SANTA BARBARA, CA – Do Americans still need pickup trucks?

Chrysler LLC figures they do, despite the personal credit crunch every time a V-8 fullsizer pulls in for a fill-up.

As long as Red State farmers have cattle to herd, plumbers have toilets to replace, painters have ladders to haul and carpenters have tools to stash, the Great American pickup will dot the landscape like silos.

This is the heart of the market Chrysler hopes to engage with its all-new Ram pickup, which arrives in showrooms this fall.

During a drive through the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains north of here, the new Ram more than holds its own and exudes stylish machismo while doing so.

It handles with confidence, abetted by Chrysler’s controversial decision to switch from the time-honored leaf springs in the rear suspension to a multi-link coil spring configuration.

The interior is spacious, comfortable and attractive, without being too luxurious. And the new 5.7L Hemi V-8 is so self-assured and Barry White smooth that the powertrain team deserves commission checks for the multitude of sales locked up once the key turns.

The Hemi, expected to power 65% of new Rams, carries a $1,150 option premium, and it’s worth every penny. During a day of varied driving here, the engine achieves a respectable 18 mpg (13 L/100 km), aided by a more active 4-cyl. “fuel saver” mode.

Like its competitors, the new Ram comes available in a dizzying array of body styles and trim packages to meet every need: There are three cabs, three beds, five models, three engines, two transmissions, two transfer cases, 35 safety features and dozens of options. Buyers of certain trim packages will have their choice of two exhaust sounds as well.

For the first time, the new Ram gets a 4-door crew cab, as well as a smaller quad cab and 2-door regular cab. In the past, Ram buyers settled for quad or regular cabs or sprung for the Ram “Mega Cab,” which was so big it didn’t fit in standard garages.

But the new crew cab does, and it’s 20 ins. (51 cm) shorter in overall length than the Mega Cab, which sold on fewer than 12,000 light-duty Rams annually, says Joseph Veltri, director-truck product marketing for Chrysler.

The crew cab, paired with a 5-ft.-7-in. (170-cm) box, is expected to make up 45% of Ram volumes, Veltri says. The quad cab, which has a more upright back seat and less leg room, should constitute 40% of sales, while the regular cab should make up the remaining 15%.

A 6-ft.-4-in. (193-cm) bed is available with the quad and regular cabs, while the regular cab also can be paired with an 8-ft. (244-cm) box.

The pickup market is transforming dramatically, but Chrysler insists a broad palette of capabilities is essential to the new Ram’s success.

And Chrysler has little to lose: Having entered the fullsize-pickup market in earnest in 1994, the Ram has run a distant third behind the best selling Ford F-Series and General Motors Corp. pickups.

“We know we’ll get increased sales and share,” a confident Jim Yetter, senior manager-Dodge Brand Marketing, tells journalists at the media launch here. “Others are running away from the truck segment, but we’re not.”

There are a lot of smart features on the new Ram, including handy storage spaces in the floor; back seats that pivot upright easily with one hand; a cavernous center console; a sliding rear window; and the only soft instrument panel in the segment.

The sill height is 2 ins. (5 cm) lower than on the old truck, making for easier step-in, and the grille, hood and mirrors were designed for smooth aerodynamics, to boost fuel economy.

A nifty spoiler on the tailgate also improves aerodynamics and keeps the gate cleaner, while providing a more ergonomic angle for opening.

The much-anticipated RamBox (available with crew-cab models) provides water-tight, lockable storage bins above each rear wheel, accessible from outside the cargo bed. Each bin is large enough to accommodate a set of golf clubs – or a small child.

Just in case a cruel older brother wants to torment a younger sibling, each RamBox has a federally required trunk release latch. Chrysler expects a 20% take rate for RamBox.

’09 Dodge Ram SLT Crew 4x2
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 6-passenger, 4-door pickup
Engine 5.7L OHV Hemi V-8; iron block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 390 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque 407 lb.-ft. (552 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase 140 ins. (355 cm)
Overall length 227.5 ins. (578 cm)
Overall width 79.4 ins. (202 cm)
Overall height 73.9 ins. (188 cm)
Curb weight 5,109 lbs. (2,317 kg)
Base price $32,530
Fuel economy 14/20 city/highway mpg (16.7-11.7 L/100 km)
Competition Ford F-150; Chevrolet Silverado; GMC Sierra; Toyota Tundra; Nissan Titan.
Pros Cons
Mother of all Hemis Gas still ain’t cheap
Coil-spring refinement Other trucks tow more
Looks bad ass Pickup market weak

Carryover parts from the old Ram include the front third of the frame; front suspension geometry and upper control arms; brakes; 4-speed and 5-speed automatics; and the inner cargo-box stampings. The Ram has employed 4-wheel disc brakes since 2006.

Ward’s data shows light-duty pickup sales in the U.S. hovered around 3.1 million units and 18.5% market share for several years until 2005. Sales dipped to 2.8 million units (17.2% share) in 2006 and to 2.6 million units (16.5% share) in 2007.

Through August, 1.4 million pickups have sold, and market share has fallen to 14.4%, while market shares are up significantly for small and midsize cars and CUVs, according to Ward’s data.

Through the first half, every large pickup (except the Toyota Tundra) notched double-digit volume declines compared with like-2007. The Ram’s 32% first-half sales decline placed in the middle of the pack, doing better than the Nissan Titan (down 48% from like-2007) but worse than F-Series (down 23%).

Whether Chrysler can swim upstream by growing Ram sales while the pickup market is shrinking remains a major question. Despite a few down months, trucks remain lucrative and the underlying demand is stable, Yetter says. “The customer is there,” he says. “People will buy.”

But not like they used to.

The days of 900,000 Ford F-Series pickups selling annually may be history, as consumers respond to erratic fuel prices by opting for smaller vehicles.

So that means casual truckers might trade in their fullsize pickup for a V-6-powered cross/utility vehicle or – heavens no! – a minivan to pull their jet ski, dirt bike or popup camper.

Unless a horse trailer or fifth-wheel needs towing, how much power and capability do most pickup owners require?

Chrysler engineers working on the Ram spent the last four years asking that question, and they determined most truck buyers shingle past the edge of the roof by purchasing more horsepower and vehicle than they need, often because they like the security of a high-seating position.

Still, Chrysler’s market researchers found some surprises among buyers. Industry observers might assume the core of pickup customers in the future will need trucks for work.

But Chrysler expects only 10% of new Rams to be used primarily for work purposes.

The rest of the market should consist of “traditional truckers” (23%), “casual truckers” (25%), “new fabric families” (24%) and “recreational riders” (18%).

Chrysler’s Veltri says customers said they do not need “a towing-zilla” and are more interested in a smooth, quiet ride and creature comforts. So the new Ram (2-wheel drive with Hemi V-8) is capable of pulling 9,100 lbs. (4,127 kg), same as the old truck.

By comparison, the ‘09 Chevrolet Silverado with a 6.0L V-8 can tow 10,700 lbs. (4,853 kg); the ‘08 Tundra with 5.7L V-8 can pull 10,800 lbs. (4,898 kg); and the ‘08 Ford F-150 with 5.4L V-8 can tow 11,000 lbs. (4,989 kg). Ford hasn’t announced specs for its soon-to-launch ‘09 F-150 but says it will offer best-in-class towing.

So the Ram lags the competition in towing, but Chrysler smartly opts for better handling and refinement by switching from leaf to coil springs in the rear, substantially reducing friction. The effect is a truck that stays flat in corners, transitions smoothly in hairpins and gobbles up rough pavement without the usual tendency to hop around.

Why try to duke it out with the others on the towing front when pickup brand loyalties run so deep? And besides, bigger loads are better handled with heavy-duty pickups – a segment the Ram ably populates with its 6.7L Cummins turbodiesel.

For those needing lighter duty, the new Ram also comes available with a 3.7L V-6, which performed adequately during a short drive here, and a 4.7L V-8. That engine was not available during the test drive. Both engines carry over from the old truck.

In about a year, Dodge will introduce a light-duty Cummins turbodiesel that promises a 25% fuel-economy improvement when compared with an equivalent gasoline engine. The high-torque, clean diesel will meet emission standards in all 50 states, the auto maker says.

Inside, the Ram is extremely quiet, thanks to improvements within the Hemi and to damping throughout the body. The careful design reflects a desire to accommodate both casual truckers and those on the job.

Fit-and-finish is generally good, although a few of these early production models suffered from unsightly gaps where the A-pillars and B-pillars meet the headliner.

The all-new Ram is a good truck, but are there enough serious pickup buyers to keep OEMs enthused with the segment? The Toyota Tundra is a good truck, too, but that launch has been so abysmal the sparkling new plant in San Antonio is shut down until Thanksgiving.

Ram pricing ranges from $22,170 for a base model (including $900 destination charges) to $44,140 for a 4WD Laramie crew cab. Chrysler isn’t saying how many Rams it plans to sell annually.

The new truck represents a $2,800 “value improvement” over an equivalent ‘08 Ram, Chrysler says. Production is ramping up in Warren, MI, and in Fenton, MO.

General Motors may be shutting down three truck and SUV plants in North America, but Chrysler is counting on the Ram to keep Warren and Fenton humming for awhile.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com