AUBURN HILLS, MI – The redesigned-for-’09 Dodge Ram will debut without its marquee storage feature, but Chrysler LLC remains confident the flagship vehicle will boost its share of the increasingly stressed U.S. pickup market.

Chrysler says the new Ram will compete more effectively because it offers another first for Dodge – a crew cab, the body style that accounts for half the pickup segment’s volume, says Michael J. Accavitti, director-Dodge brand and SRT marketing communications.

The crew cab effectively replaces the cavernous Ram 1500 Mega Cab, which disappears from the Dodge lineup in ’09 after a run that began in ’06. However, it remains available on heavy-duty models.

Rambox is the storage feature that will trail by 20 days the production of the first new trucks. It adds dry, lockable storage to the Ram’s cargo bed via an innovative concept that utilizes previously problematic space forward of the wheel wells.

But Rambox-equipped vehicles only will be assembled at Chrysler’s St. Louis North plant where production is scheduled to begin Aug. 15 – 20 days after the July 25 model launch at the auto maker’s assembly site in Warren, MI.

“Ideally, we’d like to have the Ramboxes (immediately) available,” Accavitti says. “We’re working to get them as quickly as possible. But we think the truck can stand on its own.”

Most notably, it will stand on a coil-spring rear suspension, marking another Dodge “game-changer,” Accavitti tells journalists at a media preview here.

Dealers are unfazed by the delay in Rambox availability.

“Everybody will be anxious to see (the Rambox), but I don’t think it will kill sales, so that somebody wouldn’t buy one,” says Lee Engweiler, general manager of Midway Motors Supercenter in McPherson, KS. “For anybody that’s in the commercial business, it will be a big, big item.”

Rambox creates 8.6 cu.-ft. (0.24 cu.-m.) of storage space within the truck’s bed rails – enough room to carry gear ranging from golf bags to chainsaws. But integrating it into the new truck’s design represents a manufacturing triumph for Chrysler, says Scott Kunselman, vice president-truck product team.

“It was initially configured as a module that would come into our plant basically through a hole in the wall and drop right onto the truck,” Kunselman tells Ward’s. But this was deemed too expensive.

“The big change in the middle of the program was looking at our execution. Rather than coming into the factory as an assembled box, the sheet metal parts are being built in our body shop, right on the line with the normal box.”

And it was President and Vice-Chairman Tom LaSorda who championed the enterprise.

“After looking at the two scenarios, (LaSorda) said, ‘I think there’s an opportunity here,’” Kunselman recalls, adding: “This is the kind of stuff that gets our employees excited.”

The crew-cab configuration features 59.9 cu.-ft. (1.7 cu.-m) of rear space compared with 54.9 cu.-ft. (1.56 cu.-m) of volume in the Ram’s quad-cab truck. Accavitti says this will afford the kind of utility that will satisfy a dominant trend toward personal-use pickups.

Chrysler says 71% of pickup buyers describe their vehicle usage as “personal.”

In addition to nimble handling, a smoother ride and the uncompromising utility that Dodge promises from its new suspension, consumers express an overwhelming need for more second-row seating space, says Accavitti, who remains confident in the market appeal of pickups, despite their sagging sales.

“There’s a lot of naysayers,” he says. “The fact is people need trucks to haul their family and their stuff.”

Says James Coleman of Plainview Dodge Chrysler Jeep in Plainview, TX: “About 60% -70% of our business is pickups. It’s the Baby Boomers and maturing families that buy pickups.

“Gas prices now are kind of slowing things down. But we are still moving some pickups. And with the $2.99 gallon of fuel and Chrysler’s lifetime powertrain warranty, nobody else can keep up with it.”

– with Derek Stark

emayne@wardsauto.com