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First Drive: 2017 Ram 1500 Rebel

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2017-05-16 Lesley Wimbush
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SEDONA, Ariz. – It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were flogging the Ram Power Wagon in the Mojave desert, clambering over boulders the size of garden sheds, and picking our way down through canyons as if we were pachyderm versions of mountain goats. And now here we are – one of only two Rebels in a convoy of Power Wagons, on a quest to see if Ram’s smaller off-roader has what it takes to keep up with its mighty big brothers.

Ours is the Rebel Mohave Sand model, a limited edition of only 1,500 units. It’s distinguished by such exclusive features as taupe paint, a contrasting black hood and roof with matching decals, and unique interior trimmings, including a black anodized instrument panel, console and door bezels. It definitely projects a certain swagger, rolling on black rims and wearing a blacked-out, powder-coated grille. Knobby tires and black bolt-on fender flares round out the tough, rock-crawler image on the outside. Inside, instead of the red upholstery in the regular Rebel, the Mojave’s seats are either black leather with contrasting grey stitching, or cloth with embossed tread pattern.

While regular Rebels come standard with FCA’s 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 good for 305 horsepower, the Mojave’s got the 5.7L V8 Hemi, producing 395 horsepower and 410 lb.-ft. of torque, and mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. At all four corners are Ram’s air suspension and beefy Bilstein shocks, while its underbelly is protected by tough skid plates. Rear axle ratio is the optional 3.92, and includes a limited-slip differential.

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After a short jaunt up Highway 89 from Flagstaff, we leave the pavement somewhere near Jerome and head into the Sedona Desert. Heading up our troupe is the eminently capable Nena Barlowe, owner of two Jeep expedition companies and a 24-year veteran off-roader. One of only 60 Jeep instructors in the world to be certified by the International 4WD Trainers Association, she’s also the only woman ever to have done so. Having safely navigated us through what even the hardcore off-roaders among us considered a spectacularly difficult route with the Power Wagon expedition, we felt confident that we were in capable hands.

Once we’d left the pavement and were on the trail head, we dropped the tire pressure of our Toyo all-terrain tires from 55 to 45 psi, to give them more malleability and grip on rough surfaces. It’s not really advisable to run them so low while on paved roads, since the squirmier tires not only have an adverse effect on the vehicle’s steering and handling, but can actually pull free of the rim. But out here, the softer tire can mould itself around the rubble as deftly as a chameleon on a knobby branch.

Unlike Arizona’s desert lowlands, the Sedona region is surrounded by nearly 2 million acres of towering forest – the largest stand of Ponderosa Pine in the world. But it’s also an area of great elevation changes, ranging from 2,600 feet (800 metres) to 12,633 ft (3,851 metres) with an equally diverse selection of both vegetation and geology. Fields of wiry golden grasses and prickly pear cactus gave way to red earth and sage brush as we made our way up toward House Mountain.

The Power Wagon had a bit of a power advantage with its 6.4L Hemi V8 with 410 horsepower, but it’s more than offset by a 8,510-pound curb weight versus 5,387 for the Rebel. And without the heavy frame and beefier suspension components of the larger heavy-duty truck, the Rebel’s a much more agreeable daily driver. But can it keep up to the Power Wagon out here? 

Certainly the Power Wagon boasts more genuine off-roading credentials, with its 12,000-lb. winch, electronically disconnecting sway bars, front and rear locking differentials and 4.10 axles. But equally important is its maximum ground clearance of 14.3 inches versus the Rebel’s 10.3; that gives the Power Wagon a major advantage as a rock crawler. So far, we’ve had little difficulty – but the terrain is becoming more rugged as we work our way up the mountain. Ahead of us is a steep foothill strewn with rocks and step-like rock ledges on the descent.

We put the Rebel in 4Lo, using a rotary dial instead of the Power Wagon’s dedicated transfer case shifter, and headed up the slope. Despite its lack of locking differentials, we had no trouble climbing, although we had to be more careful choosing our line to avoid the larger rocks. On the way down, we used the gear selector stalk on the steering wheel to control our speed and stay off the brakes, since the Rebel hasn’t got the hill descent control feature of the Power Wagon.

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The rock ledges proved challenging and more than once there was the wince-inducing squeal of metal on rock as the side steps scraped the ledges – but the $700 tubular rails were a lot cheaper than fixing rocker panels. There were plenty of steep verticals and precarious downward slopes on our gradual ascent of the mountain, yet the Rebel had no trouble following the Power Wagons over them all. Eventually we reached the summit of House Mountain, a 5,131-foot volcanic peak with spectacular views of the Sedona Canyon and snow-capped San Francisco Peaks. Our trucks, aside from their coating of fine red dust, bore the tell-tale “desert pinstripes” down their flanks – hairline scratches from the wiry sage brush and twisted juniper branches.

Overall, our Rebel acquitted itself rather well over the challenging trail. But our route lacked the hard-core rock-climbing element of our previous outing with the Power Wagon. The secret to Rubicon-trail levels of rock-crawling prowess lies in axle articulation; the Power Wagon’s front axle features an extra joint called “Articulink” that increases its range of motion – and its electronically disconnecting sway bars give the truck 26 inches of articulation. This lets the truck’s wheels move at extreme angles apart from the chassis, so dropping a wheel into a deep hole causes no damage to its body.

Still, the Rebel is more than capable of fulfilling most people’s off-roading needs, and is a lot more comfortable and manoeuvrable on-road than the heavy-duty Power Wagon. And at $55,195 for the base price – or roughly $62,000 as tested – versus the Power Wagon’s starting price of $58,949, the Ram Rebel is more than enough for the weekend off-roader.

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