During September, Dodge had five teams crisscrossing the country demonstrating its new half-ton Ram pickups. As a previous Ram purchaser, I received an invitation to the traveling event, called “Truckville.” I debated about going because the trucks had changed so little in appearance. But when I arrived, I found out that the trucks had been completely redesigned from the tires on up with all the engineering expertise that DaimlerChrysler could cram into them.

Employees from the Skip Barber high-performance driving school were in each truck to coach drivers on how to push the trucks to their limits. That led to lots of smoking tires and pounding pulses. There was an off-road mud course that was a lot of fun, too. I noticed that even though the new trucks have a lower step-in height, they seem to have higher ground clearance than the older models.

In previous years, the automotive press had concluded that the old Rams were not exactly nimble on the road. One article stated that the Ram “handled like a truck,” and was “worse than any car we've tested.” But the 2002 Rams have flatter cornering, better brakes and more precise steering than any of its truck competitors.

The new Rams also bested the other trucks in a tug of war. The new motors include a 3.7-liter V-6 and a 4.7-liter V8, supplying more torque, faster acceleration and better fuel economy than the larger motors they replace. But if you prefer big, last year's 5.9-liter V8 is still available as an option. The Rams are equipped with standard 17-in. tires or optional 20-in., low-profile tires to get their power to the pavement.

The entire frame of the new track is “hydroformed,” a process in which water pressure is used to form the frame instead of stamping. First used in race cars and German luxury cars, hydroforming enhances durability and performance by making the frame 450% stiffer, allowing closer tolerances on body panel fit, suspension and power-train mounting joints.

In the event of a crash, the front end of the truck is designed to crumple accordion-style to absorb impact. Side-curtain air bags further protect passengers during side collisions.

The large cab is loaded with conveniences. My favorite was the plastic, full-length tool tray behind the seat. This area has enough space for three 5-gal. buckets. I also liked the instrument panel, which features large white-background gauges similar to the ones used in the Chrysler 300M and Dodge Intrepid automobiles.

In my view, the new Dodge Rams now handle and ride as good as or better than many cars on the road. At their heart, though, they are still all truck, made for hauling and pulling. Anyone who buys one will appreciate that the cross-member at the rear of the frame can receive a Class III hitch. A Class IV hitch is also an option. A wiring outlet for a trailer is standard, so drivers behind you will know when you step on the large four-wheel disc brakes.

Options include power adjustable brake and gas pedal, HomeLink transceiver, keyless entry, steering wheel radio controls and heated seats. Dodge says to look for the three-quarter-ton and one-ton models in about a year.