Another Woodward Dream Cruise has come and gone and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles loaned me a bright-red, two-seater of Italian descent from its fleet to drive. Sadly my ride was not a fancy new Ferrari 488, but rather a Ram ProMaster 3500 which is derived from the European-market Fiat Ducato. While I certainly want to try out the Ferrari some day, for anyone that has ever spent a blistering hot summer afternoon in the eight-mile long traffic jam that is the Dream Cruise, the Ferrari would have been completely out its element anyway. On the other hand, the ProMaster can really haul, making it ideally suited to moving my daughter’s belongings to her new Midtown Detroit apartment.
A decade ago, prior to its divorce from erstwhile partner Daimler, Chrysler became the first of the Detroit automakers to euthanize its old-school American body-on-frame vans in favor of European-style unibody vans in the form of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter which received a cross-hair grille before going on sale through Dodge dealers. Chrysler took a hiatus from the van market for several years following the Daimler split. Following the company’s 2009 bankruptcy, the new Fiat management team provided an Americanized version of the third-generation Ducato to sell through the now standalone Ram trucks brand.
The ProMaster’s chief competition comes from Ford and its now global Transit. Like the Transit, the ProMaster is offered in three body lengths with two wheelbases. While the Transit is available in low, mid and high-roof flavors, Ram only provides low and high roof options. The key differentiator between the Transit and ProMaster is in the drivetrain. Ford has retained rear-wheel-drive while the Fiat-based ProMaster drives the front wheels. The standard engine in all ProMasters is the highly-respected 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 which my van had or an optional 3.0-liter four-cylinder diesel. Both engines come with six-speed automatic transmissions.
At 20-feet-eight-inches long and eight-feet-five-inches from pavement to roof, a six-footer can stand upright in the back. Behind the seats, up to 463 cubic feet of cargo with a mass of up 4,330-pounds can be accommodated. We were easily able to load up all of my daughter’s belongings from her current abode with a couple of vertical feet to spare. One of the biggest functional advantages of these new unibody vans is the lower load floor which is a mere 24-inches above the ground, making loading and unloading vastly easier than before. The rear doors also swing around 270-degrees sitting flat against the sides of the body which is helpful if you have to back up to a loading dock.
The ProMaster is designed first and foremost as a commercial vehicle, especially in cargo van format (ProMaster is also available as a passenger-carrying wagon). The instrument panel is comprised of hard plastics with no pretense to luxury, but that’s just fine because this should prove durable for the daily grind of a workhorse. There are several cubbies along the underside of the dashboard including one to the right of the steering column with a built-in USB port and enough depth hold large phones. Three large cup holders at the base of the center stack have flexible rubber retainers to accommodate everything from slim water bottles and coffee mugs to big gulps. Another hand touch is the large spring clip on top of the dashboard for hanging work orders and invoices. When ordered, most of these cargo vans end of going directly to third-party upfitters for installation of hardware that include anything from tool racks desks for use as a portable command center. For those with an affinity for 1970s custom vans, the possibilities are also limitless.
The seats in the ProMaster proved to be comfortable and those that have to spend their days driving one probably won’t have a problem. There’s not a lot lateral support, but in an eight-foot tall van, that shouldn’t pose a problem. The broad windshield and tall door windows combine with the short nose to provide excellent visibility to the front and sides but the $560 option for the rear camera and parking sensors should really be standard equipment. In a vehicle this size, those features really are essential and they proved very handy when maneuvering.
Given the short nose and seating position so close to the front axle, it should come as no surprise that the steering wheel is angled away from the driver in a position more akin to a bus or a pre-1980s Ferrari than most modern vehicles. The column is adjustable for height but unfortunately not for reach. Nonetheless, I was able to find a comfortable driving position.
Here in Michigan, for drivers there are essentially two seasons, winter and road construction with the latter running from the moment the snow melts until it returns. This year is no different with significant amounts of construction, particularly around Detroit, providing the option of either backups or circuitous detours. The ProMaster came with the optional UConnect 5.0 system that includes an embedded navigation system using TomTom maps. In my primary job, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about autonomous driving technology and the need for high-quality maps in order for vehicles to drive themselves.
In 2015, there are two components to high-quality maps. The base dataset has to be complete and accurate but that snapshot of the world at the time of publication is no longer adequate. Maps need to be continuously updated to reflect changing roads, construction, accidents and other real-time information. The TomTom map data is good, but it had no connection to provide real-time data, so as I approached Detroit, the system was unable to provide alternate routes. I opted to take a detour of my own and then quickly ran into more construction zones and the nav system kept trying to redirect me back to my original route rather taking a more direct route. Route recalculations were also very slow. If you’re driving anywhere unfamiliar, I’d recommend getting a good mount for your phone and relying on Google instead.
Aside from the guidance system, I can’t really complain about the driving experience. Even with an empty curb weight of just over 5,000-pounds, the 280-horsepower, 260 lb.-ft. output of the Pentastar V6 moves this van with plenty of energy. It’s certainly not a sports van, but it doesn’t struggle either. Even packed, I’m pretty sure the ProMaster was nowhere near it’s 4,000-pound payload capacity. Merging onto I-94 was no problem and while I wouldn’t want to attempt a pass along a short straight on a country road, making a move to the left-lane, completing an overtaking maneuver and getting out of the way was effortless.
Both the steering effort and brake pedal force are a bit on the light side for my tastes but they work well. Given its height it wouldn’t have been a surprise to feel the ProMaster wander a bit at higher speeds but it was quite stable even empty. Despite the low effort to apply the brakes, they modulated well and after a couple of minutes it felt fine. The engineers have also done an excellent job on suspension tuning. Again, this is no luxury cruiser but considering the maximum loaded weight is nearly double the empty weight, the ride quality was surprisingly good. Even empty, it didn’t bounce around too much.
The age of the modern cargo van is now in full force in American and the Ram ProMaster is an excellent example of the breed. Even the base ProMaster 1500 offers nearly 4,000 pounds of payload although the lower roof and shorter bodies limit volume capacities. Since the gross vehicle weight ratings of all ProMasters are over 8,500 pounds they don’t get EPA fuel economy labels but I saw about 16 mpg which is pretty impressive for a vehicle with the frontal area of a small warehouse. The ProMaster 1500 starts at just over $27,000 and the high-roof, extended body 3500 I drove stickered at $41,255. If you need a big van, the ProMaster is definitely worth a look.