2014 Ram ProMaster Quick Test / Review
Allpar recently spent a day getting to know the new Ram ProMaster, the Fiat Ducato-based commercial van reconfigured for the American market and the first true business van to wear the Ram badge.
The ProMaster is the second Eurovan to hit American shores. The Mercedes-Benz/Freightliner Sprinter was the first, and while it isn't exactly a barn-burner with about 8% of the full-size van market, the game is changing as Ford gets set to replace its venerable E-Series van with the European Transit next year. The E-series and Club Wagon have been the best-selling vans since 1980 and account for nearly half the sales in the segment, so this is a major move. The timing could be just right for the ProMaster.
Commercial vans are boxes. Their purpose is maximum payload room, with enough left over for necessities like an engine and driver. In this, the ProMaster offers far more capacity than the traditional American vans: up to 530 cubic feet of cargo space, compared to 319 cubic feet in the E350 Extended Wheelbase with the front passenger seat removed. The ProMaster with the high roof is a true walk-in van that allows the operator to stand in the cargo area, reducing fatigue.
One of the key features of the ProMaster is the best-in-class, 36-foot turning radius. This advantage became apparent as I drove the ProMaster 2500 on the twisty roads in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains near Thousand Oaks, California. There was no problem keeping the big van in the lane. The ProMaster also was easy to maneuver and park in a standard shopping center lot, another plus for a van that will likely see a lot of such use as a parcel delivery or tradesman vehicle.
The Pentastar V6 provided plenty of power for in-city stop-and-go driving and merging with freeway traffic. No one is going to win any quarter-mile challenges in a ProMaster, but that's not the point of a commercial van.
The rearview camera is almost a must-have option. Even experienced van operators will appreciate the outstanding view of all the stuff that is normally hidden, unless one invests a lot in extra mirrors (even then, the view is not as good as the one provided by the camera).
Driver accommodations in commercial vans tend to be fairly Spartan; the ProMaster cabin is a nice upgrade. It's not plush but the seating is comfortable and the A/C does a pretty good job of keeping at least the front of the van comfortable. The controls are easily within reach and the lack of a drivetrain hump makes access to the cargo area much easier. I drove vans for few years back in the day and the ProMaster has it all over those Fords and Chevys.
My one complaint was the information display in the instrument cluster: without a manual or pre-flight orientation, it was impossible to figure out how to change it to provide the desired data, in this case the miles-per-gallon. I did master increasing and decreasing the display brightness, but that was it.
I tried two different ProMasters: first, a quick spin in a basic low-roof 1500, then an extended wheelbase, high-roof 2500 for a trip from Thousand Oaks to nearby Westlake Hills to pick up a load. Both vans handled well, even on dirt roads. Since any unladen van is light in the rear and the front-wheel-drive ProMasters don't even have the weight of a differential I were expecting them to be skittish on unpaved surfaces. Both vans impressed me with their sure-footed handling: no bouncing; no feeling the rear end was going to break loose at any minute.
I had the luxury of a solo ride in the 2500, which was great. The van handled well on both well-maintained city streets and country roads that might not have seen serious upkeep since Ronald Reagan was the governor. Even after picking up my “load” in Westlake Hills, the ProMaster had no trouble with climbing narrow mountain roads.
ProMaster operating costs should be lower than a conventional American van, and there are already slide-in vocational fittings to suit a variety of purposes, from package shelves to workbenches and cabinetry for locksmiths, plumbers and other jobs.
When the ProMaster was first announced, there was a lot of speculation about how the controversial front end might be changed to make it more in tune with American tastes. However, I was fairly certain that any changes would be made in the grille and other soft fittings. The look is something to which we will have to become accustomed. Fortunately, with the latest iteration of the Sprinter and the upcoming Transit, we will have plenty of opportunity to learn to like the ProMaster.
For another perspective, I went to our highly-regarded local Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Ram dealership, CPDJ of Teterboro, next to Teterboro Airport in Little Ferry, New Jersey. They gave me the keys to a brand new ProMaster which hadn’t even been through dealer-prep yet; it was exactly as they got it from the factory, with the doors sealed shut by little stickers, protective plastic on the seats, and all.
There were numerous standard convenience features which I imagine make life easier for drivers, as well as a very handy over-windshield shelf (more on this later). An integrated clipboard atop the dashboard was almost big enough for a full sheet of paper; there were numerous cupholders in various locations; and an “overspeed” alert along with a gas mileage indicator.
The gauge cluster is simple but attractive; the gauges are clearly and plainly marked, and while the speedometer’s 120 mph maximum is surely unnecessary, it was not hard to figure out exactly what our speed was at any point. The rpm gauge went no further than necessary, and gas and heat gauges were both reasonably sized. A warning light went on when the gas fell too low.
The Chrysler people told us that they had spent a lot of time, effort, and money to make sure the interior would be friendly and not full of vague symbols, and it paid off. There were four cupholders (maybe more), and a gearshift that felt better than the ones in our minivan or 300C, with a positive engagement and good distance between gears (not to mention electronic range select to make getting into lower gears easier, and a tow/haul mode button).
We were also pleasantly surprised to see Ben S. Chang’s climate-control knobs, created for Dodge, in a commercial van whose original design hails from Italy; we have yet to see a setup that’s easier or more pleasant to use. Nearly all the other controls were in sensible places and well marked, the only exception being the left-mounted emergency brake (which is not in a bad place, just unexpected).
The optional stereo had surprisingly good sound, as well as a USB port on the dash. The heater worked quickly, and the fan was quiet; indeed, the cabin was fairly quiet for the type of vehicle, in general. My one complaint was the air pressure: it seemed as though air was being let in, but not let out as quickly, yielding a “thudding” overpressure sound. I'm more sensitive to that than most people, and maybe others won’t notice it; it might have been a caused by the optional cab divider (which looked far more finished in the cab than in the cargo area).
The UConnect 5.0 system was surprisingly responsive and easy to use. Features were fairly oddly chosen, including a fully graphical compass, a sparse collection of preference settings (e.g. for locking behavior) unnecessarily and annoyingly spread out into categories, and a pair of trip computers which work in an odd fashion. There were two “trip” settings in addition to the standard “trip” setting, which worked only from engine start to engine off.
The ProMaster has many surprises for a Sprinter veteran. It’s lower to the ground, presumably thanks to having front wheel drive; that means it’s also easier to load. It’s also much lighter than Sprinter for any given capacity, which means that the minivan engine and transmission were very well matched to the vehicle. Acceleration was surprisingly sprightly, with the ProMaster leaping ahead at traffic lights like a car, not like a big heavy cargo van. One got the impression there was a great deal of power left over for carrying a full, heavy load, a theory we intend to test in the spring.
The transmission (like the gasoline engine) was supplied by Chrysler, and worked very smoothly and predictably, with no hesitation, stuttering, or mis-shifts. Fuel mileage on our trip was fairly low, with a brand new (not broken in) engine and considerable waiting in line for construction and traffic lights; the Fiat diesel is almost certainly a better choice for fuel mileage, regardless.
The big surprise was the cornering, which was much more capable than we had a right to expect. The van turned like a car, with no screaming tires on hard turns, and no loss of traction on poor road surfaces. It jounced around just a little, completely empty, indicating that it probably has a smooth, even ride when reasonably loaded down. Turning over broken concrete roads and driving over railroad tracks did not affect the ProMaster’s composure at all. Overall, the ProMaster felt and rode like a minivan — a special minivan with weight reduction and a handling kit.
The huge windows, seemingly stretching from floor to ceiling, dramatically improved visibility, making the van easy to navigate despite the optional cab separator, which eliminated any pretense of a rear view (the company did not bother to install an interior rear view mirror). Manually controlled but huge mirrors on both sides, with wide angle inserts, helped with that — as did the optional rear park assist. After a remarkably short time, it was easy to get a feel for the “lane center” and front and rear limits of the van.
It was also easy to get in and out. The doors are not very wide, but they swing all the way open, in front and in back; the side door slid open with a smoothness I have never felt in any van or minivan, and I actually opened and closed it a few times just to enjoy its ease of use.
The seats were comfortable, and I’d trade them for the ones in my minivan. I’d trade the suspension too. My one comfort complaint was the positioning of the seat belt, which could have gone higher.
The tested vehicle was a Ram 1500 ProMaster cargo van, 136” wheelbase, low roof; it came with the base gasoline engine, supplied by Chrysler. Standard features included side airbags, side curtain airbags, stability control, brake assist, hill-start assist, roll mitigation (including trailer sway damping), tire pressure display, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, 180-amp alternator, air conditioning, driver and passenger bucket seats, four-speaker FM radio with USB input, tachometer, express power-down windows, telescoping steering column, full size spare, clearance lights, folding mirrors, and tinted glass. Overall, for a commercial cargo van, the base $30,515 bought a lot of features.
Optional equipment was partly clever and partly amusing. There was a deep shelf above the windshield with a one-inch-high lip for binders, maps, and such; it had no rough or sharp edges, and ran $195 including a locking glove box. That would be two hundred dollars well spent.
The cargo partition was $305, and reached from floor to ceiling, completely blocking off the cab from the cargo area; whomever specified the partition, which includes a rear-view mirror delete, also opted for the $150 rear window defroster. That’s a useful combination!
Other options included a lumbar adjustment for the driver’s seat ($50), rear hinged doors with fixed glass ($75), additional key fobs ($125), UConnect 5.0 (adding CD, BlueTooth, audio controls on the steering wheel, and voice command) for $350, 16 inch wheel covers for $195, and that most wonderful of features, the rear parking assist system ($250). The truck had a 5 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty with roadside assistance, and a 3/36 bumper to bumper plan.