We don't get how European blue-collars work, but we're about to. See, when it comes to commercial vans in the U.S., we think the only way to do it is with a big, lumbering V-8, rear-wheel drive, and unsophisticated, rugged construction that makes it advantageous to keep buying the same model after 20 years without switching anything up because old panel vans can be cannibalized to keep the newer ones running. But that's not how the Europeans do it, and it's not how the Fiat-designed 2014 Ram ProMaster is going to do it, either.
The first full-size European commercial van to come to the U.S. was the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which was also sold as a Dodge for a few years. But with Daimler and Chrysler having gone separate ways, it leaves room for the ProMaster in the quickly expanding Ram Commercial portfolio. Differing from the Sprinter, the ProMaster employs front-wheel drive and a 3.6-liter gasoline V-6 in addition to a 3.0-liter four-cylinder diesel that's coming a little later down the line. Question is: Can it possibly be a better approach than the old school commercial vans we've gotten here for the last four decades or so?
Model and PriceStarting at $29,725, including $1,095 for destination and handling, the 2014 Ram ProMaster starts in low-roof, short-wheelbase guise, powered by Chrysler's ubiquitous 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that produces 280 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. From there, Ram says there will be 14 configurations available, including high-roof, long-wheelbase, and even a 3.0-liter diesel four-cylinder that is designed specifically for commercial duty, paired to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that will be available early next year. Our sampler was a ProMaster 2500 short-wheelbase with Uconnect, Bluetooth, navigation, and several other options, pushing its as-tested price to $35,915 all-in. Make no mistake, however, our tester was still a fairly basic vehicle. However, a similarly equipped Sprinter would cost about $40,000 and still lack some of the tech toys.
Safety and Key FeaturesWith two seats and a slab of flat floor space as expansive as many a New York City apartment behind you, there are but two things to worry about: Your cargo and your cost of ownership. Ram says the ProMaster has all of that covered.
The ProMaster's load floor sits a few inches lower than you, allowing for an easier step-in height to load whatever cargo you may have. Unique to the ProMaster is the fact that its sliding door on the passenger side opens wide enough to accommodate a wooden palette. There are also nifty storage solutions throughout the van.
On the cost-of-ownership front, Ram reps say the ProMaster's fisheye headlights are positioned so high because they could be knocked out if they were any lower. Also, the front bumper is made of three separate pieces so it can be spot-repaired instead of having to replace the whole cover. That saves money, and that's a good thing.
Family Friendliness and UtilityUnless setting down shag pile, turning up Deep Purple, and installing some black lights in back is your thing, the ProMaster is strictly a two-passenger van. Ram is partnering with aftermarket upfitters for conversion van and camper versions.
Aft the front quarters, however, any model Ram sells, from the 118-inch short-wheelbase low-roof version we drove to the 159-inch wheelbase, high-roofer, will be about as accommodating for a family as Hooters would be for a feminists' convention. This thing's about gettin' stuff done.
Comfort and QualityIn converting the Ram ProMaster for U.S. duty, it doesn't appear much was changed. In fact, that couldn't be further from the truth. In the U.S. version, a clipboard holder supplants what was the space where a cubby hole existed in the Fiat Ducato version. There are vestigial cupholders integrated in the dash that look like they're good for a can that's maybe the size of a Redbull. Fortunately, the ProMaster adds bigger drink sinks that aren't wussy-sized by the floor.
Otherwise, the ProMaster definitely has its share of quirks, like the dashboard that almost seems as if it's canted away from the passengers. Likewise, the front windows don't quite go down all the way, the parking brake lever is on the driver's left side, and the steering wheel neither tilts nor telescopes. But who really cares? Fleet and ordering managers are rarely fleet drivers, and as vans go, this one is reasonably comfortable for an eight-hour shift.
How it DrivesIf you're used to driving Chevrolet Express and Ford Econoline vans, the ProMaster is a dream inside a vacation in paradise inside a chocolate cake all in one. It drives like a high-riding car with expansive windows and large mirrors that make you relax when it comes to not having much sideways visibility. Add to that the Bluetooth, navigation system, and all of the luxuries of a modern family sedan inside a hollow steel box, and you'll think it's a quite a pleasant place to store your industrial supplies at night.
That said, it feels top-heavy in corners, and front-wheel drive doesn't give it quite the steering quality of the Sprinter; it's a little lighter and not quite as precise, even though the ProMaster is more maneuverable in a parking lot. With the V-6 powertrain and six-speed automatic borrowed from the Dodge Grand Caravan, we noticed the ProMaster had a bit more oomph than we remembered from the Sprinter, but its 14.8 mpg we saw was a good bit down from the Mercedes' diesel unit. That said, we were hauling more than 1,000 pounds of cargo uphill, and we reckon an Econoline would be flirting with 10 mpg over the same stretch of road.
SummaryWe have to be honest, commercial vans generally aren't our turf, but customers buy hundreds of thousands of them a year, and they're part of the backbone of the service industry in our economy. We've driven the Nissan NV and Mercedes Sprinter, and the Ram ProMaster deserves just as much attention.
Certainly a different take from the two aforementioned haulers, the Ram ProMaster is no less capable. We'd go so far as to say it's better in some facets like price, value, and practicality, which matters a lot to van owners. Ram's people say that Fiat has sold more than 4 million Ducatos, including its various iterations from Peugeot and Citroen, since 1981, which the company boasts is on a better pace than the 6 million Ford Transits that Dearborn by way of Cologne has moved since 1965. We don't know yet which one is better, but we'll find out soon enough when both arrive on our shores. What we do know, however, is that dollar for dollar, pound for pound, the ProMaster is going to be a tough act to beat.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $35,915
EPA City: N/A
EPA Highway: N/A
EPA Combined: N/A
Cargo Space: A lot, buddy. A lot.