Chrysler LLC was thinking out of the box during development of its flagship Dodge Ram pickup for ’09.

The redesigned truck will be unveiled today at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The vehicle not only features an upgraded 380-hp 5.7L Hemi V-8 – with a Cummins turbodiesel promised after 2009 and a 2-mode hybrid system scheduled for model-year ’10 – it also boasts a segment-first coil-spring multi-link rear suspension, "get-out-of-the-way" styling and innovative storage options.

How innovative? The Rambox, a lockable cargo-management system built into the truck’s bed rails, was deemed too expensive as an outsourced component, Vice Chairman and President Tom LaSorda tells Ward’s.

"We couldn’t get the margins," he says. "So we build it in the plant."

The plastic insert comes from Canada-based ABC Group Inc., but Chrysler builds the box around it.

How are the margins, now? LaSorda only smiles.

"RamBox meets the No.1 unmet need among pickup truck owners," says Mark Allen, chief designer-Jeep/truck design studio. "Truck buyers want dry, lockable storage, and Rambox not only meets that need, it takes it a step further with the addition of built-in lights and drains. And there’s still enough room between each bin to lay a sheet of plywood flat in the pickup bed."

Rambox straddles the wheel wells on each side of the pickup bed, which creates 8.6 cu.-ft. (0.2 cu.-m) of space. The dimensions were dictated by a list of tools and toys that Rambox had to accommodate:

  • ackle box
  • small compressor
  • power converter
  • fire extinguisher
  • 12-pack of soda
  • motorcycle helmet
  • chainsaw
  • shovel
  • axe
  • golf bag

The golf bag was LaSorda’s demand, Ward’s is told.

"He’s a good golfer," says Mike Donoughe, who shepherded the new Ram’s development as vice president-body-on-frame product team. "He embraced this thing. He saw the value in terms of what it’s going to mean to the consumer."

LaSorda even arranged a preview for Steven Feinberg, founder and chairman of Cerberus Capital Management LP, which acquired Chrysler in August. "He loved it," LaSorda says.

While convenience was a driver for Rambox, comfort compelled Chrysler to opt for a coil-spring rear suspension – a decision made by employing the resources of the auto maker’s former DaimlerChrysler AG stablemate, Mercedes-Benz.

"We did a lot of work over in Berlin," Donoughe says during an auto show media preview. "There’s a simulator over there where you do all sorts of simulated analysis to dial into the attributes that you’re looking for, dynamically, to cover the safety aspects of handling and also the comfort aspects. So we let the design analysis that we did there and the virtual testing really drive (development)."

Among the new design features is shock-absorber location. They are outside the frame rails – an approach pioneered on the ’04 Ford F-150.

But Donoughe denies playing copycat.

"Do we study others? Yeah, we do," he says. "But we don’t want that guy to (determine) what we’re going to do. What you’ve got to do is really take a step back, understand why they are where they are and then see what you can do to leapfrog."

For the first time, Dodge also makes a crew cab available. Pickups equipped with crew cabs account for nearly 50% of the market, Chrysler says.

Ram Crew 1500 models will be assembled at the auto maker’s plants in St. Louis and Warren, MI. Warren also will build quad-cab models, while St. Louis will produce Rams equipped with regular cabs.

In total, the new Ram has 35 new or improved features – including an in-floor storage compartment that can accommodate 10 beverage cans, plus ice. A removable plastic insert allows for easy cleanup.

But the most prominent feature is Ram’s "grille-forward" design.

"The all-new ’09 Dodge Ram doesn’t just push the envelope in truck design – it shoves it aside and reinvents it," says Ralph Gilles, vice president-Jeep/truck design studio.

"We wanted to design a game-changer, a truck that takes Dodge’s bold, powerful and capable attributes to a new level."

emayne@wardsauto.com