by David Zatz in
April 2015 (4.5)
The ProMaster City was a moderately late entry to the compact-van market, and there must have been some talk about how to make it unique. Little things like a slightly more powerful engine and a tad more space aren’t big differentiators; but the ProMaster City is really fun to drive around town, and that may well set it apart.
The Ram ProMaster City’s Fiat is clearly Fiat-based, from the harsh “put on your seat belts, dammit!” startup beep to the amber-lit gauges. Ram put in the American-made 2.4 liter engine, which, with the nine-speed, lets the van easily race from traffic lights; modified the suspension to deal with harsh American roads; and generally made their mark subtly, knowing that every day the van was missing from the market, the Ford Transit Connect was gaining customers at their expense.
The ProMaster City feels more like a sporty car than a traditional van, fitting into the new Fiat feel; and it beats competing vans in load, power, cargo area, gas mileage, and transmission, without really giving much up. They did it all at a price which beats the Nissan/Chevrolet and perfectly matches the equivalent (long wheelbase) Ford (see our competitive comparison table for details).
The van is surprisingly nimble and fun, as though it’s based on the Fiat 500 or is much smaller than it is — which is, by the way, longer and taller than the Dodge Caravan, albeit an inch narrower. It’s actually a lot of fun to take an unloaded van and throw it around sharp corners, without any tire squeal or sense of reaching boundaries.
The responsive powertrain helps. It’s just the usual Chrysler 2.4 liter engine in there (okay, a Chrysler engine based on a Hyundai block with help from Mitusbishi and Mercedes) — but with the nine-speed automatic, it starts out in such a low gear that you can get an easy quick launch, without loss of tire traction. At highway speeds, the engine is barely ticking over; stick to 55-65 and you might just beat that EPA-specified 29 mpg (go faster, and you don’t have a chance). The jackrabbit starts this van inspires also kill fuel economy. Still, you probably can’t get it down to the mileage of an old-style Dodge B-van, Ford Econoline/E-series, or big ol’ Chevy van.
It was an adjustment for one used to V8-powered large American vans and V6-or-diesel-powered Sprinters to find that a little 2.4 liter four could keep up the pace, and, indeed, feel more robust at times, particularly from a stop, than the older vans. (Perhaps not the pricey Sprinter, which does have good torque, but feels...and is... heavy.)
With a decent load, and air conditioning on, the engine was good enough for relatively short steep hills. We were not able to test it with a full payload on a long hill, but believe that it will do fine in keeping to highway speeds, — albeit paying a terrible toll in fuel economy. We doubt its gasoline-powered competitors will do any better, but we hope that Ram will bring over a Fiat diesel at some point, like the one used in the full-sized ProMaster van or even the little MultiJets. The volume is probably not there, though — the entire “compact van” segment is around 60,000 vans per year, and almost all of them seem to be Ford sales by default more than anything else. Ford doesn’t match Ram ProMaster City in most ways, but they don’t have to, any more than Camry has to match Chrysler 200.
The ride was rough compared with a normal sedan or minivan, but not too rough, and deep ruts and pot-holes were handled quite well. Adding a couple of hundred pounds of payload quieted it down a bit. Cargo vans do tend to be firm and are often bouncy when unloaded; this one was not particularly bouncy and always had a good grip on the road, even going through puddles. Potholes, dips, pavement changes, and puddles didn’t do anything to hurt control, which is unusual.
There are lots of places to store things, and the overhead storage rack has a net to keep things roughly in place. We were able to keep a full sized box of tissues there, and a bunch of papers surprisingly didn’t spend all their time sliding back and forth. There’s also a rubber rack on the top of the dash, a couple of small bins here and there, and the dual glove compartments — one open, one closed. Between driver and passenger were two cigarette-lighter-style power outlets, with a third in the back.
Unlike traditional America vans, the engine is kept in the engine by, not in the passenger compartment, so it’s easier to get to — and the cabin is fairly quiet. There is not too much wind noise (more than a minivan, as one would expect), and sound insulation from the outside is good. The engine is generally fairly quiet, though you certainly hear it on hard acceleration.
The most important parts of a cargo van (or a wagon, for that matter) are the pragmatic issues. The ProMaster City Wagon has too little rear seat space for passengers; the cargo van has no rear seats, so that’s not an issue, and it has numerous tie-downs and holes for attaching things to the walls. The floor is fairly flat and surprisingly scuff-resistant, and the side doors are fairly large and extremely easy to open and close; rear doors have a 2/3 split so you can open both doors and move things out to the curb relatively easily. The door handles are huge, for easy manipulation while wearing heavy work gloves.
The windows in the front doors are huge, allowing for fine side visibility, and the mirrors are also huge and two-part, so eventually one can get used to not having windows in back, in vehicles that don’t have them. In our case, the optional cargo divider included a window big enough to let the rear view mirror work perfectly, and the split between the two rear windows was not too large. Only one window, incidentally, has a wiper.
The height is just about perfect for easy loading and easy entry/exit, providing a good view of traffic as well, with enough headroom for your Victorian top hat (or American stovepipe hat). Amber turn signals provide increased safety, for drivers who actually use them.
Moving on to the annoyances, well, where do we start? The speedometer is simply absurd. It’s marked in both miles and kilometers per hour, but it’s far too dark for the size of the numbers (which are fairly small and thin) — and the speedometer goes to 140 miles per hour (220 or km/h).
140 miles per hour.
In a four cylinder cargo van with the aerodynamics of a brick.
Really, what are they trying to prove? Sure, the top speed may be above 100 mph, but who’s going to go that fast anyway? It just makes it harder to figure out how fast you’re going through the rest of the range. (On reflection, recalling the 140 mph speedometer in a base Fiat 500, we think this is “a Fiat thing,” but not something we should deal with in a Ram. For this class of vehicle, really, especially given the size of the gauges, 85 mph would be more appropriate.
I had asked Ram’s head of interior design why they no longer use amber for backlighting, since it does not affect night vision. I realized why, when using this panel: it’s harder to see clearly than white.
The reddish-amber backlighting does not help; Ram normally does not use amber, which is good for preserving night vision, though completely defeated in this case as soon as the driver looks at the touch screen stereo or nav system. A more whitish amber would help the eye to focus at night, but larger, thicker numbers are what’s needed. (The photo does not do the gauges justice at night; they look big, clear, and easy to ready in the photo). There should also be a way to up the illumination during the day, since some people wear sunglasses.
There is no separate rheostat, but when you have the headlights on, an odd combination of button pushes with the menu/up/down buttons will find a dimmer control which acts exactly how you would not expect it to. Really, they need an “enter” button for the “EVIC,” and the ideal would be a separate rheostat for the dimmer. The same can be said for most of the settings. You can’t adjust the relative brightness of the UConnect 5 stereo (an insecure Microsoft-based unit from Fiat, wearing a Chrysler name) unless you have the headlights on, go into Display, shut off Automatic, then go into Brightness. To their credit, they do allow you to alter brightness depending on whether headlights are on or off; the default is blinding.
The gauge-area LED display was also too bright compared with the gauges themselves, and this was not adjustable.
The backup camera is useful and handy but is a bit more of a fish-eye than it needs to be, so that the image is rather distorted on the little screen. One handy feature, missing from Chrysler systems, is the ability to let it stay in backup-camera mode for up to 10 seconds while in forward gear or Park, handy for quick K-turns.
At first, I thought the FCA was imposing ads on us, because of constant ads in the radio for Ed Sheeran (appearing with a slight beep) and demanding we listen to him while playing from the USB port or radio or showing the compass or whatever. Reader 71cuda pointed out, though, that this happens when you save an artist as a “favorite” on satellite radio; it’s self-imposed advertising.
Too many things require a trip to the manual, as in, “Oh, that’s how you tell the computer how to navigate to a given address,” or, “Oh, that’s where they keep the front and rear washers!” (Push and pull the stalk. I’ve already forgotten which is which.)
The seats are hard, with no height adjustment for the passenger, though the cloth appears to be good and durable, as one would hope for in a commercial van. Hard seats are become the industry standard, and at least these have decent lateral support. Seat belts have a good range. The door locks are odd, with a single press of the fob button unlocking every door, including the cargo doors (a separate button unlocks all three cargo doors), and opening the driver’s door unlocks the passenger-side door — these are poor security choices. Oh, and opening the rear door with the key instead of the fob sounds the alarm.
Did we mention that there’s no spare tire by default, just a can of puncture sealant and a portable air compressor?
The ProMaster City SLT adds around a thousand dollars and numerous options to the base ProMaster City. All the vans come with the 2.4 liter engine and nine speed 948TE automatic transmission. The SLT Passenger Wagon comes with standard front airbags, seat-mounted side airbags, side-curtain front and rear airbags, stability control, four wheel antilock disc brakes with emergency assist, Hill Start Assist (to prevent you from rolling down steep hills as you switch from brake to accelerator), trailer-sway dampening, 160-amp alternator, and 700-amp battery.
“Luxury” features on the SLT include standard air conditioning, the five-inch touchscreen four-speaker stereo with USB/cable jacks, remote keyless entry, leather wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, cruise control, voice control, tilt/telescope steering column, three 12-volt power outlets (one in the cargo bay), overhead storage bin up front, locking glove-box, express power windows, and manually-adjustable driver’s seat with pump-height adjustment and armrest.
The SLT comes with black steel 16-inch wheels and 215/55 tires. The huge dual mirrors are heated and power adjustable, and can be manually folded away; the rear doors open to 180°.
By default, the ProMaster SLT is sold as a passenger van. However, if you never need the rear seats, you can get it as a cargo van, for $1,000 off the list price; this removes the rear seats, with their airbags, substitutes some hard material for the sliding door glass, and uses solid rear doors. For $495, buyers can put in a cargo partition with enough glass to make use of the rear-view mirror perfectly normal.
Our van had these options, and a few more. It had a hitch and wiring harness ($435), rear wiper/washer/defroster ($250), parking assistance with camera ($495), fog lamps and wider aluminum wheels ($495), rear doors with glass so we could use that partition ($295), and a year of satellite radio ($195 including radio capability). Toss in $995 for delivery, and our sample van cost $28,310.
Though the ProMaster City is an import from Turkey, it has Chrysler’s standard warranties: five years or 100,000 miles on powertrain (it is theirs), 3 years or 36,000 miles “basic limited,” and five years or 100,000 miles of roadside assistance. The engine and transmission were both made in the United States, by Chrysler, and while it’s assembled in Turkey, over a third of the components are from the U.S. or Canada (likely all from the US, but the sticker doesn’t differentiate). 44% of the content is from Turkey and 18% from Italy. That leaves 4% from other nations, in case you were adding up.
The ProMaster City was a surprisingly fun van, and one can see ordinary people buying it as a sort of mini-minivan, if they don’t need much rear-seat room and don’t mind losing some amenities. Fuel economy beats ordinary Chrysler and Toyota minivans, with 17 city, 25 highway for the seven-passenger comfort wagons versus 21 city, 29 highway for the commercially oriented Ram; it’s a viable option if you don’t care much about ride, want something that feels and acts sporty, and need cargo space more than passenger space (or seven seats because you only get five).
The real target market is people either carrying loads or professionals giving up their Econolines and such. There are many upfit opportunities and Ram shows them off at car shows, along with the full sized ProMaster; the tall ceiling makes it relatively easy to walk around inside, compared with minivans, while the low load floor makes it easy to move things in, compared with traditional vans or big Eurovans such as Sprinter.
ProMaster City is unlikely to unseat the Ford Transit Connect, just due to inertia; but it’s a better choice for many businesses and people, especially if they can work around all the oddball glitches that Ram imported from Italy. There sure are a lot of those glitches, but overall, the ProMaster City is a great-feeling van for driving around town — it’s a shame to load it up with crates or tools and have to take the turns slowly to keep things from flying around in their drawers or boxes. ProMaster City has a unique nine-speed automatic, the most powerful engine in its class, which still matches anyone else’s gasoline-engine fuel economy, and advantages in capacity.
As for feel, think of the ProMaster City as a Fiat 500 that can hold a lot of gear... and lacks a manual transmission, but has a better automatic and more ready torque.
ProMaster City • Promaster
• Bill Cawthon’s ProMaster City Preview
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