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Creating Rams: in Depth with Director of Ram Truck Engineering Mike Cairns
Part I: Vans, responding to Ford, innovation, and short topics

Vans: ProMaster, ProMaster City

The four-cylinder diesel for the ProMaster took a long time to come to market. Is there a reason for that?

Today, with diesels, and this is no secret, to certify through the EPA and meet all the emissions is very challenging, with the OBD, onboard diagnostic requirements, and the emission requirements. This is an engine that our Fiat brethren have designed and developed for Europe, for Europeans; we had to make a lot of changes to meet the US requirements. [US diesel standards] are actually tougher than Europe. That took some time. But it’s out there and well-received by our dealers and consumers. Early feedback’s been very good.

Are there major changes to that engine or is it mostly just . . .

ram promaster engineNope, not major. After-treatment, primarily. The after-treatment work and calibration work. The basic diesel engine is the same as the one sold in Europe.

What changes were made to the Dobló to make it into the ProMaster City?

[The gasoline powertrain] is a Chrysler 2.4 Tigershark engine coupled with our nine-speed automatic transmission which is in many Chrysler products now. Pretty much the same powertrain dropped into a ProMaster City.

The other significant changes are really in suspension durability. We’ve added more reinforcement. US roads are more severe than most of Europe. We have more potholes, so we get more vertical input. And our durability schedules replicate US roads. When we ran the first European Doblo, we saw some need to make upgrades in both some of the suspension linkages as well as the body attachment points, so those are stiffened up and reinforced for US duty cycle.

inside the van

The other area is side impact. The US has a pole side impact requirement that Europe does not have, so we had to make some reinforcements for that, as well as just retuning airbags, deployments, timing, things like that to meet the US impact standards, which are different than Europe. Those are mostly tweaks, though. They’re more calibration work.

Did you also have to do any work on the IIHS side offset?

You know, Europe has similar tests to that so it performed very well already. We really didn’t have to do much there.


Let me mention also doing the ProMaster City, our timing worked out well in that we were looking to do this at the same time Fiat was considering doing a freshening. So we actually joined forces. The entire IP [instrument panel] center console was redone with Fiat. So we shared the investment for the IP and center console area and did that to fit our radios and things we wanted, cup holders, things like that, and they got a nice improvement in style and look. So that was a nice joint program with our brethren over at Fiat.

Ram Cargo Van, the minivan-based cargo van.

Yes. Very proud of that, Ram C/V.

ram cargo van

Yes, you did a beautiful job in my opinion.

Thank you. We did a great job on the Ram C/V. We’re very proud of that. But we think the Ram ProMaster City better addresses the needs of the class one cargo van market.

And it’s been outselling the C/V as far as I can tell.

It’s off to a very good start. Just started selling a month or so ago. It arrived at dealers in December, and we’re off to a very good start with it. Dealer reaction’s been great.

It’s a nice vehicle.

They’re talking a lot of retail too.

Nick: We sold 11,311 Ram C/Vs in 2014 and it’s its biggest sell year ever since it launched in 2011. And they’ve increased every year.

It was good. Ram CV did very well for us. We’re very happy with that.

Nick: To his point, though, there are certain features that we couldn’t engineer it into the C/V with an appropriate business case — the barn doors, the high roof, those types of things.

rear handles

The biggest request was the rear lift gate, which really doesn’t work well in a commercial van because you want ladder access and things like that. So that’s where the ProMaster City with the barn doors, cargo doors, really is a better fit for the commercial customer. To do that on a Chrysler minivan [would be] very expensive.

I noticed the sliding doors are extremely smooth [later I noticed Ford Transit Connect’s were, too]. How do you do that?

Honestly, I have to credit our Fiat engineers. They engineered all of that. We didn’t make any changes to those.

Nick: Something else too about that sliding door, not a lot of people realize that we have it slide and it locks in place just like our minivan. If you’re on a slope or something, our competitors don’t lock it. They have either a friction joint or nothing at all. So it actually can come back on you [even] if you lock it into place.

We’ve gotten a lot of positive comments about that, because any hilly environment and that [other] door’s coming closed on you just when you’re climbing out with a load. It’s not good.

ProMaster City

Nick: And the 60/40 ratio with the big door to the street and the small door to the sidewalk.

Again, Fiat did all of that. We just inherited it. Several of us went to Italy early on in our relationship with Fiat and went to their local test track. We got to drive a bunch of their different vehicles. We were really excited from day one. The Doblo was such a great vehicle, and the big Ducato which is the [origin of the] big ProMaster. We right away were like “Wow, these would work in the US really well.” So we’re really excited.

Great products in Europe. They sell really, really well in Europe. That’s really where we started. Very early on, we saw there was a big potential for a US market.

Will we be seeing more of the RV applications in the US for ProMaster?

Yes. Yes sir. We are working directly with Winnebago, one of the biggest players. We have a great relationship with them. They have already built up quite a number. I don’t know the quantity, but they’ve done some conversions already. We’ve brought a few into our house. We’ve helped them.


I have a small commercial engineering team that helps the outfitters with information, answering questions, wiring, anything. We try to help them understand and give them whatever information they need. And working with Winnebago, they were great. They did some upfits. Did you ever get in the Winnebago ProMaster?

Nick: We were actually at an event someplace up north and there was a dealership that had both the [current models]. They loved the fact they were front-wheel drive, so they didn’t have to mess with it. There’s no wires, nothing. And again, something else you’ve got to understand is everything is encased in the cab itself so they’re free to do what they want to do in the rear of the chassis.

If you’ve seen the Chassis Cab version of the ProMaster, the rails, it’s all flat. There’s nothing that sticks above that. There’s no drive train under the rear. It’s wide open. And you’re right, the upfitters love that because it’s so easy to access anything. They can put anything underneath. So the Winnebago upfits are awesome. [Ram’s own chassis cabs are similar in that regard.]

inside the Travato

The ProMaster really has a great driving engine, both the ProMaster and ProMaster City, but that’s another European thing because driving there, especially Italians, they’re very spirited drivers. And so they make sure the dynamics of their vehicles are really good, really, really good. When you put a big upfit like a Winnebago camper, the driving dynamics are shockingly good.

That is actually feedback from Winnebago directly. They were really pleased how well they handled. We helped them set up a shock tuning set for their upfits, so it’s got special shocks on the rear that really our guys did the dynamics, or helped do it I should say. It turned out really well.

When you say our guys . . . Ram?

Yes, the Ram dynamic engineers. We’ve got just a terrific group of engineers with the Ram products out here. Really great group. And most have been with us a very long time. They really know what they’re doing.

Responding to Ford

What’s your response to the aluminum Ford body? The lower weight that gave them a major bonus in payload and also brought their economy almost up to yours.

I like how you stated that, almost to ours. It is a good technological effort, no question about it, and I don’t doubt Ford and Ford engineers have done a good job. We certainly look at aluminum. We use aluminum in certain areas. We didn’t see the benefit in fuel economy to do an aluminum truck at this time.


We’ve put a lot of work into the powertrain development. We’ve done a lot of vehicle-side efficiencies with our active grill shutters, with our trans thermal management where we heat up the transmission fluid to reduce losses and things like that, and our aerodynamics. We still have best-in-class aerodynamics. And a 10% improvement in aerodynamics is the equivalent to about a 300 pound weight reduction.

Yes, at speed.

So we put a lot of work into aero. Weight reduction is a good thing. There’s no question about it. We’re both chasing the same thing, improved fuel economy, and with our diesel and powertrain improvements, grill shutters, etc., we are the best-in-class still.

In 2017 they have said they’re going to have the ten-speed and the diesel. So by then you’ll presumably have something . . .

You might presume that.

I might presume that. That is fair.

You can see what we’ve done. We haven’t sat still any single year. We’ve been working, working, working, and that will continue.

And as for ease of service, I was told that on the ‘12s you have to take out the grill to change the headlight.

I don’t think you have to remove the grill, but it’s not easy. I won’t argue that point. It is a little difficult. Fortunately most customers don’t need to change the headlamp. Maybe once in the life of the vehicle. So we look at that. We do look at repair cost and repair difficulty.

tradesman crew cab

Do you still have the program, and this goes back to the ‘90s, of bringing mechanics into the engineering process early on?

Oh yes. Absolutely, yes. We still do. The Mopar service group, they are part of our team. They’re in our design reviews. When we build up our first prototype vehicles, we do full review with Mopar service. They do studies to estimate the time it takes. They bring in their mechanics and help us understand “Hey, this is going to be really tough. Can we make a design change?” So we do that as a normal course of business.

There are times, though, that we’re trying to get balance, cost, weight, the assembly process, and service. And you have to balance all of those. And sometimes we may make a choice for cost, weight, or other reasons, or high-volume production that may make service a little more difficult such as the case of the headlamps.

But, you know, if you always design just for one [of those factors] you’ll end up with a compromised truck. So we try to balance it the best we can.

Short topics

Nick: [This comment was moved from the end of the van section] The Ram guys on the half-ton side — I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been a couple commercials still out there saying 28 mpg. I got a call from them the other day, saying we get 29 miles per gallon. Why does your commercial say 28? It’s got to run that cycle. They really care about what they’ve accomplished, especially with the 1500.

Nick: I wanted to make a point earlier. Look at the changes that we’ve made to our trucks, like air suspension, like a link-coil. Those were all risks that we took, they are some of the innovations that really made us stand apart, things that nobody else has.

[Rambling question shortened to:] Is making a version of the Iveco Daily something that you’ve thought about?

I can confirm we certainly have looked at the Daily as an opportunity. It’s a class-three van, where the current ProMaster is a class-two. So we’ve looked at it, but I can’t comment beyond that.

Iveco Daily - the next Ram van possibility

Can I ask you about VM’s capacity [to make diesels for Ram]?

Yes. We continue to push them for more capacity. We actually visited them. I can comment on that. We went to their assembly plant in Italy. It was great. It was really cool.

VM is wholly owned by Fiat. It’s all part of the family now. We’re very happy it landed within our family because they really are a great outfit. They’ve been doing really great diesels for decades. And this three-liter V6 is a great example. We just love this engine. So seemingly, so does everyone else. Yes, demand is really strong. So we will continue to work to meet the demand.

Now the VM versus the Fiat, the FPT, they’re both three liters. One is a four, one is a six. Presumably the Fiat’s cheaper.

I couldn’t comment on that, but they are completely different engines, developed by different groups. So VM did the three liter V6, and the Fiat did the inline three liter. And they were developed for different purposes. For us it works out really well because the VM three liter V6 is a really refined, smooth, totally modern diesel that works absolutely great in a Ram 1500. The three liter inline four from the Fiat group was built more as a commercial engine for the Ducato which is the same van we use in the ProMaster. It was developed to deliver that commercial, strong-duty, good power fuel economy that the commercial team wants.

They’re very different engines and built for different reasons and they match the vehicles we put them in. So I wouldn’t want to switch them, even if they were the same cost. I wouldn’t want to switch them because one works well in each of its applications.

What is your greatest challenge as Director of Ram Truck Engineering?

There are many. We have a broad lineup of vehicles. But I would say right now we all are working on fuel economy to meet the CAFE greenhouse gas requirements of the future. That is very challenging for every auto company. We’re all working on that. We’ve all got a little bit different approach, perhaps, but that’s quite challenging.

mike cairns

I talked to our engineering team, and said, “This is why we went to college, why we studied engineering, because that’s what engineering does: we solve problems. So here’s a challenge or problem we have to solve. This is really exciting for engineers, because let’s come up with ideas. Let’s be innovative. Let’s really go after this. So we’ve got a lot of good stuff rolling, a lot of great ideas coming out.”

As an engineer, it is a big challenge but it’s also quite honestly fun because we like to invent. We like to solve problems and come up with creative solutions.

I like the thermal management system. I’ve been wondering why hasn’t been done by more companies for more years. Because that’s when everything goes wrong, isn’t it? When the truck is cold and they start it up. That’s when the engine wears, the transmission wears, and you get piddly single-digit fuel economy.

That’s right.

Nick, to Mike: One of the best conversations we ever had was when you told me about how we came to 2013, the Ram 1500, and all the different technologies.

Oh, yes.

Nick: It came to bang for the buck. Thermal management is part of it. All those different things, all these even little, incremental technologies you’re going after in the very end, it’s going to get us there.

pulse width modulation

[Mike to Dave:] That’s why you asked about the aluminum Ford? There’s not one single answer. That’s an answer, but they’ve got to do other things. We’ve got some answers with diesel and other things, but it’s not [just] one answer. There’s going to be a multitude of pieces. You’ve got to do a lot of little things. And that’s what we did in the ’13 and ’14 Ram lineups.

Nick was talking about, the same time, back in ’13, we wanted to get best-in-class fuel economy. That was our goal for the program. So sat the engineering team down. “Okay, what can we do?” Lots of great ideas. And we put them on a chart that we called the bang for the buck chart.

So how much did this cost versus the percent fuel economy improved? And we plotted all these ideas out and then drew a line and said “Okay, everything here down we’re going to put in the program, and everything up we’re not.” And that’s how we ended up with all these cool things that ended up in the ’13 Ram. And we executed all of those, and it delivered. So here we are with best-in-class fuel economy. So that’s cool. So we’re taking a similar approach as we look down to the future. It’s new ideas, new line.

rob hegbloom

The support from our management was fantastic. Bob Hegbloom [Ram CEO] showed them this chart, said here’s where we think we ought to draw the line, and we’re going to go execute everything below the line, okay?

In the past our management probably wouldn’t have approved everything. Now we walked in with all of this on the 2013/14 timeframe. They approved everything and we walked out going “Holy cow, we’ve got to go do all this now.”

Nick: When we put out the press kit, it was interesting to take all the pieces and the different technologies; we attached an improvement, a percentage of improvement of fuel economy, to each technology so it could all add up.

Anyway, it’s what makes my job fun. We’re not sitting still. And as an engineer, it’s fun challenging ourselves and the industry and technology. It’s good stuff.

So I take it there have been a few changes between Daimler Chrysler, Cerberus, and Fiat Chrysler?

You might say that. There’s a lot more smiles around the building these days. Let’s say that.

A lot more people.

A lot more people, too. Yes.

You said you’ve got a lot of experienced people.

Yes, we do. Thank goodness, right? Yes, we went through some tough times and lost a fair amount of people. But we had a core group of people, I’ll include myself, who decided to stay. I went to engineering school because I wanted to be an automotive engineer and I love working on Ram trucks. And when the downturn hit, I really didn’t want to do anything else. So I stayed and said “Okay, I can help rebuild this company. I think I can participate and contribute.” And fortunately a lot of other of our team made the same decision.

So we’ve got a lot of good, good people who have been around for a number of years and really know their stuff. And they stuck it out because they love what they do.

I was going to ask about parallels with Iacocca but I can’t really do that because, you know, you’re not old enough.

leeI’ve met Mr. Iacocca. He was there. I started doing the first airbag programs at Chrysler. I was hired in to be the FMVSS 208 guy. So I was doing the airbag programs. Actually, at age 23 I was leading a lot of – the whole test development analysis stuff.

So I actually got to meet Mr. Iacocca. I have an Iacocca Award that he gave out to the airbag team when we launched successfully. Because as you recall, he got really behind the whole airbag thing once he saw the technology and how good it was. He got behind it, and we advertised it. It was a real key for Chrysler because we were the first – I think, don’t quote me, but I think we were the first company to go all airbags.

Yes, except with a little asterisk saying domestic models only. Leave out the Mitsubishis.

Ah, okay. There you go. Good memory. So we had a little ceremony and our half-dozen or dozen team got a little award from Mr. Iacocca. That was pretty cool. I still have it in my files.

So you spent a lot of time down in the testing cells in Highland Park, I take it.

Highland Park, yes sir, and then also at Chelsea is where we ran all our impact tests. So the crash, the barrier, it was all out there.

And the sled test, if you’re familiar with the dynamic sled test. It’s actually you take a cab or body, essentially, and you mount it to this bed. Actually like a tray of some sort, a sliding tray. There’s a piston, essentially, an air piston. It’s a big, massive thing. And it slams into the sled, slams it rearward, which is just like a frontal impact, because frontal impact, your body’s moving at 30 miles an hour and you hit a barrier and the barrier stops and you keep moving.

What this does is move the cab rearward. Your body stays put, and the cab comes to you. So you end up with the same dynamic interface, the occupants to the interior. So this technology is 30 years old. This is what we did back then and we still do to do dynamic tests without having to crash whole vehicles.

You do a lot of work on the sled before you start blowing cars into the barrier. Really cool stuff. So I had a ball as, again, a 23-year-old kid out of college. Holy cow, was this cool. We brought in the 10,000 frames-per-second cameras. We still used film back then, and film analysis with little cranks and putting X spots on the dummy targets. It was cool stuff, pretty high-tech stuff at the time. I had a lot of fun doing that too. So I hired into Chrysler and I was deep in it. Just fantastic.

That’s great.

And I’ve stayed ever since.

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