Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition has recognized outstanding powertrain development for 20 years. This installment of the 2014 Behind the 10 Best Engines series looks at the development of the 3.0L turbodiesel V-6 used in the Ram 1500 light-duty pickup.

Lots of light trucks have great engines, but only one, the Ram 1500 pickup, shares its engine with two Maserati sport sedans: the Quattroporte and Ghibli.

To keep things in perspective, the idea of pickups and sports cars sharing engines is not unusual. The 6.2L L86 V-8 used in GM’s fullsize pickups and SUVs is closely related to the 6.2L LT1 used in the Chevy Corvette. The LT1 has differences, of course, including unique intake, exhaust and lubrication systems as well as special tuning that turns the new Stingray into one of the fastest sports cars on earth.

It’s a story similar to Chrysler pickups sharing the Hemi V-8 with the Dodge Challenger and Charger. Countless other automakers do the same thing. It’s all about flexibility and scalability.

Even so, a pickup truck with an engine also used by Maserati has a sexy ring, no? Did we mention it was a diesel? One of the smoothest, quietest diesels we’ve every tested?

The basic engine was developed in 2008 and 2009 by VM Motori in Italy. Motori, like Chrysler, now is 100% owned by Fiat, along with Maserati, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Lancia. While the ownership is relatively new, Motori has supplied about 800,000 diesel engines for Chrysler vehicles sold in Europe since 1992, such as the 300C and Jeep Grand Cherokee, says Giorgio Garimberti, Group CEO, VM Motori Italy.

“Our relationship is and always was very strong,” Garimberti says. He is especially proud of what VM Motori and Chrysler have accomplished with the 3.0L V-6 EcoDiesel development during tumultuous economic times in the U.S. and Europe.

“We focused all our attention and technology on NVH and fuel consumption, and it is a very, very interesting package,” Garimberti says. Motori also worked closely with castings supplier Tupy in Brazil to use super-strong compacted graphite iron for the block and bedplate to create an exceptionally compact, rigid and quiet engine.

“Just from the stiffness of the material, most CGI engines end up being 0.5 to 1.5 decibels quieter than the old gray iron engine,” says Steve Dawson, CEO of Sintercast, the company that licenses CGI casting technology to Tupy. “If you put the engineers around the dyno, it’s the first thing they usually comment on.”

WardsAuto editors had the same reaction, noting that even in a truck, the 3.0L V-6 barely is louder than diesels of the same displacement in expensive German luxury cars.

Besides quietness and compact dimensions, power and flexibility are among the engine’s other strong suits, Garimberti says. Not only does it work well in trucks and sport sedans, turning out 420 lb.-ft. (570 Nm) of torque at just 2,000 rpm, its next role will be powering boats as a marine engine, he says.

Biggest Development Challenges

From Chrysler’s perspective, creating a great diesel engine in Europe was just the beginning of the process.

“We had to comply with U.S. OBD (on-board diagnostics) and emissions regulations that are different and are significantly more stringent than in Europe,” says Luis Cattani, chief engineer-Diesel Platforms.

“Then we had to balance the NVH, fuel economy and engine capabilities to give customers of this type of application the best value for their money. Lastly, we wanted to fit the engine and aftertreatment system in an already defined vehicle architecture,” Cattani says.

Another big challenge was the fear American consumers, unlike Europeans, simply would not accept a light-duty diesel, even in a pickup.

Chrysler’s U.S. pickup competitors decided not to take the risk. Ford, General Motors, Nissan and Toyota all cancelled programs for diesel-powered light-duty pickups in 2009 and 2010. Honda and Subaru pulled the plug on small diesels for cars and cross/utility vehicles in the U.S. as well.

Only German automakers, Mazda, GM (focusing on a 2.0L diesel for the Chevy Cruze) and Chrysler, which had merged with European automaker Fiat by then, moved ahead.

But all the worries dissipated immediately when the trucks finally went on sale. Between the afternoon of Feb. 7 and the morning of Feb. 10, Ram Truck received more than 8,000 EcoDiesel orders, which quickly filled the initial allocation for the powertrain, Chrysler says. Now there are concerns about demand outstripping supply.

Chrysler executives say they are not surprised by the smashing debut, pointing to the Ram’s20/28 mpg (11.7-8.4 L/100 km) city/highway fuel economy, unsurpassed torque and up to 9,200 lbs. (4,173 kg) of towing capability. Fuel economy during WardsAuto testing approached 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km), better than the truck’s official combined fuel economy of 23 mpg (10.2 L/100 km).

“When you drive the Ram 1500, it’s so quiet you don’t realize it has a diesel engine,” Cattani says. The truck has capability. Then you add the best fuel economy in a light-duty pickup and it sells itself. The customer was ready for diesel.”

So far, it’s difficult to discern what type of buyers are snapping up the trucks.

“The volume Ram 1500 EcoDiesel is a Crew Cab 4x4 in the Big Horn trim level, which is much the same as we see in our V-6 Pentastar 8-speed and V-8 Hemi 8-speed powertrain options. Over time, we're interested in seeing where the data will skew, but it's too early to say what the overall trend will be,” says Bob Hegbloom, director-Ram Truck Brand.

So this begs the question: Is diesel Chrysler’s answer to Ford’s pickup fuel-economy challenge?

Bob Lee, vice president and head of Engine, Powertrain and Electrified Propulsion Systems Engineering, does not see diesel as a single solution, but it clearly looks like a big piece of the response to Ford’s aluminium, and gasoline engine downsizing and turbocharging strategy.

“Diesel is one of many technologies which we believe can help in complying with the fuel-economy requirements now and through the journey to 2025,” he says. “One of the major benefits of the diesel is of course its fuel economy on standard drive cycles, but moreover it has superior fuel economy under real-world work conditions.

“Other benefits include the substantial customer ‘pull’ for the technology based on their experiences of ‘fun to drive,’ superior product longevity and value retention, especially through lease residuals,” Lee says.

dwinter@wardsauto.com