Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

On the heels of its market-share uptick in the large-truck segment, Chrysler LLC expands its footprint, literally, with the launch of crew-cab configurations.

The ’10 trucks, unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show, mark the debut of crew-cab availability in the Ram 3500, 4500 and 5500 chassis-cab lineup, as well as Ram heavy-duty 2500 and 3500 pickups. The move, which builds on the introduction of a crew cab for the all-new ’09 Ram lighty-duty pickup, is intended to exploit a sweet spot in the market.

“We went all over the country to learn how people really use their heavy-duty trucks at work and play,” says Mike Accavitti, brand director-Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep. And what the auto maker learned is that truck-buyers prefer fullsize doors.

Crew cabs – which allow for four fullsize doors – account for about 50% of all heavy-duty pickup sales and 20% of chassis-cab deliveries, the auto maker says.

While the overall market is mired in a slump stemming from last year’s credit crisis, Chrysler is confident better times are ahead for large truck sales, mostly because of the $789 billion stimulus package President Obama is expected to sign into law Monday.

“To us that sounds like opportunity,” Michael Cairns, Ram-program chief engineer tells Ward’s. “Customers are going to need trucks to go do infrastructure improvements throughout the U.S., so we think that could be a big growth opportunity for us.”

January’s year-over-year 39.5% total U.S. truck-market sales plunge continued a trend that saw 2008 deliveries plummet 36.7%, compared with 2007. But Chrysler’s growing share of two key segments belies the big picture – and the fact the auto maker returned to the chassis-cab market less than two years ago, ending a 4-year absence.

Among Class 3 medium-duty trucks, the auto maker held 35.5% of the market for 12.5 share-point gain over January 2008, according to Ward’s data. On a volume basis, Dodge’s 2,659 unit-sales fell just 91 short of perennial leader, Ford Motor Co.

And in Class 5, Chrysler clung to 22.9% of the market for an increase of 3.6 share points.

“We’re thrilled,” Cairns says.

Chrysler hopes the improved capability and comfort of its new trucks provide enough thrill to attract buyers.

Gross-vehicle weight ratings for the Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 pickups go to 9,600 lbs. (4,354 kg) from 9,000 lbs. (4,082 kg), compared with the previous models. And suspension upgrades combine with larger front-axle U-joints contribute to increased front-weight carrying to benefit snowplow applications.

Models equipped with the 6.7L Cummins I-6 turbodiesel engine benefit from an exhaust-brake system that comes as standard equipment.

The Ram 2500 and 3500 also are available in regular-cab and Mega Cab configurations, the latter offering the largest interior dimensions in any pickup segment.

Five trim levels include the rugged, top-end Power Wagon that features electric-locking front and rear differentials, electronic disconnecting sway bar, Bilstein shocks, underbody skid plate protection and a 12,000-lb. (5,443 kg) winch accessible through the front bumper.

Taking another cue from the ’09 Ram light-duty pickup, the heavy-duty models get interior upgrades featuring premium front seating with heat and ventilation, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, a 30-gigabyte hard drive to accommodate functions such as music storage and other infotainment options including Sirius Backseat TV.

A unique grille, bumper and hood differentiate its exterior from the light-duty Ram.

The chassis cabs also get exterior upgrades, including an aggressively styled chromed grille, refined mirror and headlamps and a taller hood to accommodate more efficient engine cooling.

Equipped with the 6.7L Cummins engine, Chrysler claims the Ram 4500 and 5500 models achieve best-in-class fuel economy. This adds to the value of the trucks’ 52-gallon (236 L) fuel tank, which is the largest in the segment.

The diesel also affords the Ram 3500 chassis cab a best-in-class gross combined weight rating of 24,000 lbs. (10,886 kg).

The crew-cab configuration adds 6 ins. (15 cm) of legroom to its chassis cabs, Chrysler says. Interior upgrades include all-new heated and ventilated seats, heated steering wheel, automatic temperature control and express up/down windows.

The new pickups and chassis cabs are expected on dealer lots this fall.

– with Byron Pope in Chicago

emayne@wardsauto.com