Chrysler recently got back in the van business with the European-bred Ram ProMaster. Is this the right van for you? Let’s load it up, take it for a drive, and find out.
2017 RAM ProMaster 2500 Road Test and Review
The Exploding Van Market
For years, van buyers’ choices were limited to a few domestic models with designs that dated from the 1960s, for which you can thank an obscure tariff called the chicken tax (Google it to read the strange saga). But ever since Mercedes figured out a way to get its big Sprinter to the United States tariff-free (the van is built Germany, partially disassembled, shipped to the US in kit form, then put back together in South Carolina), vans have been getting better: Ford now sells us the European-designed Transit, and Chrysler is back in the van business with the European-designed Ram ProMaster.
The ProMaster is a product of Chrysler’s parent company, Fiat, which sells it in Europe as the Ducato; Fiat-Chrysler escapes the chicken tax by building the ProMaster in Mexico (thanks NAFTA). The Ducato/ProMaster was designed in partnership with French automaker PSA-Peugeot-Citroen, and if the idea of French DNA in your van scares you, worry not—along with incredible food and beautiful people, the French also specialize in vans. They have a knack for designing compact rear suspensions that take up little cargo space. Aside from the fenderwell intrusions—which are probably larger than they need to be—there is little indication that there are any mechanical bits under the Ram ProMaster’s giant cargo bay.
An unusual powertrain layout.
Actually, there aren’t many mechanical bits under the ProMaster’s cargo bay: Unlike most vans sold here, the Ram ProMaster uses front-wheel drive—a setup most manufacturers avoid as loading the van shifts weight away from the drive wheels. That said, most vans aren’t loaded to capacity, and when the ProMaster is lightly laden, its front-drive layout gives it an edge in snow compared to a rear-drive van with little weight on the drive axles. There are other upsides as well: The ProMaster’s entire powertrain is pretty much stuffed into the big front bumper, so there’s no “doghouse” to intrude inside the cabin and into the driver’s foot space. I thought the front-drive layout might affect maneuverability—front-drive vehicles can’t always turn as sharply as rear-drivers—but the medium- and long-wheelbase Promasters have turning circles right between the corresponding versions of the rear-drive Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter. A short-wheelbase RAM ProMaster 1500 will pull a U-turn in the same space as a Honda minivan.
Ugly—but for a reason.
The Ram ProMaster isn’t the prettiest thing on four wheels. The headlights sit high above the bulbous front bumper, giving the ProMaster a peculiar look. We’ve explained the big bumper—it’s full of engine—and you’ll also notice that said bumper is made from three pieces. Fiat found that most fender-benders affect the bumper corners, so the Italian company made them separate pieces for easy (and inexpensive) replacement. Likewise, the headlights are placed up high to avoid damage in dust-ups with smaller vehicles. The taillights are also raised out of harm’s way, and the rear “barn” doors can be opened flat against the side of the van for loading in narrow spaces.
Strange driving position.
If you think the Ram ProMaster’s appearance is odd, wait until you sit behind the wheel. The driving position is just plain weird: You sit high above the pedals, and you have to adjust the seat height (rather than fore and aft travel) to set a comfortable distance from them. Then it’s just a matter of unlocking the steering column and pulling it toward you; it moves in and out but does not tilt. You’ll get used to the posture, but just how short does Ram expect their van drivers to be: Even with the seat lowered all the way, this 5-foot-6 correspondent found himself looking through the top third of the windshield. I can’t imagine how 6-footers will see past the sun visors without ducking. The tall driving position also makes for a long climb into the cab.
Other quirks include a cruise control stalk where the turn signals ought to be (the signal stalk is mounted higher) and side windows that don’t roll down all the way. But the seat itself is comfortable, and Ram offers a weight-sensitive seat for those who spend a lot of time in the saddle. Passenger seat options include a single bucket or a two-place bench.
Photo Credit: Ram Trucks
Big gas power...
The Euro-market Ducato is offered with a series of small 4-cylinder engines, but the Ram ProMaster is powered ‘Murican style with a big 280-horsepower 3.6-liter V6. Chrysler fits this engine to several cars and SUVs, and I’ve yet to see an application where it doesn't work well. The ProMaster is no exception: It accelerates briskly, even compared to traditional V8-powered vans, and it goes about its work quietly—helped, no doubt, by the the engine being down by your feet and not between the seats. Fuel economy came as a shocker: I was hoping for mid-teens when I drove from Los Angeles to Phoenix and back to pick up some furniture; I figured the steep hills, high winds, and Arizona’s 75 MPH speed limits would kill my gas mileage, but the ProMaster amazed me by returning 20 MPG. Yay, Promaster!
...and a quirky diesel.
Ram offers the ProMaster with a diesel powertrain, a 174-horsepower 4-cylinder turbodiesel from corporate sibling Iveco. Its transmission, however, is an oddball—it’s a 6-speed automated manual, essentially a manual transmission that does all the clutching and shifting itself. There’s no clutch pedal, but there is a pause in power each time the transmission shifts gears. Far more disconcerting: The transmission has no “Park” position—as originally designed, you park it in neutral and remember to set the parking brake. Ram has made an electronic parking brake standard for 2017; it automatically applies if you shut the engine off and open the driver’s door. Having driven the diesel only briefly, I imagine the fuel economy benefits will be fantastic—but the quirky automated-manual transmission was the most-complained-about aspect of the previous-generation smart fortwo, and I can’t imagine American van buyers will like it any better in this application—especially when they are paying $5245 for the diesel option. With the gas engine being so powerful and efficient, that’s the powertrain I’d choose.
Choices, choices, choices.
The Ram ProMaster is offered in a variety of sizes and weight classes, including a short-wheelbase low-roof model, medium wheelbase with a high roof, and a long-wheelbase high-roof model with either a regular- or extended-length body. A right-side sliding door is standard; the left-side slider is optional. Ram does not offer a passenger version of the ProMaster, but side and rear glass is optional, and I’ve seen passenger seats installed by third-party upfitters.
Let’s look at weight capacities: Ram offers 1500, 2500, and 3500 models with GVWRs (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating—the maximum permissible weight of the van and everything in it) of 8500, 8,900 and 9350 lb. respectively. Max payload ranged from 3460 lb. up to 4420 lb. depending on model. Towing capacity comes up a bit short: It maxes out at 5100 lb. For comparison, the Ford Transit can tow over 7000 lb. and the Sprinter can tow 7500. The ProMaster’s GCWR (Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating, the maximum permissible weight of the van, everything in it, and the trailer) ranges from 11,500 to 12,500 lb., so if the van is loaded to the gills, its safe towing capacity may drop.
ProMaster vs. the Competition
The Ram ProMaster’s best rivals are the Ford Transit and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Both employ rear-wheel drive and both have a higher starting price than the Ram; the Sprinter’s is considerably higher, but it comes standard with diesel power and 2500-class capacity. Ford doesn’t offer a Transit as small as the ProMaster 1500, but the company does offer more roof-height options, and like the Sprinter its optional diesel engine is mated to a conventional automatic transmission. The Ram ProMaster’s awkward driving position is a real handicap, especially for tall drivers. And what of other vans? I’d pass on the Chevrolet Express, an old-school van that doesn’t have the cargo volume of the Promaster. Nissan’s NV has a long hood that impacts maneuverability, and its heavy weight and big engines make it less efficient than the Ram, but Nissan’s 5-year/100,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty is far superior to Ram’s 3/36 coverage.
Bottom line: It's a hard worker and a solid alternative.
The Ram Promaster provides a solid alternative for van buyers: Its low starting price, entry-level size, powerful gas engine and front-wheel-drive layout make it a sensible choice, particularly for vanners who drive where it snows and appreciate a low load floor but don’t frequently load their vans to capacity. But the oddball driving position and quirky diesel powertrain work against it, and if you need a van with higher capacity—or pre-installed seats—Ford and Mercedes offer you more options. Still, the Ram ProMaster definitely should be on any vanner’s shopping list. It may be a little weird, but it gets the job done.