Punishment Makes Perfect

Inside the Extreme Durability Testing of the 2021 Ram 1500 TRX

Designers and engineers behind the 2021 Ram 1500 TRX — that 702-horsepower, desert-running sensation — envisioned a pickup that could go anywhere, quickly and durably. To prove it, Ram Trucks tested the TRX pretty much everywhere: the Sahara-like dunes of Glamis, California, in scorching summer heat. The thin-air Eisenhower Pass of Colorado, towing trailers up and down perilous mountain grades. The desolate Mojave Desert; the off-road mecca of Moab, Utah; and popular recreational trails near Lake Michigan. Oh, and a unique TRX test track carved out of Ram Trucks’ Arizona Proving Grounds, for grueling days and thousands of miles of whoops and washboards.

To pickup fans who aspire to the supercharged, HEMI®-powered beast they’ve dubbed “T-Rex,” that sounds like a dream job, and an epic adventure. And Ram engineers say the TRX is as thrilling as it looks, whether it’s crawling over obstacles, hammering through sagebrush country, or just picking up a pint of ice cream for the family. But all those road trips and torture testing had a serious aim: To create a no-compromises adventure truck. A Ram that gets into and out of the toughest terrain, safely and reliably, yet is still comfortable and luxurious around town.

“The Ram 1500 set the bar for city and highway comfort, so we didn’t want to lose that,” says Dan Stagner, TRX vehicle integration manager. “But we wanted to add specific ‘fun’ modes, like Baja Mode. The grand philosophy is that there should be a mode for any driving condition.”

Achieving that took brains, brawn and tortuous durability trials across America’s toughest terrains to capture the style of driving TRX customers would encounter. But first, Ram Trucks would have to create a truck that could meet — and conquer — the daunting challenge.

TRX Drive Modes: The Brain of the Beast

For the quickest, fastest, most powerful pickup truck in the world (based on 0–60, top speed, HP and torque) — and the most technologically advanced Ram ever built — the nerve center for that fun is a new Drive Mode selector. Linked to data-rich pictograms on the 12-inch Uconnect touchscreen, that dashboard Drive Mode selector adjusts onboard systems to optimize performance in any terrain or ambient conditions. They include three dynamic off-road modes for Mud/Sand, Rock and Baja. Already the buzz of the pickup world, that Baja Mode calibrates the adaptive Bilstein suspension, beefy BorgWarner 4x4 transfer case, electric steering, paddle shifters and stability control for ultimate desert performance — including a 25/75 power split between front and rear wheels to maximize grip and acceleration on loose and undulating surfaces.

Jeff Roselli, Chief Engineer on TRX, says Baja Mode also loosens the leash of electronic stability control, freeing experienced drivers to “kick the tail out” and slide the truck, while still maintaining safety oversight. It adjusts the eight-speed automatic transmission to hold engine rpms higher and avoid unwanted upshifts, keeping the 6.2-liter Supercharged HEMI V8 in its sweet spot for instant response and hang-on-tight acceleration. The TRX even knows when to adjust systems to avoid sudden power spikes and safeguard the engine.

“Baja Mode is a blast,” Roselli says. “In that type of driving, you want to be able to hit larger bumps and maintain comfort and control.”

First Test: Pushing Baja Mode to the Limit in AZ

Tuning and integrating all those systems for no-excuses performance and durability demanded a high new bar in real-world and track testing. The TRX team traveled to the Mint 400 rally in Las Vegas, gaining critical feedback from off-road pros and Ram customers. To ensure the TRX would meet the expectations of those most extreme desert racers, engineers for Ram Trucks built the most extreme test track: The “Extreme Off Road (XOR) Durability Test” module at the company’s Proving Grounds in Yucca, Arizona.

The wicked off-road gauntlet includes ruts, washouts, elevation changes and a gravel straightaway where test speeds can approach the TRX’s 118-mph top speed. Specially trained and certified TRX test drivers are secured in five-point harnesses tied to roll bars. Every TRX test truck undergoes the same strenuous durability cycle as a standard Ram 1500. Then comes several thousand additional miles of hardcore punishment on the course, typically from sunup to sundown. Stagner says the track design was based on road-load data acquisition from multiple off-road locations, and surveys of desert- and off-road enthusiasts.

“It was all based on that understanding of how customers used their trucks,” Stagner says. “It needed to be a controlled, repeatable area, so if we made changes, we could identify where we had issues and resolve them.”

The TRX’s beefed-up suspension — including adaptive Bilstein BlackHawk e2 shock absorbers — soaked up all the punishment the team could dish out. The Bilsteins bring 2.5-inch diameter, nitrogen-charged remote reservoirs and a half-dozen vibration and travel sensors to detect surfaces and adjust damping on-the-fly.

“One big change, early, was going to those high-compression shocks, driven by our first experience without them,” Stagner says. “The loads you see are huge in a 6,400-pound truck, and those shocks are hugely capable in compression and damping force.”

Yet owners can have their off-road cake and eat it, too, perhaps at an upscale city restaurant: Shock damping can be selected for any scenario, including the creamy on-road comfort that’s a signature of Ram Trucks’ coil-spring rear suspension. Coupling that ride smoothness with interior options that feature aspects of the Ram 1500 Limited round out the TRX’s Jekyll-and-Hyde, daily-driver persona.

As for the TRX’s suspension and chassis, it must also meet the muscular demands of a monstrous 702-horsepower HEMI V8, an engine that can hustle the TRX from 0–60 mph in 4.5 seconds.

“With big horsepower, big torque and a lot of speed capability, it really needs to be able to handle the punishment,” Stagner says.

Next Up: Throwing Down in Rock Mode at Moab

Beyond Arizona, TRX engineers filled a travelogue’s worth of destinations. That included the forbidding lunar landscape of Moab, among the world’s most famous off-road destinations. There, the crew applied a strategy that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever eyeballed a gnarly off-road obstacle:

“They basically went into anything they thought they could get back out of,” Stagner says, smiling.

Roselli says Moab’s fabled, wind-hewn slick rock offered “an extreme traction test,” for the controllability of the fabled, Hellcat-based HEMI even in the low-range setting of the burly, BorgWarner 4x4 transfer case.

“How do you not spit rocks into the next county when you’re trying to go up and over obstacles?” Roselli asks. “The TRX is designed to move very fast across the desert, but some customers will run it very slow.”

Engineers say the literally lofty off-road specs, including 11.8 inches of ground clearance and more than 13 inches of wheel travel — 40% more than a standard Ram 1500 — drove multiple upgrades to the TRX frame and body. They include a thicker, steel ladder frame with 74% new components. Dramatically flared fenders and wheel arches fit soaring, 35-inch Goodyear Wrangler Territory All-Terrain off-road tires specially developed for the TRX.

Roselli says the tires’ tread pattern “had to be knobby enough to get traction over craggy rocks,” but not so knobby that it roars like a banshee on the freeway.

Roselli agrees there’s no replacement for testing in conditions that mimic the way owners actually use their trucks, over years and tens of thousands of miles.

“It’s one thing to see the suspension travel with a computer model, but to see what happens on the real vehicle is huge,” Roselli says. “Having that real-world controlled environment to understand and tweak the truck, that’s where those things really come in handy.”

Dusting It Up in Sand Mode at Glamis

Next, the TRX team set course for Glamis — with plenty of water aboard. Perched between the Salton Sea and the Mexican border in California, Glamis is America’s biggest off-road mecca on sand, a 40-mile long band of spectacular dunes, formed by winds from the ancient Lake Cahuilla.

“The biggest, steepest dune climbs we’ve done were at Glamis, and that park is just amazing,” Stagner says of dunes that rise more than 300 feet from the desert floor. “There’s nothing on sand that we couldn’t do there.”

But the engineers avoided the off-roading hordes that flock to Glamis in cooler months. Instead, they tested the TRX’s dune-bashing skills in the blistering summer desert, including daytime temperatures that average 107 degrees in July. The heat helped validate the TRX’s capability in extreme conditions. And the stunning dunes helped develop and tune the Mud/Sand mode. That dynamic mode summons a rear-biased torque split of 45% of power to front wheels, 55% to the rear, to help drivers churn through low-traction sand or mud. Electronic throttle management and torque is optimized to quell unwanted wheel slip and boost traction.

This extreme desert crucible aside, testing in summer months brought a useful side benefit: With the tourists long gone to cooler locales, engineers could better keep their precious TRX prototypes under wraps before its official debut.

“There were not a lot of eyes on us,” Stagner says.

The Lawrence-of-Arabia environment was also ideal for optimizing airflow to the, 6.2-liter Supercharged HEMI V8, via the TRX’s menacing, functional hood scoop. And engineers still weren’t done, designing an air filtration system for the TRX’s innovative dual-path induction system that captures four times as much dirt and debris material as the rival, previous-generation Ford Raptor.

“There’s a lot of owner expectation to be able to spend the whole day outside in a desert environment,” Stagner says. “That comes with a lot of dust, and we wanted to protect our beautiful, supercharged HEMI.”

No Pain, No Gain: The Final Frontier

Of course, give determined engineers at Ram Trucks a challenge to break a vehicle in abusive testing, and it may break eventually. Stagner recalls the crew racing a TRX test mule at triple-digit speeds across a dry lake bed, en route from Barstow, California, and nailing some whoops that bent a suspension tie rod.

“We had to use rocks as a workbench and as big a hammer as we could find to straighten the tie rod and get back on the road. No tow truck was going to come and get us,” he recalls.

Yet the experience sent these skilled engineers back to the drawing board, with a suspension redesign to better handle the nastiest surprises a road can dish out. That underlines the critical value of extreme testing and the quality and durability baked into every TRX: Its development team was determined to push the truck beyond its formidable limits so they could expand those limits even further. The Ram 1500 TRX was designed, bolt by bolt, to outperform any off-road rival. Its creators were willing to break this toughest of trucks, to ensure TRX owners can drive with unbreakable confidence.