BangShift Test Drive: 2016 Ram 1500 Tradesman Hemi – The Best Option For A Late-Model Build Or A Stripped Penalty Box?

BangShift Test Drive: 2016 Ram 1500 Tradesman Hemi – The Best Option For A Late-Model Build Or A Stripped Penalty Box?

I know what you are thinking and I’ll spare you asking it yourself: why in the hell would I bother testing a two-year-old stripper work truck? Well, it comes down to a couple of facts that are prevalent in today’s world of new automobiles:

  1. The pickup truck is one of, if not the most popular choice for a new vehicle.
  2. The pickup truck sports the most desirable engine choices that are available for bread-and-butter vehicles in the lineup.
  3. The pickup truck can still be had for easily accessible money, IF the buyer is willing to forgo some luxuries.

We can make cracks at $70,000 ultra-luxury diesel pickups all day long, but if you go hunting in the work-oriented half-ton segment of the Big Three’s selection, you can find deals. And I’m not kidding about forgoing luxuries in the least…we are talking rent-a-truck basic trim packages, with the lightest weight and an engine that might feel a little bit better than it would in the more typical mid-range optioned lot trucks you’d find for sale. I’ve wanted to get my hands on a super-stripper with a good engine package for a bit now to showcase how it might be wiser to build up a half-ton that’s fairly new, and lo and behold, the other day I found my mark: a two-year-old Ram 1500 Tradesman, powered by the same 5.7L Hemi V8 that I live with daily, in a regular-cab shortbed configuration with exactly two options TOTAL on it’s original sticker, the 5.7L Hemi and the TorqueFlite 8 automatic tranmission. The truck was sitting on the lot at Campbell Chevrolet in Bowling Green and any way you looked at it, the feel was “low-buck” with only the Hemi badge keeping me from walking away. Brand new, this thing stickered for $28,990 out the door, and if it sat on the lot for a bit, you could have probably worked the dealership down nicely. As you see the truck in the photos, it’s up for sale for $16,809. So what is this thing: a penalty box with an engine worth saving or is this sleeper fodder? Scroll on to see what I think…

This 2016 Tradesman is the perfect used-car lot refugee: it’s not attractive enough to hold onto for a buyer who will pay full price and it’s not so visually arresting that it’s ok on looks alone. It still looks like the low-rent pickup truck that had trouble selling, and if it weren’t for the Hemi badges, you could assume V6 fleet special.

With only 28,700 miles on the clock, this Ram had barely been broken in and we suspect that it got traded in after the buyer decided that there just wasn’t enough comfort to justify keeping the truck. price alone qualifies this Ram as a build candidate if we’ve ever seen one. It’s not like this will be crossing the block at Barrett-Jackson anytime soon…

The 5.7L Hemi is just drowning in that engine bay! This is the version with MDS (cylinder deactivation) and VVT (variable valve timing) and in stock form, was rated at 395 horsepower and 410 ft/lbs of torque. Unfortunately, even the most basic Ram is heavy at 4,710 pounds, so we suggest some work under the hood. At least you’ll be able to work in here…hell, you could swim in here if need be, and there’s room for plumbing…or headers…or even turbochargers if you’re good.

Compared to the 20″ wheels we are used to seeing, these 17×7 steel wheels with chrome plate covers look absolutely dinky by comparison…or perfect for a slick if you are of that mindset. Tires are Goodyear Wrangler SR-As in 265/70R17.

Spray-in bedliner is always an attractive option. So is the 26 gallon fuel tank and the Class IV hit with wiring connections. If you have to have a truck, have a useful one.

Rear axle is a Chrysler 9.25″ unit that is packing 3.21 gears. There’s enough power from the Hemi to lay waste to the tires in stock form, but from a standing start I couldn’t help but want deeper gears…at least 3.73, more like 4.10. The spread of gears in the TorqueFlite 8 encourages that kind of decision making.

Vinyl seats, vinyl floors, crank windows, manual locks, and not one button on the keyfob. I don’t think I’ve seen a Ram optioned like that since 1993. It’s not that it’s a bad place to be…it’s just strange after seeing hundreds of thousands of Rams loaded with leather seats, soft-touch materials on the panels, and gigantic infotainment screens, but that’s why the Tradesman was so budget-friendly in the first place. Everything you need, nothing you don’t. Gauges are clear, steering wheel feels good, and there’s more than enough room to stretch out.

In case you were wondering, that’s the most basic sound system available. I will say that the speakers need an immediate upgrade. At first, i was ready to moan about not having satellite radio, one of the few late-model gadgets I’ve grown to love, but there’s an answer for that…

…and that is to plug the phone up via the USB port for power and use the AUX cord to run sound into the truck. Since I stream from an older phone in my shop anyways, problem solved here. All of this is in the console.

You know, the gigantic console that has been a Dodge/Ram hallmark since 1994? It’s a nice storage space, one of a few in the Tradesman, and there are other power outlets to be used as well, and the behind-the-seat storage bin is handy, too. The only reason to miss an extended-cab truck is if you want to haul more than one passenger with you.

Rotary knobs, everywhere. In the case of the transmission, that means that the TorqueFlite 8 automatic was optioned instead of the 65RFE six-speed automatic. Luckily, the test truck was not equipped with stop-start, but FCA has been good about putting a defeat button in to shut that stupidity off. The 8-speed is a good transmission, eager to keep the engine in a good powerband and strong enough to take a thumping. The transmission is shiftable, but the shift-up and shift-down buttons are on the steering wheel. I’d be looking for add-on paddle shifters to take full advantage of that feature. Note: traction off switch.

You have two options when it comes to interior comfort: forward/backwards and seatback inclination. That’s it. No 21-way adjustable seat with individual cheek warmer and summertime crotch cooling here!

The last time I found a reasonably modern vehicles with crank windows, a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, I celebrated. It made sense in a Jeep. But what about a cheap pickup truck that should be destined to be a street sweeper? Do they work well?

Answer: no sir, I didn’t like it. The crank handles were an afterthought at best. They functioned fine, but during operation you punched the seat bolster and I punched myself in the thigh with every revolution and they are mounted low on the door.

By far, the Tradesman is the perfect start for something wicked. A 5.7L engine can make stupid power when worked properly…shut down the VVT system, eliminate the MDS cylinder deactivation setup, add a cam and decent exhaust, and you’ll be on your way. The Tradesman really needed two things: deeper gears and a serious brake upgrade. I know that a 4,700 pound truck won’t stop on a dime, but the competency of the brakes end when you start driving spiritedly.

So what’s the verdict here? If you’re old enough to remember when having air-conditioning was an expensive luxury and remember the fun days of fixed seatbacks, the Tradesman shouldn’t bother you in the least. If you’ve grown accustomed to the luxuries and will get pissed off cranking up the windows, then you might want to look elsewhere. I enjoyed the truck, even with the crank windows. It was quiet…maybe too quiet, in fact…it tracked well, and when I did push it, it stomped for something that weighs this much. I’d debadge the side emblems in a half-second and start looking for a lightweight wheel/tire package, and start planning a turbocharged build for the Hemi if racing it was the goal. But what the Tradesman really does well is undercut a lot of vehicles on price. Seventeen grand for a truck with this engine is very, very hard to pass up, even if all you can afford to do is put pipes on it. I’m curious to see what you guys think about this one…and keep in mind, this works for Chevy/GMC and Ford, too. Could you handle rental-spec interiors with a good engine choice?

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14 thoughts on “BangShift Test Drive: 2016 Ram 1500 Tradesman Hemi – The Best Option For A Late-Model Build Or A Stripped Penalty Box?

  1. Robert

    Impressive. I didnt know you could still get a truck like this without all the extra stuff nobody really needs. Probably have to special order it because all the local dealers have here is the mega expensive versions.

  2. Whelk

    My Dakota has crank windows too. Generally just leave the windows alone. This Tradesman looks like a nice piece, only suffering from the flaw of all the modern pickups in that it’s just too darn large. Still, if I were in the market for a truck I’d definitely look at this one.

  3. jerry z

    A few years ago was looking at these trucks. Year end clearance sales had the in the low 20’s! These have better leg room than Ford or Chevy in regular cab form.

  4. Greg

    Somebody agreed with you, it seems to be gone.
    Our Chevy work trucks also have crank windows, they are awkward and the cranks break off.

  5. Goldsboro Skelton

    I had the same idea some years ago. SB regular cab 2wd Silverado with 5.3, 4wdb, G80, tow package. Stupidly cheap compared to most modern pickups and well supported in the aftermarket. Super reliable over time and makes a perfectly good daily driver.

  6. Dan

    I am a Blue Oval guy since birth. I detailed one of these for a car dealership a couple months ago, thought it was a good truck. I daily drive a 07 P71 Crown Vic, so Im used to the “fleet” feel and look. Id probably buy one over an F150 right now.

  7. AndyB

    A few ideas:

    If you’re like me, and bemoan that all pickups are bigger and bigger and bigger… Imagine for an instant that there was a Ford Ranger with the 3.5L bi-turbo motor? Yes, I’m wet also. Double that if you could get a longbed version. Hell, even the 2.7L is a stonkin motor if it wasn’t dragging around a zillion useless pounds of crap.

    It’s a Dodge. Where’s the puddle of oil under it? (Okay, cheap shot, but it’s earned… long story.)

    Nevermind the stupid window cranks. Proper pickups have manual windows. Unfortunately, they also USED to have those kickass vents where you could direct a big blast of cool air to your shins and knees. Give me those and proper quarter windows and I’d actually try to convince the wife to buy a truck new instead of used!

    While we’re complaining, why is the headlight brights switch not on the floor anymore? I do miss that…

    While I’m pissing and moaning, am I the only person that wants 4×4 capacity but I don’t really need the associate 4″ lift all around? I want to turn all the wheels under power, but I’d like to have a reasonable ride height becuase the lower it is, the easier it is to load. If i’m pushing my racebike into the bed, I’d be just as happy to have it sit at the stock 2wd height. Maybe it’s just me! Give me supplemental anti-bottoming airbags like the 60’s El Camino, and save me the effort of pushing a 500lb machine uphill!

    I guess there’s a reason why I wound up not buying a truck when I needed a new ride. Wound up with a hatchback, because it’s as useful in stock form.

  8. Jeepinmike

    My dad had just bought one of these before he passed away. It would have been a 2010 or so, but same truck really. It was a special order or something, it had a few options i recall, painted trim, chrome bumpers, and carpet. The thing was a riot to drive around, wish I had the $$ to keep it.

  9. 3nine6

    Love it, even if it is a Mopar.! Own 2 F-150’s. An ’01 and an ’03. Both are ex-fleet vehicles and the ’01 is a 5 speed. Roll up windows, A/C, rubber floor and a stereo are all I need. Can you still order trucks like that?

  10. aussie351

    Why are your pickups so big? It’s only rated at half-tonne, yet it’s huge!
    Are Americans all 8 ft tall? How do you get stuff over the side and back out again?
    Australian utes make so much more sense….
    Oh, and our “half-tonners” are available with inline Turbo sixes, and 6.2 LS’s, and Boss 5.4s, and Supercharged 5.0 Coyotes…..

    1. Bryan McTaggart Post author

      …and are either horrifically expensive because they are classic, beaten beyond reproach, or won’t be legal for at least another twenty years…

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