RAM to Dodge City

We take the biggest utility available new in New Zealand to a destination befitting its birthright.


For: Exceptional towing ability, superb RHD conversion, massively characterful.

Against: Massive enough to be humbled by town, fuel burn.

WE hit town at noon and it was real quiet.

Everything was open – the bank, the saloon, the saddlery, the shops – and, carrying on the wind, a cowboy ballad. Gene Pitney? But not a soul to be seen and nothing was moving. Not even a tumbleweed. Eerie.

I sent my deputies down the main street, their boots crunching on the gravel, while I looked into the barn beside where we’d hitched up.

Behind. Noise. I tensed and turned, in one fluid movement, crouching slightly, eyes squinting to shut out the sunlight’s glare. There. A dog. It barked, once, then turned toward the cottage up yonder. I followed.

Just as I reached the stoop, the door opened. There he was … the man I’d come so far to meet for a showdown.

He was tall, bearded, watchful, silent. I’d imagined he’d be in black, wearing a Stetson, maybe slinging a Winchester. Instead, he was in camo, carrying – gulp – a large knife. The blade glistened red.

“Name’s Richard,” I said, extending my right hand, slow and easy. “You’ve probably heard of me. Sorry, we’re late. Took a wrong turn.”

The guy I knew only as ‘the caretaker’ said nothing at first. Just stared, with the kind of look you’d imagine from a fella who’d seen too many good men fall to a blazing Colt. Then he smiled.

“Yeah, thought you’d be here at 11, like arranged. Doesn’t matter. Everything’s ready. The town’s yours.”

Then, on spying our wagon … “shit, that’s a BIG truck.”

Dang right. Actually, in New Zealand, there’s no bigger, brawnier ute available new than the Dodge Ram 2500 4x4.

The triple beef patty and extra cheese of traydecks, so substantial and heavy at 3.5 tonnes as to be a hair from demanding its driver to hold a truck licence, is mainly here because with Kiwis now setting the per-head-of-population standard for ute-buying, the market has become irresistible.

Utes (and SUVs) have been hogging the monthly new vehicle registrations counts for two years now.

This Klondike condition has been especially brilliant for Ford, whose Ranger – consistently the hottest ride for months – was responsible for 70 percent of its total vehicle sales last year, though every player has probably been winning. Sooner or later, this has to end … but for now, big is just getting bigger.

And now the biggest ever is taking up a slice of this territory, with importer Fiat Chrysler New Zealand perceiving those market-favoured one-tonners – even those that, in current form, are larger than their predecessors and have stronger towing ability, up to 3.5 tonnes – are still not big or brawny enough for all tastes.

The RAM obviously is. In every way. You think the biggest of the local breed, Ford’s sales giant, is too big now? Sticking it next to the RAM is a sobering exercise in cutting it down to size. The Blue Oval rig is noticeably narrower, shorter and requires a 10-gallon hat to achieve the same height as the swaggering American hero. How big? At a shade over 1.8 metres in height, I’m usually untroubled swinging into ute cabins. But even for me, this one is a climb, requiring a hand on the grab handle and a foot on the side step.

The American entry’s engine capacity and outputs also severely punish those local favourites. That biggest-in-class Cummins 7.7-litre makes decent power – some 276kW – but it’s the muscle that sells. At an incredible 1084Nm at peak is almost treble the torque generated by Ford’s much-admired five-pot 3.2-litre.

The towing rating also humbles. While the payload is only 913kg, the towing capacity is a whopping 6989kg when using a pintle attachment. With a 70mm tow ball its capacity is reduced to 4500kg and 3500kg with the standard 50mm tow ball.

Basically, you could conceivably wagon train a Ranger to a Hilux to a Colorado and haul ‘em all. Failing that, a large cabin cruiser or perhaps a giant caravan will do.

The primary challenges are all size-related: The thirst, the dimensions – advice to those thinking of parking in town is to get in early as it fully fills spots – and so on. Then there’s the sticker; $164,990 as tested would also almost pay for an example of each of the top three one-tonners, though perhaps not in their optimum specifications.

You’ll wonder why a right-hook RAM costs so much more it’s equivalent available Stateside. Well, because it’s right hook. Exchange rates and shipping also impact, but basically because America doesn’t build RAM trucks in right-hand drive, it’s up to a neighbour to undertake the surgery.

American Special Vehicles (ASV), an Australian joint venture between Walkinshaw Automotive Group (yes, the HSV people) and Ateco Automotive, which is also the Kiwi importer for FCA, wields the scalpel.

Putting the steering column on the other side of the cabin is no easy task, but the result is hardly a medical misadventure. Honest, if you didn’t know any different, you’d think the thing was born that way.

It helps that part of the procedure is to fit a whole new dash, a moulded section made by the same company that makes the dashboards for the Camry in Australia, a contract that presumably concludes when the Toyota plant shuts up in less than two months.

The foot park brake has had to be relocated on the right foot side of the drivers foot well, sited awkwardly high for this tall bloke, and the six speed’s almost wrist-thick column shift gear selector is on the right-hand side of the steering column. But it’s a job neatly done; the driving position feels right, not least due to efforts of the pedal set-up having been properly re-done for RHD. ASV has even re-engineered the footwell to allow for a footrest. Nice.

Anyway, it’s a daft and highly characterful old thing that we hankered to experience and, when FCA NZ offered opportunity, we had a brilliantly daft idea about what exactly to do with it.

Great vehicles deserve great destinations, right? The locale was a place I’d hoped to see ever since having heard whisper about it years ago. All it needed was the ‘right’ vehicle. This was assuredly just the right vehicle.

People everywhere love the mythos of the American Wild West, right? There’s just something about the rugged individualism, glorification of freedom, honour and true grit.

Potentially, some of the best Western towns aren’t in the States. They’re in Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France. And right here in New Zealand.

The Kiwi cowboy town is a place by the name of Mellonsfolly Ranch. Built in 2006, this place is exactly as you’d expect an old west town to be like: There’s a whole bunch of buildings that look to have been plucked straight out of 1880s’ Wyoming. These aren’t mere frontages, either but fully working buildings, every one decked out with authentic fittings; right down to the smallest intricate detail. Well, you can see for yourself in the attached video.

Originally built by Wild West enthusiast and New Zealand multi-millionaires John and Kenda Bedogn, and now in the hands of Whanganui identity and business success Robert Bartley, this incredible property is something we can all immerse into, being a resort you spend the weekend, or longer, to enjoy.

The idea is that hirers helicopter or drive in, dress up appropriately – no need to bring gear, they’ve got it all; there – then play at being Wyatt Earp or Calamity Jane or whoever your favourite celluloid cowpoke might be.

They’ve had their fair share of John Waynes, Henry Fondas and – from my generation – Clint Eastwoods, Terence Hills and Bud Spencers drawing down on Main Street and knocking back shots in the Lucky Strike Saloon, before robbing the bank and paying the price in the court house next door.

It needn’t be a gun-slingin’ thing, of course. There’s lots to do on the Ranch, from riding a horse trail, trying your hand with a bow and arrow, horseshoe throwing, whip cracking and exploring a (fake) gold mine at the end of town.

For sure, there IS a lot of opportunity for gun play, using everything from an air pistol to the real thing. It’s all professionally supervised, so even the baddest dudes get out alive, and, apparently, the black powder cannon I spy in the saddlery is only for the hired top guns.

Taking the RAM to Dodge – yeah, a stretch of a working headline given that the brands officially separated in 2010 (but, to me, that's marketing semantic: Once a Dodge, ALWAYS a Dodge) – was cemented when we learned ours was a Laramie, surely therefore the true cowboy model.

I was correct in thinking that Mellonsfolly was closed for the winter. I was wrong in imagining getting access would be all the more difficult because of this. Robert was happy to open the place up just for us and quite apologetic that he couldn’t be there in person to provide a guided tour.

Getting there? Yeah, more of a challenge. Mellonsfolly is in a fairly remote setting, at the top of the Ruatiti Valley, which in turn is in the heart of the Waimarino, central North Island.

The 400 hectare range sites in a bush clad setting, with the Whanganui River less than a hours’ horse ride but out of sight, to the left. From the ridgeline to the right is Tongariro National Park.

There’s one road in, which accesses off State Highway Four between Raetihi and National Park (not, as I thought, between Raetihi and Ohakune – hence my lateness). Only the first third is sealed; thereafter it narrows and is gravelled. Or worse. The back end, Robert warned, was potentially not in the best state, due to recent flooding having washed out the approach to the last of five bridges. He’d heard access had been reinstated, but “it could be a bit gnarly.” It was.

Reaching Raetihi could have been tougher, because the most direct route, the Parapara Highway – which I wanted to take because the videographer/drone operator, Hunter, and photographer, Lewis, both live in the River City - had been closed all week by storm damage. Fortunately, it opened on the morning of our trek.

Keeping to timetable meant a pre-dawn start from my start from my Manawatu home. As forecast, the day was clear but bitterly cold. The big rig was coated in frost with the outside temp display suggesting an air temp of minus three.

Fortunately, while the Laramie ain’t limo flash – the whole cabin is rendered in emphatically blue collar materials, primarily cheap but robust plastics –  the big leather front seats are heated and cooled and it has a heated steering wheel.

There’s also climate control and an Alpine stereo, which along with the Bluetooth, sat nav, firearms registry (no, just kidding) and – though I only learned about this afterward, a trailer and engine braking control – operates via the same colour 8.4 inch Uconnect touchscreen found on other products within the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) family. The stereo puts out mighty fine sounds when pumping out the only two kinds of music RAM faithful presumably recognise. Them’s being ‘country’ and ‘western’.

It’s simple but has some smarts. Because this truck dates back to 2008, it precludes those schmanzy driver assists now coming to the one-tonners like blind spot alert, collision warning, traction and stability control, but isn’t bereft of electronic safety aids. Stability control with a trailer sway mitigation function, ABS, front, front-side and curtain airbags and a tyre pressure monitoring system are all on board.

Twenty nine kays down the road from the Bossel-Ranch, it was time for a drink; hot coffee for me, $70 worth of fuel for the truck. By then it had clocked 130kms in my hands, a lot on the open road, and the gauge was showing the 117- litre tank to be half full. Even though the trip computer range estimated I had enough left to make the trip ahead, I didn’t want to take any chances running low on in an area when there’s no servoes let alone cell reception.

Discovering it to be one of those rare oilers that drinks diesel as if it were petrol hit me hard. For sure, this cast-iron turbodiesel heart is super-sized, yet I had hoped that because it beats so slowly - thumping out at just 1200rpm at 100kmh – it might also be a thoughtful sipper.

But reality is that the Big Gulp ideal transcends the size of the cupholders. More incredibly, my overall test period average of 14.9 litres per 100km was considered by one far more familiar with this rig to be reasonably good for the type. One quirk is that it didn’t seem to be any thirstier hauling a load – in my trial, a hefty tandem trailer holding my 900kg MX-5 race car - or when running in four-wheel-drive (which seemed prudent on the gravel) than when open road cruising on seal.

The 24-valve engine isn’t exactly hillbilly dumb. It’s fed by high-pressure injection and a variable-geometry turbocharger and uses a particle filter and what Ram calls a ‘next generation’ diesel exhaust fluid urea SCR system to clean up oxides of nitrogen emissions.

In any ordinary ute, packing three guys and a pile of camera gear into the cabin might have been a challenge, but the RAM, with ability to seat six (counting the perch between the front chairs), just swallowed us up.

Partners on this expedition, photographer and videographer Lewis ‘English’ Gardner and videographer-drone pilot Hunter ‘the apprentice’ Stoneman, were impressed by utilitarian touches: How the central locking includes the tailgate, that there’s also remote engine start-stop, that it has a rear sliding window – which neither of the boys could work out how to operate – and that the centre stack also has a 240-volt 100w inverter for domestic power plug use (with a three-pin) which proved just perfect for recharging GoPros.

Local derision about the Parapara being a goat track is not misplaced; before the first vehicle – a motorbike – conquered this route back in 1917, it was a stock route. I’d driven it a thousand times, and though it felt all-new in the RAM, simply due to its substance, it wasn’t all that daunting.

Again, I’m sure it’s due to the engineering: Though the RAM has a vast turning circle, it actually has decent steering feel. It also delivers something you don’t often get with utes: A smooth, comfortable ride. That’s partly due to the kilo count, but also as result of the 2500 having a three-link coil-spring front suspension layout and a five-link coil-spring rear suspension rather than the usual leaf spring arrangement. It is also quieter and more refined that you’d imagine it to be.

Still, it ain’t no sports truck and all agreed that a slow and easy approach to the route of a thousand corners was probably prudent given that, the obvious size and weight constraints aside, it also became obvious within a couple of corners that the trade-off from those knobbly 18-inch 265/70 Michelin tyres was going to evidence as a relatively low grip threshold on seal.

The laidback approach worked fine until we caught up with an even slower people-carrier whose driver was the only one I encountered who didn’t seem daunted by having this giant grille in his rear vision mirror. Mr/Mrs MPV dawdled along at 70-80kmh and I had no choice but to follow; for all its grunt, the RAM isn’t exactly accelerative and, besides that, it requires a LOT of road space to pull off a passing manoeuvre.

We parted company in Raetihi where, would you believe, the first local vehicle we spotting was … another Laramie. What are the odds? Would have been good to swap notes but the family aboard was clearly in no mood for talking. They didn’t even acknowledge our friendly wave.

In sharp contrast to bustling ski town Ohakune, Raetihi on a Saturday morning seemed barely busier than Mellonsfolly would prove to be, but we found a café happy enough to serve three strangers. It was here I perused the map that downloads off the Ranch website that suggests the road to Mellonsfolly comes off the Raetihi-Ohakune shighway. Wrong, of course. But I wasted 40 minutes finding out.

While the Ruatiti area has some national infamy as the locale where William ‘Bill’ Cornelius held and brutalised young women against their will during the 1980s, it’s better remembered as a route to the Bridge to Nowhere and the tough country where soldiers returning from World War I were given land to turn into farms.

Most walked off the properties and it’s easy to see why. This is impressive but hugely imposing Deliverence-feel country is as hardscrabble as it gets; the road goes where the land allows it and there is no compromise. The next 50 minutes driving took us through razorbacked, bush clad hills interspersed with huge grey clay cliffs centimetres to the left and dizzying drops to churning rivers at the right.

Right from the turnoff, the route is narrow and, from the lichen growing in the centre line, not heavily used. The further in you go, the narrower it gets, to the point that there are several places, mostly the areas where it hangs off cliff faces, where it reduces to just single lane. I’d swear the RAM was brushing grass on either side in places.

The little traffic we saw comprised farm utes; that every one was battered and mud-spattered did not ease my trepidation about heading up here alone. Even though it was a fine day, a week’s rain had left the area totally sodden.

My greatest concern was encountering a stock truck in a section too tight to allow turnaround; although the RAM has low ratio with its four- wheel-drive – which I’d engaged on leaving the seal – I really didn’t want to put it onto the verge due to its weight and modest, 188mm clearance.

Still, heading for the greenery would have been preferable to reversing; even though the RAM has two rear view cameras and decent wing mirrors, it’s not exactly set up to turn on a dime. A three-pointer in this thing requires map references. The trickiest part was as advised. The bridge access had been fixed, but the road either side was well churned up by the digger and dozer that were left parked up; I figured I could make it so long as I didn’t have to stop. It got through, but I could feel the back end sinking as we pushed ahead.

Ten minutes on, an avenue of poplars and then the ranch entranceway, up the hill and suddenly we were into another world.

Mellonsfolly feels like film set but that sells it short – like I say, this is no two-dimensional sham. All of the dozen or so buildings’ doorways open into fully recreated interiors offering, as one impressed reviewer put it, “experience of how the west was won pulp novel style”. The hotel isn’t the sole place to hole up in overnight; it has bedrooms behind the saloon, sheriff's office and courtroom, too. 

Two weeks before our visit, the place was deep in snow. I could think of worse spots to be trapped in. Most of Mellonsfolly's 27 beds most are plush doubles and all have en-suite rooms.

Forget about outhouses or bathing in a barrel. While the place is precisely presented to period, it’s actually got every mod con: Electricity, running water, flushing toilets, central heating, a dandy piped music system (that’s what we’d copped an ear of when hitting town). The controls are all hidden behind bespoke fake panels.

There's even a dropdown screen in the courthouse where guests can kick-back and watch their favourite western movie. I’d go for True Grit, Rooster Cogburn, 3.10 to Yuma (Russell Crowe version), the Magnificent Seven, all the Trinity movies and Blazing Saddles.

Oh yeah, about that caretaker. Turned out he was a fill-in for the regular. Really nice guy. When not holing up in the world’s most remote Western town, he’s a videographer who has worked on some of the best locally-produced ads you’ve seen on tele.

And the blood-covered knife? No worries, mate. He’s also a keen hunter and, I’d interrupted his dismemberment of a deer he’d shot just that morning.

(Thanks to Robert 'Big Bob' Bartley for access to Mellonsfolly. For more information about Mellonsfolly, go to: www.oldwesttown.co.nz)