By Don Sikora II
Note: The following story was excerpted from the December 2015 issue of Collectible Automobile magazine.
Luxuriously equipped and extravagantly priced ½-ton pickups are common today, but a back-to-basics workaday hauler still has its charms. Among modern-day work trucks, the 2011-15 Ram 1500 Tradesman has the intriguing distinction of being able to pack a near-400-bhp Hemi V-8 engine at a bargain price.
Chrysler brought out a new generation of Dodge trucks for 2009 but in 2010 the company’s new Fiat management decided to rebrand the trucks as Ram vehicles distinct from Dodge. It was at the Chicago Auto Show in February 2011 that Ram introduced the Tradesman option package for the bare-bones fleet-special 1500 ST regular-cab pickup. Buyers had the choice of a 6-foot-4-inch short bed or a long eight-foot unit. Either could be equipped with rear or four-wheel drive.
The real attention-getter was Tradesman’s standard 390-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi and five-speed automatic transmission in place of the ST’s 215-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic. Surprisingly, a rear-drive Hemi came with the same EPA mileage estimates as the six at 14 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway. The Hemi did run on midgrade gas instead of regular, so the 175 extra ponies weren’t completely free.
Ten exterior colors were available, and vinyl covered the three-man split-bench seat and the cab floor. (Cloth upholstery and carpeting were part of an option package.) Other standard equipment included black-finished bumpers and grille, a Class IV trailer hitch, heavy-duty engine and transmission cooling packages, Tradesman-exclusive 17-inch steel wheels, air conditioning, and a six-speaker stereo. Like all Ram 1500s, Tradesman had a multilink rear suspension riding on coil springs. This setup was said to weigh less and ride better than its leaf-sprung competitors. Base price for a rear-drive short bed was $22,780 including destination.
The big news for the 2012 Tradesman was the addition of a new HD model. It upped the trailer-tow rating to 11,500 pounds from a previous best of 10,450.
The 2013 Ram 1500 Tradesman had significant changes under its subtly tweaked sheetmetal, along with a dramatically expanded lineup. Tradesman’s regular-cab models continued, but were joined by four-door Quad Cab and Crew Cab variants. The original short bed was available with all three cabs, and the eight-footer was still offered with the regular cab, but the roomiest Crew Cab could be paired with a 5-foot-7-inch box. The “RamBox” cargo system that added lockable storage bins atop the right and left sides of the pickup bed became optional for both shorter boxes.
Like all 2013 Ram 1500s, the Tradesman rode on a redesigned frame and front suspension. A new Ram-exclusive adjustable air suspension system was optional on Quad and Crew models. Tradesman’s standard engine switched to a 310-bhp 4.7-liter V-8. A revised 5.7 Hemi with variable valve timing was optional, its rating bumped to 395 bhp. It was backed by a six-speed automatic.
The smaller V-8 was dropped for 2014, when Tradesman’s standard engine switched to a 3.6-liter V-6. The 5.7-liter Hemi returned, but now was available with either the six-speed automatic or the TorqueFlite eight-speed autobox that Chrysler built under license from German transmission specialist ZF Friedrichshafen. The latter used a rotary-knob gear selector mounted on the dashboard in place of the six-speed’s column shift.
Changes were few for 2015, but there should be no surprise that prices were somewhat higher than back in 2011. A ’15 regular-cab, short-bed, rear-drive Tradesman with Hemi and six-speed trans stickered from $26,165, which is actually $690 less than the same truck with the standard V-6 and eight-speed. At the top end, a 4X4 Tradesman Crew Cab with Hemi and six-speed automatic priced from $37,860.
• Least expensive way to get a new vehicle with a Hemi V-8.
• Ram’s coil-spring rear suspension a plus for comfort.
• Originally standard-cab only, since 2013 Tradesman has been offered with all three of Ram’s cabs.
• Lightly optioned standard-cab Tradesmans probably won’t be easy to find on dealer lots.
• Choosing a Crew Cab or Quad Cab significantly increases the starting price.
• On some variants, the eight-speed automatic is an expensive upgrade.
A Hemi-powered Tradesman is meant to work hard, so few will likely make it to old age in excellent condition. The simplest, lowest-priced Tradesman you can find might be the most interesting companion over the long haul, not to mention the quickest.