If there's a 2014 Ram ProMaster van in the meatpacking district, it's packed with meat. In the garment district, it's moving garments. Nothing about this giant box is designed for comfort, style or driving pleasure. But as a commercial vehicle it's destined to become a familiar sight.
The world of full-size vans moves slowly, and then all at once. Dodge sold the same basic B-van — under the names Sportsman, Tradesman and, finally, Ram Van — through the 1971-2003 model years. Then the European-designed Mercedes-Benz Sprinter got a Dodge grille and replaced the B-van for a while.
Now that the corporate Tilt-A-Whirl has spun Chrysler into Fiat and recast Dodge trucks as Rams, the rear-drive Sprinter has given way to the front-drive ProMaster. The Sprinter is still around as a Mercedes or a Freightliner or simply as a Sprinter, should you consider the three-pointed star pretentious.
2014 Ram ProMaster
Price: $29,625 base for the 118-inch wheelbase 1500 Low Roof model and $32,905 for the 136-inch-wheelbase High Roof 1500. The tested van, a 3500 High Roof with a 159-inch wheelbase and an extended cargo area, had a list price of $38,690. Side windows are optional.
Engine: Chrysler's familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 rated at 280 horsepower. A 3-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder (174 horsepower) is a $4,000 option.
Mileage: The EPA doesn't rate the fuel economy of large commercial vehicles, but I observed about 18 mpg in a largely empty ProMaster.
Meanwhile, this year Ford is replacing its E-Series Econoline — only modestly updated since 1975 — with the European-designed Transit. General Motors sells the last big old-style American van as the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana. Their last full redesign was 18 years ago.
The ProMaster is a variation on the Fiat Ducato, which was introduced in its current form in 2006; it is also sold by Peugeot and Citroen. The significant differences between the ProMaster and its Euro-market clones is that it's assembled in Saltillo, Mexico, and is available with Chrysler's gasoline-burning Pentastar V-6. This is the same power plant found in Dodge and Chrysler minivans, and it's mated to the same six-speed automatic transmission.
Ram also offers the Fiat-made turbo-diesel four that's used in the European versions as a $4,000 option on the ProMaster. Rated at 174 horsepower, but making excellent low-end torque, it comes hooked to a six-speed manual transmission. In the United States, most Promasters, like the one I tested, will be powered by the V-6.
Everything about how the Promaster looks and drives is at least slightly awkward. Getting in means hauling one's self around and over the front wheel well, and once inside the driver sits bolt upright, facing an equally upright steering wheel and a giant black plastic dashboard. The instrumentation is simple, the shifter pokes out of the dash, and the ventilation controls are the ideal three-knob system: one dial to control fan speed, one to set the air temperature and the third to select where the air should be directed.
Whatever distractions occur come from the echoes bouncing through the huge unfinished metal box behind the driver. According to Ram, there's 530 cubic feet of space in the 1-ton long-wheelbase high-roof version that I tested. That's more than 40 times the capacity of a Dodge Dart's trunk, and you can't stand up in the Dart. It's also more than three times the capacity of the Ram Cargo Van, the commercial version of the Grand Caravan minivan.
Given that you sit almost atop the left front tire, the nose of the ProMaster seems to rotate around your tailbone. The steering is well weighted but uncommunicative. The brakes have a nice progressive feel even when the van is empty. Sitting so high, there's some sensation of tiptoe cornering, but it's not terrifying. The V-6 never felt strained, even though the ProMaster I drove weighed in at 5,070 pounds. It drives like an overinflated minivan.
For some van buyers, the low load floor and foul-weather-capable front drive will be ideal. For others, the height of the load floor won't matter, and the ruggedness of a front-drive transaxle is suspect.
Of course it's loud, but that's because an empty ProMaster is a giant steel drum of unrealized potential. What matters is the bottom line. And any van that isn't hauling enough meat or ladies' wear or whatever to pay for itself isn't worth buying.