LEIPER’S FORK, TN – It’s hard to believe that almost two decades ago, Chrysler rolled out a template for pickup trucks that set a standard for the modern-day hauler.

For the ’94 model year, the Dodge Ram was treated to a top-down makeover that introduced bold front-end styling and stronger exterior lines without skimping on powertrain or payload. Ford, Toyota and General Motors would follow suit, each introducing heavily modified pickups over the coming model years.

The Dodge Ram has a steady customer base dating back to the 1980s that has remained even after Chrysler spun off Ram as a stand-alone brand in 2009. It has never caught the top-selling Ford F-Series but has held its own in a voracious segment.

WardsAuto data confirms Ram swiped market share in 2011 from its principal light-duty rivals, the Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra.

While hauling duties don’t change, customer tastes have become more refined. Truck buyers are asking for better fuel economy and want more than a mobile toolbox. That’s resulted in upscale versions such as Ford’s King Ranch and GMC’s Denali trims.

Exterior styling remains the same but with a minor update: The Ram logo on the side door has been stacked to allow more room for business logos.

Ram executives say they listened to every customer demand in developing the new truck, knowing that owners are finicky and more willing than ever to switch brands if a more able competitor comes along.

But for the ’13 Ram 1500, Chrysler’s biggest innovation comes by mating its popular 3.6L Pentastar V-6 (a Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner) and segment-exclusive 8-speed transmission, a package the auto maker says delivers industry-leading fuel economy.

The auto maker also shifts all of its trims up a notch, with base interiors mirroring last year’s SLT trim, and introduces stop/start technology and air suspension, among other gizmos, to boost fuel economy and comfort.

For trucks equipped with automatic transmissions, Chrysler introduces an electronic rotary shifter on the left side of the center stack, which replaces floor shifters in several models.

Chrysler will continue offering column shifters in some models, but customers told Ram they wanted an easier way to rock back-and-forth in sticky situations such as snow or mud. It’s a first for a mass-produced pickup, Chrysler says.

Test drivers here are treated to narrow, twisting back roads near Nashville, where cattle herd close enough to the fence line to spit at passing traffic.

Pickups reign supreme on the outskirts of Music City, where several older Rams, as well as F-Series models, Sierras, Silverados and Toyota Tundras, are spotted easily.

We start in a base-trim, V-6-powered Ram 1500 HFE (high fuel-efficiency) with stop/start and 8-speed automatic. Seating feels spartan and average, but upgrades in the center stack, such as touchscreen navigation and satellite radio, softer knobs and functions ordered by use frequency, provide more of a midsize-sedan feel, an upgrade from the utilitarian cabs of years past.

The new 1500 lowers its flatbed and places the cab higher to increase visibility. Some models offer an air suspension, which, with the click of a button, lowers the truck for easy entry or raises it for rocky roads.

The technology is a modified version of that used in the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Wheel-to-wheel sidesteps also allow for easy in-and-out, and some models will have a 1-button lock for all doors, the handbox and tailgate.

Right away, drivers will notice smoother acceleration with the 8-speed. Merging on the freeway is a breeze; there’s no need to gun it. On the back roads, the Ram feels light and agile, thanks to a lighter-weight frame.

And all along, the Pentastar V-6 proves a good match for the Ram. It doesn’t growl like the Hemi V-8, but the engine, appearing for the first time in a pickup, easily pulls the Ram uphill and provides brisk acceleration from a standstill.

The 3.6L Pentastar replaces the lackluster 3.7L V-6 that is leaving the Chrysler engine portfolio. In the previous Ram, the 3.7L was capable of towing only 3,800 lbs. (1,724 kg). With the Pentastar V-6, the new truck can pull 6,500 lbs. (2,948 kg), nearly equal to the tow rating with the 4.7L SOHC V-8.

Stop/start technology, which has been hit-or-miss in some vehicles, works well in the Ram with rapid restarts after brief lulls. Chrysler says this, along with improved thermal management, electric power steering and aerodynamic grille shutters, are keys to better fuel economy.

Targeting the F-Series’ 17/23 mpg (13.8-10 L/100 km) city/highway, the HFE gets 18/25 mpg (13-9.4 L/100 km), for a combined 21 mpg (11.1 L/100 km). We average about 23 mpg the entire trip – not bad.

Chrysler knows a V-6 might turn off some power-seeking pickup buyers, so two V-8s remain available, including the 310-hp carryover 4.7L SOHC unit (available only with the 6-speed automatic), which is sluggish and loud during a test drive.

The preferred V-8 is the improved 395-hp 5.7L OHV Hemi, which can be paired with 6- or 8-speed gearboxes.

The Hemi sounds great either way, but the 8-speed launches the truck more smoothly and boosts mileage, too. The premium for the 8-speed with the Hemi remains unclear, as detailed pricing information has yet to be released. Paired with the V-6, the 8-speed costs an extra $1,000.

We test several versions of the Ram on an off-road course, which includes rocky hills, a steep, muddy ditch and other uneven surfaces. Nothing brings out one’s inner farmhand like scurrying around bales of hay and whipping through tough brush.

In this setting, the air suspension does a tremendous job smoothing out the bumps and keeping passengers from bouncing around too much. But even without that optional package, the Ram’s twin-tube shock absorbers and stabilizer bars front and rear, as well as the 5-link independent rear suspension, make for a reasonably comfortable ride.

Inside, drivers will be attracted to Chrysler’s Uconnect infotainment system offered in some models, which allows for in-cabin WiFi through its wireless partner, Sprint, and an emergency-services button that connects drivers in distress with police or paramedics. Two USB ports and an SD card port also are available in some vehicles.

As a testament to the uptick in affluent truck buyers, the Laramie Longhorn, Ram’s most luxurious edition, has a center console and instrument panel crafted from reclaimed fence posts imported from France.

The lumber is untreated, which can lead to heavy scratch marks or a more lived-in look, depending on one’s point of view.

Chrysler executives are not forecasting sales of the Ram 1500 but do expect favorable response to the Pentastar and electronic shifting. The auto maker is counting on a lower take rate for manual transmissions but will continue producing them as long as there is demand.

Pricing for the Ram 1500 starts at $23,985 including a $995 destination charge, slightly higher than 2012’s base price of $22,120. It’s less than Ford’s recently announced $24,665 for its base F-Series, however, which could help Chrysler further close the gap in the pickup race.

At the top of the range, the Ram 1500 4x4 Crew Laramie Longhorn costs $48,415, but that price won’t scare away well-heeled truck lovers like CEO Sergio Marchionne, who owns two Laramies – one in Italy and the other in the U.S.

afoley@wardsauto.com

'13 Ram 1500 HFE
Vehicle type Four-door, 5-passenger 4WD large pickup
Engine 3.6L DOHC all-aluminum V-6 with variable valve timing
Power (SAE net) 305 hp at 6,400 rpm
Torque 269 lb-ft. (364 Nm) at 4,175 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 96 x 83
Compression ratio 10.2:1
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase 120.5 ins. (306.2 cm)
Overall length 209.0 ins. (530.8 cm)
Overall width 79.4 ins. (201.7 cm)
Overall height 75.2 ins. (191 cm)
Curb weight 4,572 lbs. (2,073 kg)
Base price $23,985
Fuel economy 18/25 mpg (13-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition Ford F-Series, Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra, Toyota Tundra
Pros Cons
Better fuel economy Lower trim interiors scream cheap
Smooth acceleration Rotary shift may turn off die-hards
Higher tow rating V-6 makes 4.7L V-8 feel sluggish