ASHEVILLE, NC — Surely you remember the current Ram pickup truck: launched as a '94 model, pre-Daimler-Benz AG merger. It didn't do much.

Not much, that is, but bolster then-teetering Chrysler Corp., cement the company's reputation as the domestic industry's styling leader, make Dodge a force with which to be reckoned in the light- and medium-duty pickup segments and swell the corporate coffers to make possible the raft of new products that followed (and perhaps backhandedly, make Chrysler a ripe takeover target).

The current Ram, most notably for market-watchers, transformed the company, circa 1994, from its non-player status in the burgeoning and enormously profitable light-truck market — a pitiful 70,000-odd units annually — into a bona fide “player,” selling a high of 400,000 units and averaging 350,000 units once all the Ram's light- and medium-duty variants were on stream.

Tough act to follow, but follow DC will, with an all-new light-duty Ram launching this fall. The '02 model once again is charged with a quasi-heroic task: DC lost a lot of money last year, and the company really, really needs the remake of its highest-volume seller to be a corporate shot in the arm.

Based on first impressions while driving here, DC's head honchos can rest easier. The designers and engineers appear to have it pretty well nailed.

Most notably, the Ram's signature “big rig” look actually is even bolder than before, thanks to a more-emphatic “horse collar” grille that again sets apart the Ram from the tame Ford and GM competition.

But the '02 Ram will be noted as the first light-truck product to begin the tectonic shift toward the personal-use applications for which the majority of customers actually buy light trucks and sport/utility vehicles (SUVs). The fact is, the '02 Ram is perceptibly slanting to the “light” side of light-duty.

How do I know this? First, note that although the new Ram Quad Cab's wheelbase is barely longer than that of the previous-generation models, there's 3 ins. (7.6 cm) more room in the cab. These three inches did not materialize from thin air — they came by reducing bed size from the time-honored 6.5 ft. (2 m) to 6.25 ft. (1.9 m). Now, what dyed-in-the-wool truck buyer — one who actually uses the bed to haul things — would accept that?

Also, the new Ram's volume engine (forecast: 60% fitment) is the 4.7L SOHC V-8, which replaces, at long last, the hoary 5.2L OHV V-8. But although the 4.7L V-8 develops 235 hp — five horses more than the larger, outgoing 5.2L mill — it doesn't exactly pull with authority, never mind the fact that its 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) of torque is down only slightly from the 300 lb.-ft. (407 Nm) available from the old V-8. The power, nonetheless, is better than that of Ford's 4.6L SOHC V-8 (220 hp), but way off the 270 horses spit out by GM's 4.8L V-8.

The final nail? This thing's got rack-and-pinion steering, following GM's lead with rack-and-pinion for its light-duty pickups. The Dodge system, in fact, may be too precise for the pickup paradigm: Some versions driven here — particularly the 4-wheel-drivers with their new independent front suspension — almost could be described as darty in their cornering manners.

As if to refute my assertions, however, DC engineers say for the new Ram they established “an entirely new durability cycle,” developed from surveys of off-road and commercial users. The program increased test miles by 50% and accommodates — engineers claim — 95% of genuine work or off-road users.

The newfound toughness doubtless is aided by the new hydroformed frame, which DC claims incorporates the most hydroforming of any truck frame in production: it's fully box-sectioned and everything, including the side rails, and is hydroformed from the front all the way back to the non-hydroformed rear section of the 3-section frame.

Other chassis upgrades include standard 4-wheel disc brakes (antilock control, shamefully, is optional) and optional 20-in. (51-cm) wheels, which at last begin to adequately fill up the wheel wells.

With the '02 Ram program, there's a big cost savings coming from model and equipment consolidation. Body styles are limited to two — regular and Quad Cab — combined with either of two bed lengths, the 6.25-ft. and standard 8-foot (2.4-m). There are three available engines — the also-new 3.7L SOHC V-6 (215 hp/235 lb.-ft.), the previously mentioned 4.7L V-8 and the still-hanging-around 5.9L OHV V-8 (245 hp/335 lb.-ft.).

Production began earlier this summer in DC's St. Louis plant, followed last month in Saltillo, Mexico, and finishing off in Warren, MI. DC officials say they'd like to sell 260,000 units, up from about 200,000, reflecting a renewed mix between light- and medium-duty variants that will favor the all-new '02 light-duty Ram. The new generation mediums will follow, presumably next year.

Pricing? Aggressive. The V-6, regular cab, 2-wheel-drive manual base truck starts at $17,670, which includes destination. Go up from there to a Quad Cab 4-wheel-drive at $26,065.

2002 Dodge Ram Quad Cab 4WD
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- or 4-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door pickup
Engine: 4.7L (4,701 cc) SOHC V-8; iron block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net): 235 hp @ 4,800 rpm
Torque: 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) @ 3,200 rpm
Compression ratio: 9.3:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 93 × 86.5
Transmission: 4-speed automatic/5-speed manual
Wheelbase (6.25-ft. bed): 140.5 ins. (357 cm)
Overall length: 227.7 ins. (578 cm)
Overall width: 79.9 ins. (203 cm)
Overall height: 76.6 ins. (195 cm)
Curb weight: N/A
Market competition: Ford F-150; GM GMT800; Toyota Tundra