous 85 degrees.

It is the cab that takes the truck to the next level, says Chuck Rightler, senior manager-Truck Business Operations. “We think we've hit a sweet spot with this truck.”

Ram joins the list of Dodge and Jeep light trucks powered by the newish 4.7L SOHC V-8 and the new-for-'01 3.7L V-6 variant of the 4.7L first launched for the upcoming Jeep Liberty compact sport/utility vehicle. The new engines respectively replace the 5.2L OVH V-8 and 3.9L OHV V-6. The line's remaining OHV engine, the 5.9L V-8 that is optional for the current Ram, will be carried over to the '02 model.

The heavy-duty Ram 2500 and 3500 are not replaced until the '03 model, and a new 5.7L modular V-8 is said to be in the plan, augmenting the Cummins turbodiesel engine.

Following the current trend, the new truck employs a hydroformed frame; it is both wider and stiffer. The brakes are the largest offered on a light vehicle and the independent front suspension of the 2-wheel-drive model has been extended to the 4-wheel-drive version.

The optional side-impact air bags are an industry first.

Adjustable pedals also are optional, a nod to the fact extended cab pickups are drawing people out of cars and SUVs.

When DCC launched the current Ram for the '94 model year, it had nothing to lose, says Mr. Rightler — the boxy '93 grabbed just 6% of the market, and Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. each held a princely 40% share.

The curvy new '94 Ram tripled DCC's slice to 21%, sending a wakeup call to Ford and GM that presumed-conservative truck buyers would respond to style.

“It's riskier now,” admits Mr. Rightler.