WESTLAKE, Calif. — Diesel engines and pickup trucks go together like peanut butter and jelly, but manufacturers have been surprisingly reluctant to put diesels in their light-duty trucks.
And it's not because there's no demand.
Truck buyers love diesels under the hood because they're reliable, long-lasting, fuel efficient and make more trailer-pulling torque than their gasoline counterparts. Until now, though, you could only get diesel power by upgrading to a heavy-duty truck.
If you ask the manufacturers about that, they'll tell you how traditional diesel designs are too heavy to work well in a light-duty chassis and how the government emissions requirements are stricter for the smaller, mass-market, half-ton trucks.
I'm a bit of a conspiracy theorist about it, though. Call me crazy, but I think a bigger reason is that car companies don't want to lose any sales of their pricey, heavy-duty trucks by offering a cheaper diesel model.
In any case, that's all about to change now that Ram is offering a small, fuel-efficient diesel engine in its Ram 1500 line. It's not the giant Cummins diesel from the Ram Heavy Duty, but a compact, 3.0-liter design that's engineered for fuel efficiency.
Ram calls it the EcoDiesel.
After driving several versions of the EcoDiesel, I think Ram could have a huge hit on its hands. Not only is it great for towing — I pulled a big boat up a steep grade without the Ram breaking a sweat — but it's also a lot more refined than you usually expect from a diesel engine.
Everybody is familiar with the loud clackety-clack of diesels that pull up beside you in traffic. With this one, though, those characteristic metallic clangs are almost imperceptible thanks to lots of sound insulation under the hood.
Ram also brought some gasoline trucks to compare it to, and more than once I had to double-check to be sure I was in the diesel version. I just couldn't tell from the sound.
One of the biggest question marks about this truck — and one of the best reasons to buy it, too — is the gas mileage it's going to get. The official government ratings haven't been announced yet, but the folks at Ram swear it's going to be "class-leading" whenever the numbers come out.
That means it should get better fuel economy than the V6 gasoline trucks that are on the market right now, with the added benefit of greater towing capacity. It's rated to tow up to 9,200 pounds, which is approaching the figure you would expect from a big, thirsty, V8 gas engine.
The price premium for the EcoDiesel is also reasonable. It's just $2,850 more than a similarly equipped Ram with a HEMI V8 engine, a price that's low enough to pay for itself in fuel cost savings over time. And given the historically higher resale value of diesel trucks, it could turn out to be an even smarter decision down the road.
Aside from the coolness of the new diesel, I like what this move says about the Ram brand as a whole. This is a company that's been breaking new ground in the pickup market and rolling out innovations before other trucks, like their diesel engine brakes in heavy-duty models and their big-rig styling in the 1990s.
Being the first to put a diesel engine in a light-duty chassis is just another step in that process. It's a smart move on Ram's part because I suspect there's a large, untapped market of people who want to drive a diesel truck but don't want to deal with the drawbacks and expense of a heavy-duty model.
It's been a long wait, but those people finally have their truck.
Derek Price is an independent automotive columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.