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2017 Ram Power Wagon first drive

What would Darth Vader look like if he were a truck? The 2017 Dodge Power Wagon

Not all four-wheel drive vehicles are created equal.

It’s easy to equate the availability of four-wheel drive and macho marketing of most pickup trucks with endless off-road capability but, as with any other type of vehicle, certain trucks get the job done better than others.

Ram believes its 2017 Power Wagon stands head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to off roading, just as the massive Power Wagon itself stands head and shoulders above most normal-sized humans. To prove it, Ram took Digital Trends to the desert outside Las Vegas for a day of sand-flinging, rock-crawling action.

What makes a Power Wagon?

The Power Wagon is less a distinct model than it is a collection of parts. Ram took everything it believes should go into an epic off-road vehicle, and applied it to its 2500 heavy-duty pickup truck.

This includes the name, which is borrowed from the original Dodge Power Wagon. Based on a military vehicle Dodge built during World War II, it debuted in civilian guise in 1945 as one of the first mass-produced four-wheel trucks. The name was revived in 2005 for use by Dodge, and continued on with Ram after the truck line was split into a separate brand.

The Power Wagon has continued since then as an off-road of the Ram 2500 truck, which makes it a somewhat unusual beast. It’s the only off-road performance model based on a heavy-duty truck; other off-road pickups are based on smaller half-ton or midsize models. For the 2017 model year, Ram made some notable updates, augmenting largely carryover mechanical bits.

Ram took everything it thought would make an epic off-road vehicle, and applied it to its 2500 heavy-duty pickup truck.

Ram fits the Power Wagon with upgraded suspension that includes Bilstein monotube shocks and over two inches of lift compared to a standard Ram 2500. The Power Wagon also rides on 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires, and includes one standard feature you won’t find on most other trucks: a 12,000-pound Warn electric winch, mounted to the front bumper. This will come in handy if you ever get stuck … or if anyone around you does.

For 2017, Ram also gave the Power Wagon a thorough restyling. A new grille and headlights mimic the look of the Ram 1500 Rebel model, meaning the Power Wagon now looks like it’s wearing pieces of Darth Vader’s mask. A two-tone graphics package is available, with black lower-body striping and vertical “Power Wagon” lettering right behind the cab. At the back, “RAM” is spelled out in 324-point bold font on the tailgate. Subtle.

More: 2016 RAM 1500 Rebel review

With its new styling elements, the Power Wagon certainly looks the part of a tough truck. On the other hand, Ram may have gone a little too far with this one. Luckily, if you love the off-road hardware but hate the styling, you can have all of the Power Wagon equipment on a standard Ram 2500 Tradesman model, but without the Power Wagon visuals.

On the trail

Of course, if you use it the way it was designed, your Power Wagon will be covered in dirt, mud, or sand before long. Ram chose a stretch of Nevada’s Logandale trail system for this test drive, sandy tracks, steep hills, and plenty of rocks to crawl over. How did the Power Wagon do? Hint: we didn’t get stuck even once.

To conquer the rough stuff, the Power Wagon employs some trick suspension, including a disconnecting sway bar. The sway bar helps with handling on the road, but off road it inhibits the ability of the axle to move up and down, which is important when negotiating uneven surfaces. So the Power Wagon’s sway bar — which engages and disengages at the push of a button — offers the best of both worlds.

2017 Ram Power Wagon
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

While the suspension helped the truck negotiate obstacles, the four-wheel drive system kept it moving forward. The Power Wagon features an old-school drive system with a low-range option that lets it crawl along over tricky surfaces. Front and rear lockers force both wheels on each axle to turn at the same speed, which also aids traction. Other heavy-duty pickup trucks offer a rear locker, but Ram claims the Power Wagon is only one that has them in both the front and rear.

The Power Wagon’s aggressive Goodyear Wrangler tires deserve much of the credit as well, and it’s worth noting that, for this off-road excursion, they were aired down from the factory-recommended 65 psi to about 30 psi. That’s something anyone planning to drive in these conditions should do anyway, as it increases the size of the tires’ contact patches, helping them to better grip loose surfaces such as sand.

All of this adds up to a serious off-road machine. The Power Wagon waded through sand with ease, braked itself down steep hills with hill-descent control, and drove up rock faces like they were paved highway on-ramps. Through all this, neither the truck nor this writer broke a sweat.

On the road

For a big truck, the Power Wagon is fairly civilized on the road. Its coil-spring rear suspension helps restrain the bucking and shuddering that usually occurs when driving a pickup truck unloaded, and irons out road bumps pretty well.

The Power Wagon waded through sand with ease and drove up rock faces like they were paved highway on-ramps.

The Power Wagon is offered solely with a 6.4-liter Hemi V8 engine, hooked to a six-speed automatic transmission. The Hemi develops a healthy 410 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque, but there is only so much it can do against the Power Wagon’s 6,996-pound curb weight. All of that torque does do what it can, though.

The interior is largely the same as what you get in any other Ram 2500 truck, meaning it has a sensible layout and nice-looking materials. To jazz things up a bit, the Power Wagon also gets seats with an embossed tire tread pattern. That’s something truck fans will likely appreciate.

The 2017 Ram Power Wagon starts at $53,010. We drove a fully-loaded version with optional features like heated and ventilated leather seats, heated steering wheel, spray-in bedliner, and Uconnect infotainment system with 8.4-inch touchscreen and navigation, price at $62,610. Alternatively, you can get the Ram 2500 Tradesman model with all of the Power Wagon off-road hardware — and not much else — at a starting price of $48,315.

Conclusion

Whichever model you choose, you get a vehicle with great off-road capability, as well as the towing and hauling abilities of a heavy-duty truck.  That makes the Power Wagon an impressive vehicle on paper, but something of a head scratcher in the real world. Unless you regularly tow large loads and drive off road, the Power Wagon is probably overkill. But if you need a vehicle that meets those dual requirements, it’s hard to think of anything else that fits the bill.

Highs

  • Amazing off-road capability
  • All of the capability of a heavy-duty truck
  • Hemi engine’s torque

Lows

  • Not for people who like to fly under the radar
  • All of the weight of a heavy-duty truck
  • The price